Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jessica Penner is a Poet

Jessica Penner is a sunny person. She and I sat together for over an hour-and-a-half, talking about life, health, the insurance industry, traveling, writing, making a living. She laughed a lot and made me laugh.

There isn't enough time in a news feature to tell more than a snippet of Jessica's story. As a very small child she was diagnosed with Ollier's Disease, which meant that her childhood was filled with what sounds like a succession of brutal surgeries. Jessica, being Jessica, speaks of these surgeries in positive terms, saying they kept her out of a wheelchair.

As a college student she began having seizures, which lead to the discovery of an enormous brain tumor.  Jessica, being Jessica, is quick to point out it was a non-malignant brain tumor. The story of her battle with her insurance company to get the needed treatment is what's reported in the "One Person's Voice" I put together for WMRA's Morning Edition. A longer version is available on the web.

 But enough about illness. Jessica Penner has a day job that pays the rent; a night job as a poet. Here, for your reading pleasure, are a couple of her poems.

OCTOBER 6, 1981

The day Anwar Sadat was assassinated
my parents drove east, toward a city I'd never seen.
We'd passed the empty fields curving west,
the tractors standing idle, cold.
My daddy, thinner then, was at the wheel
of our silver-fish car.
Mommy was knitting, the sun glowing
through her hair.
And there I was in the back, alone
on the cracked red seat,
fake leather that burned your skin
when you hopped in after swimming.
We skimmed the surface of faint hills,
glassed ponds, a twisted tree, alone in emptiness.
Cows with misted eyes huddled in the early chill.
I sat waiting to be hurtled into the arms of men
in the towers of that city;
men who would fool me with their benign khakis and ties,
only to wear cold white white white gowns
as I was arranged in a green bed without socks.

Before the day of The Towers,
I stepped from a plane into Cairo,
where gleaming white-uniformed men pointed rifles--
not at me, but the crowds before me
who twisted and swelled
like the fields we'd slipped through so easily,
as if the world of knives would solve our souls,
could carve me a freed forever body.
As though my father's expert trolling
of his silver could straighten the tree on the hill.
The sun rose in the east,
a backlight to a single minaret,
cloaked in the smog and sweat of 17 million.
The river glided through her basin,
echoing the tilted voices of me
calling me to pray.
Calling me to bow.
Strangely, I felt at home.


Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.
              from "The Wellfleet Whale" by Stanley Kunitz

There are those who would say Blue Mountains climb
so low because they are strident with youth
rather than age. I tended to believe
this contradiction as we crossed the soft
valleys that lay like a covered child.
We whispered a conversation within
hearing of the never-young-nor-old man
driving the darkness, pushing in the night,
away from faint lights to the brighter orb--
this Poet, whose frail voice managed to sound
through the wind of those snuffle-shoulders.
You slipped your hand snug under my neck that
slid in cold that solidified words spun
far too carefully divine to speak of.
Life-anointed, your hand cradled my head,
drew mantles against my too-muscled death;
ranges of Mountains beat with youth not age.

We stroked through the lake beside Bethesda,
like the night we rolled through dim neighborhoods,
searching for the home-face of a Poet
whose whale lay upon the sand, gasping breath,
as if the struggle might make the difference.
Your hair was muffled rather than shone by the lopsided streetlights that hid numbers
of discovery from our steadfast gaze.
A crowd of ancient houses stood upon
ground willing to hold the Poet's birth-place--
but there was no shrine to state his glory,
no proof that he ever drew a whale's breath
in a city I would curse if your face
had not pricked radiation's hold on skin
that loosened hair upon pillows like chaff.
We stroked through the lake beside an angel
who healed with a beat of wings light as stone.

Racing for governor. . .

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article (at least to me, as a woman who votes) called, "A Tug of War for Women's Votes in Race for the Governor." It details the rise of Women Power in Virginia politics since the 1980s.

1989 was when gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell wrote his master's thesis for televangelist Bob Roberts' Regent University stating basically that women should confine their power to what...powering their dust cloths? He was 34 at the time, already married.

Twenty years is a long time in a person's life. I, personally, have changed drastically in how I act, relate to others, and go about my business in the last two decades. I like to think that change has been for the better. I'm not sure, however, that I've changed how I think all that much. Or that I've changed my core beliefs and values.

As the Post article points out, Bob McDonnell has not refuted the beliefs he expressed in 1989, but rather sought to distance himself from them. To me, as a life-long professional woman, there's a worrisome difference between refutation and distancing when it comes to someone telling me what I should and should not be doing because of my sex.

This thesis-business has set me to wondering what should matter and shouldn't in a political campaign. Virginia has so many pressing problems in the here and now--transportation, transportation, transportation, to name three. Should we be worrying about what a twenty-year-old master's thesis says about a candidate's core beliefs? Or should we just stick to reading position papers that address our state's current difficulties?

Anybody got something to say about that?
Programming note: For those who read this blog regularly, I wanted to let you know that Jessica Penner's story will run tomorrow. (I wish there was more than one of me, but there just isn't!)

