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Steven's Dragon - Part Two

I first “met” Sylvia Spruck Wrigley several years ago on fotolog.net, a photo-sharing site that, unfortunately, lost its mojo to Flickr.

Sylvia is a true citizen of the world who currently lives on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain with her 11-year-old son, Connor. She was born in Germany, spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles, moved to Europe full time as an adult and lived in England too before settling in Spain five years ago because she missed the sunny warmth of southern California.

A short while ago, Sylvia sent me a story she had first written for her son, but which grew into something more. She asked if I would be interested in publishing it on TGB and I grabbed at the chance. You will soon see why.

Besides writing fiction, Sylvia has a penchant for peculiar and mildly obsessive personal projects. She is working on one now to fly to every British isle that has a runway. You can read about her adventures at her Fear of Landing blog.

Here now is Part Two of Steven’s Dragon by Syliva Spruck Wrigley. Part One can be found here. Please leave messages, kudos, thoughts and applause for her in the comments here or at her project blog.

STEVEN'S DRAGON - Part Two

"There's a lot to see still," John whispered, lying on that hospital bed. "Don't you stop exploring just because I'm not around to share it with you."

When my husband died, I swore I wouldn't let it change me. It did of course, I became more isolated: self-sufficient I called it. But really I just didn't want to let someone get that close to me just to lose them again. I'd already lost my son in that dreadful car accident and then when John went too it just felt like my very last support had been taken from me.

That's when I stopped travelling and used my degree to get a job in teaching. I wanted something to keep me busy and it fit the bill. That was 20 years ago and it's still keeping me busy.

It wasn't until the boy started coming round to visit that I realised I was lonely. Imagine, being grateful for the companionship of a ten-year old boy. Almost eleven, he keeps telling me.

Not that I'm reliant on him for company, definitely not. An hour or two of his questions is about all that I can stand. But he seemed so withdrawn, so isolated, and it seemed such a shame for a nice bright boy like Steven to be looking so lost.

Lord knows he'll have plenty of time to feel like that after puberty.

At some point it sunk in that if it I thought that was sad, well, it was a sad state for me to be in, too. 62 years old and not even a stray cat to throw my affection at. I'd become the stereotype of a spinster. And once I realised that, I decided I didn't like it one bit.

So I started broadening these recent horizons of mine, doing a bit more than just working and coming home and watching television. Making sure this old brain of mine stays sharp as a whistle and a step ahead of those kids. Oh, they still fear me and I know what they call me behind my back. But they're a lot more interested in a dry old subject like history now that I'm more interested in them.

I got a computer, bought it myself and now I'm online. Keep up with the world with a couple of key-strokes. It's amazing how easy it is once you start. I thought of it as a young person's thing but I was wrong. There's lots of us out there, elders is the word I like that they use. It's like going back in time, we're still talking about the best ways to change the world, just like we all were at University campuses everywhere 40-odd years ago. Except this time, we know a lot more about it.

Oh John, I'm sorry. I let you down, I know that now. I gave up the ghost when you left me. But there is still a lot to explore right here and now and I'm telling you, John, I'm not going to waste another day.

* * *

My sister Irene has been following me around the house all day. She is such a pain; she won't find something to do. They are learning about geography in school and she was trying to quiz me on where all the different continents were and thought I wouldn't know. Luckily, Mrs Hartman gets out that old atlas every time she picks up one of her treasures from her travels and makes sure I know where it came from, so it was no problem at all.

I told Mom I didn't mind babysitting Irene and I don't, really. I know she needs looking after. But it's hard to find her things to do so she'll leave me alone to finish my homework. I want to go to the park when Mom comes home and I can't unless I finish this first.

"Steeeeeeven." I hate how Irene whines my name. I've told her a million times to call me Steve, but she ignores me. That's what they call me in school, 'Steve,' it sounds much cooler than "Steven". And they don't call me Stupid Steve, just Steve.

It sort of started with the dragon thing. I didn't tell anyone about my plans to hatch a dragon, they really would call me stupid if they knew. But all those stories and stuff that Mrs Hartman told me about them, well, they were pretty interesting. And at lunch, I heard some boys and they were arguing about a type of dragon and I just sort of turned around and started talking to them.

Turned out they play this game during break, dungeons and dragons, where you get to be a hero and fight through battles and explore lands and stuff. And though it's not the real myths, not the stuff Mrs Hartman tells me about, it's still really good stories and even better you get to be a part of the story. So I want to get this done so I can go to the park and we can do the next bit of the adventure. I'm a rogue, that's like a thief, and I get to sneak around and unlock doors and stuff. It's pretty cool.

On the days that we don't play, I still go to Mrs Hartman's house. She buys fresh cookies now, not like the stale ones she originally gave me. I had to teach her about the cookie stall at the mall where you can get the really nice ones, she didn't know about that. And I told her about the special disabled program they are doing in town for kids like Spastic Sam, because we heard about it in our social studies class and she didn't know about that either. It still feels weird to me when I know something she doesn't, she knows so much. But she goes there now once a week and helps so I guess she's glad I told her.

It's sort of funny seeing her around school, although at least she's not my teacher this year which helps. I kinda nod at her if I think no one is watching. All the kids are scared of her; I want to tell them that she's okay, really, but I'm afraid they'd laugh at me. She keeps telling me I care too much about what people think about me but I can't help it.

"Steven?"

A minor miracle, Irene's managed to say my name like a normal human being.

"What are you thinking about?" Her blue eyes are like big mirrors, I can see my reflection in them.

"Nothing important, Irene." I wouldn't know how to explain to her about being friends with a teacher. It just sounded too weird. So I shrugged and told her nothing, and looked, I mean really looked at her for what felt like the first time.

I mean, yeah, I see her every day, she's my sister. But I don't normally really look at her. I spend most of my time doing my best to ignore her, to be honest. And I thought about Mrs Hartman and how nice it is when someone listens to you for a change and I looked at my sister again.

"Irene, do you want to do something together?"

"Yes!" She jumped up in the air, full of excitement, her blonde hair flying around her head. I tried to think of the kind of things I liked when I was seven, but I was different then. I didn't do things with other people, just went wandering off on my own all the time.

"What kind of things do you do with your friends at school?" I hoped she'd give me some ideas.

"We play with our Barbies. Will you play with my Barbies with me?"

I started to use a bad word, then I choked and swallowed it back and I bit my lip and I nodded. She ran to her room and pulled out three tangled together plastic dolls and a whole stack of pink clothes.

"You can pick which one you want," said Irene with a serious look. I realised she was trying to be nice.

