Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Medical robbery

Apparently it’s quite legal to get away with robbery in the United States, at least if you are a health care provider.

I imagine the health care providers don’t see it this way when they send you threatening bills saying you owe tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars. Curiously most of us don’t know we are being robbed. That’s because we naively assume that being legitimate businesses they would not rob us. We assume whatever they put in the amount owed we must owe, so we better open up our wallets and pay up. Payment is always due upon receipt.

Not all health care providers try to rob you, but a lot of them do. When you press them on it, like I did today, they will say it’s a small mistake. However, if you pay their amount due which is more than you actually owe, you are unlikely to hear a thing. They consider it a bonus for services rendered. Thanks! I guess it helps pay for those large country club fees.

Just in case it isn’t clear to you, if you are insured you owe a provider exactly what your health insurer says you owe them. This is usually a copay. Particularly at the start of the year there are deductibles that you have to meet. Thus you end up paying for a lot of it out of pocket anyhow. So near the start of the year, you may owe a $30 copay, and $200 because that’s how much the agreement between your health insurance provider and your service provider specifies. So you may be out of pocket $230 and after you hit your deductible, the next visit is just for the $30 for the copay.

What a lot of health care providers do though is they bill you for the list price of the service. So if their rate for an uninsured person is $300, you will get a bill for $270, which is $300 less the $30 copay. Or maybe you hit your deductible and they will bill you for the $70 and see if you pay up.

This has happened regularly in our household but particularly this year as my wife had an expensive operation in March. Upon release she ended up in the emergency room to deal with a postoperative condition. Blizzards of bills soon arrived, and some arrived a month or two later. There is the surgeon. The hospital. The anesthetist. There were bills for Tylenol and replacing bloody gauzes that needless to say far exceeded the price for similar stuff at the local CVS. Payment was due on receipt, as if I had thousands of dollars of spare cash just lying around. Thank goodness I didn’t pay their ransom demands. In the case of one procedure they said we owed $3000 while the insurance company said we owed $0.

What you owe is what your insurance company says you owe, not a penny more or less. That’s why they send you those statement of benefits. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to play mix-and-match with these dueling statements. Doing it though is critical, unless you are happy to give health care providers gobs of extra money rather than bother to parse through all this stuff.

In our situation with all these disparate bills it was pretty challenging, not to mention frustrating. After a while I moved from frustration to anger. First, how dare they bill us for services beyond what they are legally owed! This should be medical fraud, but I’m betting it’s not simply because I’ve never heard of a case (outside of fraudulent Medicare billings) of providers doing this. It happens all the time! If we are typical, about half of our medical bills make demands for more money than they are entitled to receive.

Second, why don’t they wait until they get a response from the insurance company before sending these bills? Many do of course, but a lot don’t. They just send their ransom demand that they purport to be a set of legitimate charges. What you should do is wait to hear from your insurance company and then send any additional money they say that you owe. It’s not like these providers don’t know we are insured. Every one of them won’t even see you until they get your health insurance information into their system. They even copy my insurance card and license because, you know, I could be a deadbeat.

Third, they bill for all sorts of dubious crap. I went to see a local urologist recently because as a middle aged man I suffer from a temperamental prostate gland. It was a routine visit. I saw the PA (Physician Assistant) instead of the physician. There was no special test this time, no flow test to see how quickly I could urinate. They did test my urine then they did an ultrasound to see how much I retained. They billed not just for the ultrasound but also for “medical supplies”. That was for a dab of that jelly they massage into your skin before the ultrasound. This required me to later write a check for $6 to cover it and also a stamp to mail it. It amazes me that they have the audacity to bill for these minor things and annoys me that my health care provider considers it a valid expense. This is the cost of doing business. Moreover, I was billed as if I saw the physician, not the PA.

Fourth, they don’t like to take no for an answer. A month of so back I got a ransom demand from the physician that saw my wife in the local emergency room. I sent them back a check for what I actually owed, along with a statement from my insurance company saying what I owed. Today they sent me another statement for the difference. It took a call to their billing department (and patiently waiting on hold for a while) before they agreed I didn’t have to pay the amount which I had already documented to them!

I hope you won’t put up with it because all these billing errors/extortions just subtract from your fragile bottom line. It could mean you can’t afford that daily trip to Starbucks or you can’t add that extra principle to your next mortgage payment.

It should go without saying that our current health care system is a really crappy system. It’s great that twenty million people are now insured who weren’t, but doubtless they are going through this crap for the first time too, trying to parse through its pointless complexity. I suspect it costs all but the most vigilant families at least hundreds of dollars a year. Those who need more services are probably paying thousands of dollars unknowingly than they should.

There ought to be a law and maybe there is one. If so, I’d like to see it enforced just once. I can send local investigators plenty of leads.

