Note to Obama: Just Say No to the Massachusetts Health Care Model

A short story: I need what should be a minor medical procedure, except that I have an HMO and I live in Massachusetts. The details aren’t important, but the gist is that I could have a simple 20-minute operation done in my doctor’s office at minimal risk of side effects. My HMO, Tufts—a company whose perfidy deserves to be named—will authorize the surgery, but they won’t reimburse my doctor for rental of the equipment he needs. They will, however, allow him to perform a more invasive surgery with a much higher risk of infection in a hospital setting using antiquated equipment. And here’s the kicker—the old procedure is not only riskier, it’s more expensive.

Enough woe is me. Anyone with an IQ above that of a potted fern knows that the American health care system is broken. President Obama certainly knows this, but he’s gazing in the wrong direction for Rx. The Massachusetts health care system—which requires all residents to purchase private insurance—has been touted as a fix for America’s health care woes. What a farce! If you’ve not noticed that Massachusetts leads the nation in improved health care or driving down costs it’s because it hasn’t happened. And it won’t because the problem is the “private” part of the equation.

Can we please grow up and stop pretending? Health care will not be fixed by private insurers—ever. All of them are just like Tufts—they tout wellness programs and low-cost premium care, but private health insurers don’t give a sqwanker’s farley about making you better or preventing illness. They are for-profit companies who invest your insurance premiums in the stock market. Now that the market has tanked, their focus has shifted to doing what Tufts did: trying to dissuade policy holders from using their benefits. It’s not that Tufts wants me to have one procedure over another; they want me to have none at all. In their ideal world I’ll get so angry that when my employer’s fiscal year ends I’ll dump them and let their competitor Blue Cross, which does pay for the procedure, pick up the tab. (The only good thing about MA law is that Blue Cross can’t refuse me.)

That’s probably what will happen; on July 1 I’ll become a Blue Cross member. But this solves nothing. At some point in the future the wheel will turn and I’ll be mad at Blue Cross and bolt back to Tufts. And someday I’ll be on Medicare, probably with a plethora of unfixed ailments that—like a building suffering from deferred maintenance—have deteriorated from cheap, easy-to-fix problems to expensive, complicated ones.

We could parse medical care until Haley’s Comet fizzles out, but it comes back to the same thing. If all we care about is enriching private insurers, end the sturm und drang of health care debate and leave everything exactly as it is. If we really want to fix health care, all of the private insurers must go: Tufts, Blue Cross, Aetna, Kaiser… the whole lot of them. Enough nonsense—breathe deeply and repeat this mantra: single-payer health care, single-payer health care, single payer health care …. And while we’re at it, mandatory lobotomies for all the idiots who try to scare you into opposing single-payer health care. They are Bernie Madoffs in medical drag.--LV


Who's at the Head of “The Class”?

The classroom—it’s a place we all know intimately from our own school days, but how little most of us see of it once we graduate. The new French docudrama The Class, based on real-life teacher François Bégaudeau’s novel, takes us inside a multiracial classroom in Paris throughout one academic year. Bégaudeau, who wrote the screenplay, also stars, along with Parisian teens. And despite the title, the film’s focus is really all about the teacher, not the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in his care.

One of the veteran teachers runs down François’ class roster, noting after each student's name, “Good. Not good. Very good. Oh, not good at all…” And the teacher is similarly mercurial.

This isn’t the first time François has been at the head of his inner-city class, but he still hasn’t figured out how to control the students. They’re not only high-spirited and rowdy, they’re downright insolent to him and vicious with one another. They have his number, and they all know it.

François starts out well, encouraging responses, praising good work, and answering questions about the coursework and everything else with the patience of a saint. But inevitably the troublemakers surface and quickly sidetrack him from the joys of poetry or the imperfect subjunctive. Soon, they’re questioning his sexual preference, dissing one another’s racial and ethnic backgrounds, sullenly ignoring their homework, and even directly refusing to participate in class.

Is all this realistic? I haven’t been in a high-school classroom for more than thirty years, so I asked the lone teenager in the group with whom I viewed the film. He declared the classroom atmosphere “just like my old school,” one he assured me that he’d been happy to leave.

François tries many tricks to impose discipline and gain students’ trust, and he genuinely cares about his students and wants them to learn. He deals respectfully and tirelessly with parents from a variety of nations and kids with a wide range of motivation and intelligence. But he’s also only human, and when he finally blows his top, the repercussions aren’t pretty.