I picked up a doll with a sigh and stood her on the ground. "What's her name then?"

"Barbie. They are all called Barbie."

"Okay," I said, trying to work out how to survive this.

"Okay," I said again, "listen up. We'll play with these but we're going to do it my way. The girls are all kung-fu experts and they aren't called Barbie. This one is Killer-Angel, this one is Roundhouse Girl and the one you've got is Egg Fu Yung. And we aren't playing dress-up. We're sending them to the Planet of Goo to try to survive the attack of the ...." I looked around and saw Mom's little statue on the bookshelf. "The attack of the Buddhas! Deal?"

Irene beamed a smile at me and agreed. And then we played with the dolls and we turned the coffee mug into a space ship and the Buddha statue was the bad guy. I was pretty surprised but it was kind of fun.

I just hope my friends never find out.

* * *

When that old egg of mine first went missing, I had no idea what it was going to lead to. I just saw a young boy skirting trouble and wanted to stop him from going bad. I didn't really expect to look forward to his company.

That was over a year ago. He still comes over after school about once a week or so though, and picks something out from all the junk I collected over the years and I tell him stories about the things and the places they came from and he asks intelligent questions.

Truth is, I've been teaching so long I'd forgotten that kids could be interested in what they are taught. I have to admit I watch for the things that catch his eye and I use them in class, making the dry curriculum that little bit more interesting.

And it's not just me. Steven is doing better at school too. Steve, he keeps telling me to call him, but I can't get used to it.

I gather his math is still very bad but over all his grades are up and he's increasing in confidence. He even tried out for a role in the Nativity play and got the part of Joseph. I think he was more surprised than anyone else.

Sometimes I think kids just need to feel like someone is paying attention.

I ignore him at school and I'm pretty sure he prefers that. I know I do: I've got a reputation as a strict teacher, Mrs Hard-as-Nails they call me, and worse, when they think I'm not listening. But you have to keep control of these kids, else they run all over you. One-on-one is easy but not when you've got a class full.

I usually don't tell Steven to come over, I just leave it up to him. Now that he's got more friends at school, he keeps busy, which I have to admit suits me fine. I'm busy too, these days. Of course I still enjoy his company but in little doses.

I made an exception, this time. I told him to come around to my house after the school play and we'd have some of his favourite cookies to celebrate. It's the last day of school until January and I don't know if I'll see him during the holidays.

It was hard, wrapping up his present so that it wasn't obvious what was in the package; I used half the Sunday newspaper and a whole roll of tape to disguise the shape.

I just hope he likes it.

* * *

The whole thing with old lady Hartman took me by surprise. I mean, it never even occurred to me that she would get me a Christmas present or that maybe I should have made her a card like I made for my mom or something. I was a little bit embarrassed when I got to her house and saw this big present on her coffee table.

She said it was okay that I didn't get her anything so I guess she's not sore. She said she thought I might like it and that that's what friends are for.

I wouldn't call her a best friend or anything like that, but I guess she's right that we are friends now. I like talking to her about school and other kids and stuff and she seems to understand. Lots of times if I'm bored I go to her house after school, just to see what she's got new to show me. She doesn't mind if I don't go to her house though, it's not like she expects me or anything. She says it's important to just play sometimes.

But then I was surprised when she talked to me at school and told me to go to her house after the play. I didn't know what to expect but not this! It was really putting me on the spot, giving me a present. She's never done it before.

Then I picked it up, all big and heavy, and was wondering if it was okay to just rip off the paper like at home, and it got worse.

"Do you know what the kids call me? The other kids, I mean, at school." She stared at me and I wasn't sure if I should tell the truth or not. Sometimes it seems like it's better not to tell the truth, even though it's a lie just by not saying.

I shrugged and bit my lip and started pulling the paper off my present, in case she changed her mind about giving it to me.

She just kept staring at me, I had to say something.

"A witch," I finally said, ready to run out the door if she got mad at me.

She winced and I sorta started to move but she didn't shout or anything. Just sorta held her breath a bit.

"Well, yes, a witch," she said. "And 'that old dragon', I heard someone whisper in the hallway as I walked past."

I nodded carefully, watching her, wondering if she was gonna start crying or something. I'd heard people call her that too. And then I realised, she was laughing. I wondered if she'd finally lost her mind. We had talks about how what people call you isn't important as who you are and stuff, but this was just crazy.

"Open the present," she said. So at least she hadn't changed her mind about that. I pulled off a ton of newspaper and finally ripped a big hole through the middle and out fell that old egg I stole from her last year.

"You are giving me your egg?" I looked at her.

"Don't you see it?" She grinned at me. "You got your dragon in the end. From the egg. It just doesn't look like you thought it would."

I looked at old Mrs Hartman and finally I understood and I started laughing too. I laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt and then I picked up the egg and hugged it.

"Thank you," I said in my best polite grown-up voice.

"You hatched me," she said.

She really was a bit loony. But I gave her a hug too and wrapped the egg up carefully to take home.

"My first treasure," I told her as I left. "One day I'll share it with another little boy."

"You do that," she said, and closed the door. I'm sure I heard her still laughing as I walked through her garden to my house.

- Finis -

Steven's Dragon - Part One


Steven's Dragon - Part One

I first “met” Sylvia Spruck Wrigley several years ago on fotolog.net, a photo-sharing site that, unfortunately, lost its mojo to Flickr.

Sylvia is a true citizen of the world who currently lives on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain with her 11-year-old son, Connor. She was born in Germany, spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles, moved to Europe full time as an adult and lived in England too before settling in Spain five years ago because she missed the sunny warmth of southern California.

A short while ago, Sylvia sent me a story she had first written for her son, but which grew into something more. She asked if I would be interested in publishing it on TGB and I grabbed at the chance. You will soon see why.

Besides writing fiction, Sylvia has a penchant for peculiar and mildly obsessive personal projects. She is working on one now to fly to every British isle that has a runway. You can read about her adventures at her Fear of Landing blog.

Here now is Part One of Steven’s Dragon by Syliva Spruck Wrigley. Part Two will be published tomorrow. Please leave messages, kudos, thoughts and applause for her in the comments here or at her project blog.

STEVEN'S DRAGON - Part One

"Steven, what are you looking for?"

I ignored the small voice behind me, my meddling little sister, and continued to push the spade into the hard earth of our garden.

"Mom's going to be upset with you when she sees what you've done to the grass."

"Irene, go away," I said in my meanest voice and carried on digging.

"Tell me what you are looking for or else I'm telling Mom!" Her voice had that telltale whine; I knew she meant it.

