Saturday, November 22, 2008

Neuschwanstein Castle

We final finished this 2000 piece puzzle! We bought it to celebrate having a coffee table to do a puzzle on, so we must have started back at the end of September. The castle was completed fairly quickly, then it was slow going until I spent a couple of evenings tackling the sky. We took a long break around Halloween as the puzzle got moved into K's sewing room so we could entertain in the living room. Recently we returned it to pride of place on the coffee table and I have been grinding away on finishing the foliage. The last pieces slotted into place this evening, just in time to take it apart to make way for Thanksgiving!
The lesson here is, don't try to do a 2000 piece puzzle on a coffee table. It was the only design I really liked at Target, which is why we chose this one instead of a more sensible size. Of course when we got it home we discovered it wouldn't fit on the table! Luckily K had a table pad from her Grandmother that was only about a quarter inch short, and worked fine except that it folded in three so was never completely flat at the creases and was a pig to move...
I am accustomed to having enough flat space to lay out all the pieces and maybe have enough room to move them around, but since the puzzle didn't even fit we were stuck hunting through the box, picking out interesting pieces. Very frustrating. When I was working on the sky I was convinced I had all the blue ones, but it took another half dozen searches to eventually track them all down. For a time we used the box and lid to transfer pieces back and forth as we hunted. I found a big sheet of, er, something white and rigid, so I could lay some pieces out and organize them, which helped a lot. But yeah, next time we're getting the 250 piece puzzle that's a picture of kittens...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Nat'l

The National is an old theater house that recent re-opened as a music venue. I was invited a short notice to go see Conor Oberst and Ben Kweller, and as my faithful reader will know, I need turn down an invitation to a random event. Besides, I'm completely out of touch with the local (and national) music scene.
Since none of us had been to the Nat'l before, we showed up shortly after the doors opened to make sure we didn't miss anything. And wasn't is lucky we did, or we wouldn't have been treated to Rig 1. My best guess would be to label them an Indie Rap Group, if that genre even exists. The front man reminded me of Dider Revol in Son of Ranbow. I wasn't totally convinced by an outfit that produces only a small portion of their music live (mostly Dider 'rapped' over a backing track with disorted fills from his guitarist and bassist), and his a cappella number was like being at some strange trippy poetry reading. At least they solved the question of whether I was going to drink or not. PBR on tap? Oh, why thank you...
They seem to have their game together at the National, because the wait between acts seemed refreshingly short. Before long, Ben Kweller came skipping on stage. At first I thought there had been some mistake. The voluminous dirty blonde curly hair; the denim vest; the cute as apple pie voice? There was no way this was a dude. But a dude he was, and proceeded to launch into a set of what I'm calling 'punk folk' for want of a better description. For me the star of the show was pedal steel, played by an older gentleman in thick black-rimmed glasses (my associates disagreed). Basically the whole experience was making me think I was in Greenville in 1973, but what the hey.
After Ben had warmed us up it was onto the main event. Advertised as Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, I was expecting something along the lines of Newgrass, but was way off!
Again, words fail to really describe the odd arrangement of musicians assembled on stage. Perhaps this is the truest use of the term Indie. There wasn't really a band on stage, rather several individuals playing in concert. The most individual of them all was Conor himself who fits neatly into the category of arrogant prick. Technical prowess was hard to come by from any member of the group, who seemed to be centered around Conor's poetic lyrical meanderings. Personally I much preferred when he let one of the other band members take a song.
Well, some of the tunes were likable enough, and three PBRs in I was ready to get my groove on, which brought disparaging remarks about the quality of English dancing from my acquaintances. Most of the rest of the crowd stood there with their arms crossed, but clearly they were enjoying themselves more than they were expressing, as the calls for an encore were energetic and appreciative.
The band returned after just enough time for a few rounds of shots chased with a beer. After a few more numbers indistinguishable from the rest of the set, Conor invited Ben out on stage, announcing that this was Ben's last date on the tour with them. Ben, who had clearly spent the entirety of the headliner's set with a bottle of Jim Beam, staggered on stage for a rendition of Kodachrome, which they made a good job of, actually. After this point I don't really remember a lot of the music. Ben and Conor were climbing all over the stage equipment, kicking over drinks and throwing mics around. Conor tried to skip rope with the microphone lead, but got it tangled, first on Ben's guitar, then on a mic stand, before finally making a full rotation and drawing disproportionate applause from a highly entertained audience.
So, in the end a good time was had by all. It was just what I needed as an antidote to a crap week. I'm not hurrying out to buy their latest records, but they sure know how to put on a show, so Kudos to Ben and Conor.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Paying for Medicine

One of the interesting things to come out of the campaign debates was a tangible fear among Republicans of 'Socialized Medicine'. Of course, to me this seems completely back to front - I had been assuming that Americans unanimously wished they could be like almost all of the rest of the civilized world and receive free public healthcare. To me, the concept of having to pay was totally alien and rather offensive at first. But now that I've had a few experiences with the American health system, I'm beginning to understand the argument a little better.
My first encounter was almost totally negative. I took a trip to the ER, which turned out to be completely unnecessary, but cost me $150. Luckily they never billed me for the Ambulance ride. But this event highlights two of the biggest problems in my mind with how the system works.
Firstly, treatment is not offered conditionally based on price. That is, you're never asked "Would you like this treatment (it will be $100)?". It is assumed that you want whatever treatment is best for you, and that you will pay with bill no matter the amount. Where else do middle class people make choices on those terms. At a restaurant, you decide whether to order the lobster partly based on the price of the dish.
Secondly, if you have insurance, you know they're trying to screw you somehow. It is virtually impossible to tell what you'll have to pay for until they send you the bill.
I was also very disappointed by the level of service at the ER. They weren't busy, and I guess I felt that since I was paying to be here, I should be treated like a hotel guest!

