Daylight Saving Time leads off Sunshine Week

Running around the house yesterday, looking frantically for the directions to set my clock radio forward to Daylight Saving Time, I thought about how stupid it is to have to go through this twice a year.  Why not just go on daylight saving time year-round and call it, er, a day.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio has introduced legislation to preserve the daylight saving shift and never set clocks back again.  That’s fine by me.  As soon as spring rolls around, I’m already worried about the few months left until the days start getting shorter again.  I’m much happier when sunlight goes into the evening. The only thing good about the semi-annual change of time is that it reminds us to check the batteries in smoke detectors.  I think we can figure out a substitute prompt.

The onset of Daylight Saving Time signals a much more important issue. Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the creation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to call attention to the need for greater accountability by government through public records disclosure. Sunshine – transparency, that is – is said to be the greatest disinfectant.

Cue the refrain of Aquarius by The Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine, let the sun shine, the sun shine  in.”  Consider it the anthem for this Sunshine Week.  Examples abound of how government at all levels routinely confounds people with legitimate requests for government documents.  Government stonewalls in many ways, from claiming the documents aren’t available, to creating enough loopholes and exemptions to public access requirements to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningless,  to charging so much per page that dissemination is prohibitive, to redacting allegedly sensitive information on documents so that the pages you eventually receive are virtually all blacked out.

News media can’t play their rightful role in aiding the public’s right to know, and we can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information. That will require a substantial reduction in obfuscation, obstacles, and other government displays of officious passive-aggressive behavior.

This principle will be tested at the federal level when the Robert Mueller report is complete, and the special counsel turns it over to Attorney General William Barr. While Barr gave lip service to transparency in his confirmation hearings, he has not committed to making the report public. The Democrats will fight tooth and nail to make it happen, and well they should.

Regulations call only for a confidential report from Mueller to the AG. Worst case scenario would be for Barr only to indicate an intention to indict or not to indict. But, given the core focus of Mueller’s mission to ferret out the nature of the relationship between Russia and the President and his 2016 campaign, the special counsel’s  findings will bear directly on whether or not our democratic process has been compromised. Put simply, the public needs to  know the answers to that question.

Barr may not be required to make the report public, but he is allowed to do so if he deems it in the public interest.  His answers, when repeatedly pressed about whether he’d go public with the report, restated his desire for as much transparency within the constraints of the law.  Pretty opaque language, and not especially reassuring.

All tiers of government have track records of making it difficult for people seeking public disclosure.  Supposedly enlightened Massachusetts has traditionally led the nation in resistance to transparency.  It wasn’t until 2017 that the Bay State overhauled its 1973 public records law providing penalties for agencies that failed to respond to Freedom of Information requests in a timely way.  So, too, did it mandate that more public records be available online, and it limited how much agencies could charge for copies.

In the spirit of this Sunshine Week, let’s hope that, from the Bay State to the marble halls of Washington, whether on Daylight Saving or Eastern Standard time, our elected and appointed officials provide us with the records and reports we need to make informed judgments about how our democracy is working and what is needed to make it work better.

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Fiction suggestions, as promised

Regular readers of my blog have expressed their displeasure that, when I wrote my last blog on non-fiction books, I promised a follow-up blog with my recent adventures in fiction but failed to do so.  In the spirit of some unnamed Virginia politicians, I apologize for the lapse and humbly offer the following.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is timely against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un.  But it suffers by being like two books. The first part is from the perspective of Jun Do, an orphan in North Korea, dehumanized by the harshness of his life.  The state conscripts him into the army, teaches him English, trains him at sea in electronic spying, and sends him forth as a kidnapper for the government. He becomes a skilled torturer and interrogator, learning to function in dark, subterranean prisons.  His story exemplifies the brutality of North Korea, amplified by the epic propaganda of state-controlled media.  In the second part, Jun Do has escaped from prison where he himself was tortured by General Ga, who ran the prison.  He assumes Ga’s persona and even moves in with the General’s wife, opera singer Sun Moon.  The voices alternate  from Jun Do having assumed General Ga’s identity, to an interrogator/torturer in charge of a captured Jun Do/General Ga, to the voice of the state propagandist blaring episodes of each year’s “best North Korean Story” over loudspeakers in public places. The technique is confusing, though it enhances the precariousness of life in a totalitarian state. The darkness is unsettling and haunting.  Don’t read at bedtime.