I took a deep breath and put down the spade.

"Will you help me dig if I tell you?" I didn't want the help, but if she were a part of the digging then she'd be much less likely to rat me out.

Irene sat down in front of me and picked up the spade and started stabbing it at the shallow hole I'd created. She turned 6 last month and since then she's been convinced that she's my equal.

I lay down in the grass, my chin in my hand, and watched her. It took about five minutes for her to realise that I hadn't answered her question, such was her glee at tearing into the dirt. Eventually, though, her energy ran out and she looked at me.

"Well? I helped you." A trace of that whine threatened to re-enter her voice.

"China," I said, trying hard not to grin. "China is on the other side of us, down there. I want to dig a hole and pop my head through and say hello."

"Steeeven!" She made my name sound horrible, drawing it out like a scream. "You don't speak Chinese!"

Smart aleck. I'd never even thought of that. Irene was a pain but I had to admit she was clever. Not as clever as me, though. I'm almost four years older and know loads more than she does.

"I'll take one of those phrase books, like Dad has for Spanish." She nodded, happy with this, and carried on striking at the ground with the spade. It wasn't doing much, just loosening up the bottom, but it didn't matter. She'd keep her mouth shut. Now I just needed to get rid of her.

The sun was hot on the back of my black t-shirt as I lay watching her blonde head bent over the hole. I'd let her dig a bit more until she got bored and then send her in for some lemonade. She'd probably get distracted on the way and forget to come back for an hour, by which time I'd be finished. Meanwhile, she wasn't doing any harm and I could rest my arms.

I had just lost myself in a daydream of Valerie looking at me with rapt awe as I walked down the street, the hero of the neighbourhood, when Irene spoke again.

"My wrist hurts. This is too hard." She was back to a full-blown whine, time to get rid of her.

"Give me the spade then." She handed it to me. "Why don't you go inside and get us some drinks so we can keep going?"

I allowed myself one last vision of Valerie begging to be my best friend, then sat up and started digging in earnest. I needed to be finished before Irene got back.

I'll be ten in October, the big one-oh, just in time for Halloween. Even though I'm the oldest in my class, people don't take me seriously. I don't have any friends. The other kids call me Stupid Steven just because it sounds funny. Ha ha, I say. I don't want to play their silly games anyway.

But I'm going to show them all. When I come to school with my pet dragon following behind me, well, then they'll change their minds. I won't be Stupid Steven anymore I'll be Stupendicific Steven the Great Dragon Tamer.

The hole is almost big enough now. Irene hasn't shown up, she's probably watching cartoons, so I have plenty of time. I already collected a bunch of mown grass from the park to act as an incubator. I read up all about it at the school library, I even got a nice note home from the librarian for doing extra study. The only thing I don't know is how long it's going to take, but I can check every day. As long as it hatches before the weather turns cold, it's a flawless plan, or my name isn't Steven Johnson.

* * *

"Mrs Johnson? It's Kate Hartman, Steven's history teacher. I'm so sorry to bother you, but it's about your little boy. Well, I put on a special display yesterday at school and, I'm very sorry, I'm not sure how to put this. He was very interested in a knick-knack of mine, a carved jade egg I got in Indonesia years ago. It's not valuable, just a memento from the trip, but I'm afraid to say it's missing. I didn't notice until un-packing everything back at home this afternoon but it's definitely gone.

I did check at the school to make sure it hadn't been misplaced. No, I don't know what he'd want with such a thing either. But he was the last person seen with it. I'm sure the boy didn't mean to steal, but he did express an interest in it and kept going back to it. Do you think you could check and see if he's got it? I don't want him in trouble, but it's best to nip this sort of thing in the bud.

Thanks, just send him over to my house with it and I'll talk to him. Yes, yes, of course, if he has it. I have to say, though, I'm sure he must. Boys will be boys, no harm done if he brings it back over. "

I felt bad when I got off the phone to his mother. He's not a bad kid, I'm sure he didn't think what he was doing was stealing. But he's at that stage where you really have to watch boys. If you don't jump on the small stuff, they end up thinking that it's okay, and then you have real problems on your hands.

My son was a bit of a terror when he was small, I have to admit. Little Steven does make me think of him. If I'm honest, I like Steven better than the other kids in his class, although it's a terrible thing to say. But at least he's got a bit of spunk in him. Or maybe it's just that he looks a bit like my son did.

The boy came knocking on my door a few hours after the phone call, in a sweat and with an unhappy face, his fingernails full of dirt. I started to tell him to go straight home for a bath and talk to me after he was cleaned up. But he had the jade ornament in his hands, reaching it out to me.

"I didn't mean to steal it," he said. His bottom lip was quivering. "I mean, I did, but I thought you wouldn't mind when I came back to class and showed you the dragon."

I forgot all about his grass-stained jeans and muddy shoes and told him to come in. He sat stiff as a ram-rod on the couch while I got him a glass of milk and some cookies from a packet. Not that he looked starving but I thought it might help calm him down.

"What dragon," I asked, once he'd had a sip.

"From the egg." He pointed at the jade egg on the table between us. "I was going to hatch it."

I started to laugh, then I saw the how earnest his little face was. I bit back the first words and nodded at him, thinking fast.

"You reckon it's a magic egg?"

"It's a dragon's egg. I saw a picture of one, it looked just like that." Steven's eyes were big as he explained about the picture book of Chinese antiquities he'd seen at the library, including something called a dragon's egg that looked like mine.

"Ah, but you see, it's not Chinese," I told him. "It's from Indonesia, in Southern Asia." Never one to miss a chance to teach someone something, I got out the atlas. "Here, see? There's Thailand and Malaysia, and there is Indonesia."

He nodded seriously over the map. "But it's not far from China," he said. "Maybe it's still a Chinese dragon egg."

I smiled at his remark. I like that in the boy, he doesn't just nod and accept what grown-ups tell him, he thinks it through.

I was surprised to find myself interested in this new game: "find out about the dragon egg." The truth is, I picked it up travelling down a dusty road, from a wizened old man sitting on a blanket with various items spread out around him. It's certainly junk, aimed at the silly Westerners like my husband and me, travelling through the country looking to find some new mystical truth. But it could be interesting to find out what it was based on, what real treasure it was supposed to mimic.

"Let's find out," I told the boy. "Let's find out exactly where it's from. Maybe you are right."

He beamed a smile at me, thrilled to find a partner in crime, even though I'm over six times his age.

"I have to go home now," he said. "But I can come back tomorrow after school if you want."

"It's a date." I saw him to the door and then sat back down on the couch, nibbling a left-over cookie and looking at my jade egg in a new light.

