Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Me and my migraine

Hey, guess what? I just found out this sort of pre-migraine symptom (aura) has a specific name. It's called a "scintillating scotoma".

Monday, May 29, 2006

Audio blog, family portrait, and interpersonal whatnot

Blogger offers the option to post audio, but why do you have to call in the audio from a phone? I've got sound files I'd post but fuck the phone shit. Is this some kind of piracy thing? Sheeesh.

Ok to answer the comments questions:

1) The unfortunate family portrait incident
My father's side of the family is Irish and Italian but predominantly Italian in culture. Although there are six siblings (my dad plus 5) only two of them had kids, my dad and his brother Louie. Louie's kids are all girls, and my dad had two daughters and a boy. This meant that for most of my childhood, my sister and I were referred to as "the girls" at extended family gatherings, while our brother was lauded and hailed, given attention, money, and presents for simply existing. This continued through highschool (which my sister dropped out of) and college (which I dropped out of). By 1998, I got married, graduated, bought a house, and started a PhD program. Around the same time period, my brother came out, dropped out of law school, and acquired HIV. In 2000, my family had an extended family gathering. All six of the siblings were there, plus some cousins and second cousins and shit I hardly even knew existed. My dad, my sister, my husband, and I all attended. My brother did not. At this event, my aunt Claire (the oldest of the six) had hired a photographer who would take a big picture of all of us at exactly 6:00. She spent the whole day running around saying things like "the whole family is here!" and "Everyone is here! Oh it's so nice!" She and the rest of the relatives also spent the whole day sucking up to my doctor husband and asking me about grad school and my new house. NO ONE EVEN MENTIONED MY BROTHER. No one.

Picture time came and I had had a few. "Everyone" was arranged in the family room of Louie's house for the big portrait shot. I think if my aunt hadn't squealed yet again about "the whole family" I might have behaved myself. I might have been able to control that evil impulse. But she did it. "It'll be so nice to have a picture of the WHOLE family!" she said. And I, posed at my doctor husband's side with my hands folded femininely on his right shoulder, adjusted my fingers just so....
snap, click, snap, click, snap.

The pictures were taken. My sister came up to me after and said "Oh my god, you didn't! I can't believe you flipped off the camera!" I responded "yeah but only to one shot". Turns out that one shot was the one where everyone's eyes were open. The only one where everyone's eyes were open. And I RUINED THE ENTIRE FAMILY PORTRAIT OF THE WHOLE (except for our unmentionable relative Tony) FAMILY!!!!!

2) Interpersonal coordination
People imitate one another. We stand in the same postures as others around us, we gesture in the same way, if we are asked to stand in a lab and swing pendulums we swing in time to one another (even if we aren't asked to), and we pick up and reproduce even very small details of one another's speech. We do this to different degrees, mediated perhaps by social factors and personality, but it seems even when there is no apparent social gain we do it, and even when there is a social gain and we are imitating a lot, we often are completely unconscious of doing it (personally I love watching my faculty imitate one another's postures and hand positions during talks). Conscious or not, instances or this are called "interpersonal coordination", "entrainment", "convergence", "mimesis", and "imitation". There are slightly different shades of meaning to each term, but they can be grouped together as describing the same class of phenomenon of Monkey see (or hear), Monkey do.

One of the research projects I work on is using this tendency to imitate in speech as a way to investigate the nature of speech perception and the properties of the speech percept (or mental representation of speech/spoken words and sounds). The idea is, very generally, if you imitate a property, you must have perceived that property. The big deal is that most of the classic, traditional research on speech says that we perceive speech in terms of acoustic properties and that we strip away certain speaker specific elements of speech. By this account, when someone says "cat" or even a nonsense syllable like "ka" we are able to understand it because we can match it up with some abstract acoustic representation in our heads. The nature of the something in our heads is what is up for debate in my field, and while traditional accounts differ, they all tend to agree that the something in your head is 100% acoustic and abstract. You have some kind of acoustic template in there that "sounds like" "cat" or "ka" and when you hear "cat" or "ka" you know you heard it because it matched the acoustic properties of that entry (or of those sounds, i.e. "k" plus "a") in your mind.

This something in your head has to be abstract because we all say "cat" differently. In fact, each time you or I or anyone says "cat" we say it differently, at least from a purely acoustic point of view. But you can understand me saying "cat" if I say it with a cold, a sore throat, if I whisper it, if I have a mouthful of muffin (it's a little harder then but if it's not too much muffin you can understand me). So how the hell do you understand it if you have to match all those possible acoustic manifestations of "cat" with this one uber mental acoustic form of CAT in your head?

The theory I work in says that you perceive "cat" not in acoustic properties but in terms of the gestures the speaker made with his or her mouth, tongue, lips, glottis, etc. These properties vary but not as much as the acoustic ones do. This idea is also not new. Theories of recovering the event that made the signal, or inference, abound in the history of psychology and studies of mind. What is new and different is the idea that we perceive the event directly, and not through inference. We "hear" the acoustic consequence of gestures and we perceive in terms of the gesture that made that event. We do not extrapolate, we do not infer, we do not learn an association, we do not need to strip away the speaker specific acoustic properties. That last bit is important because while we might be said to imitate the "abstract" properties (in that we all learn the language we are raised in), we also imitate the not abstract properties (accent, style, voice quality, etc). We can account for that if we describe speech perception in terms of perception of the gestures because the process of "stripping away" so the acoustic input will match with the stored mental abstract acoustic form is not required.

Some people say this is silly, or that it's like magic. You hear sounds, not tongues, says one researcher.

The cool thing about the imitation stuff is that there are some neurological findings of structures and processes which could underly exactly this kind of silly magical perception. There has been a big fuss about what are called mirror neurons, which show activation when we watch another human engage in an action. This area shows activation when we see someone talking which would make sense because we are seeing a human perform an action. But it also shows activation when we listen to speech, which is interesting since it seems to support the idea that you perceive actions (speech gestures) in motor terms.

I'm doing speech research (no neuroimaging...the closest I got to the MRI was as a subject). I was looking for all this background research on imitation in speech as a way to preface our study on imitation in speech. Problem is, we fucked up the imitation study we did so I can't approach it the way we had planned. My advisor hates when I say this, but it's true. We fucked it up, so there isn't much to say in terms of what we perceive in speech or about what the cognitively relevant properties of the speech percept are. But there is something to say about imitation of actions in general, specifically, there is something to say about when and to what degree we imitate if we must extrapolate the action/gesture from the (acoustic) signal vs. when and to what degree we imitate if we perceive gestures directly. So I turned to the non-speech imitation papers and I found some really great stuff. And I am happy. I only hope my advisor is happy enough that she doesn't kill me for going over yet another deadline.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Today was a good day!

Today was much better than Monday. First off, I got my period. Ok, I know, usually not something to cheer about but it's good for me because that means the first day will not be Saturday, when my brother and I are driving up to my sister's place to get ready for her graduation on Sunday. And it will not be Sunday, when I'm cooking food for The Aunties (insert suspenseful music there). Yes, it sucked to do my laundry with cramps today, but there is the considerable bright side of not needing to have them bad while dealing with holiday traffic and/or relatives I haven't seen since the unfortunate family portrait incident back in 2000.