Unlike most previous classroom films—from To Sir, with Love and Up the Down Staircase to Stand and Deliver and Fast Times at Ridgemont High—the dialogue here feels genuine, and the students individuals, not just stock types. Director Laurent Cantet deserves high marks for balancing the kids’ and teacher’s points of view, and for capturing the nuances that reveal students’ inner selves behind their classroom façade.

The Class’s artistry brought it a slew of awards both here and in Europe. It was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, and became the first French film since 1987 to take home the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival.

Experienced classroom teachers with whom I saw the film saw François as a well-meaning but failed instructor. One even said he should have been removed from the classroom for inappropriate behavior. Those who hadn’t taught themselves largely viewed François as struggling bravely and for the most part successfully in an almost impossibly tough situation. But although viewers were sharply divided over whether the teacher deserved a passing or failing grade, as filmmaking, The Class rates a solid “A.”—P.B.


Derby Disco Music

Sloan Wainwright may not be the best known of the McGarrigle-Wainwright extended clan, but she has as much talent as any of them. A lot of singers do cover albums, but only a handful would have the moxie or the pipes to tackle remakes of Nick Drake, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Marvin Gaye, Phil Ochs, John Lennon, and Jimmy Cliff. Let’s just say that Sloan Wainwright has the chops to back her audacity. This tight ten-track release is faithful to the originals whilst being neither a Xerox nor an abstraction. It helps when you’ve got a voice that an orchestra unto itself. At a time in which the pop charts are polluted by female singers who sound like they’re twelve, Wainwright is a full-throated woman among girls. Her dark undertones and husk lie at the low end and her soaring alto at the high of a full box of vocal Crayolas.


I Am a Camera

Appropriate use of technology, or Orwellian nightmare? You decide.

An Associated Press article by Holly Fox reported this week that a documentary filmmaker whose right eye was removed after being damaged plans to use a camera fitted into a prosthetic eye to watch others. And not just to observe them, but to record their every movement for his next film.

Call Rob Spence the real Six Million Dollar Man, or one of Star Trek’s machine-humanoid hybrid Borgs… Whatever the moniker, this “eye spy” intends to become “a human surveillance machine” and explore whether people “are sleepwalking into an Orwellian society.

Even though he’ll film his subjects without their knowledge, he will obtain their permission before using the footage in his film.

I’m torn about whether this is the most appropriate use of new technology ever, or the next step in removing what little is left of our sense of privacy. Whatever your conclusion, it’s clear that the “wearable computer” movement has reached a very real and, um, eye-catching new level.—P.B.




Tara 3017

Every year, like clockwork, a story about Grace O’Malley (1530-1603) appears in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Small wonder—it’s a compelling story, even if most of it is more speculation and myth than historical fact. O’Malley—Granuaile is an elision of her Gaelic name Gránne Ui Mháille—came from seafaring stock, was married (and widowed) at a young age, had a bad second marriage, and around 1576 began engaging in some piracy. Beyond these bare facts things get murky.

In legend O’Malley’s the “Pirate Queen,” an Irish patriot resisting Queen Elizabeth's attempt to reassert English control over Ireland. (Her piracy may have less noble origins; she perhaps raided her first castle when its owner slighted her and her second because the family that owned it killed her lover.) O’Malley was also rumored to have told off Elizabeth in person, unlikely as Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic, and had O’Malley been so defiant she would not have been a free woman for the last ten years of her life. Symbolism and historical fact often sleep in different beds, however. Granauile became enshrined in the pantheon of Irish patriot rebels and she’s invoked by feminists as a role model of a woman who led men and controlled her own economic, sexual, and political destiny.

There are many bad tellings of the O’Malley story, including the nonsense section in Finnegan’s Wake and the panned musical “The Pirate Queen.” In fact, other than Anne Chambers’ imaginative biography, I only know of one other good version—Shaun Davey’s folk orchestral suite, Granuaile—and it’s not just good; it’s one of the finest overlooked albums of the past 25 years. Originally released in 1985, Tara Records reissued it in 2006. (Available at Amazon.)