The Gathering by 2007 Booker Prize writer Anne Enright. One hesitates to say that one novel captures the Irish soul (or any other national “soul,” for that matter), but The Gathering offers some insight. The focus is on a large Irish family, with narrator, Veronica Hegarty, returning home to identify the body of her brother Liam, who has committed suicide. He is her favorite among all the siblings, though he is an alcoholic and a “messer.” The wake and the funeral give Veronica many opportunities to parse the family history: addiction, poverty, abandonment (at least four of the 12 kids raised by the grandmother, whose husband was not the only man in her life) and sexual abuse. Veronica is torn by guilt that she might have done more to prevent the suicide, and her grief estranges her from her own husband and daughters, with whom she shares a comfortable middle-class life.  With steely insight and mordant humor, she dissects all the family’s struggles, sexuality, and enduring dysfunction. Compelling narrative, beautiful mastery of language, unblinking insight into character.

In Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin, Jules Lacour is a 70+ cellist and teacher, a veteran of the Algerian war for independence, a Holocaust survivor, a widower obsessed with getting enough money to send his small grandson abroad for treatment for his otherwise terminal cancer. An obsessive athlete and incurable romantic, he gets into a predicament that makes him the target of a police murder investigation, providing a thread of tension through passages of sumptuous writing. Any reader who loves Paris will be intoxicated by the lush descriptions of the architecture, vistas and byways, the suffusion of art and music, but also profoundly disturbed by the simmering hatreds among immigrants and citizens, Muslims and others and a rising, toxic anti-Semitism.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is as good a read as her Everything I Never Told You.  Set in the seemingly idyllic Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, it looks behind the manicured lawns and fashionably draped windows to explore racism, class tensions, family dysfunction and dark family histories. There are clashes of families and of values, mysteries to be solved, ambiguities to be parsed. Ng probes relationships between mothers and daughters, which are as fraught in this privileged and outwardly progressive community as anywhere in the country; adolescence is complicated and often dark. The unraveling, focused especially on two particular families, is riveting.

I urge you to send me comments on your recommended book selections.

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Klobuchar coverage distorts her total package

Remember how folks despaired that the Democrats had “no bench?”  As it turns out, there is significant strength in the cluster of presidential candidates coming forward.  I don’t just say that because Donald Trump has lowered the bar on what it takes to be president or because, as the bumper sticker says, “Any Functioning Adult 2020.”  I hope the coverage will be as good as the candidates.  The media’s treatment of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is not a good beginning.

For more than a week Huffington Post, Buzz Feed and the New York Times reported anonymous charges about the Minnesota senator’s   allegedly abusive treatment of her staff. Instead of “Minnesota nice,” is she really the acid-tongued  “Devil Wears Prada” candidate?  Does Amy Klobuchar’s berating a staffer for forgetting a fork for her salad, using her comb to eat her lunch and then asking the staffer who forgot the fork to clean it –disqualify her from being President of the United States?

Such stories have ricocheted around social media sites, on cable television, in the Twitterverse and in chat rooms. Debates about whether such attacks are sexist followed, along with defensive responses from reporters doubling down on their earlier charges. Bernie Sanders screams. The late John McCain had a notoriously short fuse. Barney Frank was no picnic to work either, nor, for that matter, was priest and anti-Vietnam War Congressman Bob Drinan. But their behavior did not become their personal brands or the leads in network coverage.

So what should we make of the reports that claim Klobuchar is one of the worst bosses in Congress?   LegiStorm.com annually calculates a “weighted staff turnover index” to compare rates of full-time congressional staff departures.  It makes no distinction of why a staffer leaves: moving to a different congressional or campaign payroll or advancing to a better job, all with his or her boss’s  support, counts as turnover. So do departures prompted by uncontrolled anger, sexual abuse or unethical behavior. It’s only a gross turnover index. Out of sloth, ignorance or malice, the compilation is treated as a definitive  “worst boss” in Congress list. Covering FY 2001-2017, Klobuchar ranked third and in FY 2018 she dropped to fourth- not first as some reports claimed. It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of the top ten are female.

The New York Times buttressed its misuse of the LegiStorm ranking with an unscientific sampling of complaints from “more than two dozen” former staffers. I don’t countenance abusive behavior, but from years covering national politics up close I do understand how demanding congressional and presidential bosses can be and how difficult it is for their largely young, poorly paid staffs to maintain any semblance of  reasonable work-life balance. (It’s why you do it when you’re young.) I wonder how many of Klobuchar’s unnamed outraged critics are millennials, shielded by trigger warnings and helicopter parents. Work on the Hill is a hard-driving environment, not unlike some other sectors (television, for example), where young adults can’t rely on insulation from micro-aggressions.