 
The Thinker

Spending spree

Merrill Lynch has relented. For months they put up hurdles that kept me and my siblings from getting money my father left us. You can read the irritating story here if you want. Sometime in mid June though they seem to have surrendered and the funds bequeathed to us finally started to flow. The last batch arrived on July 1 when about $3000 in cash along with a bunch of mutual funds finally arrived. The only real hang up at the moment is not with Merrill Lynch, but Ally Bank. It has a policy that they won’t give you full credit for deposits over $5000 for five business days. Which means I can’t spend much of that money until later in this week.

I am tempted to go wild with $80K or so suddenly in my accounts. It’s not an enormous amount of money, but it’s by far the biggest windfall I ever received. Before I knew we were going to get money, I thought about simply giving most of it away to a few deserving souls. It would not change our standard of living much.

Yet with the inheritance, if I wanted for the first time in my life I could do something truly ostentatious. I could buy a BMW or take the wife and me on a round-the-world cruise, all guilt free. For better or worse, I’m not wired that way. First things first. About half of the money will be used to pay for the solar panels that were recently installed on our house and to pay off our remaining mortgage balance. Both are wiser uses of Dad’s money. Our mortgage balance wasn’t much, but paying it off will give us a couple hundred dollars more to spend or save every month. If the engineers were right then our solar panels would not only generate clean electricity but also add about $150 a month that we would have sent to the power company instead. Giving the gift that keeps on giving would be the sort of thing Dad would like me do with the money as he was relentlessly practical. Pay yourself first.

While I was comfortable with giving a lot of the balance away, my wife soon professed other plans for Dad’s money. Visions of style danced in her head. Take our furniture, for example. Much of it looks nice, but it’s cheap particleboard on the inside with a laminate on the outside. Until now we had always bought furniture when we needed it and had just what we needed. It sort of matched what we had, but not quite. She quickly developed a plan for part of the money that she executed with deftness and aplomb yesterday. For just under $5000 she bought us some quality solid wood furniture, stuff made so well it’s likely to last longer than we do. These included a new living room sofa and loveseat, a china cabinet, two armchairs for the sunroom and a corner TV stand. The wood furniture is in her favorite color (oak). The furniture with fabric on it will have colors and patterns that look nice with our peach walls, plus will be textured to resist cat claws and treated to deter cat vomit. The only downside is we have to wait about five weeks for it, as it is being manufactured in Virginia and Arizona. I haven’t seen her so excited about a project in at least a dozen years.

This doubtless is only the start. We moved into a new custom home last year but it’s still a work in progress. We have another list right behind the furniture, mostly things we used to have that we threw away or did not come with the house. For example, we need top quality screen doors that will probably set us back $800 or so. The old gas grill was discarded when we moved. We replaced it today and I assembled it just in time to try it out for a Fourth of July barbeque. Thanks Dad. What’s next?

I have had the same set of stereo speakers since 1979. Hey, they sounded excellent. All these years later though, it’s probably time to finally retire them. Our stereo system is early 2000s but the reality of stereo systems today is that they are kind of obsolete. Today it’s about projecting high definition audio and video where you need it in the house now, and streaming most content, sometimes between devices with a Roku or Chromecast stick. We’ll still keep a DVD player but I can see it’s already on the way out while a wider and higher definition TV is probably on the way in. Content will come mostly on demand over the Internet. I am baffled by how to do all this magic and not sure how much of it I want to do, but what seemed unwise before now has become, well, what the heck. Dad’s paying!

I’ve already replaced my desk chair to make it more ergonomic. My desk itself needs to be replaced. Cheap particleboard desks have always worked for me in the past but maybe this time, I’ll replace it with something solid wood. I’m confident if we worked at it we could spend it Dad’s money just on stuff for the house. For example, we skipped an upstairs bath to save money when the house was constructed. I could have one put in. Meanwhile, there are less costly items under consideration. My wife is petitioning me for a new top of the line standalone mixer, as she makes her own bread. What about an awning for the deck? A chair for the front porch? Our dining room table has scratches and the chairs need to be reupholstered. Why not just replace them? Dad’s paying. What about the sort of doodads that people with more money than we have usually have around the house? Like real china in the china cabinet. Sterling silver. Large fake potted ferns in the living room. An eight-foot long aquarium filled with colorful fish. Dad’s paying.

Most of this just doesn’t appeal to me. The stuff that matters is generally my computer, my monitor and a high speed Internet connection. I don’t need or want a fancy car. I don’t want fancy threads: t-shirts and jeans are fine with me. A fun indulgence might be a fancy vacation somewhere, perhaps a return trip to Hawaii. Dad can finance it.

Spending the inheritance should be more fun that this. Saving it should be more fun too. But it feels anticlimactic to me. Money can’t buy love, but someone you love can bequeath you money when they die, as my Dad did. It’s a way to show love, but while it buys real things it still feels somewhat hollow. In reality it means little compared to what I lost and Dad that was you. I would trade it all away for just another hour with you happy, healthy, and chatting about the Washington D.C. that you loved. I only have the memories now.

And a fatter bank account.

 
The Thinker

Happy Fathers Day to me

This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.

So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.

A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.

Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.

I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.

Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.

I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.

Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.

Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.

This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.

 
The Thinker

Stuck in Merrill Lynch beneficiary hell

It sure is nice to inherit some money. Good luck in collecting it, at least at Merrill Lynch.

My father passed away in February 1. Some weeks afterward our stepmother told us we were beneficiaries to some of his accounts. It turned out to be a fair amount of money, considering there are eight of us, roughly $80,000 each. My sister spent a few weeks on the phone with M/L going in circles. Frustrated, she asked me to be the family’s liaison. She still has a job. I am retired.

Sure. Whatever. I’m used to playing the good brother role and I did have the time. And boy it sure takes time if you mean going around in pointless circles. They are clearly loath to let go of Dad’s accounts. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how they could make it any harder to claim money that is rightfully ours.

Over more than thirty years my father had a relationship with “Lee” at M/L, who apparently owns a brokerage under the M/L umbrella. Over the decades a lot of things have happened in this industry. For M/L, already a huge and impersonal company, it meant being acquired by the world’s largest and most uncaring bank: Bank of America. This is something I learned later on. Had I known, I would have taken it as an omen of what was to come.

It sounded pretty straightforward. Dad had about 28% of the funds he wanted to bequeath us in a simple account, a “Cash Management Account” to use the M/L term. The rest were in Roth accounts, which were tax advantaged. So you would think it would be pretty simple: sell any mutual funds in these accounts, divide the totals by eight and cut each of us a check for that amount.

Ha ha! Of course not! The first set of excuses I got when I made my initial queries was, “It’s tax season, we’ll talk to you after April 15.” They were so busy in the M/L office that they can’t be bothered to help us with this, at least not while they have clients that want to give them money rather than take it away. To say the least Molly, the lady I spoke with, was curt. Feeling a bit ticked off a few days later I dialed Lee.

Lee was all sunshine and light, expressed condolences and said this wasn’t that big of a deal. He’d have Molly send me the forms we needed. One ripple was that since the Roth funds were tax advantaged, we might want to set up inherited Roth IRA accounts. Or we could take the money as cash. In any event it’s an inheritance. No taxes to worry about.

So many of us dutifully decided to set up inherited Roth IRAs, a puzzling process to learn about and hard to set up as you need a death certificate. As for that Cash Management Account of Dad’s, my sister sent me the forms she had. They required notarization. It took some time since there are eight of us but we all found notaries. They sent the forms to me. I double checked them and mailed them in as a batch. Given their importance I sent them certified mail so they couldn’t claim they got lost in the mailroom.

A couple of weeks later after hearing nothing I inquired about them. Molly looked at the forms and said, oh, these aren’t the right ones! I pointed her to emails we had gotten saying they were the right ones. Oh, but that’s a Merrill Edge form (a subsidiary of BankAmerica.) They don’t accept that form because they are Merrill Lynch, not Merrill Edge. Somehow I managed to not raise my voice because it was no small matter of time and expense by eight of us to get all these forms signed, notarized and sent in. Okay, I said, what form do we send in then?

Well, there is no form, Molly replied. You write a letter listing the shares you are entitled to, get it notarized and send it in. Do you have a sample? Oh no, we don’t do that. You have to do it. How do we know it will be correct when we send it in? Well, underwriting will tell us if it’s okay. Oh boy, eight of us, all doing individual letters, with numerous back and forth letters, no guidance, until maybe we crank out one they would accept. And no one will get anything until all eight of us do it correctly. So this isn’t going to work. Well, it’s how we do things. After another chat with Lee he agreed as a “special exception” to give us a sample letter with an attached spreadsheet that listed shares and cash we were each entitled to. I guess they expect their clients to hire CPAs to do these things.

Some weeks passed during which Molly went on vacation. Eventually after dodging calls for a few days I got her on the phone. I learned they could not cash out the funds in the Cash Management Account. My father had requested an “equal division”. In their minds it meant we all had to get proportional shares of the mutual funds in the account. They couldn’t just mail us a check. We needed each to have a broker that would take these funds.

After much back and forth I learned that dividing these shares by eight of us meant there were fractional shares left over. Fractional shares could not be passed to us and would have to be sold. We all had to get whole shares. I figured they would want us to send notarized letters saying it was okay to do sell these fractional shares. Surprisingly they let me as my family’s spokesman authorize it. Of course, they could have volunteered this information weeks earlier, but did not. You have to persistently dig for it and if you ask the right question they will give you the right answer. They won’t volunteer anything. God forbid they give you a document that explains the whole process with a simple checklist to follow.

They suggested we all set up Merrill Edge Cash Management Accounts to make it easier to get the money. Of course this also has the advantage of keeping the money inside the Bank of America Empire. So I tasked my siblings to set these up. By this time of course they were spitting nails. The last thing they wanted was some sort of Merrill anything account. But it looked like it could save months or years of runaround, so I requested they each set one up anyhow. They had a contact in their office that was sometimes available who could set these up. Some siblings gave up in frustration when calls to this lady were not returned and called their local office or set one up online.

