Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«May 2015»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


March 15, 2015

The problems increase as you get older

Most of my adult life I have been covered by group health insurance plans (except while I lived in England, where they are unnecessary). Since coming back to the USA in 1998, Ethne and I have been covered by employer plans at Barnes & Noble, The Texas State Senate, Meredith Publishing in Iowa, Barnes & Noble again when Meredith decided to double the employees' contribution, and then at Rodale Inc. in Pennsylvania. When Ethne's employment at Rodale came to an end she had been wanting to go freelance again anyway, and I was only working part time, so we signed up for Medicare, since we were more than old enough.

We had to prove that we had been covered by adequate health care plans since becoming eligible for Medicare, otherwise we would have had to pay more for it. I don't quite understand that, since we had been saving Medicare money by not signing up, but okay, we obtained forms for each of us from four different past employers to the effect that we had been covered. This was a pain in the neck but an interesting experience: some of the people we had to deal with in the various human resources departments knew what they were doing while others were not firing on all cylinders. But when we turned up at the Social Security office in Colorado Springs on December 12 last, we had all our paperwork and everything was hunky-dory.

Until we tried to get prescriptions filled. One of Ethne's prescriptions that normally cost $20 suddenly cost more than $300. Obviously we needed to get some supplementary insurance that covered prescriptions. I get that; Medicare has to pay for itself somehow, and you can't expect, at least not in this country, the kind of decent coverage you hope for after working and paying in all your life. So Ethne did the research (she's better at that than I am) and we signed up with Humana. We got cards from Humana, and the next time Ethne wanted that prescription filled, it cost $13. 

Now, there's obviously a scam going on here: if the drug company can lower its price that much for an insurance company that's charging us $10 a month or so, then somebody is being bribed or paid off, or the drug is grossly overpriced to begin with. But that's not our department; we know the score, but you get tired of the struggle. We were just glad to be with Humana, and have the problem solved.

But now Humana is sending me letters saying that I am going to have to pay a penalty.

Medicare's records show you didn't have "creditable" prescription drug coverage for 31 months, from 05/16/2006 through 02/28/2015. This happened after you were first eligible to sign up for Medicare prescription drug coverage. "Creditable" prescription drug coverage is coverage that's as good as basic Medicare-approved coverage.
As a result, Medicare requires us to charge you a late-enrollment penalty (LEP). Your LEP is $10.30.

I do not believe any of this. I take a thyroid pill every day, and the co-pay has always been nominal; the Social Security Administration (and Medicare) have had all the documentary evidence they need, but Humana wants to screw me out of another ten bucks a month for the rest of my life! And since we have both had exactly the same coverage all these years, why am I alone being penalised? I have been on the phone twice with Humana (and I suspect I am talking not to Humana but to a call center), and the second letter still started "Thank you for choosing a Humana Medicare plan. We appreciate your business and your trust." I don't trust them at all.

I cannot run and jump like I used to. There are a lot of things I cannot do too well anymore; we will not go into any detail. But must I also be punished with this bureaucratic incompetence for the sin of outliving my father? Don't they have computers?


February 27, 2015

Oblomov again

I am still savouring the Russian classic, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1860), and still seeing connections with today's Russia. (see below, "Beware of Russian nannies".)

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is sent away to school, but the village is only eight or nine kilometers away, and used to be part of Oblomovka, and is pretty much the same sort of place. It is already too late for him to be educated.

Perhaps Ilyusha had long been noticing and understanding what was being said and done around him; his father in his velveteen trousers and brown quilted jacket day in and day out, doing nothing but pacing the room from one corner to another with his hands behind his back, taking pinches of snuff and blowing his nose; his mother shuttling from coffee to tea and dinner; his father never dreaming of checking the number of sheaves reported to have been cut and harvested and calling the culprit to account for any inaccuracy. But let there be the slightest delay in bringing him a handkerchief and the would cry blue murder and turn the whole household upside down.

...These good people saw life as nothing but an ideal of peace, quiet, and total inactivity interrupted from time to time by certain unpleasant events such as illness, loss, disputes, and, yes, even work. They put up with work as a punishment inflicted long ago on their remote ancestors and inherited by them, but they never grew to like it and took every opportunity to avoid it, regarding such avoidance as right and proper.

So during the Soviet period the factory workers made a joke of it: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." This is what the Russians see in their beloved novel, and what they recognize in themselves.

Other problems, of course, presented themselves from time to time, but the people of Oblomovka confronted them for the most part with stolid passive resistance, and the problems, after hanging over their heads for a while, would just flutter away like birds...