In last week’s CNN town hall discussion, Klobuchar admitted she was a “tough boss” who “asks too much of my staff sometimes.” On Sunday, 61 of her former staffers,                  “grateful” for their time in her office,  signed an open letter defending her as a “mentor and friend” who “pushed” them to be “better professionals.” They noted that their positive stories, many shared with Times and other media, have not been “fully reported.”

At that same CNN town hall, Klobuchar made clear that while she stands with the Democratic agenda, she sees some of its positions, such as Medicare for All, free college tuition and the Green New Deal as aspirational rather than a pragmatic blueprint for action now. Of the candidates running, she’s more a moderate than progressive, more center left than hard left.  Unlikely to raise the rafters with soaring rhetoric, she believes in compromise and incremental practical change.

Polling indicates Democrats want a candidate who can beat Trump more than one who is the purest distillation of their policy ideals. Klobuchar is more likely to do well with general election independents and suburban Republicans, the ones who fueled Democratic success in 2018, than with the true believers who usually dominate primary voting.  Hers is a voice that should be heard. No one should try to run her out of the race because of anonymous and possibly exaggerated charges that she was mean to staff.

Klobuchar’s protean challenge will be next year’s Iowa caucuses. The outcome is likely to make or break her candidacy. Her biggest obstacle until then may be a Joe Biden entry to the 2020 race.    The media should put the eating-salad-with-a-comb anecdote – which I think could be a clever solution – in the rear view mirror.

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I wouldn’t want to be Robert Kraft

photo Forbes

Shock, disgust, schadenfreude, anger and pity for the mighty one who has fallen due to his own flawed character.  Shock, because I still remember the Bob and Myra Kraft who lived modestly in Newton decades ago, always opening up their home to good liberal causes.  Disgust, because of the tawdry nature of the allegations and the repugnant back story.  Schadenfreude, because there’s admittedly a touch of pleasure in seeing the self-absorbed high and the mighty taken down by their own stupidity and weakness. And, simultaneously, compassion for the depths to which he has sunk when he seemed to have everything. Everything, that is, except for his beloved late wife, the grounded individual who was clearly his moral compass.

So now he has gone from spygate to deflategate to fellategate, and, at best, he’ll be a laugh line on late night shows. At worst, he’ll be the spoiled billionaire owner of the epic New England Patriots, one of the National Football League’s most influential owners, whose life knew no boundaries and who squandered the reservoir of his philanthropically-generated good will by allegedly paying for sex at a cheesy Jupiter, FL spa allegedly run by a prostitution ring engaged in human trafficking. What was he thinking?  With what was he thinking? What did he know about the spa or even care? Was he arrogant or just hell-bent on self-destruction?

Many die-hard Pats fans, focused on six Super Bowl wins and the team’s greatest-of-all-time quarterback, may like to think this recent episode doesn’t matter. That it doesn’t matter that Kraft has developed a lust for celebrity, for women younger than his kids, for adoration by crowds.  But a die-hard fan like New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich, author of Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, has described Kraft as a “familiar and smaller-than-life figure,” “easily offended” while needing recognition.  Many of Kraft’s comments, wrote Leibovich before this episode, are “self-satisfied and unbearable.”

Despite all the evidence, however, I want to believe in the part of Kraft who told Leibovich, “Since I put dirt on my wife’s casket, I really realized what’s important.  The things we worry about are paper clips.”  Well, this episode is more than paper clips.

If I were advising him, I’d tell him to make a public apology for embarrassing his team, its fans, his family, friends and community.  I’d tell he to make it a teachable moment about how buying sex may seem like a victimless crime but is often the retail storefront for the evils of human trafficking. And I’d urge him to take one of the seven billion dollars of his net worth and devote it to organizations working their hearts out to end human trafficking and violence against women. There are many of them around the world.

And I’d do it before the charges against him are adjudicated, before the NFL imposes (meaningless) fines or other punishment for violating the League’s stated code of behavior.  He should do while there’s a small opportunity for seemingly authentic contrition.  He should do it to indicate that he really does realize what is important.

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When public policy meets private patient

“She’s just been moved into recovery,” the nurse told the obviously concerned husband of the patient. “She came through it well,” she added reassuringly. “I think you should know that her first words after coming out of the anesthesia were ‘ is the trump administration over?’”  The nurse and my husband laughed, and she added, “I think your wife was having a nightmare about working for the Trump administration and trying to escape.”  “That’s Margie for you, and the price for being a political junkie,”my husband told the nurse.