Molly said that their system wouldn’t show them our Merrill Edge account numbers unless their office set them up. I assumed she was going to complete the draft letters and put in the exact numbers of shares and our account numbers. When I asked, she said I was supposed to do it. Naturally this was news to me. I now have all these forms done and will mail them out to my siblings, who must get this second set notarized. Except only the letter must be notarized. The attached spreadsheet just has to be signed and dated.

I’m betting that when these all arrive at M/L they’ll find a reason to kick them back and we’ll have to start all over.

Then there are my Dad’s two Roth funds. Here to speed things up we were encouraged to cash them all in. My siblings were fine with this. I had researched the funds in these accounts and they were underperforming funds. Granted my father was chasing stability instead of market trends, but of the five funds I looked at three were real laggards compared with the S&P 500 index and all came with more than 1% annual management fees. Jeebus! Well, at least if we cashed them in we could hardly do worse than how they managed these funds!

But they wouldn’t sell the Roth funds this until each of us called them personally and okayed it. That took some time. To “speed up” the process I was told to send drafts of the Roth withdrawal forms I got from my siblings so they could flag errors. I sent them electronically on May 20. There they sit, still waiting to be reviewed. Molly says their staff of four is down to 2 and she is so busy but she hopes to do it next week. Doubtless they will find errors that will have to be tediously corrected. But if I get them all corrected then I can send in this batch of forms and in theory there should be no issues so they can disburse the funds. I’m fully expecting I’ll send them in and they’ll find a reason to kick them back, something they haven’t explained before. We’ll see but it depends on poor overworked Molly actually deigning to review our forms.

In short, it’s a messed up and confusing process. In fact, it’s not a process at all. It seems they make it up as they go along. It seems likely that they are paid based on the assets in their accounts and they don’t want to lose them. Only with persistence, firmness and summoning your inner Donald Trump can you collect and I suspect we are nowhere close to getting our shares. They won’t volunteer anything. Meanwhile siblings who could use the money so it can grow for their retirement can’t get it. Not that M/L cares at all.

I have no idea if this sort of hassle is typical in the industry, but I can say to avoid M/L at all costs. If you have beneficiaries for accounts, ask to see their process for distributing funds and make it known to the beneficiaries. Make sure the process is straightforward. My Dad didn’t do this. The inheritance was a complete surprise. But being a beneficiary doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually get the money.

I am expecting before this is over we’ll be filing a lawsuit. It will probably go into the bottom of a long queue of similar lawsuits all from angry people like me simply trying to collect money intended for them.

 
The Thinker

It’s not easy being large

People tend to look up to us taller people, both literally and sometimes figuratively. With two otherwise equal candidates in an election, the taller is much more likely to win. Being tall has certain advantages. Seeing the full screen in a theater is rarely a problem. It’s easier for men to find a mate when you are tall and your pickings tend to be better. It sounds sexist but it’s generally true that women prefer tall men. Reputedly, the air is better at my altitude too. I often wonder if I miss much of the world’s flatulence.

At six foot and two inches (188 cm) I’m not always the tallest in the room. Statistically, I’m at taller than 94.5 percent of American men, with the average man at 5 feet and 9 inches (175 cm). This does have some effects on everyday life. Take shoes, for instance. I take a size 14 on one foot and a 14.5 on the other. Most of my life I wore size 13 because I couldn’t find a size 14, which was probably a mistake given the many foot problems I had over the years.

More recently I find myself at a disadvantage finding an acceptable computer chair. I’ve been scouring Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in search of a chair that will work for me. My height is a big problem, as the chair has to be elevated high enough so that my feet don’t cross when I sit on it. The chair needs to help me avoid sciatica not to mention the acute problem of the moment: pain in my wrists, arms and pinkies.

No, it’s not carpal tunnel syndrome, but close: strain of the extensor capri uluaris. As for the pinky finger on the right hand, that’s due to “weakness on the extensor tendon” according to Gail, an occupational therapist who came to my house to help me figure out my problem. I am a victim because I am a tall male with big hands who works with a mouse and keyboard a good part of my day using equipment designed for people at the 50 percentile. In addition, my desk is wrong. My keyboard is wrong too. And my mouse is wrong. The only thing that’s right is my monitor: it’s at the right elevation and angle. One thing is clear: being in the 95 percentile, it’s going to be costly to fix.

Take my mouse. It’s designed for the average hand, which mine is not. Donald Trump defensively claims that his hands are not short but anyhow they certainly are beautiful. While he brags about the size of his genitals if there is such a thing as hand envy, he surely would envy mine, which mirror my long feet and toes.

My large hand with Magic Mouse

My large hand with Magic Mouse

My hands are so large that most computer mice won’t work well with them. This was not obvious when I bought my latest iMac a few years ago, which came with the nifty Apple Magic Mouse. It was my therapist Gail who pointed it out: it may be sleek and sexy looking, but Apple utterly failed to make an ergonomic mouse. It has at best half an inch of elevation, which means the palm of my hand cannot rest on it, so I must engage wrist muscles and all finger tendons just to use it. That’s causing the “weakness on the extensor tendon” and is inflaming my wrist joint as well.

