Friday, October 30, 2009

Oh Sweet Irony

Some people, you may be one of them, have a passion for reading and can pour through a book a day. It’s easy for these people to find a page turner and even if a book doesn’t take hold of the reader’s imagination or spark critical thought right away they keep trudging through. Maybe they believe that even if they don’t particularly enjoy the book there will be some self improvement by adding to their own knowledge base or expanding their minds in some way. I’m sure that may be true but to quote Bob Dylan “It ain’t me, babe”.

I can read and have tried to read many, many books but none of them have held me from cover to cover. I’ve forced myself near the end of several books but I’ve only completed a few. Many of you are probably thinking right now something about my not having enough imagination to truly enjoy a good book. Well, at the risk of offending, you’re wrong. When I read I can hear the voices of each character in my head and I can see the scenes but the actual act of reading is just a chore for me. I will read an article in a magazine, a blog or any of a number of things on the web but it is for the information contained within; not necessarily the enjoyment of reading.

A few days ago the university that I attend had a guest speaker, P.J. O’Rourke. He is a political satirist and journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy and Car and Driver, among others. During his talk he told the small audience that writing should meet at least one of three criteria: to entertain, educate or inform. Ok, I’ll buy that. He went on to add that in order to be a good writer a person must read, a lot. That’s when he lost me. As I listened to the rest of what he had to say I couldn’t help but think that he was wrong. He must be wrong. I mean, several people who like to read enjoy reading what I write so it must be good…at least a little. Once he’d finished there was time for a question and answer session; my chance to pick his brain a bit. One, two, three people asked questions and still he hadn’t acknowledged me so that I could speak. Another couple of people asked and asked again until finally, I was given the chance to ask him a question. The last question of the afternoon.

Me - Mr. O’Rourke, I know that you said that a writer must be a reader, but I don’t enjoy reading. People who do enjoy reading, however, enjoy reading my stuff. The point of my question is this: Is there anything that you would suggest in lieu of reading to make me a better writer?

Mr. O’Rourke – (paraphrased) Find something that you enjoy reading…There is a very small percentage of people who can be good writers without a lot of reading. (At this point I told him about the magazine articles and news etc.) You may just be a 2 or 3 thousand word guy. I’ve heard it said that one out of every one child has ADD. (Was this some kind of underhanded slap in my face?) He went on to talk about how sometimes he doesn’t enjoy what he’s reading and recommended that I look into short stories and he talked about how they were in vogue in the 18th century. He then thanked the school and the audience for having him.

I let what he’d said sink in a bit more but it still didn’t sit well with me. I’ve thought about how odd it is that I enjoy writing so much but lack a writer’s love for reading. The only way that I can make sense of it is to think of the things that I do enjoy; movies, television, music, conversation and observing nature and people. There is much enjoyment to be found in an understanding of how things and people interact. There is as much truth and provocative though in the songwriting of Robert Hunter as there is in a novel or essay. I guess you could say that I read sounds and images rather than words.

What is certain is that I won’t be actively looking for things that I do enjoy reading so that I can fit someone else’s idea of what makes a good writer. Instead I will continue along the same path that I’ve been traveling. I’m sure that I’ll grow as a writer but I doubt that it will be because of something that I’ve read, rather it will be because of something that I’ve seen or heard that made me think in a different way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Health Don't Care

Healthcare and insurance reform is a hot topic these days. It seems as though everyone has a different take on how the issue should be handled in the United States. Some people want a socialized plan much like in the United Kingdom or Canada and others like the system the way that it is. If I were a gambling man, and I am, I’d wager that the lines are split based mostly on who does and doesn’t currently have adequate care.

In April of 2005 I had a surgery that changed and saved my life. I had battled with my weight for my entire life and on the day that I went to the hospital for gastric bypass surgery I weighed 362 pounds. Nothing that I’d done to get the weight off had worked and this was a last ditch effort to, hopefully, ensure that I’d be able to live a long life and watch my still unborn children grow. The cost of the surgery was right around $35,000. Fortunately I had health insurance through my work at the time. That isn’t to say that the road from idea to operating table was smooth and downhill. When I applied for the surgery it was a covered preventive surgery. Before they made their decision, however, it was not. I had to write several appeal letters and my friends and coworkers did the same on my behalf. Finally, after months I was approved and on my way to a happier and healthier life.