Aye me, as Juliet said on her balcony. So much interesting stuff here in WMRA Land, so few hours in the day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thoughts on a "slow news day ". . .

Yesterday morning, NPR made it an official "slow news day" by e-mailing station reporters that the newscast needed stories; not the shows (Morning Edition, All Things Considered) but the newscasts--those five minutes of spot news we hear at the top (and, sometimes, the bottom) of most hours during the day.

The NPR newscast unit operates separately from the news shows. The newscast unit's mission is to keep us up-to-date with what's going on during the day--some of which turns out to be not that important in the general scheme of things; some of which gets covered in greater depth by the news shows. For example, when Norman Mailer died, that was reported on a newscast, but Mr. Mailer's life and career were then thoroughly examined on the next Morning Edition or All Things Considered.

The newscast unit is another example of NPR working efficiently and effectively as a network of stations. If I hear about something happening in the WMRA listening area that I think has national news interest, I can do one of two things: 1)pitch it to a desk editor for development as a feature story; or 2)call the newscast unit and ask if they would like a "spot" for the newscast. If either unit says yes, then I work directly with an NPR editor in my reporting of the story.

For example, when then-candidate Obama came to Harrisonburg last year, NPR's Don Gonyea, who was traveling with the campaign, did the feature on his visit. But Tom DuVal and I, who were there to cover the event for WMRA, hooked Don up with JMU Political Science professor Bob Roberts, who put Obama's visit in historical perspective, Virginia-ly speaking, which (according to a note I got from Don) made the national piece.

I, however, did the NPR newscast spots, which meant I hustled back to the station after the event, wrote and voiced a couple of 45-second wraps (me talking, sound from the event, me talking), and then sent them to NPR over the internet. After that I went to work putting together a feature piece for WMRA's Morning Edition.

About that "sound from the event" that shows up in a news spot. When I'm spotting news, I look for a different kind of sound (called actuality in broadcast news speak) then I do for a feature piece. In spot news, I don't have much time, so I want sound that will take you directly into the heart of what's happening, rather than sound that will allow you to inhabit a story at the more leisurely pace offered by an in-depth feature.

The point I'd like to make is that, in my opinion, NPR has developed quite a brilliant system for reporting all the news that's fit to listen to!

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's hard to debate experience . . .

I'm currently editing a WMRA's "One Person's Voice" segment that I hope (do cross your fingers, please) will be ready to air during Wednesday's Morning Edition. It is the story of Jessica Penner, a young woman who's been dealing with Ollier's disease (bony tumors that affect limb growth) since she was a small child.

First and foremost, Jessica's is a story of courage, remarkable resilience, and a seemingly indestructible sense of humor. But it's also a story of the power insurance companies currently exercise over doctors' ability to prescribe treatments.

There's probably no more contentious issue in both Washington and our communities at this moment than health care reform. It's that rare issue that is both national in scope and personally important. The bills before Congress are terribly complex; indeed the central, broad-brush issue involved is terribly complex: What should be the role of government in maintaining our individual well-being?

I'm a reporter, not a pundit. It's not my job to lecture; it's my job to tell stories. I have long thought, however, that the best way to understand a complex issue is to first do the hard work of educating oneself on what's involved, and then to filter that information through the lens of actual experience.

A lot of the health care debate hinges on whether or not privately-run insurance companies do the best job possible of safe-guarding their policy-holders' health. I've never had to turn my life over to an insurance company, but Jessica Penner has. To me, that makes her experiences as relevant to the debate as the wisest words of the wisest policy wonk in the world.

Programming note: Virginia Insight (today at 3 pm) addresses an important health care issue, the ethics of human research trials. Tom Graham's guest will be Robin Fretwell Wilson, J.D. - Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University, and co-editor of the new book, Health Law and Bioethics: Cases in Context.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The end of a useful life and addressing my only shortcoming. . .

Distinguished U.Va. scholar and Jefferson historian, Merrill Peterson, has died.

On a personal note, he's a big part of the reason I'm in Virginia, for my first husband came to U.Va. to do graduate work in history. And Dr. Peterson's work on Jefferson--or Mr. Jefferson, as was really de rigueur in those days--was the maypole around which history scholarship danced at those days. I can remember going to Monticello for the first time, and, thanks to Merrill Peterson, feeling that I inhabited the place rather than visited it.

It's interesting for me to think about one person's professional life pretty much being dedicated to the study of another person. It seems, somehow, the essence of humility.

To change subjects completely, a listener I know only as Paula sent a nice note in response to the general e-mail Tom DuVal sent out about this blog. Paula, who said she doesn't usually have anything to do with blogs, had given this one a try and found it pleasant reading. She then, in polite and gentle parenthesis, had this to say:
(One small suggestion--in the interest of protecting the written language from "confusing convention chaos" (my term for the clash of old habits and spellings with newer or simplified codes)--plurals should not be indicated with an apostrophe plus s -- i.e. lose the apostrophe, save it for possessive case only)
I wrote Paula back immediately to say that although I know better, I can never quite get my mind into exacting enough gear to catch all my own miss-types. And could I use her e-mail as a way to admit this publicly? She graciously said yes, and so I hereby publicly acknowledge what Paula recognized as my great need for an editor.