Moreover, it’s not wide enough. With long fingers my hand width is also wide. To use the pinky finger and the one next to it I have to scrunch them up unnaturally close together. In short, while Apple tends to get an A in designing sexy products, they got an F designing an ergonomic mouse. My solution is actually a number of solutions. There are a few mice designed for larger hands, like this one that costs $109 plus shipping. I’m also encouraged to change devices during the day. I am currently using this Logitech trackball mouse, which is still not quite big enough. My pinky falls off the side and hits the surface, irritating it. I also have a standalone Apple track pad, but I have to be careful there too, particularly to use a light touch. From all that use of my Magic Mouse, my pinky wants to push itself off to the side when I use mouse or keyboard, which inflames the joint with the hand. To cope, I’m trying putting some tape around the two fingers.

But I am also being told to move the mouse from the elbow. This means (as I’ve already discovered) that armrests on my chairs are bad, so I need a chair that doesn’t have them or one that can get out of the way. My Apple keyboard is not ergonomic either. I’m accustomed to its chicklet keys now but the keys are probably too close together due to my large hands and it might be better to use a keyboard that requires less force by the fingers. All this plus I’d do better with a split keyboard because regular keyboards force the wrists to move unnaturally toward the outside. I can’t use the Microsoft natural keyboard, because it won’t work with an Apple computer. There are some that can be ordered (example), but they are not cheap.

With my tall back I need good lumbar support, but it has to reach higher than most lumbar supports, so I need something that is adjustable. That’s the problem with my current chair, but there is also no upper back support so my back muscles tend to get tense, causing me to pinch my shoulder blades and lean forward. I could use a chair with a headrest as well. I’ve learned from my years with sciatica that the seat has to be flat and ideally padded with memory foam. It took a professional massage and three visits with a chiropractor to stop my back from hurting. I’m getting physical therapy for the arms and hands as well.

Then there is my desk. It’s too low. Because my legs are long, I need something an inch higher, but just as important I need more space for my legs. I have 28 inches and need 36. Right now my knees touch the bottom of the keyboard tray and, oh yeah, the keyboard tray needs to come out further too.

My future chair?

My future chair?

So I’m working through this piece by piece, concentrating on the chair and mouse for now. For the mouse I am trying the Magic Mouse Fixed, a $12 block of silicone that should allow the seat of my hand to rest on the mouse. It probably won’t solve the problem because the Magic Mouse is simply not wide enough. I found a used office chair in Springfield that might work. Even used they want $450, but they have a five day “try before you buy” program.

I’ll try to let you know in the months ahead whether all these changes will actually work. I’m being told there is no silver bullet, but I can improve things a lot. Meanwhile, I’ve got to stop and do some more of these ulnar nerve glides that the physical therapist wants me to do twice a day.

 
The Thinker

A shameless plug

After working with a couple of agents and being told her book was very good, just not marketable (because homosexuality is normalized) my daughter decided to self publish her fantasy novel Godspeaker. So please consider getting your own copy. It’s available for the Kindle ($4.99) or as a paperback ($12.99) from Amazon, but it’s also available on createspace as a paperbound book, also at $12.99. She makes a little more in royalties if you buy it from createspace.

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

If you like my writing, you will like her writing better. Frankly, she’s a better writer than either my wife or I and we both are reasonably talented writers. It’s actually quite humbling for me to realize I helped sire this force of creativity. It’s not for homophobes. If you look at the preview on Amazon, you will find that she dedicated it to my wife and I.

The novel is obviously an enormous investment in time and creativity. It’s been improved in part because two agents have reviewed it and requested changes. It’s also an investment of fortune, as she had a professional cover done and bought an ISBN. It will also be available as an audiobook soon.

Tessa Crowley is obviously not her real name, just her pseudonym. You can follow Tessa on her tumblr or check out her website.

 
The Thinker

Brave new carless world

Her graduation gift (if the over $100,000 we spent on her college education wasn’t enough of a gift) was the title to her car. It was a 2005 Toyota Prius, with about 110,000 miles on it. She had the mis/good fortune to have its battery go out on it a few days after delivery. It was good because these hybrid batteries cost about $3000 or more, so it was covered by the warranty.

So why is she giving up her car? It’s paid for and thanks to us she doesn’t have student loans to pay. It’s not like our daughter is convenient to mass transportation. She lives in the far-flung Washington D.C. suburbs, Manassas Park to be exact, known for its traffic, miles of tacky strip malls and its poor public transportation. What drove her to give up driving was a check engine light. A mechanic said it would be about a thousand dollars to repair it as well as replace some tires, as the old ones wouldn’t pass inspection. The Prius is about the most reliable car available. Despite its age for some modest repairs she could ride it another 100,000 miles.