Second, I found a set of papers on interpersonal coordination that will help me write something other than "All work and no play makes PFG want to throw knives" in the perpetual paper.

And lastly, and best, there was the good news that Enron bandits Lay and Skilling were not let off the hook. They are Guilty!
Let's count 'em up.
(from the Boston Globe)
Lay was convicted on all six counts of conspiracy, securities and wire fraud against him in the corporate trial and all four in the personal banking trial.
Former Chief Executive Skilling was convicted on 19 of the 28 counts in the corporate trial, including one count of insider trading...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I saw this in the news about a university I went to for three years before deciding I could grow up more cheaply outside of college:

A legal battle continues over the naming rights and funding for the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University.
Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein filed a lawsuit in 2003 in the U.S. District Court alleging the center's director, J. Larry Brown, breached a contract by denying him the right to put his name on the center....

Feinstein told The Providence Journal it was important to have his name on the facility because anonymous donations encourage no one to follow suit.

"If you make a donation and a name is not connected with it, people are not going to be moved to give a donation, but if it's someone they know and like who gave money, then they may be moved to give money, too," Feinstein said. "So modesty does not always work well when it comes to charity."

Personally, I couldn't disagree more. Here are two instances of anonymous charity which are not even remotely dulled by the fact that they are anonymous.
- Last year's donation of $100 million to Yale's Music School. According to ABC News, this donation will make advanced music education (at Yale) free beginning in 06-07.

- "The Kalamazoo Promise". This is a program which will provide four year tuition scholarships to students from the Kalamazoo public school system who will attend any public university or college in Michigan. According to the Kalamazoo entry at Wikipedia, the program is sponsored by private donations from several anonymous individuals.

Mr. Feinstien knocked "modesty" in defending his lawsuit against the people he once thought worthy of his money. To me, that modesty is a very large part of what made the Yale and Kalamazoo donations so fucking amazing.

Then again, I don't have a zillion dollars. I don't know what it's like to have friends who have a zillion and one dollars and who, because they made more named charitable donations than I did this month, get to dock most of their yatchs in the best places at the marina and jeer at me over the buffet at the country club. That could be really difficult to deal with.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

what happened?

Monday was not so great. It was beautiful out. But it was not good. I woke up with my stomach fucked up, didn't want to eat. I don't think the cookie and coffee breakfast helped, but no appetite made the idea of taking the time to prepare real food seem like too much. The cookies were in fact an attempt to be somewhat responsible and eat something. And the coffee is just plain necessary under all but the direst of circumstances. Despite hurrying (and probably partly because of it) I got to campus late and had to stand up my friend for lunch (sorry!) .

Then it was on to my meeting with my advisor, who was all kinds of cranky. She had just come from the faculty meeting. They have only one meeting a year at the end of the year. They didn't meet to talk about prospective students, not all of them anyhow. They didn't meet before or after the strange job talk we had this spring (strange because we are not having an official job search). They didn't meet to talk about the new "milestones" the new division head is imposing on the new set of students, they didn't meet to talk about whether or not the rest of us should be grandfathered in under the policies we started with.

But they met to evaluate the grad students. This is the meeting where all the faculty, no matter how little contact they have with the grad students, decide if we are doing well or not. The first time they had ever done this was last year. That meeting resulted in some genuinely peculiar "informal" evaluation letters being sent to most of the grad students right before my division head left town for a few weeks. I say most of because my division head's wife, who just defended her dissertation this past January, didn't get a letter last year. Yes, my division head's wife is (was) a student in my PhD program.

Anyhow, back to the letters and what they said. In my lab mate Sharon's letter last year, she was evaluated not only on her academic progress, but also on her social skills. No one else was. While Sharon has some quirks, we all do and (further) Sharon's are hardly glaring. They look downright mild when you put them in the proper context, in comparison with some personalities in my division.

My letter last year said that I was making "satisfactory progress and that (I) should expect to write and defend both the proposal and dissertation within the year." I laughed when I read this. Then I asked my advisor if this was a reasonable expectation. She said no.

Although I am told the letters are "informal" it still sucks to know you are going to be evaluated by people who couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag with a map, a flashlight, both hands, and a sherpa. I've been worrying for weeks that the letter I'll receive from my division head will send me either into a towering rage or a deep depression. My money's on the former. I headed into my meeting with my advisor knowing she'd been at this meeting for hours and wondering if she had advocated or not. Turns out not since she came into the lab later and told my other lab mate that the division head wanted him to re-schedule his qualifying exam for next month instead of December. Why did the division head want this? Let's take the Cosmo quiz*:
(a) it is more convenient for him
(b) it fits his plan of promoting our program as a 5 year phd
(c) he's a sadist
(d) it's all part of an evil conspiracy to make people more miserable and the world more rotten

During my short discussion with my advisor, she told me she might be leaving our university.


I'm not sure of the exact story, her options, or the odds that she will be leaving. She explained it but at that point she was addressing both me and our lab manager (the former grad student, my division head's wife, whom I also dislike and who also is in the same paper bag as her husband). My division head's wife/lab manager processes information a little differently than I do (euphemism) and we were asking conflicting questions in rapid succession. The result? I know very little other than that this is all up in the air and I should try very very hard to be completely done with my dissertation a year from this Fall. I told my advisor this would be no problem since if I am not officially done by a year from this Fall, I will self destruct. "No seriously, I'll blow up," I added when she and the lab manager chuckled as if I were making one of those silly self deprecating hyperboles female grad students are prone to making when dealing with discussion of academic deadlines and milestones which they have every intention of wanting to reach if for no reason other than to show what a good little pony they are. My advisor is a nice person, but I believe a high functioning autistic. She often has no idea how to deal with me even when I'm not being sincerely sarcastic, so my "outburst" only confused her.

This all left me feeling like I got smacked in the head with something large, heavy, and wet. Her leaving could make things hard for me, but I am quite serious when I say that I will be done in a year whether I am done with the PhD or not. I can't stay here doing what I do much longer. I strongly dislike connecticut and many other things about where I am. I'm not even sure I want a career in academia, which puts the whole PhD with oodles of publications goal into the category of having more cons than pros. My advisor's leaving will probably destroy whatever is worthwhile about the division though, and that sucks. It's been going downhill since my lab manager's husband became division head about two years ago. He's a trolly bastard who mistakes displays of contrarianism for intellect. Oh wait, I think I have a picture of him that I drew. Yep, here it is.

He acts like he looks. Poorly drawn and constipated.

From a purely selfish perspective though, with the prospect of my advisor stepping out of the picture, the division is only going to get worse, which will only make finishing with degree and a continuing desire to look for an academic job more difficult. Smack.