By the way, my mother, who taught English at UNC-G, began pointing out my need for an editor to me as soon as I could write. I just wanted to let you know that Tom DuVal now has the means to go in behind me and clean up my blog posts. If you read a post that has typos in it (despite, I assure you, my own best efforts), it's because Tom has had other things to do and hasn't gotten around to WMRA blog housekeeping as yet.

Indeed, public radio is a team effort. In all its aspects. Thanks, Paula, for the push to address what I'm sure is my only shortcoming. . .

Friday, September 25, 2009


Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, Harrisonburg resident and a chaired W & L Law School professor, had a busy day yesterday. He came to the station at 11 in the morning to be interviewed by NPR's Planet Money team about the economics of health care. After that he went to Clementine Cafe, a restaurant in downtown Harrisonburg, to chair an open meeting on the same subject. This morning he has an Op-Ed piece in Harrisonburg's newspaper, the Daily News Record. The subject again was the economics of health care reform.

Professor Jost knows what he's talking about. So it strikes me that, although you may certainly disagree with Professor Jost's conclusions, the depth of his knowledge and experience with health care mandates that your disagreement be backed-up by reliably-sourced facts.

The on-line Washington Post has a "Discussions" blog/column on the National Football league aptly called "The League." (Okay, I've been an unabashed--and long-suffering--Redskins fan since childhood, and I do read the sports section right after the headlines.) Today, the question asked by "The League" is this: Should NFL stars like Brendon Ayandabejo, who supports same-sex marriage, feel obligated to keep opinions private? In other words, can the bully pulpit of fame be regulated by the National Football League?

The free speech issue involved in this seems pretty clear, don't you think? As American citizens we're all entitled to say what we please as long as we don't break the law. And in this case, it actually is interesting and brave to me that a man from the macho world of football (and a line-backer, at that!) would support gay marriage. However, it did set me to wondering about the attention we, as a society, pay to celebrity opinion in a national debate as compared to the attention we pay to informed opinion such as Professor's Jost. If Mr. Ayandabejo made the statement that health care reform is just another government plot to take our freedom, would we give his opinion as much credence as we give Professor Jost's, just because Mr. Ayandabejo is famous?

Long, long ago, when I was a Charlottesville TV talk show host, I asked Peter Taylor, arguably one of our finest southern literary writers, to be my guest on the show. Mr. Taylor said he'd be delighted to do a reading, but that he'd be uncomfortable doing much talking about himself or anything else. He was a fiction writer and a teacher, he said, which did not qualify him to rant about life or politics or world affairs.

As a young man, Peter Taylor went on, he'd gone to hear Robert Frost speak. Frost's poetry, he said, had opened worlds of thought and feeling and seeing that had not been open to him before. But instead of going deeper into those worlds, Robert Frost had loosed on his audience a vitriolic right-wing harangue. Peter Taylor said he'd vowed right then that, if he ever became well enough known as a writer to be asked to speak, he wouldn't. Seemed admirable to me then, and it still seems admirable to me now.

The point I'm making in this long-winded fashion, is that fame is not really a credential for speaking out about anything other than what one is famous for. Yet fame easily draws us more pedestrian souls into its orbit. And now that everyone -- including yours truly and every celebrity on the planet -- is blogging and posting and twittering on the internet, I just think we need to be extra vigilant about whom we're hanging out with; about whom we're listening to; about whose information and, even more importantly, whose opinion we accept as valid.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on thinking. . .

At the moment, my for-pleasure reading is a 1998 Jane Smiley novel called The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which I purchased for a dollar at Book Savers in the Gift and Thrift Shopping Center. The story is set in the Kansas Territory during the turbulent 1850's--the time of the violent Kansas border wars. On page 92, I came across a passage that made me both chuckle and think about the current political derisiveness that swirls around our newish president.

In Ms. Smiley's novel, our heroine's sisters are talking about Marian, a cousin who's moved away to teach the children of freed slaves. Marian is, needless, to say an ardent abolitionist, and our heroine's sisters--who like to confine conversations to discussions of the goings on in their own backyards--find their cousin heavy going conversationally. Here's the passage.
I don't know why she brings these ideas into the family! You sit down to supper and there's ideas there; and then you get up in the morning and make the tea, and there's ideas again. It makes you feel all outside of yourself, looking out the door of your own house, that you look out of a hundred times a day, but there's ideas making it look all different. There's no comfort in it, I'll tell you that!"
Yesterday, as I was intermittently listening to President Obama address the United Nations, I found myself thinking about Cousin Miriam, because it occurred to me that this president--just like cousin Marian--talks about ideas. And by talking about ideas, he's demanding that we think deeply about what he's saying instead of just reacting to it (as we could if he'd just lighten up and stick to talking points!)

Wow! What a lot of hard work President Obama expects us to do! Has he got a lot of nerve or what? There's no comfort in it, I'll tell you that!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NPR is coming! NPR is coming!