So Putin and his crooked friends can steal the country blind and nothing will ever be done about it. If the economy collapses, so what? It collapsed in 1917, again in 1989; this too shall pass.

Addenda: Since I wrote this yesterday, Boris Nemtsov, a brave, honest democrat and former member of the government who was organizing a demonstration against Putin's war in eastern Ukraine, was gunned down near the Kremlin, shot in the back by assassins who roared away in a car. Putin didn't even bother to put him in jail on phony charges; bullets are cheaper.  


February 27, 2015

My mancave

My mancave

I might be the luckiest man in the world. When my wife and son decided to buy this house in Colorado Springs last August while I was 2,000 miles away, they cared enough to first figure out how to accommodate me in it. Now David has carved one small room and another even smaller room out of a garden shed and the back end of the garage, and I am settling in at last. It's so small that it's hard to take a picture of it, and there's no curtain on the window yet, but I've got some pictures on the walls, and it's insulated so well that a single small wall-mounted electric heater is sufficient even when the temperature is freezing outside. 

What to listen to first now that I'm in my room? A rarity and oddity first: Lennie Tristano's Descent into the Maelstrom, a long out-of-print Inner City album that a friend dubbed for me years ago in Texas (I think it was Wes Marshall), a funky compilation of ten tracks from 1952-6, the title track a solo rant that sounds like the Devil is disturbed because his plans have been foiled again. Then there's Andrew Rose's excellent transfer of Jascha Horenstein's 1953 recording of Strauss's Metamorphosen, a poignant essay for strings by a very old man just after WWII, contemplating what the Nazis have done to his beloved Germany. And the new Nessa release, Silver Cornet, by Bobby Bradford and Frode Gjerstad, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly on bass and drums, recorded less than a year ago in Baltimore: 45 minutes of totally improvised postmodern conversation by four serious chaps.

Oh, there will a lot of music heard in these rooms.


February 27, 2015

I'll stay in this century, thank you

I don't believe in virgins giving birth or people coming back from the dead, but I will nominally include myself when I say that we Christians do not practice our religion properly. After all, it says in Leviticus that if you grow two crops in the same field, I have to get the whole town together to stone you. Same if you cut your hair, or if your wife wears something made of two different kinds of thread. And woe betide you if you want a bacon sandwich; I'd have to smite you good and proper if I were a good son of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The BIble also says that it's okay to own slaves.

An article in the current Atlantic magazine by Graeme Wood, and also a piece this week in the Wall Street Journal by Gerald F. Seib, make it clear that it will not do to describe ISIS as "un-Islamic", or Islam as a religion of peace. The fact is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is more Islamic than the vast majority of the world's Muslims. They want to follow the Qu'ran as it was followed 1,300 years ago. They are brutal psychopaths as far as I'm concerned, but they are not gangsters or criminals; they are well educated and very serious. (Secretary of State John Kerry also had a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, but he had nothing to say; he was uselessly blowing platitudes.) It really is time to wake up: if the Palestinian problem wasn't bad enough, we destabilized the entire Middle East with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and now we have to destroy ISIS or it will spend generations trying to destroy us.

There's a photo on the front page of the New York Times today of an ISIS vandal defacing an ancient Assyrian monument. The joke is that he is using a power tool, which he has to get from the West, along with his pickup truck, his machine gun, his cellphone and everything else, because Islamic nations have invented nothing for centuries. 


One weekend recently, more than 1000 Muslims formed a ring of peace around a synagogue in Oslo, Norway, as a symbol of protest against the murder that week of Dan Uzan, a Danish Jew, at a Copenhagen synagogue. This gesture should have been on the front page of every newspaper in the world, but it was mostly ignored. These are not the kind of Muslims who are sneaking off to Syria to help cut the heads off aid workers, and until we are unafraid to make distinctions among Muslims our own defenses will be inept. Political correctness be damned.


February 27, 2015

Step right up

Speaking of the New York Times, on its website this morning there was a squib that said "Italian doctor says first human head transplant is only two years away." If I were Bill O'Reilly I'd want to be first in line.


February 21, 2015

Beware of Russian nannies

Visiting friends last night, the conversation turned to Russian literature, and it turned out that three of us were re-reading old favorites. We marveled at Tolstoy's powers of observation of human behavior in Anna Karenina and War And Peace, and at what a great man as well as a great artist Chekhov was. And I volunteered that, of the long list of books I would like to re-read, I am actually revisiting Oblomov.