Less than six months later I was unemployed and without health insurance. I should have been visiting my doctor for follow up visits but I couldn’t afford to pay the fees. When I finally did find a new job the pay was terrible but there was good health coverage for me and my wife. We were able to go to the doctor, get new glasses and have dental work done. A couple of years went by and then suddenly we found ourselves unemployed and uninsured again; victims of the new economy. But this time we had a little boy to take care of too.

My dad was never the one to go to the doctor unless he felt like he really was ill. Just a few months before he died he went to a doctor in my hometown who told him that he had bronchitis. After a while he hadn’t gotten better and knew that there was something more sinister than bronchitis eating away inside his chest but he didn’t have health insurance either. He knew that he would soon be 65 and eligible for Medicare. So he waited.

In October he was approved for Medicare and went to see a different doctor. That is when he found out that he had lung cancer. It happened fast. He was admitted to the hospital and had a lung removed but Medicare would only pay for him to stay at the hospital for a certain amount of time based on the surgery. He was sent home a short time after he was deemed stable. His time at home was short lived and he returned to the hospital where he would draw his last breath.

God has blessed me with a wonderful wife and a perfect son. We own a home, two cars and a dog. When we were working life was pretty good. It is hard to appreciate the good unless you’ve lived in the bad and we’ve had our share of that as well. I’m no longer overweight, at least not excessively, but that is not to say that I’m without health issues. I have scleroderma and a beautifully acute case of depression. There is no cure for the scleroderma and, fortunately, when I did have insurance my doctor wrote a long prescription for anti depressants which I can have filled with an inexpensive generic form of Prozac every month. There is no cure for the depression either but the drugs can help to alleviate the symptoms.

Now that I am back in school and accumulating more student debt I have access to the clinic on campus which, while it’s no substitution for health insurance, does afford me the opportunity to see a doctor. I took advantage of this last week because I’d noticed that I have an odd bulge in my abdomen. As it turns out I have a hernia. I had to do a bit of research on exactly what a hernia is. What I found is that it is when your internal organs, from stress and strain, find their way through your muscles to the outside of the cavity where they should live and lie just beneath the skin. Every strain from that point forward pushes the organs, in my case my intestine, out a bit and then when the strain is gone they retract to their new home outside the muscle. The only way to repair this is through surgery. I’ve looked but I can’t find the surgical center on campus. Must be that there isn’t one. So, here I am, thirty three years old, unemployed with a hernia and no insurance.

The doctor that gave me this wonderful news said that I shouldn’t over exert myself. I asked her what, specifically, qualified as overexertion and she told me that any lifting of over 10 to 15 pounds could cause me to have what is called a strangulated hernia. This is when the organ pushes through and doesn’t retract at all causing excruciating pain and the immediate need for surgical intervention. Great. My son weighs 20 pounds. I am the proud parent of a child that I am not supposed to pick up from the floor or his crib because doing so may land me in the hospital with a bill for a surgery that I can’t afford.

This brings me back to healthcare reform. I have stood on both sides of the proverbial fence when it comes to insurance and healthcare. As a gainfully employed member of the proletariat I thought that each person capable of work should be responsible for themselves and their own health coverage. Unemployed and unhealthy I wonder how that is possible. I am capable of work and I would greatly prefer having a job and an income to the state in which I find myself right now. That’s not to say that with insurance everything is sunshine and roses. In America we have some of the best healthcare available in the world but it is only within reach of the wealthiest and well insured among us.

So, you may be asking yourself “Where does he stand on socialized healthcare?” To tell the truth I’m asking myself the same question. I think that we should all have access to all of the medical advances and treatments that are available but then, who’s to pay for it. If everyone had open access to the same quality of care then my father wouldn’t have had to wait until he had Medicare and he may still be alive. I wouldn’t have to worry that a case of constipation would put me in the hospital with a strangulated hernia. This is a slippery and dangerous debate though. What of hypochondriacs? What about people who, inevitably, would find a way to subvert the system? There are a lot of questions that need to be addressed before any kind of “National” healthcare program can be a viable solution. What if there were less government spending on foreign matters and the military? This would, in turn, allow for lower taxes and, as a result, more of our own money in our pockets; money that would allow us to buy our own health insurance. But wait, the cost of healthcare is constantly on the rise and it still costs thousands of dollars to spend a night in the hospital. Thousands of dollars that move the insured toward his annual coverage limit or the possibility of having his coverage dropped or denied by the insurance company.