Russell Lewis, the NPR Southern Bureau Chief, is visiting WMRA today. And it's not just because we're a fun bunch of people to visit (which we are--at least to the extent that we all enjoy each other's company, at least). It's because of the canny way that NPR does the news business.

There are five (I think) regional bureaus in the country, each with a bureau chief. The bureau chief's job is to be the go-between between the stations' news departments and NPR national news. When reporters anywhere in the South are working on news stories they think have national interest, they send Russell a note. If he agrees that a story translates well to a broader audience, then he becomes that story's hands-on editor for national broadcast.

I, personally, have never done a story with Russell. I've been reporting on books and publishing so long, I've been grand-mothered into a direct report to an arts and culture editor on the national desk. But I've found Russell to be extraordinarily efficient, accessible and pleasant to deal with. I have never, ever sent him a note to which I haven't gotten a prompt response. Which I, frankly, find amazing.

From my perspective, Russell Lewis is very, very good at his job, in that he makes any reporter who works for an NPR station feel an active part of NPR central. Which means that you, as a listener, get to hear about everything from the South that's worth hearing about.

Welcome, Russell!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What goes into an overnight turn-around . . .

Former President and Mrs. Carter have come, spoken, and gone. And it was my job to do a short distillation of what Mr. Carter said for Morning Edition. So, about 5:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, draped in press credentials, loaded down with equipment, I headed over to JMU's Convocation Center to set up.

This was a pretty straight-forward reporting situation. We had a mult-box (short for what? multi-function box? multi-purpose box? anyone else know?). This meant I could simply run a cord from my recorder directly into the sound system and be assured of having good sound quality. (Except that this hook-up developed a slight hum, which, sadly, no one could get rid of.)

So, anyway, by 6 o'clock, I had run my cord, plugged in, tested the connection, and sat myself down to spend a pleasant hour chatting with my fellow reporters (Channel 29 on my right, Staunton News-Leader on my left).

The ceremony began promptly at 7 with a procession, followed by introductory speeches, and several lovely songs. About 7:45, the Carter's were presented with the Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award. Then it was time for Mr. Carter's speech, and so time for me to go to work logging tape. This involves keeping my headset firmly on my head and staring at the counter on my recorder so that I can take accurate notes about when Mr. Carter said what. Doing this meant that once I got back to the station, I could pull the sections of his speech I wished to use without having to go back and listen to the whole speech again.

Once the speech was over, I sat in traffic like everyone else, glad that I'd remembered to stick a water bottle in the car. Logging tape is thirsty work.

Back at the station, I pulled my actualities (the parts of the speech I want to include in the story), wrote my script, voiced my script in the studio, and then transferred both the actualities and the pieces of script (call trax) into Adobe Audition (sound-editing software) multi-track file on my computer. Then it was just a matter of fiddling around with placement, fading in and out, and adjusting levels. Around midnight, I pressed the magic mixing icon on my computer and voila! a story emerged.

I love these overnights. I have to focus, push myself, battle fatigue, and just keep going until I'm done. Of course, I probably wouldn't love them as much if I had to do them all the time.

By the way, if you couldn't hear President Carter in person last night, I posted his entire speech at

There! It's 12:53 Tuesday morning and I'm going home.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Someone else's cultural comfort zone . . .

When my daughter, Lizzie, was around eight, she saved up her tiny allowance to present me with a subscription to Cosmopolitan. Absolutely touched and pleased, I was also a bit baffled.

"Why Cosmopolitan," I asked, having always thought of myself as a Harpers/New Yorker type.

"Because," Lizzie said, "You're always reading it in the grocery store."

Mordre, as Chaucer said, wol out. Especially if an 8-year old daughter's got her eye on you.

Anyway, that is the reason why I read (and enjoyed) every issue of Cosmopolitan magazine for one year. Including an article that changed the way I understand such feelings as love, stability and security.

It was an article, I'm sure, about relationships. And it made the point that whatever emotional construct you grow up around is what feels comfortable when you grow up. So, if you grow up around stability and peace, the adult you feels culturally comfortable with that. But, if you grow up in chaos, the adult you gets nervous when things are too quiet, too peaceful, too stable.

On the morning of Nobel Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter's visit to speak to us about peace in the Middle East, I've been thinking again about that article in Cosmopolitan. I think we Americans (and I'm certainly talking about myself when I say this) assume way too often that other cultures are as comfortable with stability and peace as we are. And we forget that it takes at least a generation of people living with the absence of war and chaos to turn peace and stability into that culture's comfort zone.

Mr. Carter, being Mr. Carter, I'm certain never loses sight of this. He's never struck me as arrogant, or macho, or self-righteous in his approach to cultural differences. But he also seems pretty clear that to be at peace is a better way for anyone and everyone to be than what the Arabs and Israelis have going on at the moment.

I'm looking forward very much to hearing him speak. Even though it means I shall be up most of the night, reporting on it for WMRA's Morning Edition.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Presidents and blog housekeeping

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter will be in Harrisonburg on Monday to accept the Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award. The former president will speak to us in the Convocation Center, the same room in which now-President Barack Obama addressed us last fall. Before that, you have to go back donkey's years in Harrisonburg's history to find a presidential visit. And now we're having two presidents come and speak to us within a year.