Neither general anesthesia nor post-surgery pain medication is an adequate antidote to Donald Trump. But last Monday’s hospitalization for rotator cuff surgery brought a host of reminders about the centrality of health care as an issue in our lives.

First, a shout-out to the nurses and other staff  at the Newton-Wellesley hospital, an affiliate of Partners. They were with me every step of the way. Naturally, I interviewed them about last fall’s referendum on nurse-patient ratios. My informal sampling split about three to one, with only one thinking that legislating the ratios was a good idea. The others said they didn’t want government to make the nursing decisions and thought that flexibility was important so management could deploy resources where they were needed.

One of the mandates of the Affordable Care Act was to improve care through inter-operable uniform electronic medical records. But silos remain, with patient records in Beth Israel Deaconess, for example, not readily available to Partners hospitals and vice versa. Even within hospital systems, problems remain.

I started writing about the difficulties in 2016. Of particular concern was the computerized network sold to Partners by Epic Systems, which drove many older doctors into premature retirement. Never were its flaws more exposed than the day I checked into the hospital. It was 6:15 in the morning. I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that people at the desk were just writing patients’ names on a piece of paper and handing us a “comfort call,” the kind of light-and-buzzer device restaurants use to signal one’s table is ready

There were nine patients and family members settled in the waiting area when an attractive woman in pale blue scrubs came in to announce that the entire Partners computer network was down, including the Mass. General, Brigham & Women’s, Newton-Wellesley, doctors’ offices, other Partners hospitals and satellite offices, and that all surgeries had been postponed for at least several hours.  Cancellations were a distinct possibility, and some patients rescheduled.

Ah, yes, Epic Systems network, the bane of existence among so many doctors and medical personnel. Apparently another meltdown had happened in January and had lasted for six hours. As it turns out, last week’s crash had started at 3:00 a.m. so perhaps it would only be a few additional hours’ delay.  Still, as they say in the financial world, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

After two months of  constant pain, I had finally arrived on the threshold of my appointed surgical solution. Two vacation trips had been cancelled along with other meetings and events, and the idea of indefinite postponement did not sit well. Other patients in the Partners system were even worse off.  I learned of one woman, for example, who had expected to have open heart surgery at Mass General the previous Wednesday, but complications in four other open heart surgery cases affected the capacity of the ICU and required the postponement of her surgery, which was then was rescheduled to last Monday. Thanks to the computer system, she was to be postponed once again.

I was fortunate in that sometime later that day my surgery did take place, and now I’m starting a long recovery. I’m lucky that I have a great surgeon, solid health insurance, excellent care-giver at home, and my shoulder problem is fixable. I’m one of the fortunate ones and am mindful of those who lack these essentials.

We live in one of the great medical centers of the world, and I’d like to think that glitches in the computer systems could be remedied with the same high level of professionalism. Technology is wonderful when it works, which is probably most of the time. But when it comes to medical care, “most of the time” just isn’t good enough.

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The State of the Union? Words fail

A scorpion asks a frog to take it across the river. The frog fears the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion talks a good line, saying that, if he did sting the frog, they’d both drown. So, in the spirit of collaboration, the frog consents. Mid-stream, the scorpion does sting the frog.  As they’re going down, the frog asks why. His passenger replies, “because I am a scorpion.”  In other words, that’s who he is. It’s his fundamental nature.

Last night, Donald Trump did say a lot of the right things in his State-of-the-Union address, especially in the first half. “Ready to work with (Congress). “not as two parties but as one nation.”  “not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.” And there were issues he cited with potential to achieve that goal: building a stronger middle class, improving health care, including lowering drug prices and protecting people with pre-existing conditions, addressing HIV AIDS and childhood cancer, and paid parental leave. Could this signal a new era of comity?

The devil, of course, scorpion-like, is in the details.  Trump’s previous infrastructure proposal left 80 percent of the funding for eligible projects to the states, rather than have the federal government finance that percentage.  Contrary to his health care promises, his actions have been geared to dismantling the Affordable Care Act, and under his Presidency fewer Americans are now insured. So we don’t know how many of his bromides will be shaped into meaningful programs and policies.

