Monday, July 30, 2007


Last week’s subject got some strong responses from my three regular readers. So, this week I’d like to share something about Hungary and attempt to link this cultural note to last week’s debate.
The map above is what Hungary looked like in and around 1900. When that map was current, the Hungarians were doing well. They had recently won something close to autonomy from the Austrians, giving them title credit in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They held sway over a vast amount of territory. There were natural resources, a flourishing art scene, a developing intelligentsia, and there was money.

Then, however, there was World War One. Hungary and her allies lost. That led to the Treaty of Trianon. Through that treaty, the victorious Allies of WWI stripped Hungary of its status as an empire, handed two-thirds of its territory to rival neighbors, and effectively halved the empire’s population.

The nation of Hungary was outraged and humiliated. People here saw Trianon as a slap in the face, a slap that must eventually be answered in kind (thus they joined the Axis in WWII). Hungarian students used to start the day with a prayer appealing to God to reverse the treaty. God declined to do so.

It's been a rough century ever since. Things didn’t get better until very recently.

What stuns me today is the tenacity of many Hungarians’ anger over Trianon. In the streets, I often see bumper stickers in the shape of pre-Trianon Hungary.
This picture is from just outside my apartment building.

There are Hungarians who still believe the territories of Greater Hungary ought to belong to the nation of Hungary.

There are several sticky issues there. First, it is difficult to take back territory that changed hands in an internationally recognized treaty. Second, Hungary has not done much to sooth the often troubled relations it has with its neighbors. Third, Hungary was an Empire when it held those territories. Now it is a nation-state. The antiquated form of government it once used to rule Greater Hungary is no longer a tenable possibility. Forth, and for me the most important, the international systems of governance that are now in place, such as the EU, NATO, the WTO, and the UN, cannot be dismantled or ignored. These institutions would not allow Hungary to take back old territories through negotiations or force.

Still, anti-Trianon sentiments remain strong. The voices have been marginalized, but there are a lot of voices. You see the stickers. You can buy maps of Greater Hungary as a souvenir. It comes up in political speeches. It continues to affect international relations. A couple years back there was even a referendum that would’ve, if passed, offered Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.

The sentiment is very real, but it is misguided.

I don’t want to condemn the concept outright. There is a lot to this that I cannot describe here. Just to scratch the surface, Hungary lost most of its natural resources and has been economically handicapped ever since. Also, ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia have been persecuted, often violently. And of course, there is a lot to national pride and heritage that I cannot understand because my country is so young compared to Hungary.

All that said, calls for the expansion of Hungary are absurd. I choose the word absurd very carefully: Absurd (adj) ludicrous; ridiculous because of being irrational, incongruous, or illogical.

It can’t happen.

So, how does this link to the debate over American health care?

Well, I read a lot of opinions on the great injustice of private health care in the US. The solution often put forward is: “The government should run health care.” That solution, in my mind, is like asking for Hungary's territory back.

1) Like Hungary trying to take land back from its neighbors, it would be very difficult to take health care away from the gigantic industry that has been built up around insurance and hospitals.

2) The American government hasn’t exactly proven itself capable of handling large logistical problems. I imagine the people calling for government health care were not in the post-Katrina Superdome.

3) American political history is one that has resisted socialist reform (for better or for worse). We have little-to-no experience dealing with large scale social programs.

4) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the institutions that are in place now (insurance companies, HMOs, state and federal government) won’t allow the transition.

I like this last one because like the EU, NATO, the WTO, and the UN, the institutions currently in charge of health care are inept and sloppy.

This does not mean there is no way forward. The US government does have a responsibility to its citizens and their health. I firmly believe that. For this reason the federal government should pass firm and unforgiving regulations on any company that makes money providing health care. Here are some rules I'd put in place: doctors and patients decide treatment, everyone is insured, and a percentage of profits must go toward research. Beyond that, offer tax breaks to companies that offer low-cost/no-cost insurance. Give hospitals subsidies for providing preventative care. And bolster the non-profits already out there in the trenches.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I should start by saying I was drunk when I first triggered this series of events. So I'll admit, I probably could have avoided the entire ordeal had I been leading a more conservative lifestyle.