Former President Carter's topic will be Middle East peace, something with which this brave, quiet-spoken man has involved himself for a long, long time. An uptick of tension in the situation there was caused just a few days ago by a new United Nations report, which makes his visit astoundingly timely. ( Study Israel&st=cse).

It is perhaps the most complex, volatile situation our world has to deal with, and one of the major players in the quest for peace there is coming to Harrisonburg to talk about it. I am agog, amazed, in awe at James Madison University's Gandhi Center for allowing us an opportunity to hear Jimmy Carter speak on this subject at this critical time.

Amazingly (to me) I think there are still tickets. You'll find a link to getting some for yourself at

Housekeeping note: I think this blog will now take anyone's comments. If you try to post and still have trouble please drop me a note at

Friday, September 18, 2009

Death be not uninformed . . .

Death's been in the news a lot lately; not just because of the people who have died (which people do all the time), but because of the questions the health care reform debate has raised raised about how we, the living, can best deal with fact that we, too, will someday cease being.

First of all, rest assured, it will happen. And in my opinion, as a lady of a certain age, death is not anything to get all hett up about. It's simply part of life. Although we cannot know for certain what happens after it, we can certainly understand what will happen during it, if we wish to. And one provision, long gone, of health care reform bills was to make such knowledge readily and affordably available to each of us.

I, for one, am baffled by what happened to the discussion of this provision--where did the term "death panels" come from, for Pete's sake? Did some political speechwriter come up with that just for its shock value; just to prey on the minds of people who are uninformed and wish to stay that way?

I have long held the best way to offer up your opinion in a contentious debate is to attach it to a personal story. It advocates without preaching; informs us and enlarges our experience, without advocating any particular conclusion. Today's essay on the Civic Soapbox about end-of-life decisions is a prime example of this.

In case you missed it, here's a link to it on our website.
And here's to Tim Hulbert for his personal generosity in telling it to us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The fragility of hope . . .

Yesterday, while driving back from Charlottesville, I got behind a big, black SUV that sported this command on its bumper: OBSTRUCT CHANGE: SAVE AMERICA. This, just nine months after we'd inaugurated a president who was elected because America wanted change.

I do have to say it saddened me to see that bumper sticker. I had so hoped we'd moved out from under the tyranny of slogans; moved beyond an acceptance of "speak" over substance; moved away from the allure of knee-jerk opposition based on political allegiance. I had hoped, since we'd elected an obviously deeply thoughtful president, that we as citizens would be willing to think a little deeper ourselves.

Instead, it seems to me that although Karl Rove may be gone, he's left us bewitched, for I see his assault style of politics everywhere. Or maybe its just that knee-jerk oppositionists are just so loud that they drown out those who wish to engage at a softer level.

So, where has all our hope gone? I don't buy that we're such impatient people that we expected President Obama to straighten out the gargantuan mess his government inherited in only nine months? Why is a president who tackles health care reform, ethical issues in the age of terrorism, wall street regulation, and diplomatic relations with Iraq and Cuba, being talked of as non-confrontational. Is it because he didn't yell back at Joe Wilson?

An awful lot of people I talk to seem what? cowed? depressed? disheartened? by the new administration's performance. All that inaugural hope seems to have evaporated.

Why, exactly, is that? Anyone got any ideas?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ned Studholme's chimes in . . .

Note: Ned sent this to me in an e-mail and I found it an interesting addition to the health care debate. Several of you have let me know that you've had trouble posting comments, so I wanted to say that if that happens, you're welcome to send comments directly to me at and I'd be happy to post them for you.

Ned Studholme's way to reform health care: I would like to suggest a compromise insurance based program that is likely to meet the requirements of both sides of the health care debate. This compromise is based on the simple notion that it is appropriate for the federal government to initiate and operate programs that manage the types of .risk that can have a catastrophic effects on individual citizens. Within our domestic health care industry, this is addressed as major medical and/or catastrophic health insurance.

Because this type of insurance involves covering the costs of extremely expensive medical events that have a very low risk of occurring, premiums are high and the benefits of coverage are rarely enjoyed by the consumer. The suggested compromise involves full participation of the federal government in this, and only this, segment of the market. The entire remainder of the health care insurance market would be left to the private sector.

The federal program would simply cover all medical and Rx costs for every citizen that exceed 20% of annual income, using the definitions of households and dependents in the existing tax code. In this manner, a family with an income of $100,000 per year would be covered for everything over $20,000 per year, and a family earning $30,000 would have a $6000 medical ceiling.

Any additional insurance would be up to the individual. If insurance from the private sector is desired, the premiums would be driven down sharply because the required coverage would be truncated where the federal coverage takes over.

Savings to the consumer would accrue from the lower cost of private insurance, and to the taxpayer because Medicare rates would apply to all of the federal coverage. The biggest savings would come from the fact that the federal government would be taking on no more risk than the private sector does today, but would not need to charge a premium
for that risk.