There is no clear solution and we, as a society, are in a catch 22. We can watch out for one another but we’re too busy trying to watch out for ourselves. If I look inward long enough maybe eventually I’ll be able to see behind myself. Then I can watch my own back.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Naturalistic Inquiry: Tech in your step

The Surreal Reality of Human Interaction

When I was younger, before everyone had cell phones, my dad had a Motorola two way radio in his truck that could call telephones. The conversation only worked one way at a time but it worked. Then, in the 1990s cell phones began to become widespread. These days nearly everyone has a phone with them at all times. People are more easily connected now but this has brought on a new set of problems. Nearly everywhere you go you can see people walking around with a mobile device in their hands either talking to someone or texting or playing games. This brought a question to my mind. Actually, a two part question; What percentage of people are disconnected from where they are because they are using a mobile device and are males or females more likely to do so?

This sounds like a perfect opportunity to use some naturalistic inquiry. In order to tackle this topic I decided to act as an observer-participant at the mall on a Sunday afternoon. At that time the mall is bustling with activity and there are plenty of people to observe.

I went to the most active place in the mall, the center court where I sat and observed. I watched people and made a mark on my pad for every male and female who were using their cell phones while walking around the mall. I also made a mark for every five people that I saw. What I found in my three hours of observation was that 2,205 people walked through the center court of the mall. Of those people a total of 209 were walking with their friends while either playing games, talking on the phone or texting. A couple of different schools of thought would lend to two different preconceptions of whether males or females would be more likely to be disconnected from where they are because of their use of modern technology. One way of thinking, based on the assumption that women enjoy talking on the phone, would make the observer believe that more women would be guilty of using their phones while out in public. Another, based on the fact that men are obsessed with technology and portable devices, would make the observer think that he would see more men texting and talking on the phone. What I actually found was that it was nearly split down the middle. There were 107 men and 102 women. Based on this data, I found that approximately 10 percent of people are not actually where it would seem that they are.

Some interesting observations were that many of the women were mothers who were pushing strollers. I saw several groups of people where more than one person was using a device while walking around with friends. One particularly interesting grouping was three men, all of whom were texting and talking on the phone. Who says you can’t be in two places at once? I do. One gentleman was so engrossed in what he was doing that he actually walked into my foot. He didn’t even take the few seconds that were required to say excuse me.

This is interesting information that anyone who is fascinated with technology and how it is changing our lives would find intriguing. In the early 70s Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, believed that a day would come when there would be a computer on every office desk and in every home. He was right. We’re nearly there now. In fact, there is a computer in nearly every pocket or purse. So, where are we going? Well, the technologies are changing and we are changing right along with them. Those 209 men and women at the mall all had at least one thing in common: they were all only half where they were. That is to say, because of the technology in their hands each person’s attention was split between the group of people that they were with and the group of people with whom they were talking remotely. As technology continues to change we will evolve with it and we’ll get better at using it while staying connected with where we are.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Textual Analysis: CNN vs. Fox News

Is cable news enough?

The purpose of this analysis is to quantify the number and types of news articles shown on the two top television news networks, CNN and Fox News.  The news articles are broken down into five different categories: political, entertainment, financial, war and other.  The time frame of this study is from 1:00 to 4:00 pm CST on October 15th 2009.  During this time the news is dominated by three themes; America is at war in the Middle East, Barack Obama makes his first appearance in New Orleans as president to assess the progress rebuilding the city after hurricane Katrina and a six year old boy is believed to be trapped in a weather balloon floating across the Colorado sky.

Each of the networks begins the one o’clock hour with short discussion and stories covering mixed topics.  The President is expected to begin his speech in New Orleans at 1:15. 