That said, a couple of months ago Dora and I came home after a late night and took the dog out for a walk. On my way down the stairs I cut my hand. The banister in our stairwell is made of metal. A few of the supports have snapped, and one of them caught my palm while I was descending the stairs.

At the time I though nothing of it. The cut was about an inch and a half long, but is was not deep at all. The next day, however, I noticed a stingy pain, not like the pain of a cut. I got to thinking about infections, gangrene, and amputation (I may be a bit of a hypochondriac). After I whined about it for a while, Dora and Lili called their uncle. He's a doctor. He felt I should go see someone, get it looked at, and get a tetanus shot.

This is how I was first exposed to socialized medicine. I want to write about this today because I'm fascinated by the e-debates that “SiCKO” has ignited.

Dora's uncle Peter told us that his brother-in-law was on duty at an emergency room in Ujpest. Peter said he'd call and let the doctor know we were coming. Dora, Lili, and I got in the car and were off to the ER. The hospital looked like a university building, brick and mortar, small entrance, tiny parking lot. We parked across the street in a massive lot serving a complex of panel apartment buildings. Free parking.

Inside we found a older woman in a nurse's uniform sitting in a glass reception box. Dora handed the woman my passport and explained that the doctor would probably be expecting us. That was the case. Even the glass booth lady was expecting us. She gave us some instructions and sent us in the direction of the ER. We walked into the hospital proper. It was a bit confusing. There was no waiting room, no signage, no help desk. There was just a hallway full of people in various states of disrepair, all of them standing and trying to stay out of the way of the occasional rushing paramedic. The lighting was industrial, but not as bright as I'd expect in a hospital. The three of us actually doubled back and asked if we might have taken a wrong turn, but we had been in the right place. We were told to wait there in the hall. My name would be called.

Lili hates hospitals. So right away my empathy nerves are tingling, but a few minutes in that hallway sent me spinning. It is the sight of the sick and injured that gets Lili uncomfortable, but Lili's discomfort was dwarfed by the guy rolled in on a stretcher. He was in a neck-brace and underwear. He had clearly lost a fight with either a big man or a motorcycle. He was lucid, even talking with the accompanying paramedic, but the cuts on his neck and his smashed up face had me a bit embarrassed to be bringing in my little scratch. The other people in the hall were wrapped in red gauze, holding wounded limbs, or displaying open sores. I was taken aback by the the lack of... well, shame. No one seemed ashamed of the rather horrible state they were in.

In my limited experience with US hospitals, it seems to me that the wounded and sick are allowed at least some level of privacy. Even if that privacy is nothing more then their own seat in a waiting room. It was unsettling to be surrounding by peoples' medical problems, but the people out there in the hall didn't appear to think anything of it. I guess it's the norm. I have been told that in most hospitals here, even in private ones, people staying in hospital cannot get a private room. There seems to be a dignity disparity between the US and Hungary there, but I suppose dignity is expensive, and Hungary is not a rich country.

After a short time, maybe ten minutes, I was called into the office. Peter's brother-in-law took a look at my hand. He made me fell better about coming in, told me the cut needed to be reopened and cleaned. I was definitely in need of a tetanus shot. He was worried about my health care status, however. He asked if I had any kind of ID that would suggest I am insured. I pulled out a cardboard card I obtained during the lengthy visa process, and my doctor couldn't have been happier. It was my government-assigned health care number. No one had to work in the gray. I was treated on the books.

The visit, the care, and the shot cost me a total of 300 Hungarian Forints = $1.50 US. That was what we had to pay for the actual tetanus vaccine. Strangely enough, they don't keep tetanus vaccine on-site. Dora and Lili had to run to the pharmacy for a vile of the stuff. I thought that was odd, but I'm not a doctor.