* * *

She's not bad, old Mrs Hartman. She could have raised a big old stink about her egg, got me suspended from school and everything. I did just take it without permission. But she wasn't mad at me at all, asking me questions, and when I explained about hatching a dragon she really did listen to me, not just roll her eyes the way most teachers would do.

She's a lot different at her house than she is at school, that's for sure. She glares a lot in class and if you make just the slightest sound like dropping your pencil she's all over your case. Everyone is afraid of her, not just me.

But she didn't glare at me at all when I went back to her house. She's still a bit teachy but she showed me all kinds of neat things that she has and pulled out a bunch of books on ancient China and a nearby place called Indonesia. She's been to both places and all sorts of other places too, I never knew that. It kinda makes history more interesting when you're being taught by someone who's been there.

So that first day, she pulled out this book and found a whole chapter on Chinese dragons and she told me that the Chinese people refer to themselves as descendants of the dragon. This made me a bit nervous.

"I don't really want some Chinese person following me around everywhere," I told her. It made me think of Irene. "I don't even speak Chinese!"

"Well, I don't think they mean it literally," she said. "The Chinese worship dragons and not each other, so that's a good sign." She flipped through the pages and read me out bits of it.

"Dragons were believed to be connected to water and weather," she said, and a lot of other stuff about ruling the rivers that I sort of only half listened to. I was flipping through a different book that she'd given me about mythology and legends. I thought somewhere there must be a story about someone who hatched a dragon, but there was nothing like that at all, just weird stories about dragons helping emperors in the old days.

"Is there really any such things as dragons," I asked her. It seemed to me it was just a story, like Santa Claus, just one for grown-ups instead of for kids. I was surprised to see her nod yes.

"There is," she said. "There are a lot of things we don't understand. That doesn't mean they don't exist."

I wasn't sure whether to believe her or not. She's pretty old and maybe she's just a bit batty. But she told me to leave it with her and she'd see what she could find out. Meanwhile, she said, if I wanted to visit her again, I was welcome.

She's not bad, for a teacher. I kinda like her now, although I'd never admit that at school.

* * *

I still hear his voice as clearly as if he were sat across from me. All I have to do is close my eyes and he's there again. Our last conversation plays in my mind lately, like a broken record.

Steven's Dragon - Part Two


Songs of a Long-Ago Childhood

Little kids love to play with words. They like riddles and rhymes and they understand puns at a surprisingly young age. One of the earliest word jokes that had me giggling then was about some older kids who got in trouble for phoning neighbors and asking if the refrigerator was running. When the neighbor answered yes, the kids said, ‘Well, you’d better go catch it.”

(Hey – it was funny then when I was only five or six.)

The older kids making the calls liked fooling adults; we younger ones liked the pun. (I think there was a variation involving Prince Albert in a can, but who today would understand anything about loose tobacco packed in tins.)

Doesn’t just about everyone remember this riddle – which works better verbally than in print: What’s black and white and red (read) all over? There was a time when my friends and I found it hysterical.

One of the rhymes every kid in the U.S. memorized must be this one:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.

Something a friend said recently reminded me that I learned two additional versions of it when I was a kid, and I was surprised to discover that although I’d not thought of them in at least two or three decades, I still know them – or close enough.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – in Latin:

Mica, mica, parva stella,
Miror quaenam sis tam bella.
Splendens eminus in illo
Alba vella gemma caelo.

(Any Latin scholars reading this who see where correction may be needed, please leave a note.)

I have no memory of where I learned the Latin translation or where I learned what my friends and I were told was “The Harvard Version” of the rhyme:

Coruscate, coruscate, diminutive stellar orb
How inexplicable to me is thine existence
Elevated at such an illimitable height
In the illustrious depths of space
And resembling in thy dazzling effulgence
A crystallized carbon gem of unexampled splendor.

Nursery rhymes and fairy tales go back centuries and variations on them are abundant, but I wonder if kids who grow up now in a world of DVDs, PlayStations and the internet still learn nursery rhymes and read Grimm’s fairy tales. It could be that we - today’s elders - are the last generation who will know the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Rumplestiltskin, Mother Goose rhymes and Aesop’s fables, all of which were high on my personal top ten list when I was eight or ten years old.

What stories, puns, rhymes and riddles do you still remember from your childhood?


Medicare Changes (and Poll)

category_bug_journal2.gif Among the differences I have discovered, since moving, between New York City and Portland, Maine is a much larger number of people in Portland who use power wheelchairs and scooters. I can’t prove that statement, but it appears to be so.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see elders and disabled people tootin’ along in the supermarket, the mall, Home Depot, Target and smaller stores too, and on sidewalks flat and steep. Many have baskets to carry belongings and purchases, and I noticed one with an umbrella attached in case it rains.

If you have ever been even temporarily disabled due to a broken leg or knee surgery or a foot injury, you know how maddening it is to be dependent on others for such simple acts as going to the kitchen for a glass of water, answering the telephone or, most difficult of all, to get the shopping done. For those who are permanently disabled, motorized scooters and wheelchairs help them remain as independent as possible, handle many of their own needs, and continue to be part of and contribute to their communities.

Now, on 1 October, new Medicare rules go into effect that some say will limit beneficiaries to low-powered, inexpensive wheelchair and scooter models that will not meet the needs of disabled people.

"’These changes will impact the thousands of people who will need power wheelchairs and scooters,’ Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said in a statement. ‘As Baby Boomers grow older, there will be an increased need to meet their mobility needs, but Medicare won't be there for them.’"
- Forbes, 12 September 2006

Ellen Griffith-Cohen, a public affairs specialist at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a telephone interview that the new rules are an improvement, beneficiaries will get the equipment they need and some beneficiaries will pay less under the new rules (all pay 20 percent of the cost of the equipment).

That’s because, she says, the new payment rates and billing codes that go into effect on 1 October have been refined to more accurately reflect what wheelchair and scooter models are available in the marketplace making it easier to match a wheelchair to a beneficiary’s needs. And with these changes, says Ms. Griffith-Cohen, some people will save money on their 20 percent co-pay if, for example, a $2,500 wheelchair will do the job instead of a $5,000 wheelchair.

Geoff Swindle, the founder and president of Cirrus Data, an online customer acquisition company for the healthcare industry, said in an email interview:

“…no one will know how the changes in Medicare rules affecting mobility equipment will play out until some time has gone by. Equipment providers may not be able to afford the level of service they have delivered in the past, but in the longer term, they will improve efficiency and their ability to get the needed equipment to consumers in the same manner and at the same cost as in the past should not be disrupted.”