I worked on my paper, listened to some music, tried to just work and get it out of my head. It doesn't change what I need to do now, I reasoned. A few hours later, I took a break. I checked my e-mail to see if I had gotten the troll's "love letter". I figured I may as well just get it all over with. Nope, no letter. But there was an e-mail in the "Unboyfriend" folder.
Let's see what Tom had to say.
Subject: Questions about cats
Hi (PFG), someone is giving away kitties and I was thinking about one. It is 12 weeks old but has not had shots. What are some of the "rules" of thumb about getting kitties-thanks-t


This has placed me into a nasty dilemma. Do I respond or not? And if so, what do I say? A little back story. This is Tom's second e-mail in less than a week. The first one came soon after the whole bringing his new girlfriend to the dissertation defense party thing. That e-mail was about electronic voice phenomena of all things. In it, he asked me to write back and tell him what I heard in the attached wave he found on a website about EVP and what I thought of the acoustic qualities and such.

Initially, I contemplated writing back and saying "I think I hear a voice saying 'Tom, what would your flat assed humorless girlfriend think if she knew you were writing to me?'". For a couple of hours, I was very tempted to reply with a re-synthesized wave that included a distorted voice saying "Booooooo! Tom's new girlfriend has an ass like an oversized ibook - Boooooo!" I chose not to respond instead. This is my preferred option when I am considering doing something I know I will probably regret for one reason or another. Hey, being over 30 does have its perks. I've learned I do not always need to make understanding the reason for reservations a requirement of heeding them.

I want to treat this second e-mail the way I treated the EVP e-mail, no response, but I'm finding that difficult. I believe, in retrospect, that part of why I was able to squelch the "ass like an ibook" and similar impulses was that I knew they were childish and came from a desire to be hurtful, neither of which are behaviors I want to give free rein to. In this situation though, it's a much more noble desire, and one that is at least as deeply ingrained as the "fuck you" impulse is. I keep thinking this is a kitty who might end up neglected and unsocialized, one of those adorable cats brought into a shelter because the owner just can't be saddled with the huge responsibility of taking care of anyone or anything other than themselves.

Yes. I know, really I do. It's obvious that this is tripping off some of my unresolved anger at the way Tom acted in the relationship, you know, the whole reason I had to shoot it like it was a dying animal, blah blah blah. Which is why the e-mail is still sitting unanswered in my "unboyfriend" folder.

I give up. I'm going to bed. Time to reboot and hope tomorrow turns out better.

* = while the ultimate effect is (d), the reasons are (a) and (b). Like most evil shitwads on this world, my division head is motivated to act rotten by a combo of an unacknowledged selfish streak and an implicit belief that no one else is as real or human as he is. Someone like this in power can do a lot of harm. Also someone like this should stick with neutral tones in the brown/salmon range for lipsticks, rouges, and polish. Crimson and other "cool" tones do not work well with the shitwad in power pesonality type.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A supermarket (and mall) in Connecticut

Yesterday - I woke up late, I got out late, but god damn it I got my errands done, I cleaned my apartment, and then I read for fun for the first time in a long while. I already regret not working more on my manuscript this weekend (this paper is NOT going to be ready to submit by the end of next week) but, well, mental health is my priority always. What good is having my advisor not pissed off at me, having my degree, a career, if I am insane? And yes, all that DOES depend on this paper, not because of any inherent properties of the paper, my degree, or of their relations to one another, but because my advisor has stipulated it be so. If I ever do finish this paper, I am considering printing a copy of it, sauteeing it, and eating it. I think I must in order to regain what I have spent in writing it. Maybe I can just eat the abstract.

But this isn't about my perpetual paper. It's about the mall and the unforeseen perils of the supermarket.

About half way through browsing in the bookstore yesterday afternoon, I became aware that I had to piss. This is a problem because the bookstore is in a nasty little mall populated largely by criminally bored kids who are too young to drive far far away from here. As you can imagine, the bathrooms at the mall are just foul.

That mall could be better if whoever runs it could make up their mind about who they're pitching to. For example, although the mall is populated by the very young, the very old, and the very poor, yesterday the mall was hosting an "antique sale". The very young, very old, and very poor don't buy overpriced 4th hand junk, which is a better characterization of most of the goods peddled as antiques here, where every other town claims to be the antique capital of the region, state, country, or world. The mall has driven out stores like J. Silver (properly pronounced "Jay Silva") which sold cheap hip apparel to make way for more Fashion Bug and Dress Barn type shops, where the bored sales people stand and watch the bored non-shopping kids pass by the entrance. How many times can you refold the floral print turtleneck jerseys and straighten the rounder packed with 20% off tapered leg stretch corduroy before you lose your mind?

When did the little crappy mall bookstore turn into a Borders? And when did books get so expensive? This morning, I spilled a (large) cup of water off my night stand. It is the cat's blue plastic cup that has to be kept exactly where it is and constantly full. My very first act of the moring was to accidentally hit it with one of my long flailing arms, dumping water everywhere, soaking the exact area of the carpet where two nights before I had spilled an ashtray (I vacuumed but it's the principle of the thing), and dousing the book I spent too long worrying about buying while I had to pee and still had grocery shopping to do.

I had spent so long worrying and reconsidering the cost of my eventual purchase that by the time I made my way to the mall exit, slinking past the bank of antique dealers slumped in their cane seated chairs, I decided I had no choice now but to go to the other grocery store. The other grocery store is the Big Y supermarket. Big Y has a much nicer bathroom than the one in the mall or the ones at the other area supermarkets. Big Y is also much closer to the mall. I was hesitant to go there even with these really good reasons compelling me to. You see, I don't shop at Big Y anymore because it's too far from my apartment now that I've moved two towns east. Further, the new grocery store, Stop and Shop, is union. The workers seem happier there than at Big Y. The floral department is less cramped and staffed most of the time.

This is complete bullshit.

These are undeniably nice things and good reasons to prefer Stop and Shop over Big Y, but when I think about it more than superficially, I have to admit none of these is the reason I completely stopped shopping at Big Y. No, the reason I find reasons to feel less silly about avoiding Big Y is the memories. When I was with Tom, in the 4 years we lived together, I shopped at Big Y. Or more accurately, we shopped at Big Y.

As soon as I walked in yesterday, I felt suffocated by sorrow. The worst passed quickly, but left me staggering by the muffin cart. I chose my muffins, folded the top of the bag down, and told myself to pull it together. I was surprisingly good from produce to soda, but by the time I reached the coffee corner, another wave hit me. Shake it off. Sometimes you get through things by will. Walk push walk push where are papertowels? Fuck the papertowels, keep going. Walk push walk push where is (don't cry) half and half? Where is milk? 2%? Walk push walk push....

I waited for ever in line. I flipped through the last 6 years of my life. It has as much drama, torrid love, and bad choices as any tabloid in the racks. I started feeling sad again so I went back further. Back to when I was still excited about grad school. Back to Michigan. Back to Boston...oh wait, too far back! Has my life changed much since then? Have I just found less dangerous diversions?