The Fox News Channel touches on ten stories in the 15 minutes before the President’s speech begins with topics ranging from the President’s sinking approval rating to a story of a pregnant teen model on the cover of Teen Vogue magazine.  Other stories in this time frame include talk of the DOW Jones Industrial Average being on the rise, oil prices are at a one year high, prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay prison may be allowed to come to the United States for trial.  By and large the stories revolve around the President.

At 1:15 the focus is on the President as he gives his speech to a town hall meeting in New Orleans.  There are no interruptions.  Once the President has completed his speech the Fox News Channel breaks back to the studio for commentary.  They begin by talking about the health care reform but are soon interrupted by a breaking story of a six year old boy who is believed to be trapped inside a homemade weather balloon that has taken flight in Colorado.

The remainder of the time studied is dominated by this story completely and without commercial with the exception of a brief mention of the stock market at 3:11 pm.  By 4:00 the balloon is on the ground and there is verification that the boy is not inside and there is a strong sense that he never occupied the balloon at all.

CNN manages to cover two more stories in the 15 minutes leading up to the President’s speech bringing their total to 12.  Topics include hate crimes in New York city, prisoners in a Massachusetts jail getting H1N1 vaccine before residents of that state, foreclosure woes, no increase in Social Security payments in 2010 and a mention of the group of hikers who’ve been imprisoned in Iran.  There is also mention of the President but not nearly as much political talk as Fox News.

Just as with Fox News the programming turns to the President at 1:15.  Unlike Fox News, however, CNN interrupts the President’s speech at 1:42 with breaking news of the six year old boy and his balloon.  Coverage of the story is similar to that on Fox with the exception of the fact that CNN has more “experts” to express their opinion on the situation.  Focus doesn’t stray from the story of the boy in peril until it is confirmed that he is not aboard the balloon at 2:41.  Once this is known they discuss the possibility that he’d fallen out of the balloon but while there is no factual news to report on the balloon story they turn their focus to commentary of the President’s speech in New Orleans.  In the remaining time before 4:00 they cover many of the same topics as before the speech and breaking news and finish the time talking about the boy and his family.

Both networks covered similar topics and they both covered the two major stories in a similar fashion.  CNN did have more articles covered 20 versus Fox’s 16 but they were mostly reprisals of articles from before the two bigger news stories.  Coverage did, however, tackle a somewhat different set of themes. They each covered a similar number of political stories but aside from that Fox’s focus was on stories that pertained to America directly while CNN covered many stories that related mostly to foreign affairs.

So, according to their taglines, “More Americans get their news from CNN than from any other source” and Fox news is “Fair and balanced”.  Both of these statements may be true but, just to be safe, it’s a good idea to get some news from other outlets as well as these two seem to focus on what’s important to their viewers…not necessarily the average American.

Content analysis of three hours on the two major TV news channels.


To quantify the number of news articles covered by each network during a three hour period.

Unit of analysis:

Each individual news story is a unit of analysis.


News articles are either political, entertainment, financial, war or other including stories of people and events.

Political Article - reports on any political story


Entertainment Article - reports on entertainment industry news

Financial Article - reports on stock market and oher financial news


War Article - reports on the war in the middle east


Other Articles - report on current events excluding politics and entertainment

Total Articles - Fox 16 CNN 20

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NONFICTION: The Truth and What's Right

Less than an hour ago I was standing, naked, in my bathroom about to get a shower. I looked into the mirror and noticed that my bottom jaw was trembling. Tears began to well in my eyes. As I stared into the brown of my iris I wondered exactly who I was looking at and if he was embarrassed to be looking back at me. I am a good person. At least I think I am.

In 1976 America was celebrating its bicentennial. The year saw two presidents, the Reds won the World Series, and the Dodge Aspen was Motor Trend’s car of the year. It was on a February day in that year that I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to Dan and Deloris Fugate.

Both of my parents grew up in northern Kentucky and they each had led difficult lives. As one of several in either family they sometimes had to go without. It was for that reason that they made sure I felt secure in the fact that all of my needs were being met; even if it meant that they, again, would have to go without. They taught me about Jesus and love, right and wrong, consequence and discipline, and sacrifice. From the smallest molecule of myself I believe in the right and wrong that my parents worked so hard to instill. But there are things that happen that never came up in conversation before. Questions that my parents’ teachings don’t have answers for. These are tests of how well I truly understand what they taught me.