I got the shot in my butt cheek, and the young female nurse seemed a bit embarrassed when she asked me to pull down my pants. Then, less then ninety minutes after we walked in, Dora, Lili, and I walked out. And for the next ten years I can cut myself on all the rusty metal I want. Thanks Hungarian health care.

So whenever I wonder about health care in Hungary – a country that is not on the list of developed nations, a country with a per capita GDP of around $17,000, a country enduring tremendous pressure to reduce government spending – when I wonder why this country chooses to provide health care to all its citizens, I remember those people in the ER enduring what I would think of as embarrassing. Maybe their country can't afford to offer them much in the way of dignity, but their country would be truly ashamed to take away basic health care.

What do you think?

[Even if you don't like Michael Moore, when you have 15 minutes watch this video. The Lou Dobbs Tag at the end is the craziest shit I've ever seen. ]

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Funked Up

During my junior year of college I lived with Dave Burck in a god awful apartment. One night the two of us were smoking cigarettes and listening to an unfamiliar LP, a collection of disco hits. My sister had found the record in a pile of albums left out on a New York City sidewalk. She gave it to me because I was the only person she knew who still listened to vinyl. For the most part, the album was cute singles that failed to impress. Then came “Flashlight” by the band Parliament. I hadn't heard music like that before. Disco music always seemed like candy to me, something of little substance. But that line “Everybody's got a little light under the sun” hit me hard, and the bass in the song didn't obey the rules I had previously associated with dance music. The song seemed to demand a good time. I was awestruck.
I told Dave I thought more people should hear this song, and that's when my mind started spinning. I started talking about creating a new holiday devoted to funk. Dave egged me on. The holiday would be called “Funky New Year.” We would find more of this funk music, and we would celebrate the feeling it created by ringing in the new year every month. I told Dave that when the date and the month were of the same number, July 7th for example, that would signify the Funky New Year. This meant that the night before such a matching date would be Funky New Year's Eve. We would gather people, dance to funk music, we would count down at midnight, and then ring in the funk.
The idea stuck. Over the next year I started collecting albums: Parliament, Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Commodores, Funk Inc., and more. The music strengthened my resolve. When the next academic year rolled around, I was living on my own in a spacious place on the corner of Dayton and Francis. I held the first Funky New Year party on September 8th, 1997. It was a Monday night. It was a raging success. I emptied the living room of furniture, created a dance floor, installed lighting effects, set up the turntable, got a keg of good beer, and welcomed friends and friends of friends. I also wore a dress. During the course of that academic year I held nine Funky New Years. The party became an event, and people spoke highly of the spirit of the celebration. The party's success was largely due to the nature of those in attendance. I was fortunate enough to consort with some shady folks back then. These people brought the appropriate amount of danger and fun into my little apartment. By midnight the place was dark, smoky, drunk, and dancing. Together we struck a chord in each other and got close to the meaning of funk.
I was proud of the parties thrown that year, but I had trouble maintaining the tradition when I moved in with roommates the next year. The Funky New Year fell into disrepair.
This year my younger brother Myles announced his intention to resurrect the Funky New Year. I decided 7/7/7 was reason enough for me to travel back to Wisconsin and help Myles ring in an ultra-funky Funky New Year.
We succeeded in ways that went far beyond any of my expectations.
My folks were good enough to allow us to ring in 7/7/7 at their house, a place built for impressive parties. Those in attendance included several Funky New Year alumni, my brothers and sister, my father, neighbors, old friends, and a lot of new friends (my mom babysat for Courtney and Terry, bless her soul).
We had some live music early in the evening. This music was decidedly unfunky, and it had me a bit nervous. Around 9:30, however, we switched to a mix Myles put together, a special blend that was very much in tune with the funk. He and I started dancing, and after a time, out there in the vanilla suburbs, others got up and joined us.
Somewhere between 9:30 and 10, my brother Drew put on a dress, put his hair in pigtails, and joined us on the dance floor. To some this may sound extreme, but Drew's dress played a key role. People have to free their minds if the Funky New Year is to be successful. The man in a dress helps other people loosen up. And Drew managed to do that in spades. Plus, he was quite striking.
By eleven the dance floor was full, and things didn't let up. At midnight I pressed play on the traditional “Tear the Roof Off The Sucka,” and the most amazing thing happened. Everyone on the dance floor lit a sparkler, in the distance my cousin Brian set off fireworks, the funk rang out, and the crowd went nuts. All was on the one. It was one of those perfect moments that you cannot anticipate but always hope for. Spectacular in the truest meaning of the word.
For that, I want to thank Myles, Drew, Courtney, my folks, Dave Burck, George Clinton, and everyone who has ever attended a Funky New Year.
Stay funky.