When the cashier finally cleared enough of the large order in front of mine, I began piling my things on the belt. As I put my dairy up, the boy behind me said "Mountain dairy, they make good stuff!" I didn't look at him completely when I began to say "yeah I guess they don't use hormones and shit...". He laughed and said "I know, I work there. We have very healthy cows." I turned to see this extremely wholesome looking young dairy boy smiling at me and I immediately blushed. In retrospect, I think part of this is that I just sometimes blush when I talk to strangers. The other part is that I had been lecturing him about something he was apparently an expert in. And the last part is that my trip through the supermarket had been so emotionally draining I am sure it showed on my face. "Oh. Um..." I said and went back to piling up my food on the belt, happy I hadn't bought tampons or preparation H or something, suddenly embarassed by my purchase of the mega-pack of double roll toilet paper. Yes, I'm an emotional wreck and I have intestinal problems, Nice to meet you wholesome young Dairy Boy.

After a brief and awkward conversation with Dairy Boy and the bagger about what to do if you drop your cell phone in a toilet (bagger suggested a hair dryer while I advocated the waterless soap option), I pushed my cart to the door. Leaving hurt almost as much as going in. Outside was a beautiful sunny evening, and I realized I still had to pee.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Me versus a bag of chips

Hey, fun. This poster is part of the American Cancer Society's Eat Right campaign. If you go here, you can make a customized poster for yourself (I chose my comic book porn name/alter-ego, Muffin Force, as drawn by my sister) versus whatever diet/nutritional challenger you choose. For example, mine is bag o'chips. Some advice to avoid frustration - don't use the back button on your browser while creating your poster or your work will be flushed. Also, when you finish your poster, select the print option, then "print to file" and save it as a jpeg. I didn't the first time and because the link generated when I chose the e-mail option didn't work, the poster was flushed (again).

The poster game is a gimmick intended to get you into the contentful part of the site (the "interactive tools" part). Unfortunately, the eat right campaign is partly funded by Weight Watchers - although they are not the worst of the diet peddlers out there. As a point of comparison, Jenny Craig is horrible (I feel their ads irresponsibly prey on and promote unhealthy body image ideals as well as anti-female sentiment in general).

Back to the American Cancer Society.
The "tools" are a little hokey, full of flash movies that are clearly intended for people who, well, people who aren't really like me apparently. This is probably a sign the tools will have the intended broad appeal in the larger target audience though - people like my ex mother in law and my friend Tory from Michigan.

The messages seem quite reasonable and hokey or not, I'm glad the ACS put this together. The overall point is to eat healthy, not simply to lose weight by any means possible ("Weight Watchers asks Have you tried crack?"). On the healthy eating pages, while there is a constant subtext and assumption that people accessing this information are overweight, it is not something they hit you over the head with like some sites I've seen do.

The simple fact is you can be over or underweight and still be malnourished to the point where you are doing serious damage to your health short or long term. Contrary to the commercial ideals we receive, skinny doesn't always equal healthy. Unfortunately, our bodies will work on total shit for fuel (e.g. a diet consisting primarily of items from the hostess, frito-lay, and sarah-lee food groups) allowing you to starve your body of needed nutrients while filling your belly (and perhaps your arteries with fat....MMMmmmmm). Human bodies are really very good at going on as if the shit we are consuming is what we need. But eventually, if you keep running on crap, you're gonna pay for it.

So me and Bag O'Chips are gonna go a few rounds. Since today is a grocery store day for me, I think I'll pick up some nuts and popcorn (the kind w/o the goop). Bag O'Chips, you're going DOWN!!!!

I h8 weddings

Wedding season is here and I still have not gotten my shit together to try to sell my old wedding dress. I considered e-bay but it scares me. I keep saying I'm going to have a good old fashioned tag sale (that's what the yokels in CT call what the rest of the world who share this concept call garage or yard sales).

As I get older I dislike weddings more and more. I am a big fan of celebrating things. Life sucks enough, it makes you stop and deal with the bad. The good should be celebrated, always. But traditional weddings are just out of control. They often are bad inherently and only get worse when you add in things like pre-existing family tensions, a miserable economy, and an apparent belief that worth is measured in extrinsic symbolic values (like money spent) rather than real ones (like love, happiness, romance, good sex).

I've been to some weddings that were nice, where it didn't seem like the cost and stress of doing this event hurt the couple and their families more than it helped. But even those involved so much stress for the couple and their families/friends. Anything approaching a traditional wedding in the US is exceptionally expensive. Having been to a pretty good number at the ripe old age of 34, I gotta say, with a few rare exceptions, it just doesn't seem worth the cost and hype.

I just typed "weddings" into google and this is the featured hit - Weddings at the Balsams (grand resort hotel)

At The BALSAMS Grand Resort Hotel the destination wedding you've always dreamed of (I didn't dream of my wedding which might explain why I was such a bad, bad bride) becomes the wedding you'll always remember (Oh I remember mine, but does memorable necessarily imply dreamy? I don't think so. I will always remember that my mother bought "favors" which were little stuffed chicks (it was easter weekend) that emitted loud electronic PEEPING sounds when you squeezed them. She handed them out during the toasts).

Planning for the big event is easy with our all-inclusive packages, experienced wedding
planning staff and convenient layout of indoor and outdoor settings. Keeping your guests entertained is even easier with our array of on-site resort activities. You can rest assure (I can "rest assure"? That you people will take care of every last bloody detail, but you can't proof read your damned website. Now that's just sad) your wedding day pictures will turn out gorgeous thanks to the breathtaking backdrop of sweeping mountains, sparkling lake and lush woods. For the proverbial icing on the cake, (eeek, they've rolled out the puns) our renowned culinary staff will ensure that each and every guest leaves satisfied (the staff are extremely well hung). Contact us today and let us begin planning an event you'll never forget.

Why is "you'll never forget" the catch phrase for wedding shit? Does anyone really believe you will forget your wedding day? If you stay married, even if you stop really celebrating anniversaries (at least the little ones), you still will find yourself turning to your spouse and saying "My god, do you remember at our wedding when my mother took of her shoes to dance and her extra long toenails had torn through her nylons and were hanging out like tallons?" If you get divorced, like me, you will find yourself saying to your sister or brother "Do you remember at my wedding when mom took off her shoes..."

I think it might be more accurate to say "A wedding you'll want to remember". But embedded in this is an denigration of the fine and expensive institution of weddings, which would be a no-no. It makes sense that when you are selling something that is so likely to be ultimately regretable as an expensive wedding package, you are also selling the concept of great big fluffy expensive weddings in general. I'd guess if I were selling shit like this, I wouldn't want to say anything that might make the happy couple think once let alone twice about whether this is really going to be worth all the expense.

If you think I'm overstating how hard on the couple the traditional US weddings can be, just look at this quote from one of the testimonials on the site:
"The setting of The BALSAMS, in the White Mountains overlooking a lake, is very calming."
She did not write "romantic", "charming", or "fairytale princess perfect". No. She wrote "Calming".
This rather strongly suggests she needed sedation.