In addition, no new federal entity would need to be created to manage the program, as it would become part of the normal private sector practice to determine eligibility and to forward the bills when the ceiling was reached.

Finally, the costs to the consumer and/or taxpayer can be fine tuned simply by sliding the suggested 20% ceiling up or down to define the risk limits falling into the private sector market.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Taking a break. . .

I grew up in a neighborhood of all boys--except for one girl who lived across the street and liked to play dolls and dress-up and other girlie stuff. As a tomboy, I fought (sometimes, alas, literally) my way into various games of  football, baseball, and cowboys. Is that why I grew up grooving on competition? Who knows? Who cares? All I know for certain is that if give me a good sporting event to watch, or in which I can participate, and I am a happy woman.

Last night was sports fan nirvana. First Juan Martin del Potro upset  and unseated the reigning king of tennis, Roger Federer in five sets. Then pro-football quarterback Tom Brady, after being sidelined for an entire year by an injured (and subsequently infected) left knee, lead the New England Patriots to a one-point victory over the surprisingly tough Buffalo Bills. Scoring 14 points in the last 2-or-so-minutes, no less. Brady, evidently, is baaaaack!

I was for both of last night's winners, but that's incidental. The joy of sports for me is that I get to divide what's happening into good people and bad people. There are no nuanced feelings, no even-handedness demanded of me. So for  a few hours last night, I was a partisan. It was soooooo intellectually and psychologically restful.

This morning, rested and refreshed from an exercise in non-irresponsible partisanship, I turned on Morning Edition, and listened to  nuanced explorations of racism in politics, the water supply in Los Angeles, the war in Afghanistan and assorted international fiscal dis-ease with a clear head and a rested heart. I had gotten any need for partisan wallowing out of my system watching sports last night. Now, I'm ready to think again, to attempt to understand all sides, to listen. In short, I'm ready  to accept the inconvenient truth that citizenship is not a partisan experience. And that I'm an irresponsible citizen if I treat it as such.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday morning, coming down. . .

In case you missed Maureen Dowd's latest column in The New York Times, here's a link to it:   

Racism resurgent in America?

Obama as an Other?

I've studied the Tea Party pictures that I've been able to find, and I have yet to see a person of color in them. The rhetoric coming out of these gatherings seems to me to be reactive and fearful. I'm assuming these are good people, confused as I am, by economic forces at play that they don't understand; but that, rather than taking the time to educate themselves and address hard reality, the tea partiers, for the most part, are simply unleashing verbal blasts of discontent. 

So today, I'd like to know what you think: Does the color of our brainy president's skin have anything to do with the level of anger in the protests against health care reform?

What do you think?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Shared Story

Martha's note:
 This sweet story about an Ombudsman going the extra mile came this week in an e-mail note from Elysse Thiery, who's publicist for Charlottesville's JABA (Jefferson Area Board for the Aging)--an organization that, in my opinion, does a lot of quiet good. The job description of a JABA Ombudsman states that they will work with patients, their families and their facilities to protect that patient's rights. Ombudsman Eleanor Kroeger obviously thought her job as an Ombudsman entailed a bit more.

I am cheered by stories of small kindnesses and thought you might be as well, so I asked and got permission to post Eleanor's story. And I left the JABA contact informatin at the bottom in case you should feel moved to get involved.

Have a lovely weekend, all. Keep those radios tuned to WMRA, our public radio station!
Eleanor's Story
On a visit to my nursing home, I found that the wife of a resident was having a particularly difficult day. Her husband had recently suffered yet another stroke and the doctor informed her that his condition had definitely declined. She sat in his darkened room and was crying. I sat with her awhile then asked her if there was something I could do for her. I asked her, “How about a cup of tea? That always helps me when I am upset. I like it with a slice of lemon, how about you?”

The lady, a British war bride of many years ago, looked at me and said, “You Yanks don’t know how to make a proper cup of tea.”

I excused myself and headed toward the nursing supervisor’s office. I told her that his lovely woman would really like a “proper cup of tea.” I suggested that a plastic-foam cup and a tea bag were not what I had in
mind. The nurse stood right up and said to follow her downstairs to the kitchen storage room. There she produced a lovely china tea service, which we quickly assembled complete with a charming cup, saucer, milk pitcher, sugar and a small plate of cookies, along with boiling (not merely hot) water.

I took the tray back to the room and asked the lady if she would be so kind as to teach me how to make a “proper cup of English tea.” She took the service and proceeded to show me how to make and serve the tea. We drank two cups and had a nice chat. She mentioned where her home was in England and it so happened my husband and I had visited that town while we were on a tour of England. It gave her great pleasure and for
just a few moments she was home again.

I thanked her for her kindness and left. As I walked away from her room I had the feeling that even if I could not help him, I had helped her that day.