[Disclosure: Cirrus Data pays Time Goes By a fee for the power wheelchair and scooter advertisement in the right sidebar.]

It’s difficult to have an opinion on this change in Medicare, but I suspect that more rules will change as the number of baby boomers swell the ranks of beneficiaries in coming years. Two things are important: that beneficiaries get the care and equipment they need, and that costs be carefully monitored and contained when possible.

All bureaucracies are cumbersome, slow-moving and sometimes their decisions seem arbitrary. Bureaucrat-bashing is favorite pastime of anyone who has ever dealt with a governmental agency and often with good reason.

But I was impressed with Ms. Griffith-Cohen’s knowledge of the issue when I called, her eagerness to track down the correct answers to my questions – and, she passed on this useful bit of advice for all Medicare beneficiaries:

Whenever you have questions, a dispute, complaint or bureaucratic snafu regarding your care, go first to your Medicare carrier – the insurance company. If your issue is not resolved, then contact your regional office of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). They are the people charged with gathering information on what works and what doesn’t to help improve service and will follow up to resolve your problem.

On the issue of scooters, I believe there needs to be a policy change from the top. Medicare currently covers few scooters, which are meant primarily for outdoor use, because Medicare does not pay for durable medical equipment unless it is required inside the home.

As our population ages, the more we as a society can do to keep people mobile and independent for as long as possible will save untold billions of dollars in institutional care and homecare, and allow elders to continue to participate fully in the life of their communities.

Elderblogger PhoneCon Poll
I was surprised at the small response to yesterday’s announcement of Elderblogger PhoneCon on 24 October. I had expected that most regular readers of TGB would be interested in the opportunity to talk with one another, add another kind of conversation to the community and get to know one another a bit better. But maybe I’m mistaken. So let’s have a poll:

Create Free Polls

Event Announcement: Elderblogger PhoneCon ‘06

Although elderbloggers here at Time Goes By have discussed the power of blog friendships several times, we know one another only through our written words and sometimes photos or the occasional video that we post. It’s amazing how well we come to understand one another in this way or, sometimes, unwittingly give away more about ourselves than we had intended, although that’s another story.

Blogging is a powerful social instigator, but it’s only one kind of communication.

Last week, I took part in the first PhoneCon organized by Jeneane Sessum, a TGB honorary elderblogger who wanted to test a free, web-based telephone conferencing service that claims 96 people can be on the same conference call at once.

Well, maybe that wasn’t the only reason. With tongue firmly in cheek, Jeneane has supplied her own history of PhoneCon and if you don’t go read it, you’ll be missing the intended playfulness and whimsy that is part of it.

We never reached 96 callers at once last week at PhoneCon (undoubtedly just as well), but we had a fine ol’ time over six hours hearing the voices of bloggers we’d met before only through our blogs (and meeting some bloggers we’d never read before, as well) while we told stories, exchanged information, got silly, laughed a lot and generally had a good time.

Frank Paynter of listics, who had been busy elsewhere most of the day, squeaked in just before conference cutoff time to provide the closing keynote by singing The Oscar Meyer Weiner Song. It was one of his finest moments and you can listen to it here.

A good time was had by all - so much so that I got to thinking. And then I got to thinking some more. And some more.

Now, Jeneane has graciously allowed me to co-opt her idea which I have transformed slightly into (drumroll, please)…

The First Annual Elderblogger-PhoneCon ‘06

…to take place on Tuesday, 24 October. That's four weeks from today.

Now don’t get put off by those six hours I referred to. Only Jeneane, as host and referee of PhoneCom, stayed on the telephone for the duration - although she did get all her laundry folded too. The rest of us called in and dropped off as our schedules permitted throughout the conference. I stopped in for an hour or so twice.

The conference is free. The only cost is a long-distance telephone call, but any of you who are on Skype or VoIP will pay nothing extra, of course. There will be local numbers for ten European countries so non-U.S. elderbloggers can join in too.

So mark your calendars for Tuesday, 24 October, get out your party hats and stay tuned for weekly updates. I’ll be posting telephone numbers, instructions on how to call in and announcements of special features as they occur to me.

Meanwhile, here’s an official Elderblogger-PhoneCon ‘06 conference badge (every conference requires a badge, you know) to add to your blog which you can link to this page where others can learn about Elderblogger PhoneCon.


2006 Heinz Award: Dr. William H. Thomas

category_bug_ageism.gif Long-time readers of Time Goes By know of my admiration, respect and enthusiasm for the work of William H. Thomas, M.D. and for the man himself. His book, What Are Old People For?, has been both an affirmation of my own elder advocacy and an inspiration to keep this blog going and expand the areas of aging that it covers.

This morning, the Heinz Family Foundation announces that Dr. Thomas has been selected to receive its 12th annual Human Condition Award. Teresa Heinz, who is chair of the foundation established by her late husband, Senator John Heinz and, I’m sure you will remember from the 2004 presidential campaign, the wife of Senator John Kerry, says:

“With contagious enthusiasm and an unwavering vision, Dr. Thomas has helped bring dignity, joy and love into an environment that has been too long lacking in these essential human qualities. As America continues to age and the nation’s population of seniors doubles over the next quart century, Dr. Thomas’ transformation of our system of long-term care is, quite literally, just what the doctor ordered.

“His ‘Edenization’ of long-term care environments has dramatically improved the quality of life for countless older adults, engaging them in their own care creating active, home-like communities. Because my late husband John was so committed to answering the special problems and needs of the older population, it is especially fitting that this Heinz Award for the Human Condition goes to Dr. Thomas for his ennobling work.”

In the past, I have quoted liberally here and here and here and here and here and in other blog posts from What Are Old People For? and will again. It is so good and so important a work on elders and aging that if I had my way, I’d just reprint the entire book on TGB. But you could buy it for yourself.

On the back burner for Times Goes By during the months of my move to Maine has been a planned series on alternative living arrangements for elders. At the top of the list to be covered is Dr. Thomas’s Eden Alternative along with another elder housing concept he has created called Green Houses, smaller-than-Eden communities of six to ten people that provide high-quality eldercare in environments that feel like home.

In a couple of weeks, TGB will present an interview with Dr. Thomas. Meanwhile, congratulations on the well-deserved Heinz Award to this extraordinary man who has devoted his lifework to countering ageism in all its forms by becoming a force in helping to create a positive elderhood for everyone.


Guest Blogger: Susan Harris

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A drawback I hadn’t considered in choosing Portland, Maine, as my new hometown is that not many movies play here, particularly compared to New York City.