Here's my best advice if you're thinking of getting hitched and you want to celebrate it. Elope. I don't recommend getting married at the town hall, it isn't romantic. Run off and get married someplace you can afford to go that is pretty and nourishes your spirit. When you come back, have a big party at the local Elks hall or something, backyard BBQ, big ass mo-fo family and friends pic nic in a park. It'll be more affordable, you won't freak out from the stress, your family and friends get to celebrate your union, and you get presents (which do serve a useful purpose that shouldn't be reserved only for newly weds, but that's another rant for another day).

Hey, here's a great idea to help defray the cost for those romantic fools who simply must have the fairytale princess perfect wedding. See if you can get a drug company to sponsor part or all of the wedding. A small and tasteful graphic or logo advertising the newest in anti-anxiety/anti-depression medications can appear on the programs, napkins, napkin holders, and whatever other junk the couple has emblazoned with their names and cartoon doves or bells. In compensation for this, the drug company can pay for something like dinner, a couple of hours of the open bar, a block of hotel rooms for the wedding party, or music and photography.

This favor is a pack of tissues. Because people cry at weddings.
Here's something to cry about.
The average cost of a US wedding could sponsor a central Asian village's water supply
and just about cover tuition for one year at Harvard.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


One of my heroes, Dan Savage, has been saying for some time that the religious extremists in this country have launched a war on straight rights (you know, as well as the almost openly declared one on gay rights - pretty much it's a war on anyone and anything different from "them" with an increasingly visible number of battlefields).

Here's a story about a city in Missouri where it is NOT ok for an unmarried couple to live with their two children. I gotta wonder if it is ok for someone to live with his sister, mom, and wife (this needs to be at least two different women) and their 11 children.

The Missouri instance of state based family enforcement is put forth under the guise of housing code. Yes. Really. The city's website says one of the purposes of these codes is to "avoid overcrowding by non-related parties", "preserve the character of the neighborhoods and the City" and "protect the general safety and welfare of the City’s residents."

Apparently, the thinking of many residents goes something like: We must do something ti protect ourselves from unmarried couples living together and their bastard children who will destroy the character of the neighborhood! We want to be sure our cars are broken into by legitimate children only.

Funny thing is, this forced adherence to "legitimate" baby making coupling only is nothing new. Even the coat of morality paint that has been thrown on it is not new. Augustus Caesar did the whole pushing the traditional marriage one man, one woman, approved by the state and making lots of babies thing a long time ago. He also did the whole punishing people who didn't have babies, didn't get married, didn't have a monogamous marriage thing too. Nothing new. Not even a little.

So now from the far flung province of Black Jack Missouri comes this very Augustan instance of state mandated family values. Is the Black Jack city council proud of enforcing good pagan values? Were they told to do this by watching birds over town hall or by reading the entrails of a ritually slain sow? Did someone give them a stone fucking tablet? Because otherwise, they should butt the fuck out.

Black Jack's mayor, Praefectus McCourt declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that those who do not meet the town's definition of family could soon face eviction.

The current ordinance prohibits more than three people from living together unless they are related by "blood, marriage or adoption."

So what makes a family? Love, commitment, devotion, and support are not enough by some folks' standards. Apparently, if you're a really serious cracker, family is one man, one woman, one blessing from a church, one expensive ceremony, one frighteningly prom-like reception, one new brother-in-law getting drunk and hitting on the bridesmaid, one new mother-in-law drunk and hitting, two rings you probably couldn't afford to buy and which you will loose within the first year of your marriage when one of you gets angry and throws their ring at the other one, and a piece of paper stamped by an important person who raised enough money for the local pols to be given a patronage position.

BTW, if you'd like to congratulate McCourt and the City of Black Jack council for upholding the values of the (unholy) Roman Empire, you can e-mail him here. You can read Mr. Savage's most recent "Straight Rights Update" here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mothers to me

I was thinking that there are several women I have known in my lifetime who have, even in small ways, been like a mother to me. Which is a good thing because if that job had been lfet entirely to my actual mother, I would have turned out pretty scary (er?).

Since it was mother's day recently, I figured I'd recognize these women and my gratitude for what they contributed to my life. There are some women who I have left off the list because they were more professional/mentor type people, although they certainly have helped me as well.

Various childhood friends' mothers - notably Carolyn's mother (Mrs. Rossi) and Liz's mother (Mrs. Kurpeski). No, not a cozy and squishy happy mommy type thing, but they were mother models that were in many ways superior to my own. They also provided safe homes for their daughters and by proxy, if nothing else, provided a place for me to stay (sometimes for days on end it seemed) when I was a kid without making me feel like an interloper.

My friend cjblue's mother, Rena. Again, not someone I have a lovey mother-daughtery relationship with but someone who always treated me kindly and respectfully, who made me feel welcome in her home, who hosts a great brunch, and who is poised, considerate, and an excellent mom.

My friend Marion Aitches. She was a professor in my undergraduate program in Michigan. I had her for a literature course, but I became friends with her first through interactions as her student and then after completing her course and graduating. I visited her on a few occasions and her house always felt homey to me. She's elegant and articulate, intelligent, and quick to laugh. Her life has been very rich, providing ample topics for stories of growth and the difficult processes of becoming a self possessed person, always told with a great sense of humor.

My friend Beverley Goodman. She is amazing. Beverley was my undergraduate advisor. She started working in the department towards the end of my time at college but quickly became one of my favorite teachers ever. She's candid, honest, outspoken, insightful, very funny, considerate, and full of some great contradictions (idealism and cynnicism, informality and diligence, pacificism and rowdiness). Also, her advice and support for me has always been so unbelievably well timed and appropriately irreverent. She's one of those quiet rebel types. I admire Beverley immensely for all of her personal and professional acheivements that she shared with me, but also more recently because she was able to take on a bum of a husband and a life threatening, life changing illness. Even superhuman strength won't help make that kind of combo anything less than torture. Beverley was honest about how much it sucked and I was so relieved she didn't bullshit me. Getting through something like this takes incredible strength and she did it, honestly and as always, on her own terms.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bill Frist on Marriage or Bill Frist Isn't a Man Because Real Men Don't Conduct Illegal, Unethical Research on Kitties

This is a recent quote from Senate majority leader Bill Frist:
"I basically say, Mr. Vice President, right now marriage is under attack in this country," Frist said on CNN. "And we've seen activist judges overturning state by state law, where state legislatures have passed laws defining marriage between a man and a woman, and that's being overturned by a handful of activist judges around the country. And that is why we need an amendment to come to the floor of the United States Senate to define marriage as that union between one man and one woman."

Some interesting facts about Bill Frist:
He didn't vote until he was 36.
As a medical student, he "adopted" cats from Boston area animal shelters to use them to conduct medical experiments. In his own words, he would "treat them as pets for a few days" before it was time to "cart them off to the lab to die."

There are so many more things to know about Mr. Frist. Oh I'm sorry, I mean Herr Doktor Senator Frist. I invite you to research them yourself if you are interested in finding out more about him. Type "Bill Frist" and any of the following terms ("eli lilly", "campaign finance", "civil rights", "corruption") into the search engine of your choice.

I digress. Back to manhood and how we might define it so there is no room for marriages which attack marriage in this country.