Anyway, my recent trip to the doctor was much more positive. Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with me! But it's about time I began regular check-ups, and I've been putting it off simply because I had no idea where to begin. In England, it seems so simple. You find you nearest GP, and go there. But here you have this wonderful thing called choice, which makes things impossibly complicated. Again, there is so much information out there, but so little of it is made readily available to the 'consumer', so having to make an educated choice is a complete headache. In the end, I discovered the secret shortcut: Ask someone at work who their doctor is - then you know that you'll be covered by insurance and you get a personal recommendation.

Going to the Doctor (by contrast to the ER) seemed like the deal of the century! For $25 I got one-to-one attention. When I go back for a 45 minute physical exam, again it's just $25! The people are friendly, and I felt like i was being treated with the respect that a paying customer deserves. I think the euphoria is mostly relief of knowing that I have somewhere to go now if I fall seriously ill. And really, the healthcare is only cheap so long as your healthy! Once you need regular treatment, it quickly become a whole different story. Perhaps it's good, as it encourages preventative measures.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Change has come to America"

No, I didn't stay up to find out the outcome of the election. This morning was quite soon enough, and it was worth waiting just to avoid listening to the delusional babble of the news networks. Besides, once Ohio had gone into the Blue column, the result seemed almost inevitable. Nor can I say I was interested in wild celebrations regarding the appointment. Sure, I think the right man won, but my relationship with politics is intellectual rather than emotional. And while I'm far from Anarchistic, I try to live as independently from the government as I can. That is to say, whatever decisions Mr Obama makes, I'm sure there will be an avenue for me (and anyone else) to prosper.
In any case, from what I here of the reactions of important people, there seems plenty of room for optimism. There have been a lot of people saying that McCain's concession speech was superior to Obama's acceptance oration, but I'd have thought it obvious to anyone that it is easier to be graceful in defeat than victory, especially in what is essentially a popularity contest. Saying, "The other guy would've done just as good a job" is no way to either thank your supporters or reach out to the opposition. I've also heard a lot of comments that if McCain had expressed himself throughout the election like he did at the very end, he would've been a candidate they could vote for. Well, that's the point, isn't it? John McCain isn't an infinitely gracious man, and the mean streak he frequently showed during the campaign marked him as second best.
Bush says he'll make the handover as smooth as possible, which is probably the only sensible thing he's said in 8 years. Really the best thing about the outcome for me is that what it will do for America image to the rest of the world. Perhaps I can dare to show some pride of my American half when I return to the UK.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day!

To the surprise of a few of my colleagues (who still haven't exactly worked out how I possibly got here) I am in fact eligible and, as a responsible citizen, registered to vote in the USA. Thus it came to pass that Kristal and I ventured out on a rainy November morning to cast our votes. We are in the 106th precinct and our polling station is the local High School. The polls open at 6am, but we decided to wait for the rush of super-keen voters to die down, and give ourselves a few extra minutes in bed. I think we arrived around half-seven. For some reason the USA doesn't see fit to give it's electorate a public holiday once every four years for the general election, but I was allowed two hours of the work day to do the business.
Lucky, really, because voting wasn't exactly a speedy as I had dared dreamed. We did avoid the rush, according to a few people who had witnessed lines snaking around the building. Fortunately we were at least able to queue inside, out of the rain. We arrived, and I guess the guy at the front door hadn't been told that the crush had died down, as we were sent on a looping tour of the school corridors, only to arrive inside a door right behind the guy who had directed us! So far, off to a bad start.
After a few minutes in the queue, an election official came down the line calling for surnames Emm thru Zee to come forward, so Kristal dutifully went on and got her ballot ticket. However, there was apparently some hold up for the A-E crowd. By the time I got near the front of the queue, Kristal was done voting. So were her Sister and Brother-in-law, who had arrived about a quarter-hour after us! Kristal offered me her crossword puzzle, but I was being entertained by a gentleman who had graduated from this very High School in 1976, and would love to tell us all about it...
Finally I got to the table where they check your name on the register and give you the ballot ticket. The table was divided into four sections, alphabetically by surname, and the three sections from F onwards were empty. For whatever reason I was standing at the A-E section with 50 increasingly irate voters behind me. The reason appeared to be that one person with an A-E surname had arrived earlier, but their eligibility to vote was in doubt. Rather than take the problem aside, well meaning ladies of the Librarian caste were continually interrupting the A-E checkers with inadequate explanations of what was happening. The A-E checkers would then have a leisurely debate about whether it was OK to cross out an entry on the register or not. Neither could quite remember this being covered in the evening class. Eventually they realized that they needed to sort this out later - right now the priority was to process the stern young man standing in front of them who looks like he's about to knock their heads together.
After I got my ballot ticket, it was relatively smooth sailing. I had to wait in another line for a while, and somehow they had designed they queuing system so that the two lines crossed each other, but they had about 10 voting stations, so thing moved along nicely. You exchange you ballot ticket for a place at a touchscreen computer, and somebody helpfully informs you that you need to press the big red 'VOTE' button that shows up at the end for your ballot to count. Then your done!
All-in-all it wasn't that terrible. I mean, obviously there is no reason to keep a large fully trained staff for an event that occurs but once in four years. It can't be easy to arrange for an estimated 3.5 million Virginia voters to cast their ballot in 13 hours. It reminds me of sitting school exams. As you sit their watching the poor teacher fumble around with the sealed envelopes of papers, trying to follow some arcane regulation, you think to yourself, "You better not mess this up, because if you do I might not get a grade, and I've worked too damn hard!" Likewise, you enter the polling station, look around at the usual voluntary sector crew, and think, "You better not foul this up, because the vote in Virginia could mean something this time". We'll know soon enough.