The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club is an important, new movie to Time Goes By, but I’m unlikely to see it until it’s released on DVD so when Susan Harris of GardenRant and Takoma Gardener offered to review it for TGB, I jumped at her suggestion. She titles her piece Boynton Beach, Hotbed of Eldersex and I thank her for a terrific critique.]

Boyton_beach_club_postersmall_1 BACKSTORY First, I love the whole back story of The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club. Indie writer/director Susan Seidelman of Desperately Seeking Susan fame was inspired to write it by her mother who lives in a south Florida retirement community and had “stories to tell”. Mom Seidelman not only co-authored the script but served as the movie's producer, which means she scouted locations, hired extras, the whole enchillada.

When they approached the movie studios with their idea, they were told there's not enough commercial potential in this demographic, but they disagreed. After all, industry surveys show that viewers older than 50 now comprise 23.9 percent of the movie audience, a figure that's rising steadily. So the Seidelmans opened the movie themselves, with Mom handing out flyers and putting up posters in the delis of West Palm Beach, and after what one industry wag called a “cult following” in south Florida, it got picked up nationally.

THE MOVIE
My friend Joell and I were your TGB test audience and we both give it a thumb's up for its honest, sensitive portrayal of retirement community residents without reliance on tired-out, ageist stereotypes. (Okay, there were two arguably ageist bits - a view of water aerobics filmed underwater, flabby thighs and all, and the early-bird special, Chinese buffet - but they were funny.

Joell and I were both surprised that this so-called comedy was so much about the loss of a spouse, grieving and fear of loneliness. So poignant, so sad at its heart. And I'm not giving anything away because it starts with the accidental death of a really great guy out jogging and dancing to his iPod and the grieving of his wife, the ever-lovable Brenda Vaccaro at her very best. Actually, the whole cast is excellent, something reviewers agreed on.

ELDERSEX
But how about that eldersex? Well, it's not unlike teenager sex in movies - following characters as they date, buy condoms, get naked for the first time, and learn to drive. Except these folks are in their 60s and 70s, the point being that when it comes to the search for romance, we're always teenagers, something I can attest to from my own years of middle-aged dating. Best pick-up line: “By the way, I can drive at night.”

Still want to know more, you voyeurs? Okay, there's a flash of Sally Kellerman's breasts and two couples get it on off-camera. Probably too much sex for the Christian Coalition, but just fine in this sweet movie.

A COMPLAINT
I know one movie can't say everything, but we see so many desperate woman here and I can't help suggesting it's time for us to reconsider our assumption that we need a man in order to be happy. After all, while men older than 60 are hot commodities, the odds against women of a certain age finding a man are, frankly, grim.

I'm reminded of a wonderful mother-in-law I once had who lived in North Miami and saw the desperation all around her. Her proposed solution to the problem; "The ladies should try going lesbian.” Now there'screative problem-solving for you, and there are a lot more options, like finding our passion in gardening or blogging or a million other pursuits.

Plasticsurgerysmall PLASTIC SURGERY A lot has been written about the obvious surgical interventions on the faces of Sally Kellerman and most especially Dyan Cannon. Having been taught never to say mean things about people's looks, I'll just note what a relief it was every time the camera alighted on natural-looking faces. Natural-looking bodies, too, wearing clothes for grown-ups. Cannon is still lovable but her age denial is sometimes uncomfortable to observe.

THE REVIEWERS Knowing that Ronni's readers would be just as interested in reactions to the movie as the movie itself, I've read all the reviews I could find. They were generally favorable with scattered complaints that it's lightweight or “sitcom-y.” I agree, but do we really want a steady diet of On Golden Pond? I think not. Many critics noted the movie's humanity and sensitivity, and even applauded its focus on the issues and concerns of a “vast, overlooked demographic.”

So how do the reviewers rate on our ageism-ometer? I'm happy to report finding no egregious insults. The worst offender was The New York Times reviewer, who complained that the movie presented a “rose-colored fantasy of aging” because it “omitted talk of surgery, blood pressure, cholesterol, arthritis and the thousand other health concerns of older people.” Well, excuse us for having a life!

Actually, I'd like to counter with the reminder that characters in this movie dealt with loss, visits to the pharmacy, insurance forms, lapsed driver's licenses and patronizing comments about their ability to understand - not exactly the most fun aspects of aging.

One reviewer who stood out for his sensitivity is worth noting because he's a kid - specifically, a member of Brown U's class of 2008. His is the only review I found who mentioned the importance of friendship in the movie. (Especially touching was the grieving Brenda Vaccaro character telling her new best friend, Dyan Cannon, “You're the best thing that's happened to me all year,” and Cannon saying, “Me too.” I loved that!)

This young reviewer even suggested it's a shame that the fat ladies in the movie don't get partners, which is true but not something I even noticed. So the next time we all fume over some thoroughly obnoxious comment by a young person, I'll remember this guy and have hope.

One odd note: three different reviewers referred to the cast as baby boomers, so I wonder if the term is becoming synonymous with old people - at least to distant observers who don't know that boomers are still in their 50s and younger than anyone in the cast, thank you very much. As a true boomer myself, let me say: Don't rush us.

TRENDS
To Hollywood, “older audience” means viewers older than 25 and those older than 50 are virtually invisible. But change may be afoot. Think Ladies in Lavender, Calendar Girls, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Waking Ned Devine and World's Fastest Indian. And let's keep reminding Hollywood decision-makers that Driving Miss Daisy earned $100 million back in the day.

And there's some good news in this Washington Post piece about older folks on television. We're told that “Old is the New Young,” whatever that means, and that a whole slew of talented actors older than 50 are starring on TV. Seems that instead of targeting all their shows to the young, more programmers are using a big-tent model and going for “tonnage,” a rather weird term for large numbers of viewers. “Get enough audience and the demographics kind of take care of themselves.”

And maybe young viewers aren't so myopic after all because three out of four of the shows most popular with 18-to-34-year-old viewers are CSI, Desperate Housewives and House, all with stars way older than that coveted demographic group.

So check out The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club and thanks Ronni, for the invitation to play film critic/culture critic/know-it-all.


Market Day

category_bug_journal2.gif Wednesday is market day in Portland, Maine and every week since I moved here in early June, I have shopped at the farmers’ stalls in the early morning before the produce and flowers are picked over.

I can’t eat as much as I once did – must be something about getting older – and I haven't learned new buying habits yet, so I always get too much; so many good things to eat and so little stomach space. I’ve been meaning to take you on a photo tour for the longest time and I finally remembered the camera yesterday.