What makes a man? Presumably Senator Frist knows, or believes he does. Torturing pets makes him an expert in things biological. One would think that it's important this be carefully defined now that Frist is planning to use a proposed Constitutional definition of marriage as between "a man and a woman" as a campaign issue for the GOP this year.

How might we define "man" for Frist? Casting aside all the research on gender as a social construct, let's just go with our guts (thank you Mr. Colbert) There are many men out there who for one reason or another do not embody all or even many of even the less negative social characteristics of masculinity (most of my faculty for example) but who are indisputably men (I have this impression because they self identify as men through exclusion of people perceivable as women. Also, they make jokes about their wives, fart in public, and harass female graduate students). Therefore, I'm sure Senator Frist would agree that to avoid subjecting men to the kind of gender assessment scrutiny that women are (routinely, daily) subjected to, "man" must be defined by biology.

This raises the question of what part of biology. Frist knows what lurks in the hearts of cats, but what does he know about what makes a man? A simple and obvious biological definition seems to be that a man is someone who has a penis (and the rest of the equipment). Before we run off half cocked and include this definition in the proposed amendment, we need to remember that such a narrow definition as this would exclude anyone who might have lost some or all of that equipment (due to trauma, illness, or maybe a run in with young Dr. Frist) or who is for whatever reason morphologically non-standard. Clearly this population of men shouldn't be denied the right to marry due to disfigurement or extreme variation. Thus, "man" should be defined as someone who has, had, or could have (with some corrective surgery) external man parts.

Woops, hold the phone. According to a Texas judge, we can't rely on that. This might allow transsexuals to marry. In her ruling, this judge wrote that rather than rely on external sexual characteristics "...We must instead be guided by biological factors such as chromosomes, gonads, and genitalia at birth." We've already rejected the gonads and genitalia at birth thing because it unfairly excludes people who unintentionally or unavoidably have non-standard or non-discernable man parts. We need something more basic. How about chromosomes. Now there's something solid. A man is someone who possesses a Y chromosome.

Unfortunately, there are a number of sex chromosome variations resulting in configurations other than full on XX/XY types (I defer to my sister for a more complete discussion of this). According to the site linked above, sex chromosome variations are more common than Down Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis. Oh dear. There could be adults who don't even know they have non-typical sex chromosomes, and they could be MARRIED! Someone should tell Frist. I am pretty sure he skipped genetics in favor of the "Recent Trends in Unethical Research" course, so he probably is unaware.

I don't know about you but I have an exceptionally hard time stomaching the idea that this man is in a position to decide anything other than whether he wants to spend his recreation hour nervously reading a book in his cell or getting some air out in the yard with the other inmates. Why the fuck is a monsterous bastard like this calling the shots our senate?

I just donated some money to a Boston area animal shelter. What else can you do? Really. I guess if you are eligible to vote in the US you can care about who gets elected to the US congress, you can research your local candidates, and you can VOTE in November.

Pictured above are Bootsie, Simab, and Agador - adoptable cats at the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem Massachusetts. You can visit these cats or other adoptable cats here, and you can donate here.
You can make a donation in Senator Frist's name here.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Arts and crafts II

Now that I've spent far too long playing with photoshop, it's time to do some work. But I do think the result was worth the humor. This picture is more than simple heartache. This one is a reminder of some of what sucked. Let me tell you the story of Very Secret Santa.

It was christmas 2004. My ex (Tom, played by Ashton Kutcher) and I were together for what would be our last christmas. The year before we had spent a financially, emotionally, and physically draining christmas in Vermont for his brother's ski wedding extravaganza. I had told Tom that this year I really wanted, no, needed to keep christmas low key. He assured me he did too. I reminded him that this meant with his family. He agreed with me, but somehow we still had a fight about why I was so critical of his family.

Some time in the Fall of 2004, Tom's family had decided that it was too expensive for everyone to buy everyone else a present. They weren't broke, not by any means. His parents took about 6 vacations a year. Past vacations have included Hawaii, several caribbean islands, Iceland, Alaska, various boat trips on a friend's yacht, and ski trips to Aspen as well as the small nearly weekly side trips to ski in Vermont throughout the winter. I however was broke and didn't really like christmas all that much anyhow. Christmas downsizing sounded like a marvelous idea to me so I was pretty happy when Tom told me that his family had decided we'd all pick a name at Thanskgiving for Secret Santa.

Soon after this announcement, I was told Secret Santa had been amended so that you got three things for the person whose name you drew. One homemade present (cookies, pie, etc), one small present, and one larger present. Um...ok. It seemed a little complicated but I figured if this was what they wanted then I'd go along with it. Then some time later, after he had been on the phone with his Gram, Tom told me that Secret Santa had been canceled, mostly because Tom's father and uncle had been upset at the thought of not getting the usual tons of presents from other people. Tom was annoyed, I was annoyed, Tom was annoyed that I was annoyed. We had another argument about his family.

Thanskgiving came. Later in the evening, I found myself stranded in the living room with my ex's sister, mother, grandmother, and various aunts and female friends of the family. I was tucked into the couch between Gram and Tom's sister when Gram said to me "Oh! You haven't drawn a name for Secret Santa!"

This provoked flurry of discussion among the women present about whether or not I had drawn a name, whether or not names had been drawn in general, and when other people would be or had been drawing names. I was confused and said so to Gram. It turns out I should have just smiled and made a non-committal noise because Gram reacted as if I had jumped up onto the coffee table and hollered "Fuck Secret Santa!" She was offended but tried to come across as concerned. "If you didn't want to do it, why didn't you say something? Tom didn't tell me you didn't want to do Secret Santa," she exclaimed, placing her hand on my arm. I tried to explain "No, it's not that I don't want to. I do, I mean it's your family. It's only that Tom told me, I mean, I thought Tom said you guys weren't doing it and that everyone was just going to get everyone presents." Gram's eyes widened and her grip tightened. Other people stopped talking and were paying attention to the drama on the couch. I continued, addressing the room as a whole, "I mean I thought everyone who normally gets everyone presents would, I mean, I'm not trying to tell you what to do..." Oh god. Now I felt like I was saying I wanted every single one of his family members to buy me a present. Picture Meet the Parents. I was like Greg. Everything I did made it worse.

Tom's grandmother said loudly "If you don't want to do Secret Santa (PFG), we don't have to do it. We didn't know you didn't want to exchange presents!" This started another round of discussion among the women about whether or not we should do Secret Santa, who wanted to originally, who wanted to still, and an evolution of the entire decision process by way of a reiteration of all the private arguments presented (mostly by the men) for and against Secret Santa which had been communicated through the network of women. "If (PFG) doesn't want to do it, maybe we shouldn't." "Oh but Wes really wanted to." "Mom, I can't afford to buy you ALL presents. It's not fair for Allen and me to have to buy presents for everyone." "(PFG) and Tom didn't get a present for Marilyn and Richard last year..." "Brian always gets presents for everyone (awwww he's so sweet yes he is isn't he) and he really doesn't have much money." "We just thought that with Dave and Aimee buying a new house it would be easier on everyone if we did it this way" "But if you don't want to..."