I don’t remember if I was three or four. The numeric and factual details have left me but the important ones, the emotions and the lesson learned, are well intact. My parents took me with them to visit a friend. The driveway was bumpy and the windshield wipers could barely keep up with the rain as it fell onto the windshield of my father’s truck. While my parents were visiting with their friends I played with their son and his toys. After some time my parents and I left. I pulled the faded red plastic airplane from beneath my hat and began flying it around the back seat of the truck. Mom realized that I was playing with a toy that wasn’t mine and asked me where I’d gotten it. I didn’t want to tell her but I did. As I stood back at my parents’ friends’ house telling them and their son that I’d taken his toy I learned that it is wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. I am sure that I’d been told more than once before but now, when I was faced with it, it made sense.

Twenty seven or so years later I was turning thirty. In those 30 years I had been the baby, the good boy, the high school graduate, the only college graduate, fat, thin, a fiancĂ© and a husband but I’d never been a risk taker.

We were camping at a state park to celebrate my 30th birthday. The cold had saturated our bodies and everyone went for a walk to warm up; everyone but me. I stayed behind to stoke up the fire. I don’t know if it was the stress of turning 30 or the beginning of a long mid-life crisis. Maybe it was a combination of both coupled with the dirty thoughts that I needed to take some chances in my life but it was definitely a bad idea. While my wife and friends were walking and after I had stoked the fire I went to a different campsite and took a fire ring. It was a rusty steel hoop about three feet across. I knew that in one action I could take a chance and have a nice enclosure for the fires in my back yard. But I’m not a thief and I’m no good at being sneaky. Under the clear winter sun someone saw me loading that bulky thing into the back seat of the car. As we were leaving the campground I saw the park police waiting. The feeling started deep within my stomach. It was kind of like the excited butterfly feeling that I get before going on stage but instead of feeling good it felt more like someone had grabbed my insides and was shaking them. I knew why he was there and I was afraid. He stopped our car and I got out to speak with him. I didn’t want to but I told him what had happened and took full responsibility for my actions. I had been so straight laced and cautious in the years since the airplane incident and the event came to mind as I stood talking with this man.

As I spoke with the judge, recalling the incident, I still couldn’t nail down my reasoning. In one action responsibility turned to stupidity and the judge could sense my remorse. I entered a pre trial diversion program and requested that my community service be done at the state park that I had wronged. After I had completed my service to the park I wrote an apology letter to the ranger. He accepted and let the judge know. My record was no longer tarnished and I received a strong reminder of the lesson that I’d learned all those years ago.

This is only one of the myriad reasons that my jaw was trembling. I’m overly insecure and it doesn’t take much to make me question who I am. Did the event at the park make me a bad person? Was I already a bad person before this? I think that since I knew that I’d done wrong and I was basically doing it for that purpose the answer to both of those questions is no. Life is full of choices and the decisions that we make demonstrate the truth of who we are. Sure, I’d tried to take something that wasn’t mine but I immediately admitted my wrongdoing. I believe that if I’d gotten home with that fire ring I would have felt guilty and paranoid that one day I’d come home and find the police waiting for me.

This brings me to another question. Do we try to do good because it makes us feel good or because we are afraid of the repercussions? Perhaps it is a combination of both. We make decisions about right and wrong constantly. Laws are black and white, right and wrong, but the real situations that we find ourselves confronted with are more complicated than that. It is illegal to steal but not to commit adultery. By the rules of the law it seems to stand to reason that it is okay to do one but not the other then. I would assume, however, that we all know that either is wrong and laws aren’t all right or well thought out. If someone has to steal to provide for his family he has broken the law but he is doing what is best for his family. That is, assuming that stealing isn’t his career but rather a choice that he was forced into…a temporary solution to an ongoing problem.

We have to think about all aspects and consequences of what we do. In my case, I did fall into the burning ring of fire and perhaps it is a metaphor for a decline into sin and toward Hell. Before and since that event I have been an honest person. Shame can serve as a valuable reminder of what we are made of and why we do and don’t do things. I’ve made poor decisions but they’ve usually been made with the best of intentions. I am a good person.