This is Ivan Goncharov's only masterpiece, published around 1860, a classic in Russia but not so well known abroad. It is the story of a bachelor who spends most of his time lying down, and as much as possible of it asleep. He is perfectly bright and likeable, but doesn't see why he should do anything; he always has enough to eat, and he has a servant who is just as bound by tradition as he is, and his landlord is trying to kick him out, and the manager of his faraway estate, Oblomovka, is probably cheating him blind, but Oblomov does nothing, and nothing bad happens. This strikes a chord in the Russian people. They know that this is a portrait of an important part of their identity. 

Large parts of the book are flashbacks to the village Oblomov owns and where he grew up, where everything took place naturally: huge meals were eaten, afternoon naps were taken, life was always secure and the sun was aIways shining; the same dog was always sleeping in the yard in the same place at the same time of day. I have Stephen Pearl's very fine translation, from 2006, on my Nook. That night in bed I went back to Oblomov's childhood, when his nanny told him traditional Russian tales:

Whether it was the story of the dead rising from their graves at midnight, the monster's victims languishing in his dungeon, or the bear with the wooden leg stumping through the villages in search of his own leg that had been cut off, the child's scalp would tingle with horror and his child's imagination would run hot and cold and, his nerves strung tight, he would experience an exquisitely painful thrill. When his nanny dolefully ... told how the bear finally entered the hut and was about to pounce on the wretch who had robbed him of his leg, the child would panic and fling himself into her arms, his eyes welling with tears of fright, while at the same time chortling with gleeful relief at having escaped the claws of the bear and finding himself safe and sound on the stove bench nestling beside his nanny.
      The child's imagination was haunted by strange phantoms; dread and foreboding had burrowed their way into his psyche ... He viewed life with misgiving and saw everything around him as sinister and menacing, and dreamed longingly of that magic land from which all evil, trouble and sorrow had been banished ... where the finest food and clothing are provided without charge or effort. These tales exerted a powerful influence not only on the children, but held even the adults in their thrall to the end of their days.

And so it has always been in Russia, it seems. If the troops open fire on unarmed demonstrators in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, why, when the Czar finds out what's going on, he'll do something about it. If Stalin has purged his best military officers and then allowed himself to be double-crossed by Hitler, well, the man with the mustache will lead us to victory in the Great Patriotic War. If Putin and his friends have stolen the country blind and now start a new Cold War while they preside over the collapse of the economy, it matters not as long as the Russians still have their nanny.


February 21, 2015

The Next Right-To-Work Victory...

...crows a certain newspaper, might be in Wisconsin, once a progressive state, where 50 years ago I went to work for a decade in the world's biggest car factory, proud and happy to be a member of the United Auto Workers, and later the International Association of Machinists. The state legislature will soon send a bill to Governor Walker abolishing the closed shop, which is an agreement between a company and a union and should have nothing to do with any government.

The bill will allow individual workers to opt out of paying union dues, while still often benefiting from union negotiations. The Wall Street Journal editorializes:

Private union membership has been falling in Wisconsin, to 8.2% of the non-government workforce in 2014 from 20.6% in 1984, according to based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Yes, and what was the purchasing power of the wages of the workforce in 1984 compared to today? Let us all join the headlong rush to go back to 1890. Maybe we should take the vote away from women, and send children down the mines.


February 21, 2015

Transport (Let's all stay home)

Back in the 1960s I took a train from Washington DC to Chicago. It was a dreadful experience; it took all night, and the door on a metal control panel in the corner (light-switches and such) was broken, and kept swinging and banging so that one could not even doze off. Much of the time the train could only go about 40 miles an hour because, I was told later by railroad journalists, the tracks and the roadbed were in such poor condition.

Last week a train of over 100 tanker cars containing crude oil from Canada derailed in West Virginia. More than a dozen cars exploded or caught fire, and at least one car ended up in the Kanawha River. At least one house was burned to the ground, over 100 families were evacuated, and nearby water treatment plants had to shut down. Miraculously, no one was killed, but the cost of all this will be in the many millions of dollars. The train was not speeding, and the tank cars were said to be modern ones, supposed to be safer. I wonder about the condition of the tracks and the roadbed.

Other nations -- China, Japan, France -- can build high-speed trains, urban transit and so on, and bring the projects in on time and under budget, while the USA crumbles. I should add that unlike other "liberals" I am in favor of building the Keystone pipeline. The oil is going to be harvested and it is going to be shipped, since you and I are not going to quit driving, and a pipeline would be a hell of a lot safer.