This was perhaps one of the more socially uncomfortable situations I've ever been in. Mostly because my normal tendency is to meet this kind of escalating foolishness with a proportionally increased level of blunt decisive discourse in order to cut through the bullshit. But with these people, direct speech only made things worse. Finally I couldn't take it. I nearly yelled "NO! I'm fine with doing it. Really, it's ok! I just didn't understand because...Look, please, everyone - just do whatever you want. It's your christmas - I'm just along for the ride."

More discussion. More gripping of my arm. More subtle accusations that I wanted to hijack the family christmas with my grinchy selfish ways.

Finally, Tom's mother had the sense to retrieve Tom from the kitchen where he had been hanging out with the men folk. He was brought in like some witness for the prosecution. "Tom!" his grandmother said shifting her attention from me but keeping her hand firmly clenched on my now sore forearm. "Why does (PFG) think we aren't doing Secret Santa?" Tom looked horrified. "Oh shit," he turned to me "Oh babes, I'm sorry. I forgot to tell you. They decided to do it." Later, Tom explained to me that the family decided to do Secret Santa as well as get presents for everyone. "So what does the name drawing mean?" I asked. "Well if you draw someone's name you get that person the three special presents" he explained. "So basically, I have to get three presents for whoever I pick and I have to get presents for everyone else, same as usual, in addition to those presents. Wow. That's fucking great. Thanks for telling me." And so Very Secret Santa, a new tradition, was born.

I drew and got Tom's mother. For the rest of the night and all through the holiday season, I was asked repeatedly by Tom's female relatives if I was ok with Secret Santa and told that if I didn't want to do it they could always tell everyone who wanted to that I didn't want to and we wouldn't do it.

Tom and I fought about his family at least once a week in the run up to christmas. I had an epiphany after so much forced contemplation about why I was so critical of his family. I realized I was mad at them for having dropping the ball repeatedly and in big ways when Tom had been sick the year before. That alone would have been ok I guess, I could have seen them as a hands off kind of family. Except that they expected nearly precognitive adherence to the constantly shifting manifestations of family convention and expectation when it came to stuff like buying christmas presents. As each new round of family Simon Says came up, it only reinforced my perception of them as largely selfish people who mistook control for intimacy and who believed unquestioning conformity to trivial superficial details was a sign of affection and respect.

The realization hit me one day while Tom and I were driving to school together and arguing about his family. After we had finished up for the day, we met at the coffee shop near the campus garage. We were having the usual reconcilliation talk, the one where we were genuinely apologetic for hurting one another's feelings, where we tried to explain what we really meant and not what we sounded like we meant. I communicated the gist of my epiphany to Tom. I was quite happy that I had realized the source of my frustration with his family because I felt like it put it in perspective. I hoped talking about it would be a first step on the path to putting our relationship back together again after the serious shake ups it had gone through. Tom was not impressed. He told me "It sounds like you're saying you didn't get thanked enough."

Not thanked enough for doing everything that I did to take care of Tom while he had been in and out of the emergency room and hospital during a lengthy diagnosis of gallbladder disease the year before. Not thanked enough for taking care of him in his extremely demanding post-op state while I myself was still recovering from neuro-Lyme. Not thanked enough for trying repect his parents' stated desire to "help out" and be kept up to date on his progress through what seemed like one medical mishap after another only to find that when I called them, they had left on another vacation or couldn't come to the phone because they were too drunk. Not thanked enough for listening while he complained about his family and being supportive of his building early adult conflicts with them. Yeah Tom, I thought, I didn't get thanked enough. That's what this is all about.

It sounds corny and cliche, but here's what it felt like. When he said that, I felt a cold wind blowing through me. I felt like someone had opened a window inside me and the ice and snow had come blasting in, coating everything with brittle sparkly frost. Grief came late to warm me up. At that moment though, I was all and only cold.

Which brings me to this picture, taken only a few days after that conversation. It was one of the most excruciating christmases I've ever had. I removed myself from his family as much as possible. This picture is of me and Tom (played by Mr. Kutcher) at his parent's house in my very brief christmas appearance that year. I spent most of the party outside smoking, listening to the snow squeak and crunch beneath my feet, and counting the sparkly far away stars. Before I left that night, Tom's parents insisted on a picture of me and Tom in front of the family christmas tree. While I was working with this photo today, I noticed two things. One is that Tom looks very stiffly posed. The other is that I look less like I'm smiling and more like I'm clenching my teeth.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Arts and crafts

I think I forgot to post about this but I met my ex's new girlfriend last week. He brought her to a dissertation defense party. Although we spoke several times that day (he was on campus for the defense), he didn't mention it to me. He did, however, corner my poor friend S___ to ask her if she thought I'd be ok with it. So there I am at the party, having a cigarette with S___ and A___ in the driveway when S___ tells me about passing, as part of another conversation. My reaction? "Huh? What? He's bringing Now? Shit."

The nice surprising thing was that he downgraded. She's not a beast but she's no prize winning beauty. She has pretty much all of my negative physical characteristics (too pale, boring coloring, not an exceptional body) and then some (flat wide ass, bad bone structure, no style what so ever). What I could see of a personality was not impressive either. I summed her up as a humorless sourpuss with an ass like an ibook. This really did make me feel better.

So today, I was thinking today about what to do with some ex junk I still have lying around. I took care of the physical evidence of the ex, but in this age we have other closets to clean out after a break up. A scan through your hard drive while trying to free up space can be a mine field of heartaches in the year after a break up. What to do with the pictures lurking my computer? I could just delete them but that's not very satisfying. I decided this evening I should use them creatively. For example, here is a picture of me and Antonio Banderas starring as "My Ex".

(note to cjblue - tell Polina that Antiono is MINE, and now I have the picture to prove it)

For funny stuff of more broad appeal, go here . God I love Will Ferrell's baby Bush impressions. Thanks to Kate for this clip of Bush on Global Warming(s).

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Who's your daddy?

Apparently I and all other women (all, you hear me!? Every last one of us, regardless of culture, sexual orientation, and upbringing) have been PROGRAMMED to look for certain traits in possible mates and dates. Yep. That's right ladies. We've done been programmed, not socially as most of you rebellious gals might be thinking, but by Evolution.
Specialists said evolution has apparently programmed women to recognize men who might be interested in propagating the species by raising a family.
(Full story available here)

The persistent media presentation of Evolution makes me think of the MCP in Tron. Anyone remember that movie? I do. 'Cause Jeff Bridges definitely looks like he's good daddy material.

BTW, for those who are interested but won't click the link: the sample size was 29, all women between 18 and 20. According to the news story, these young women were asked to rate photos of men on the qualities ''likes children," ''masculine," ''physically attractive," and ''kind." Well clearly this study is flawed since they left out "has a big throbbing cock".

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sugar on Shit, or Underinsuring Is Not a Solution

Today, I stumbled across a short, poorly written (and researched) news story on a bill proposed by US Senator Enzi (R, Wyoming) that risks obliterating some of the hard won minimum mandatory coverage laws at the state level. The bill - "The Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act" should really be called "The You Can Put Sugar On Shit But That Don't Make It A Donut Act". It came from the US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Senator Enzi co-chairs.