Underneath the positive talk,  the real Donald Trump was there from the moment he snubbed Speaker Nancy Pelosi by not allowing her to give the Speaker’s traditional introduction of the President.  The real Donald Trump was there in his bombastic twisting of economic accomplishments. He took credit for doubling our economic growth when the surge started under Barack Obama.  African-American unemployment, for example, was down nine percent under Obama and an additional one percent under Trump.  Women’s participation in the workforce has not kept pace with that in other countries and is down here from what it was in April of 2000.  Of the 5.3 million new jobs he said he has created, how many of those are people having to hold down two or even three jobs to make ends meet?

And, summoning up the ghost of Richard Nixon’s “one year of Watergate is enough,” the real Donald Trump denounced the prospect of Congressional oversight as “ridiculous partisan investigations.”  It is not in his nature to appreciate our Constitutional system of checks and balances, which he didn’t have to deal with in his first two years in office when Republicans controlled both house of Congress. Trump was right in saying, “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” But, clearly, greatness for him is doing things his way. Compromise is alien to his nature.

Most telling was his full-throated recycling of his speech on the border wall, his incendiary language about the invasion by caravans of terrorists, drug dealers and MS-13 gang members threatening the security of our country.  With all the tribute he paid to his guests in the hall, he said not one word about the burdens he thrust on some 800,000 federal workers during the pay-less government shutdown he executed. Chilling also was his two-line distortion of a new New York law that he said “allowed a baby to be ripped from its mother’s womb moments from birth.” In fact, the law provided for abortions beyond 24 weeks if necessary to save the life of the mother or if the fetus is not viable.

This is a President who likes to tear up longstanding treaties and destroy international alliances. Recently turning his back on the Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear arms agreement signals a return to the Cold War arms race. Not once did he mention the issue of climate change, arguably the greatest long-term threat to our national security.

Until Woodrow Wilson presented his annual message to Congress in person in 1913, all previous Presidents had reported on the state of the union in writing.  Would that Trump had proceeded in that way.  But now he has spoken, and we have listened.  The copies of his 82-minute-long presentation will end up in the shredder along with all his other exaggerations, lies, misrepresentations, hyperbole and false promises. And that’s just where they belong.

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Climate change is real, Mr. President

photo Vox.com

As the polar vortex is about to recede, for now, we’re still stupefied by our esteemed President. He, who considers himself the smartest man in the world, recently tweeted, “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”

But less stupid individuals than he are puzzled about how we can have record-breaking cold in an era of global warming.  The answer is found in the difference between weather, a short-term phenomenon, and climate, comprising averages that trend over time.

Temperatures in a wide swath of the country have been in the minus 20’s with wind chill reaching down into the minus 50’s.  The reason? Warming trends have split the polar vortex, a system of cold air and wind over the North Pole, and that has changed the pattern of the jet stream, pushing beyond-frigid temperatures further and further south. Chicago was colder than Antarctica. Scores of people have gone to hospitals with hypothermia.  Schools and businesses have been closed. Transportation systems have been challenged. People have died.

Climate change is causing extreme weather events year-round, warmer sometimes than it should be, colder at other times, with more frequent and severe hurricanes, increasing severity of droughts, cold waves and wildfires.  While this part of the world is experiencing record-breaking cold, Australia is struggling with record-breaking temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trump, who gives The Wharton School a bad name, sometimes moves from denying climate change to denying the role of humanity in spurring it. Virtually all scientists (97 percent of scientists, according to NASA and other studies) agree that human activity, especially reliance on fossil fuels, is a significant factor. When the President grudgingly acknowledges the existence of climate change, he says, contrary to many studies, that fixing the problem would cost too many jobs. And, when he denies human beings’ roles, he asserts it’s a Chinese fiction designed to slow our economy.

Many of the three percent of studies denying a human role in climate change were financed by “dirty” companies with a financial stake in preserving the status quo.  Other opponents of remedial action simply oppose any government regulation.

Trump has pulled the United States out of the voluntary international commitment to a shared timetable for lowering carbon emissions, and his appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere, many with links to the fossil fuel industry, are doing their level best to gut green laws and regulations.

Meanwhile, Democrats spout the slogan of a “Green New Deal,”  but what that means beyond a piece here or there is anyone’s guess.  In a divided Congress, with a climate denier in the White House making anti-regulatory appointments to the federal judiciary, prospects for a comprehensive approach are bleak. There’s little incentive in an election season to push for a carbon tax or any other approach that necessitates serious changes in behavior.  And we’re always in an election season. My generation can roll with the inaction, but, for our kids and grandkids, climate change is an existential threat – which means that the stakes of the 2020 election are higher than they’ve ever been. Young people, who somewhat increased participation in the 2018 election, must get even more organized and vote their futures.

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