To learn more about the Volunteer Ombudsman program contact Beth Hochstetler, Volunteer Ombudsman Specialist, at 817-5271 or email her at

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Soula's Pictures

Talking with Soula Pefkaros made me feel more hopeful about the world. She is young, talented, and willing to do what she can to further the reach of peace and justice in the world. As part of this, she's become passionate about eco-farms and has gone all over the country taking pictures of these small, efficient, colorful, healthy places. I put together a "One Person's Voice" out of our conversation that will run tomorrow at 6:35 and 8:35.on WMRA's Morning Edition  I encourage you to tune in, as I think she will probably make you feel hopeful, too.

A week ago, I went to the opening of her eco-farming pictures in the gallery of Clementine Cafe. The large room was crowded with people who looking at her many photographs, eating food grown by the folks she'd photographed, even demonstrating an eco-farm mulching practice. An artistic celebration of ecologically-friendly food production. Since art reflect's life, then perhaps, as the Beatles sang 40 years ago, it really is getting better all the time.

The show's up through the month of September. I warn you though, it will make you want to go out and plant things. But then, it's really not too late to stick some kale seeds in the ground . . .

What's possible . . .

I'm listening to Morning Edition as I post, to one of the Blue Dog Democrat's saying this: "The art of politics is compromise; what's possible."

Governance in this country is achieved through political maneuvering. To reform health care, President Obama must be a political animal. Last night, both columnists conservative David Brooks and liberal Mark Shields said on PBS "The News Hour" that Barrack Obama had not only made his case for health care reform well, but had made his best speech as president. High praise indeed from a couple of well-respected political pundits.

What President's up against  in the political arena, however, was demonstrated by the (mostly) sour looks on the faces of Republican members of Congress, the infamous outburst by South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's puzzling post-speech  statement, “There's a bipartisan agreement on the need for reform. (But) he set up a false choice between a massive government takeover or no reform at all. Frankly, that isn't the choice.”

So, my fellow WMRAers. What do you think? Not so much about health care reform, as about President Obama's political chops. Does he have the level of political skill and toughness necessary to get a bill achieving health care reform through Congress?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tonight's Speech

Well, it's hard to work in public radio and blog about anything else today. Or read The New York Times or The Washington Post, both of which have significant pre-speech coverage on the front page above the fold.

My hope is that all of us will do tonight exactly what our first grade teachers told us to do so often: Sit still and listen. We owe it to ourselves and our families to be apolitically curious about what our President has to say tonight; to be open-minded in our consideration of what health care reform really means.

My questions are, how did health care become a partisan issue? Why would anyone want to spread misinformation about the current attempt to improve a system that's pretty obviously run amuck? What's wrong with open-minded consideration of the reform options that are on the table? What's to be gained by making people who would probably benefit tremendously from health care reform, afraid of it?

Those are serious questions. Anyone got any serious answers?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What's in a class name?

Alice Araujo has invited me to do a personal essay workshop tonight with her interpersonal communication class at Mary Baldwin College. I'm delighted to do it, but feeling slightly challenged by the name of the class. Communicate interpersonally. Hmmmm.

My take on the best way to do that has certainly changed over the years.

I used to think you could benefit greatly simply by knowing what I think. I'd offer up my opinion at the drop of a feather, thank-you (no need, at all your you to go hat-less). I'd  lob what I think about any subject into any conversation, my conclusion offered unencumbered by source, experience, or any other attribution. I guess I thought you'd value my opinion simply because I'd opened my mouth and spoken. Looking back, I seem to have considered myself an Every-I, an Uber-I, right up there in wisdom with  those politicians who deliver their own opinions after such phrases as "The American People want . . ." or even (Yahweh help us) "God wants. . ."

I had met the enemy and it was me, for I well remember the roaring rebelliousness this kind of Elder Wisdom wrought inside me as a kid. Why were my opinions less valid than grown-ups',I'd demand to know, simply because grownups are old?

And then--just for a short while, I hope--I became that same kind of grown-up. Yuck!

Luckily, however, I began working in public radio and writing print essays, both of which rely heavily on story-telling. And these experiences lead me to realize that we don't learn anything very useful by telling each other what we think--wisdom is something each of us has to accrue on our own. But we can, I believe, usefully tell each other our stories (both actual and intellectual); thus giving others the same opportunities we've had  to deepen our awareness of ourselves and our world..

So tonight, I'll be talking to those Mary Baldwin students about story-telling--using some of my own essays to make my points; 500 words that communicate not just what I think, but how I came to think it. And during the day, today, I'll be editing a segment of my "One Person's Voice" series for Morning Edition later this week bringing you the voice if a young woman photographer on a mission.

She's three-and-a-half decades younger than I am. And I learned a lot from her story.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Terry's Back!

Sadly, things were significantly less quirky around the WMRA studios for  three months, whileTerry Ward' was on family/medical leave. Yes, as a colleague, he's just as he is on the air: very funny in an endearingly odd sort of way.

For example: My office is known for its clutter and collection of Diet Cheerwine cans. Growing up in a punitively neat house, I just seem to function better as an adult in a rat's nest of paper, files, books, faxes, African violets, family photos, and old press credentials. Way back, when we were still in the old building and Martha Stewart was poised to go to jail, I came into work one morning to find the banner from a Newsweek cover taped over my door. "Martha's Mess" it said. Terry's work. I laminated it and it still sits on my desk as my nameplate.