The problem was she was hardly ever using it. She works from home doing closed captioning for television, mostly at night when most of us are asleep. Her life is a studio apartment on the third floor and a black cat. With her free time she mostly writes. Extremely introverted by nature she had no place she really needed to go to.

So she ran the numbers. It turned out that for her it was much cheaper to go carless. She has stopped paying hundreds of dollars a year for insurance, not to mention all the costs associated with maintenance. No more personal property taxes to pay. No more registration fees and license fees. No federal and state gasoline taxes either. To the extent she needs to get around she will now use feet, her new bike and Uber.

Mostly she will be using Uber. So it costs her $15 or $20 each way to take the cat to the vet, or herself to the doctor. It’s still much cheaper than owning a car. A bus is not out of the question, but it involves walking about a mile to the main drag and putting up with all sorts of inconvenient transfers. She’s not poor, just a bit monetarily challenged. So Uber it is, and sometimes the Schwinn bike when the weather cooperates. For food, she has Safeway deliver it and creates an order online. It usually costs $10, but she can save money by having deliveries during the off hours.

I think my daughter maybe something of a trendsetter. Of course lots of young people are giving up their cars, but they tend to live in more connected neighborhoods, not way out near the edge of the frontier where she is living. If she wants to see a movie, she may be able to bike to it if she dares take her bike down the strip and under I-66 to the Cineplex. She is tight with a couple of longstanding girlfriends and usually goes with them. Most likely one of them will pickup and deliver. Or she can stream something online.

It’s quite a self-contained life, and I can empathize. I lived without a car for a few years in my early 20s (she is 26) and did not enjoy it. I couldn’t afford a new or used car and I could not afford to keep the old one going. Once a week I took the county bus to Rockville, Maryland for groceries at the Giant and lugged them home. They had to fit in two bags. It worked but it was not pleasant. Of course in those days there was no Internet and virtually no one worked from home. If you did, a car was essential to your business. You had to go meet people to make a living. I biked to work most days, took the bus if I could make it work with my schedule or simply walked toting an umbrella. I lived cheap but I didn’t like it. It made certain things that most people take for granted, like dating women, pretty much impossible.

This is not a problem for my daughter. She’s not interested in dating anyone, let alone getting serious and married. She says she is asexual, so she simply doesn’t feel attracted to anyone, at least not in a way that might lead to conjugal pleasures. There’s no place she is dying to go, at least at the spur of the moment. If she needs things, she buys it online and has it delivered. (Unsurprisingly, she has Amazon Prime.) She has discerned that we live in a service economy, which means you can get pretty much any service delivered these days. The exceptions are doctor and vet visits (and a few vets do make house calls) and hair stylists.

That’s where Uber comes in. She says Uber is better and much cheaper than a taxi, but it is effectively a taxi. Her smartphone tells her when the driver will arrive, so she doesn’t have to waste time waiting around. She pays in advance over the Internet. She knows of course that those Uber drivers probably aren’t making much money. Uber won’t treat them as employees. They are individual contractors, which mean they pay the freight for maintaining their cars, not her.

I’m waiting for her to tell me it was all a big mistake but I don’t think she’ll give me the satisfaction. It all works for her. It probably won’t work for those who still have to go to an office everyday, but that’s their problem, not hers. All this plus she got a nice chunk of change for selling her graduation gift. Meanwhile her parents still have two cars in the garage, even though being retired we use our own cars much less often. Apparently we are Luddites. We just don’t get the 21st century.

I wish her luck in her brave new carless world.

 
The Thinker

Time in a bottle

I fell in love all over again last week. Curiously I fell in love with my daughter, who I already love. My daughter is 26. Instead, I fell back in love with my daughter, ages 10 months, one, two and a half, four, five and ten. This was because those old dusty VHS tapes of her have finally been transferred to DVD. For the first time in more than twenty years in some cases I am seeing them again.

Our VCR died a decade or so back and we felt no compelling reason to replace it, despite a stack of videotapes. Most of the videotapes were movies or TV shows, hence junk. A few of them though recorded precious memories of life with our young daughter. I never felt rich enough back then to buy a camcorder but I did rent one from time to time. I first gave it a try when our daughter Rose was ten months, resulting in the cute little snippet of her crawling around the floor of our kitchen on a Saturday morning (below).

We have tons of scrapbooks documenting lots of her milestones, most very minor. A picture turns out to be a poor substitute for a video, which like Dorothy in Oz has the magical power to transport you back in time. For those families that record everything I doubt these recordings hold much allure. Given the slim few hours I have of our daughter from those years, and seeing it again so many years later it is hard not to be transfixed.

I don’t look much different. I was younger and not quite as wide and perhaps with a bit more hair. My enchantment comes not from seeing myself, or our old neighborhood or even snippets of my parents, now both deceased. It’s mostly from being transfixed by just how inexpressibly cute our daughter was back then.