There was a hybrid pea this summer I had never seen before, a cross between Chinese peapods and sugar peas that grows flat and twisted and is as sweet as candy – best raw in salads, but good when steamed too. They have to be enjoyed quickly; their season is only two or three weeks in July and August.

Many farmers here specialize in heirloom vegetables, so I’ve been trying new (to me) kinds of tomatoes along with a cucumber which grows in a spiral shape and is half the diameter of the standard, waxy supermarket variety. I’ve come to favor cute little sweet peppers the size of shallots that are available in green, yellow, orange, red and purple.

Blackberries are gone now for the year, but the second growth of raspberries is still going strong and Keith, who mans the stall where I buy mine, says they will be around for another two or three weeks.

The market is smack in the middle of downtown Portland in Monument Square where protests and musical performances are held at other times. Yesterday, I found this colorful array of root vegetables.

Radishesturnipscarrotsbeets

That pile of white is baby turnips, the flavor of which is less strong than their larger relatives. Steamed and mashed with some butter and garlic, they are a whole new taste treat. But I like them cut up raw in a salad too.

I usually buy lettuce at Freedom Farm. The varieties are robust and crispy, and reports of e.coli notwithstanding, I bought some spinach yesterday – the wrinkled kind you can’t find in supermarkets anymore.

Lettuce_yarn

It fits with Freedom Farm’s well-tended vegetables that they also sell hand-dyed yarn spun from the wool of their own sheep.

Autumn begins on Saturday, but the remaining watermelon were reminders of summer almost past, and the squash is in greater supply now.

Summer_fall

Pumpkins of all sizes were at nearly every stall this week. I like the ones on the left, a slightly off shade of orange I’ve never seen before to match their not-quite-pumpkin shape. I’ll buy one or two next week.

Pumpkins

If pumpkins don’t convince you fall has arrived, the rows and rows of mums will. It appears that all local farmers also grow chrysanthemums. They are a lot less expensive for a pot the size of these than in New York…

Mums

…but I opted instead for these more exotic Chinese lanterns to show off the new cupboard which fills a wall space that was looking entirely too empty.

Chineselanterns


The Women’s Movement 40 Years Later

To go with the magazine’s cover story on Women and Leadership this week, Newsweek columnist, Anna Quindlen, ponders "Everyday Equality".

She covers the usual suspects juxtaposing Indra Nooyi, who just became the CEO of Pepsi, against the tiny two percent of Fortune 500 companies run by women, and comparing the victory of Katie Couric being appointed the first female sole anchor of a network news broadcast (now that hardly anyone watches those three programs) to the publicity image inanely Photoshopped to make her appear slimmer than she is.

Ms. Quindlen also writes that men now take a larger role in raising the kids even though every survey shows working mothers still do the vast majority of housework and earn about 70 cents for every dollar men do. She says sex crimes and domestic violence are now prosecuted while another story in the same issue tells us that a 2004 Massachusetts survey reported that “54 percent of child custody cases involving documented spousal abuse were decided in favor of the alleged batterers.”

While patting herself on the back for having lobbied The New York Times successfully to remove fashion notes from reports on the campaign of vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, the bland conclusion Ms. Quindlen draws from this is that women now live in a better world.

Well, yes, but only to a point. When the modern women’s movement began more than 40 years ago - 40 years ago - I expected a lot more equality than Ms. Quindlen’s list by the time I was 65 years old. Those of us who burned their bras or marched or lobbied our representatives are old women now, and I could not have guessed that 40 years after we first heard of Gloria Steinem, she and her friends would believe it necessary to found an all-women, talk radio network.

Israel, India, Pakistan, The Phillipines and Finland, among others, elected or appointed their first female heads of state decades ago while a CNN reporter-ette is still, in 2006, asking Senator Hillary Clinton if a woman can be elected president of the U.S.

When I took part yesterday in the first PhoneCon, organized and conducted masterfully for six hours by Jeneane Sessum, we noted at several points that unlike about 98 percent of in-person tech and blog conferences, women on the telephone were the majority. We should be far enough along by now that numbers of men versus women in attendance anywhere is not noteworthy.

I disagree with Ms. Quindlen on “everyday equality.” Progress on some big issues that required legislation have moved forward, but it is a sign of lack of progress in other areas that they are still remarked upon and held up as examples.

We have not nor will we have won equality – the everyday kind that is the measure of success - until it is not necessary to headline the news that a woman has been made CEO of a mega-corporation; until Blogher is considered sexist; until women like Ann Coulter and Nancy Grace, without comment on their gender, have as much right to be blithering idiots on television as men do.

It doesn’t help these goals to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist tell us the women’s movement is a success because:

“In 1970, 46 women at this magazine charged it with workplace discrimination; today Newsweek publishes an annual issue on women’s leadership.”

When there is an annual cover story on leadership – with no gender reference - then we will have everyday equality.


When Did You First Realize You Were Old?

As much as we would like to believe otherwise, a lot of how we define ourselves comes from others. If strangers regularly run screaming in the opposite direction when they see you, it would be a fair assumption that you might be a candidate to play the monster in a horror movie.

And when a 20-something interviewing you for a job leans across the table, pats your arm and says, “Tell me your life goals, dear,” you can excuse yourself and leave because she thinks you are too old to handle the work.

From the cradle, we are taught that old is bad. Through images and language in books, magazines, television, movies and behavior of others, we learn that the aged are at best tolerated or made the object of derision and bad jokes - and, at worst, denied employment and even the opportunity to spend money.

So we pay attention and make note when others begin to classify us as no longer young.

The first time it was made evident to me, I was in my early thirties. Walking home from the subway, I crossed the street behind two boys about 12 or 13 playing catch. As the one facing me threw the ball to his friend who was running backwards to catch it, he yelled, “Watch out for the lady behind you.”

I can remember the shock. No one had ever referred to me before as anything but “girl,” although it was a different era. The incident occurred in the 1970s when it was still okay to call even a 60-year-old “girl” and before many newspapers began, improbably, referring to teenagers as “…the 16-year-old woman who lives in The Bronx…”

At home that evening, I carefully checked my appearance in the mirror, but mostly I forgot about my age until, in 1996 and in my mid-fifties, I looked around during a staff meeting at cbsnews.com and noticed I was the oldest kid in the room. By decades.

When one of the youngest learned I had been at Woodstock in 1969, her eyes widened in a wow effect and she reacted as though I had watched Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. To be fair, she was more interested in a first-hand account of a legendary rock-and-roll gathering than pointing out my age, but for my part, I was startled to realize that I was recalling an event that had taken place before she and some of my other colleagues were born – a sure indication no one would ever again think of me as young.