February 14, 2015

RIP Keith Copeland

Keith Copeland died yesterday in Frankfurt, Germany, aged 68. He was one of the finest drummers in jazz, one of those musicians whose sound was instantly recognizeable, and who brought a lift to every gig, and to over 100 recordings as leader or sideman.

I first met Keith in the basement at Ronnie Scott's club in London, where I hung around in the mid-1980s button-holing musicians for info when I was compiling the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. All the musicians were generous, but Keith was the only one who became a personal friend, absolutely open and unpretentious, recognizing and valuing common interests in a complete stranger. Ten years later, when I went to Germany lecturing on Billie Holiday, I had forgotten that Keith had become a music professor in Frankfurt; waiting for showtime in Amerika Haus in that city, I was delighted when he loomed up beside me, a big grin on his face. That was the first time I met his beautiful wife, Ute.

Later we heard Keith with George Russell's band in London, and Keith and Ute came to visit us at our beloved Sycamore Barn in Norfolk, England, and Keith blew everybody away at a meeting of the Dereham Jazz Society. He paid compliments to our amateur local drummer, and the glow on that guy's face lit up the room. That was typical of Keith's generosity of spirit.

It all seems a long time ago, but the memories will never fade. My entry for Keith in the Encyclopedia is here.


February 14, 2015

Get it straight, please

A grammatical mistake on the front page of the New York Times website today:

The indictment of Officer Peter Liang, who killed an unarmed man in a Brooklyn housing project, differs from other police shootings because he did not claim he was acting against a threat and therefore can’t claim he was using legitimate force.

The indictment does not differ from other police shootings. The Liang shooting differs from other police shootings in that a police officer has been indicted.

From what little I have read in the newspapers, the Liang shooting appears to have been an accident, which is why Liang did not claim he was acting against a threat, and is all the more reason why he should at least lose his job.


February 14, 2015

Okay, I'm a curmudgeon

In my encomium of the Wall Street Journal the other day, I forgot to mention Jim Fusilli, who writes on popular music. I am not much more interested in pop music nowadays than in cars, but as I say, I read the Journal's motoring correspondent Dan Neil, and also Fusilli, because they write so well and they obviously know their stuff.

Fusilli actually writes about a lot of different kinds of music falling under the rubric "popular", and on Wednesday there was a nice surprise from him, and good news: Rhainnon Gidden, the lead vocalist and instrumental partner in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has made a solo album, called Tomorrow Is My Turn. There are very few original sounds in today's popular music; I started going off it at the time of disco, and the rock bands of the 1970s and '80s all sounded the same to me; I am very tired of the sound of the electric guitar. But the Chocolate Drops had reached back into the pre-history of Americana and recovered something that had been lost: the black string band, or black country music, if you like, from the time when black and white musicians would jam on the steps of the general store, before the music business set up demarcation lines ("hillbilly" and "race") that nobody was allowed to cross in the commercial world. I have listened to some snippets of Giddens's new album, and her beautiful voice and her unique ability to make any sort of material her own are much in evidence. We'll probably have to buy that one.

The last time I bought a pop album it was Adele's 21. It was playing for a month in the Barnes & Noble where I was working four years ago, and I was especially taken with the song called "Rumour Has It" and its ferocious downward swirl to the end of the chorus, "...He's the one I'm leavin' you for." She seemed to be, and indeed she is, a real personality. So I bought the album and took it home to listen closely, and I found it unlistenable on account of the production. Every track was so cluttered that there was no room for the music to breathe. Adele is so much better than a Celine Dion, who screams a thousand notes in each song and never shuts up, but Adele's production team had accomplished the same thing: I envisioned a roomful of nerds punching buttons and twisting knobs, seeking out any available airspace in order to smother it.

Then yesterday in the Journal Terry Teachout surprised the hell out of me. He is a polymath: the paper's drama critic, he is widely read in literature, he has published a compilation of essays on dance, he played jazz bass as a youngster, he has written biographies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, he's written libretti for an opera composer, and I don't know what all. But he spent yesterday's Sightings column raving about a pop album. Beck has just won a Grammy for album of the year -- Beck is an artist I've always thought I should investigate, but I'm always disappointed in pop so I don't buy the albums -- and Teachout was saying, Forget about Beck, the album everybody's taking about is Black Messiah, by D'Angelo and the Vanguards, which came out last December. Nowadays I can hardly tell soul from r&b from hip-hop, but Teachout says the album is all those plus classical and everything else, an artifact of the postmodern liberation of pop music. 