Parents generally form a love bond with their child. It’s hard not to given how much time and attention children require and how focused they are on you, as you are literally their path to survival. Over time we forget the bad stuff: the temper tantrums, the constant ear infections, getting in trouble in school, etc. Blissfully, only the good stuff remains. As children our kids are naturally innocent and if raised right they are trusting too. Watching these videos again though I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being a father. This was perhaps in part because I was stretched rather thin with a full time job and many other responsibilities. But certain rituals were sacrosanct, such as bath time and reading to my daughter before bedtime.

The intimacy of our connection was special but ultimately fleeting. At story time she would snuggle up close next to me on the couch. I’d wrap my arm around her and hold a book in the other arm. She would help turn the pages. Tucking her into bed followed. We’d watch her almost coo like a dove as she snuggled up to her stuffed dog and generally fall happily asleep. These sorts of routine moments got sporadically captured on video.

Rose was always an interesting child but for me she was most adorable at age four, with her big doe-like eyes, her utter transparency and her relentless curiosity about how the world works. She could believe in Santa Claus with complete innocence, take delight in trick or treating, get enrapt in a book or a toy and liked to impress her parents. In the videos I can see things like her throwing kisses to us while at a ballet recital or singing off-key at her kindergarten graduation.

If in the afterlife I find that time is like a camcorder I would like to go back and replay those events. I’d want to feel again the softness of her baby hair when I kissed her goodnight, the urgent intensity when she held my finger while noshing on her evening bottle and her squeals of delight when we finished reading a book together. I’d like just one more time to read her Dr. Seuss.

Those events were instrumental in the woman she has become. Writing forms the center of her life today and she is working to get professionally published. Now she has an active community of followers interested in her fan fiction. Meanwhile she lives independently with her cat and does closed captioning for TV, generally at hours when everyone else is asleep.

These memories are precious but for me they do answer the question of why are we here. We are here to enjoy life as best we can, improving it for future generations if possible. We are basically here to love and connect and one of the strongest connections is the love between parent and child.

On February 1, my father passed away. He went rather gently as these things go. He knew his time was short. I imagine as he lied in his hospital bed he too rifled through memories of many episodes like this in his own mind until death gently took him. When my time comes I hope to do the same: to succumb to eternity nestled in the memories of the loving connections I was fortunate to have through life. This is what makes life worth living. All the rest is ultimately meaningless.

 
The Thinker

Time zone madness and sanity

The Washington Post recently published an article on a proposal by an economist and professor of physics and astronomy to create a single time zone for the entire planet. Those of us who travel regularly know that time zones are a hassle because adjusting sleep cycles is rarely easy. Their plan is to use UTC (basically, Greenwich Mean Time) as the planet’s time zone.

Putting the planet on a single time zone wouldn’t solve this particular problem unless we decided to ignore our circadian rhythm, i.e. rising around sunrise and going to sleep in the dark. I would imagine the Japanese and Chinese would be pissed as they would arise around sunset and go to sleep around sunrise. However, China already sees an advantage in having a single time zone. The whole country is on one time zone, basically +12 UTC. Perhaps this helps bind them together as a nation but for those in the far eastern or western parts of the country it must seem weird. It’s particularly weird when you move from eastern China into far eastern Russia. You jump two time zones to the east! China is about the size of the United States, so it would be like everyone in the United States being on Central Time.

I don’t think a law can easily break our circadian rhythms, which is why so many of us groan when entering daylight savings time. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural, at least in early March. But it’s less unnatural if you are lower in latitude and you happen to live close to a longitudinal meridian evenly divisible by 15. For those of us on the edge of a time zone, life seems to either start too early or end too late.

I certainly noticed it last year when we moved to Massachusetts, so much so that I blogged about it. Spain is considering changing its time zone to something more natural; it has been on central European time since World War Two. Spaniards get nearly an hour less sleep because of their unnatural time zone and unsurprisingly tend to be late to bed, at least by their clocks. Siestas are a way of compensating for their unnatural time zone.

Airlines already use UTC for flight schedules. This makes a lot of sense since pilots are frequently changing time zones. Of course they do take into account the sleeping habits of the people they are moving, which is why more flights happen during the daytime than at night. Laws vary so widely across the world (North Korea recently decided to change their time zone by half an hour) that some sort of time uniformity sounds desirable. As a practical matter geography often gets in the way, with Indiana being a case in point, as it is split between eastern and central time. No system is perfect.

Living in Massachusetts the time really feels “off”. I’m not alone, which is why there is a proposal to put New England on Atlantic Time, or -4 UTC instead of Eastern Time (-5 UTC). States can set their own time zones. However, here in New England it doesn’t make much sense for each state to go it alone, as our states tend to be small. It only makes sense if everyone adopts it. Rhode Island state Rep. Blake Filippi has proposed a bill to do just this, but only if Massachusetts also adopts it. He’s hoping it would coax the other New England states to go along.