I spent some time today researching this bill, then I spent some more time writing to my senators begging them to defeat it.

One of the most salient features of S. 1955 "The Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act” is that it could remove or weaken coverage for medical services which are mandated in many states. Currently, quite a few states have laws which mandate coverage for certain medical services. Some examples are mammographies for breast cancer screening (49 states), colorectal exams for prostate cancer screening (22 states), and cervical cancer screening (29 states). Other examples of state based mandatory coverage include: well child check ups and immunizations, same sex partner benefits, breast reconstruction post mastectomy, post partum hospital stays, treatment of neuro-lyme disease, access to chiropractors, and prescription contraceptives. There's a nice by state list here given in terms of what mandatory benefits could be lost under the provisions of S. 1955.

Having done some health insurance lobbying for graduate assistants at the state level in CT, I know that many of us take our state's mandatory coverage policies for granted. Often, people don't even realize that coverage for our glucose monitors or pap smears are considered hedonistic luxuries by our insurance carriers. But if you live in a state that does NOT have mandatory coverage for a service you need, you do realize it fast. If you're faced with an insurance change where something you need is unexpectedly not covered, you realize it fast.

More of us may find ourselves realizing it fast if the "Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act” (S.1955) passes. The bill is being promoted as a way to provide insurance to more people by
the creation of "small business health plans" and
the "modernization of the health insurance marketplace".

Let's take a closer look at those goals.

A) What are "Small Business Health Plans"? Small Business Health Plans (or SBHPs) are a good idea in theory. The S. 1955 bill summary defines them as "group health plans sponsored by trade, industry, professional, chamber of commerce or similar business associations". The idea is that small business owners would be able to pool together into larger groups and buy affordable (for the business) coverage for their employees. That sounds nice, doesn't it?

But wait, there's more! These SBHPs would be overseen at the federal level by the Secretary of Labor. This measure would effectively move regulation of access to health care (such an intimate thing) for people covered by the SBHPs a massive step away, in the competent hands of the federal government. So if you had to appeal a decision by your insurance carrier under a Small Business Health Plan, you'd be looking, quite literally, at having to make a federal case. We need only consider some of the past year's headlines to see how well the inner offices of the federal government manage their - um, I mean our - business (here's a small set of examples 1, 2, 3, 4).

Too bad for the people who would be covered by the SBHPs, right? If you're thinking this, you're silly, just silly. Because S. 1955 would also allow "other plans to be treated as small business health plans under certain circumstances." You have to wonder what those circumstances might be. Does that mean my NON-Small Business Health insurance Plan could become treated as if it were an SBHP "under some circumstances"?

B) "Modernization of the health insurance marketplace" is the nail in the coffin, the straw on the camel. It takes the cake with the cherry on the sundae. I must admit, I can barely understand some of the summarized provisions. And god help me my eyes feel like they will bleed when I look at the bill text. BUT....Here's what is 100% clear even to my extremely ignorant and naive browsings. Part of the "modernization" means the creation of a set of coverage requirements that would be mandatory for all of these plans, in every state. The set of mandatorily covered benefits would be created by looking at existing mandatory coverage laws in all states. Under S. 1955, the newly created Small Business Health Plans and any plan treated like a Small Business Health Plan would only have to cover services that are mandated in 45 out of 50 states. If your state mandates coverage for something that even 44 other states also mandate, then you are out of luck. No more guarantee of coverage for you. I hope your kid doesn't really need well child check ups.

Here's a real world example. Fewer than 45 states mandate that diabetic supplies (e.g., glucose monitors) and diabetes education (e.g. nutrional counseling, insulin pump instruction) be covered. Thus, even in states that mandate coverage of diabetic supplies or diabetes education, the SBHP-type insurance would not have to cover diabetic supplies or diabetes education.
Or pap smears, or prostate cancer screening, or ovarian cancer screening, or contraceptives, or hospice care, or substance abuse treatment, or home health care, or well child care, or second opinions, or ambulance transportation, or bone density screening, or minimum mastectomy stays, or late stage lyme disease treatment, or rehab services, or hearing aids, or special formulas, or prosthetics...
Go here for a state by state list of mandated benefits that would be at risk in SBHPs under S. 1955.

Underinsuring people is a simply horrible idea. It's not just horrible for the uninsured, the people the bill's creators claim it will help. Underinsurance sucks universally because it drops the standards of insurance for everyone in the "insurance marketplace". Lower insurance coverage leads to lower standards of care. This can happen indirectly, but in the case of this bill it is sensible to be concerned about it happening directly. Even if the "circumstances" under which a non-SBH insurance Plan could be treated as an SBHP were to be very narrowly defined, the bill still includes language for extending SBHP privileges such as dumping state mandated coverage to nonSBHPs.

Further (and this is going to sound so utilitarian, in the most negative way), consider that providing people with shitty insurance that skimps mostly in the preventative (or preventable disease) care means you have just put into the health insurance population a pool of people who are pretty much guaranteed to be at higher risk for developing expensive health problems than well insured folks are. Early diagnosis, education about and access to tools for self care, good post-op or post procedure care, multiple treatment options, home health care for acutely or chronically disabled individuals, and accessibility to routine physical exams and vaccinations all help healthy people stay healthy and help keep health problems manageable. Underinsured people have less access to all of these services. Therefore, an outcome of a lack of access to services such as these is an increased risk of becoming sick enough to require hospitalization, surgery, and other very expensive health care use. There are only two option in this sort of scenario. Shared burden of these individuals (spread out to all health insurance consumers) or dumping of more covered services. The financial and social costs of a measure like this make it completely untenable as a solution.

Why is this not obvious to the people who sponsored this bill? Oh I don't know. Maybe they have other things on their minds. The graphs below each S. 1955 co-sponsor's name show contributions by sector (in thousands) to that senator. With a few exceptions, the longest lines are associated with contributions from the insurance sector. You can look this information up for yourself at a marvelous website called
Sen Allard, Wayne (CO)

Sen Burns, Conrad R. (MT)

Sen Burr, Richard (NC)

Sen Cornyn, John (TX)

Sen Craig, Larry E. (ID)

Sen Nelson, E. Benjamin (NE)

Sen Roberts, Pat (KS)

Well that's it. My day has been consumed by this. I hope that you don't let the effort go to waste. If you live in the US, this is your issue. Do what you can. Activism is very very easy. You don't need to call your senator and speak to her personally. You know who you get if you call your US Senator's office number? A staff member who takes your name, address, and a (very) short message like "Tell Senator So and So that I don't support Bill 1955, the one about the health insurance. Thank you." If you'd prefer to remain remote, e-mail your senator (find senator by name or by state). The ones with "Class I" listed next to their names are the ones up for re-election this year. Defintely write to them. Activism can be conversation. Talk about it to your friends, families, coworkers, people you interact with during your day.

Oh. I have one more graph. It's Senator Enzi's by sector totals from 2001 to 2006 .