Terry also stuck a sticker that says "wild" on my hall nameplate. As a woman of a certain age, I found that endearing and have yet to take it down. I say, if you can't have a few office hi-jinks, why go to work?

Terry, I'm do happy to report, is now back at work, changed, as you've probably noticed, from hosting "Morning Edition" to hosting "All Things Considered." He and the wonderful artist, Mia LaBerge, also serve as WMRA art exhibit curators/hangers. They'll be hosting an opening this Friday at the WMRA studios for artist Artist Jauan Brooks. Do hope you'll stop by.

And do hope you'll check out my hall nameplate while you're here. My office door will be closed. Don't want Martha's Mess to overpower the art . . .

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Supremes at work . . .

I am a confessed political junkie, so this caught my eye in today’s Washington Post.

More than 100 years of restrictions on corporate support of political candidates will be at stake next week when the Supreme Court considers whether a quirky case about a film denouncing Hillary Rodham Clinton should lead to a rewrite of the way federal elections are financed.

In an unusual hearing in the midst of their summer recess, the justices will decide whether to move beyond the particulars of "Hillary: The Movie" to more profound questions about the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and how that squares with political spending.

The justices will consider casting aside previous rulings that uphold laws restricting corporate support of political candidates.

The court ruled in 1990 that corporations, because of their "immense aggregations of wealth," possessed a unique ability to drown out the voices of individuals in the nation's political conversation. That precedent was reinforced in 2003 when the court upheld the federal campaign finance law that limits the electoral influence of corporations, unions and special interest groups. . .

I'm a reporter, so I'll refrain from expressing my political opinions on our blog, but I’m curious about what your take is on the Roberts’ Court's future effect on how this country goes about its business.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My husband, Charlie, has a habit . . .

of picking up any old book (and there are hundreds)lying about and reading it. This morning he picked up Webster's Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys and Girls, revised 1956. It had belonged first to his older sister, Carol Anne, and then to him. And Charlie, being Charlie, had hung on to it, boxing it up, unpacking it, over a score of moves.

He came in just now to read me the first entry in the "New Words" section. It was "A-bomb." The third new word was "ack-ack" (an antiaircraft gun; also the noise of said guns). Down the line was "airsick."

It struck me rather forcibly that one can't come up with a better way to reflect cultural shifts than the shifts in that culture's language. In 1956, boys and girls needed to accept the existence of bombs and airplanes. Later in the "New Words" came bebop, bucket seat, calypso, cloverleaf, flying saucer. . . You get the idea.

Just for fun, I looked up today's new words (as listed in Webster's Collegiate). Among them, I found "mouse potato," (is that visual or what?), "drama queen," "big-box," "gastric bypass," "acquascape." Which says to me, as a culture, we're tending to be glued to our computers, indulgent of our emotions, either uncreative or bargain hunters as consumers, riddled with obesity,and more aware of what's under water.

Anyone who's been in an essay, journaling, or blogging workshop with me, knows I listen to (and now work in) public radio in large part because I love the respect public radio has for language—how carefully it pays attention to words, those ever-evolving reflections of reality. Story edits are all about exact word choices—because choosing one word over another, even when the difference in meanings is very subtle, can monkey around significantly with accuracy.

Our culture is ever-changing. Our language has to change with it, don't you think, or else we loose the ability to communicate with each other about reality; about exactly what is going on in this sweet old world.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Post, the first!

I've spent the last couple of weeks immersed again in the world of publishing, on assignment for NPR. I was looking into the relationship between traditional and internet publishing. Out of those weeks came two stories, one that ran on Weekend Edition Sunday on what constitutes a magazine these days —here’s a link if you’re interested— and one for WMRA that addressed the question: Does publishing on a blog constitute “real” publishing?

That story was inspired by a question Anna Marie Johnson asked in one of my essay-writing workshops. She wanted to know if she posted an essay on the workshop’s blog, could she still submit it to a magazine. Three years or so ago, I would have answered “no” with confidence. These days, I realized, I didn’t know. Hence, the WMRA story.

I got the following note in response to that from Sarah O’Conner who teaches Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at JMU that I thought you might find interesting if the world of blogging is a new one for you.

Dear Martha, I enjoyed your piece on blogging but think a couple of distinctions would be useful for your listeners, i.e. publishing vs. self-publishing and refereed vs unrefereed publishing. Blogs are self-published if they have not been vetted by anyone, so a six-year-old can publish a blog about an overnight with a friend just as easily as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author can publish a blog. A blog can be written and published in a matter of minutes, but a book published by Random House goes through a number of readers, editors, and revisions, a process that can take months or even years. Blogging is a very populist, democratic activity, but in the end it is up to the reader to determine quality. The only vetting I know of is certain websites that list best blogs.

So, I’m curious, after the last two weeks mucking around in the world of internet publishing. What do you all think about blogging as a form of communication? Do you think it expands our individual universes or clutters them?

Also, any suggestions on topics you’d like to see discussed in this space are more than welcome!!!