My suspicion is that if Massachusetts embraced it, the other states here in New England would too. The possible exception would be Connecticut and that’s because it has so many commuters going into New York City everyday. As “off” as the time feels here in Massachusetts where the sun rises as early as 5:12 AM where I live and sets as early as 4:17 PM, it’s even worse the further east and north you go. To take an extreme example, the sunrise in Lubec, Maine starts as early as 4:41 AM and sets as early as 3:47 PM.

This is not a big deal in more extreme northern latitudes, but New England is simply not as far north as most of Europe. We are roughly at the latitude of Northern Spain. Being on Eastern Time is purely a political decision. Going to Atlantic Time for us pushed way north and east on the U.S. eastern seaboard would make a lot of sense and would feel more natural. We’d get later sunsets in the summer and more daylight in the winter when it is greatly needed.

So here’s hoping. Maybe I’ll write my state legislators. Winter is dark and dreary enough around here. There’s no point in making it more so. So I say let’s skip the idea of a worldwide time zone and make tweaks to the time zone maps we already use to make them fairer to actual human beings. As for us in New England, we have already suffered enough. Put us on Atlantic Time!

 
The Thinker

Footloose

Way back in 2005 when I was still relatively new to my job I wrote about what it meant to be a professional based on what I saw within my own team. They really wowed me. So many people claim to be professionals but in my estimation so few are. So when I see it, it makes an impact. I am happy to report I have found a new member of this slim group: our humble local pedorthist.

You are probably saying, “pedor…what?” That’s what I said too when a local podiatrist gave me a prescription to see Mark, the local pedorthist. A pedorthist is a specialist in modifying footwear so that people like me can wear shoes with little or no pain. Mark has been a godsend and simply would not quit on my case until every last foot pain was gone and I was completely satisfied.

If you are a professional like Mark it helps to have enthusiasm for your work. Pedorthics does not sound like something that would be that stimulating but for Mark it’s a passion. It causes him to work past his scheduled hours most days. Evenings he will often be found in the back of his shop grinding, extending and shaping orthotics (fancy inserts that go into your shoes) until your walking becomes natural and pain free again. Monday he is supposedly off but this is when he does most of the hard work in the back: shaping and tweaking orthotics and shoes that he can’t get to the rest of the week.

Admittedly it was hard to get an appointment to see him. I waited more than a month and endured considerable pain and discomfort during that period. What I didn’t understand was why my orthotics weren’t working for me. A podiatrist I saw back in Virginia had gotten me a new set and of course there is quite a protocol for getting good shapes of your feet so the orthotic would fit. Still, it wasn’t enough. The metatarsal lift I needed wasn’t nearly enough, causing pain to radiate down my toes, mostly on my right foot. I had given up running (too much pressure on the feet) but persevered at walking several miles a day, often with some discomfort despite my orthotics.

Once I finally got in to see Mark, things quickly improved. First I found him both passionate and personal, characteristics I’ve never seen in so-called professionals like physicians. He spent a lot of time listening to me, pressing my feet and looking at my shoes. Then he started fine-tuning my orthotics.

The result was better but not anywhere near being a pain free experience. So after using them a few weeks I went back to see him again (no charge). He listened to my feedback and a few days later I had a version two set of orthotics to try on.

These were much better but not quite perfect. It took me months of experimenting to figure it out. I got a new set of shoes and since they were narrower they were a better fit. But something wasn’t right. So I got a set of walking shoes. These had something the other shoes hadn’t: cushion. That was the clue: I needed both the shape and the softness. So three months later I went to see Mark again.

That’s when version three was created that finally solved my problem. This success inspired me to get a pair of sandals, which I preferred to wear in the warmer month due to my naturally sweaty feet. He let me look through catalogs to find the right one: closed-toed were what I wanted, but soft. We found the pair and after they arrived he made these innersoles match the orthotics I used in my other shoes. All this was done for the price of a new pair of shoes ($159) plus one fitting fee ($43).

It was a bargain, but I also got something I did not expect: to spend some time with a really interesting man who opened up a lot on his life, treated me with respect and great concern and who reiterated over and over again to let him know if there were any issues. He refused to stop until I was satisfied. It took five months, but I have escaped my foot purgatory.

Mark embodies the myth that seems to elude most of us: he made a successful and meaningful life for himself. He owns his own small business, he give his customers complete satisfaction, he is not owned by a Wall Street conglomerate and he takes immense pride and joy in his work. Through knowledge, tenacity, close listening and feedback he makes dozens of us foot sufferers happy every week.

I think he is lucky: lucky to have a passion for his job, lucky to carve a niche for himself in our local market where it’s hard to find a job that pays decently and one that provides a service of immense value. If you haven’t suffered from chronically painful feet consider yourself lucky. I was the luckiest one. He brought me relief that more than ten years of podiatrists could not quite solve.

Now I feel like I can live life fully again. I am grateful and more than a little wowed by Mark. If you have foot problems, look for a local pedorthist. They are harder to find than podiatrists, but probably of more value. If you can find a pedorthist like Mark you will be in good hands (and feet) indeed.

 

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