Friday, July 06, 2007


I’ve been stateside for a week now. I miss Dora. But I am having a good time.

A flurry of events would best describe my time here so far. Last Friday I saw my brother Drew’s show down in Chicago. “Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical” I liked seeing Drew on stage again, and his girlfriend Steph was fun to see in the lead role - here’s the word I’m afraid to write – but… the show was not something I could rave about. While the performers clearly knew how to make their roles enjoyable, the writing and direction was choppy at best.

If you want to know the real drama you have to go behind the scenes. On Saturday one of the actresses was jacked up on something during the show, and when it came time for a fight between her and Debbie (as played by Steph) the drugged-up actress decided to throw real punches and then head-butt Steph. Steph ended up singing her final number with blood in her mouth.

I, however, was not there that night. I spent the weekend in the North Woods with Myles and my dad. The three of us drove up to Perry’s cabin, where we visited with friends, played sheepshead, hit the casino, swam in the pond (I love saying I ‘swam in the pond’), played washers, and told some great stories. My father finally cleared up the confusion Perry had sown by mis-telling the story of my family dog’s passing. Highway was not buried in our backyard because my dad thought the cremation was too expensive. How Perry ever constructed such a lame-ass ending speaks to how much poorly written television he must watch. My dad’s version was much truer to the real events, and it was considerably funnier. And, yes, Myles did get naked while we were Up North.

Since getting back from that I’ve helped to set off an impressive firework display in the name of Independence, I’ve visited with family and friends, and I hit Summerfest. I was pleasantly surprised at the good times to be had on the lakefront. The park was full of granola, Bob Weir, Rusted Root, Keller Williams, and that’s all you really need to bring out the crunchy side of southeast Wisconsin. After a night with those people, I have to say that they are a pleasant group to share space with. For instance, I tend to use “Excuse me” while shuttling beer through a crowd. This is mostly from my days as a waiter when I often needed a way to tell people to get out of my way. At the concerts last night, however, people took notice of the effort at etiquette. Three actually offered sincere “thank yous” when I said “Excuse me.” They actually stopped me and said how nice it was that I would say that. This is not the response you get at a Deep Purple concert in Budapest (yes I have been to a Deep Purple concert in Budapest). It is not a response you get very often at all. The feeling was very relaxed and free spirited. Lots of dancing. Lots of pot smoke. Lots of skipped showers. I enjoyed the crowd. Although, I eventually snuck off to watch some less-than-granola music. The band Spoon is more in line with what I listen to these days.

The past week has been great, but maybe more importantly it has helped me to define what it is I like about the States. It is not something we can export or enforce. It is not particularly American. It is the intangible something that hangs in the room when people with similar backgrounds and education, yet divergent views and tastes spend time together. Try as I may, that is not something I can get a lot of in Hungary. While I get just as much out of the time I spend with people who do not share my cultural mores, I did miss this feeling. It has been pleasant to wade in it for the past week.