Granuaile works for several reasons. First, composer Shaun Davey, an underappreciated musical genius, builds off the O’Malley legend—the defense of Hen’s Castle, her self-proclaimed divorce from her second husband, her affair with Hugh de Lacy, concessions wrung from Elizabeth …. Davey admits that there are holes in the historical record, but myth makes more dramatic music. And what glorious music he created! Davey wrote a suite for a twenty-two piece chamber orchestra, which he fronted with Irish traditional music players such as Des Moore (guitar), Donal Lunny (bouzouki), and Marian Doherty (harpsichord). But the stars of Granuaile are vocalist Rita Connolly and Uileann piper Liam O’Flynn. Each of the eleven tracks is a marvel, but suffice it to say that every time I’ve ever played “Ripples in the Rockpools” those within hearing distance rush to me and ask, “What’s that!?” Connolly’s voice is a gorgeous glory and when O’Flynn’s wild pipe notes kick in, you have but to close your eyes to conjure a young woman on the shore, seaweed swirling at her feet, and wooden ships in the distance with sails snapping in the breeze. And we follow as sixteen-year-old Grace evolves from hopeful bride-to-be into a defiant middle-aged pirate. Davey brings her full circle. “The New Age,” the album’s final track, has O’Malley again standing by the shore, this time an aged woman torn between the hope of her youth, the rebelliousness of her maturity, and the knowledge that the world is changing. It’s a deft stroke by Davey and, if it’s not true, it ought to be!


St. Patrick’s Day is approaching, a time in which many casual listeners decide to indulge in a bit of Irish music. Most gravitate towards old recordings by The Chieftains, The Irish Rovers, and The Clancy Brothers. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Chieftains have been outstanding global ambassadors for Irish music, and the Rovers and Clancys brought Celtic exuberance to North America. But contemporary Celtic music owes more to The Bothy Band than any other source.

The Bothies formed in 1974 and broke up around 1980. Unlike previous most bands, The Bothies took advantage of amplification to mix instruments in unique combinations. They did the same with the music, always true to tradition, but never afraid to mix and match genres. At their height the lineup consisted of Kevin Burke (fiddle), Paddy Keenan (uilleann pipes, tin whistle), Matt Molloy (flute, whistles), Donal Lunny (bouzouki, guitar), and siblings Triona Ni Dhomhnaill (harpsichord, clavinet, vocals) and Micheál O’ Domhaill (guitar, vocals). Liz Carroll recalls feeling as if the entire world shifted when the Bothies blew into Chicago in the mid-70s. Lots of folks feel that way. The band’s seminal 1979 release After Hours: Recorded Live in Paris (Green Linnet 3016) has been much emulated but seldom paralleled.

Here’s a dozen others—in alphabetical order--playing in the spirit of The Bothy Band that you can check out for St. Patrick’s day.

1. Altan, Harvest Storm (Green Linnet 1117)—Not their best-selling CD, but one that crackles with energy and lets singer Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh air out her delicate vocals a bit.

2. Kevin Burke & Micheál O’ Domhaill, Portland (Green Linnet 1041). After the Bothies broke up and scattered, Burke and O’ Domhaill reconvened in Oregon to make a 1982 record that remains pathbreaking.

3. Liz Carroll, Lost in the Loop (Green Linnet 1199). With the possible exceptions of Scotland’s Alisdair Fraser and Burke himself, there is no finer active Celtic fiddler than Carroll. Add John Doyle to the mix and this is as good as it gets.

4. Karan Casey, Songlines (Shanachie 78007). Casey is the heiress apparent to Triona Ni Dhomhnaill as a mighty mite with a voice that seems like it can’t possibly come from such a tiny frame.

5. De Dannan, A Jacket of Batteries (Green Linnet 3053). And those batteries would light up a village. Traditional tunes with new material and a cover of The Beatles. Now that’s the Bothies’ spirit.

6. Dervish, Live in Palma (Compass 7-4340-2). Put a premier and innovative band in front of a huge audience and let the magic happen.

7. Frankie Gavin, Frankie Goes to Town (Green Linnet 3051). This is an album that deserved much more attention than it got, a fiddle masterpiece of mostly traditional tunes, many of which were resurrected from scratchy 78s.

8. Gráda, Cloudy Day Navigation (Compass 7-4451-2). This band is the logical projection of what the Bothies started. Their mash-up of jazz, pop, and trad defies categories.

9. Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Live in Seattle (Green Linnet 1195). And how are they live! This duo is known for their casual pacing, but they burn down the house with this release.

10. Lunasa, The Kinnitty Sessions, (Compass 7-4377-2). Anything from Lunasa will delight, but this intimate live, one-take session proves there are no studio tricks. Instrumentally they are the closest thing to The Bothies and Kevin Crawford is Matt Molloy’s doppelganger.

11. Solas, Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, (Shanachie 78010). This 1997 effort from best-loved Irish-American ensemble captures Solas with its most simpatico lineup and before they got slick.

12. Thunderhead, Thunderhead (Flying Fish 70266). This hidden gem from Grey Larsen and Malcolm Daiglish marries Irish, French, Belgian, Greek, and American tunes. Find out why the title track is so often covered.