So I went online to listen to Black Messiah, and it was immediately clear than D'Angelo, who partly on account of various personal problems has released only three albums since 1995, is a genius in the studio. (One source says that he makes his own patches, whatever that means.) His work is manipulated to within an inch of its life, but there is no feeling of claustrophobia. Unfortunately there are other problems, or at least the work is not aimed at me.

The first track we heard was "Really Love", which begins with what sounds like a choir of violas, then an acoustic (Spanish?) guitar, and the beat provided by a not intrusive clicking sound. It is a gentle thing; Ethne and David were in the room and we all enjoyed it. The next track, however, was accompanied all the way through (over five minutes, I guess) by a machine making the sound of hands clapping, maybe a holdover from disco, which I find one of the most irritating sounds in today's music (I want to shout "What, you can't afford a drummer?") "1000 Deaths" is an incomprehensible rant of some kind, but at least has a drum sound on it (and by the way, you can't understand any of the words. At all.)  On "The Door" the clapping noise returns. "Till It's Done" begins with what is most definitely a roll on a snare drum, and is an intriguing collage of sound...

So Black Messiah is an interesting piece of work, but uneven from my point of view.


February 6, 2015

Department of what?

According to an item on the PBS news a few days ago, the United States Department of Homeland Security is helping to uncover counterfeit football merchandise -- t-shirts, bobble-head dolls and the like. Why is our tax money being flushed away on the football industry, which is worth billions of dollars a year and pays no taxes at all?


February 6, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

I love the Wall Street Journal. In these times of newspapers going downhill at a speed of knots, the WSJ is still worth reading. I look forward to it every morning. It is well written and fun to read; I often disagree with it, but it is worth arguing with (and if I never disagreed with it there would be no point in reading it). Its arts coverage and its other features are right up my middle-brow alley. I am not really much interested in cars, but motor columnist Dan Neil writes so amusingly that I read every word. And I look forward to the weekend Review section all week.

Some of the features in the Personal section I do not bother with, like how to get along with your spouse or what to do about bad breath, but only one thing really puzzles me. On Fridays there is a Mansion section, which is mainly about insanely wealthy people buying or selling or remodeling houses in the millions-of-dollars category, which I skim, but something about it is annoying, and today's cover subject pins it down.

Lindsay Dickhout is chief executive of a company that makes tanning products. She has two little girls named Stella and Presley, and she is spending $70,000 on a princess-themed playroom for them, which will include "a faux gem-encrusted performance stage, a treehouse loft, and a mini-French cafe", not to mention "a custom carpet with colorful pathways leading the girls to the various play areas." There are also the girls' royal bedrooms upstairs, where "Stella sleeps in a $6,000 custom-made castle bed, and Presley's pink-and-white striped wallpaper is illuminated by a crown-shaped chandelier." The article goes on about other such phenomena, including a $200,000 princess-fairy themed room for a two-year old in Virginia.

I could make wisecracks about tanning products, whatever they are, or naming a little girl Presley, but that would be churlish. What is really curious is that the über-capitalist Wall Street Journal, certainly in favor of people getting rich and spending money on luxuries, goes out of its way to remind me that so many of these people have zero taste and much more money than brains.


February 6, 2015

Standard & Poor's

The bond-rating agency has been fined $1.5 billion dollars, and Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal was crying yesterday because they say that the reason the Justice Department is punishing them is that they downgraded the USA's credit rating in 2011. In fact of course they have been fined because long before 2011 they were giving approval ratings to mountains of toxic mortgages that anybody with any brains knew were just about worthless. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bankers, Wall Streeters and mortgage brokers were assisted by Standard & Poor's in hornswoggling their own financial industries until they collapsed, leading to a downgrading of the USA's credit rating. Henninger ought to be crying because not one of the rats has gone to jail.


January 23, 2015

Internet equality?

Almost 100 years ago the federal government handed broadcasting to commercial interests on a plate, a terrible mistake. That is the reason why the USA never had anything like the excellent national broadcasting systems that every European country has, most notably the BBC, respected around the world, and making money for Britain with the excellence of its programming. Now the Federal Communications Commission (a bad joke) wants to regulate the Internet, the most successful enterprise of the new century, which until now has had innovators scrambling to make it better, faster, more accessible. The best way to ensure Internet equality would be to leave it to hell alone.


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