If it were as acceptable to be old as it is to be young, no one would ever say, “You’re only as old as you feel” or, with faux shock at the number of candles on their birthday cake, “I don’t feel 50” or 60 or 65. It makes me nuts when I hear those statements because whatever you feel at a given age is what it feels like to be that age. To say otherwise is to tacitly agree with the cultural consensus that to be old is to be a lesser being.

I suspect what people really mean when they say those things is, “Where has the time gone?” Sixty years sounds like a long time – actually, it is a long time - but without much effort - and especially if we close our eyes for a moment - we can recall our tenth birthday or first kiss or other special event as clearly as if it were yesterday.

The tagline of this blog is “what it’s really like to get older.” It is unlikely I would have created Time Goes By if that were easy to know. It is not easy because we live in a time and place which demands that we hide our age by any means possible until it is impossible, and until we reach that point, we try to fool not only everyone else about our age, but ourselves as well.

Still, we note the changes as they occur, we notice when others begin to treat us differently and in time, we come to acknowledge that we are no longer part of the youngest or even younger generations. And if we are not unduly taken in by the youth and beauty police - age becomes an happy and enjoyable place to be.

So which brave readers among you will tell the rest of us what it was that made you realize, the first time, that you were growing older?


Medicare Surcharge

category_bug_politics.gif Part B is the voluntary portion of Medicare which covers doctors’ services, diagnostic tests and hospital outpatient services for more than 42 million people 65 and older or disabled. The current monthly premium is $88.50. In January 2007, it will increase to $93.50.

Also in January, what Medicare calls a “surcharge” will be instituted for the first time. A more accurate description is “means test” as the premium will increase further for single people with annual incomes of more than $80,000 and for couples filing joint tax returns with annual incomes of $160,000 or more.

The surcharge went almost unnoticed when it was included in the Part D (prescription drug coverage) legislation of 2003 and now, with less than four months to go until it is implemented, outcries are being heard across the land.

Here is a chart (blatantly stolen from The New York Times story published last week) of the means-test surcharges:

Medicaresurchargechart

Opponents of the surcharge argue that it is unfair, that it turns a social insurance program into a welfare program, and Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem., New York) has introduced a bill to repeal the surcharge. It is worth noting that Ms. Lowey’s 18th Congressional District, just north of Manhattan, includes some of the highest-income bedroom communities in the U.S.

Another argument against the surcharge is that will drive high-income beneficiaries out of the Medicare program and into private insurance. That seems to be a specious argument if it is assumed that people at all income levels wish to keep their personal costs down.

Even the highest surcharged premium – $162.10 per month or $1945.20 annually – is pocket change for a single person with an income above $150,000 a year. For a couple, the total would be $3890.40. I became one of the uninsured in the months before I qualified for Medicare when my private healthcare premium shot up to $900 a month, so I doubt anyone can beat $162.10 in the private sector.

Even at the lowest income level at which the surcharge is assessed - $80,001 for a single person, $160,001 for a couple – the annual premium is $1272 and $2544 respectively. That’s 1.59 percent (single) and 3.18 percent (couples) of income. A bargain.

Some have suggested that the surcharges be indexed to local cost of living. That may be a good idea but in Manhattan, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., I know plenty of people who earn less than $80,000 a year. They aren’t living high on the hog, but they get by, so I think the $80,000 low-end surcharge is reasonable.

According to Medicare, the surcharge will affect 3.5 percent of beneficiaries, about 1.5 million people. Federal health officials estimate that 9,000 people will drop out of Medicare because of the surcharge (what are they thinking?) and more in 2009, when the surcharges are further increased.

But there is a larger point to be made. Medicare is already stretched to the limits of its means and when the baby boomers begin signing on in five years, the program will be springing leaks. The money must be found to support the program and a small surcharge – less than the cost of a high-end HD television set - is little enough for the haves to give up to help the have-nots.

As with our graduated income tax, it has long been a tenet of American social justice that those who have more, pay more into the system. The haves must ask themselves how much money is enough. And we must all ask ourselves what kind of people are we if we do not provide even basic healthcare to those who cannot afford it.

Long term, a better solution is needed. Universal health coverage for everyone of every age, funded in an entirely different manner, should be adopted, as every other nation in the developed world has. But until we can elect something better than the corrupt, do-nothing Congress we have, which is concerned only with reducing taxes for the rich, this surcharge is the best we’ve got.

At the income levels at which the surcharge has been set, no one can claim to be burdened.


Pointing Fingers at Ageism

UPDATE - 16 September 2006: Matt Stoller has left a note (below in comments) stating that he did not write the statement about elders that I quoted and that it is a reader’s email. I apologize for the mis-attribution. However, the statement is not cited as reader’s email, so I could only assume it was Matt writing. Additionally, it was presented without lead-in or comment on its offensiveness.

category_bug_ageism.gif No one knows about most of the bigotry that goes on because it is silent. There is enough legislation in place and public pressure as a result of it that few dare to openly express prejudice toward others.

Instead, they discriminate by exclusion and victims may suspect but can't be certain they have been passed over due to their race, gender, age or sexual orientation. It happens every day: a person, although qualified, is not hired or promoted; when a buyer who is deemed undesirable makes a formal offer, a house is suddenly withdrawn from the market; a reservation at a restaurant has been lost - oh, so sorry for the mistake, but there are no tables.

Some bigots, however, have no shame, publicly declaring their personal prejudice, often couching it as though they are bravely flouting convention or political correctness. Because we can't see the secret, silent bigotry, it is important to point fingers when the open kind appears.

Yesterday, Susan of Takoma Gardener left a comment here on TGB relating the conversation of a writer on The Charlie Rose Show who accused 83-year-old Viacom chairman, Sumner Redstone, of being impatient and impetuous for firing his Viacom CEO and, a week earlier, actor Tom Cruise. Susan continued:

“.. again and again he claimed it's related to [Redstone’s] advanced age, saying. ‘Pardon the ageism, but he's a cranky old man.’"

Hurray for Susan for also noting: “Using Ronni's test, imagine ‘Pardon the racism, but...’"

Naomi Dagen Bloom of A Little Red Hen blog alerted me to another shameless piece of open bigotry. She first found it at alternet.org from where it seems to have disappeared, but is still at its original blog, myDD.com.

The blogger, Matt Stoller, related the difficulties he had voting on Tuesday in the Maryland state primary. There were snags in using a computer poll book resulting in his uncertainty about whether his vote would be counted. Mr. Stoller concluded his piece with this:

“…the poll workers are volunteers who are retired or otherwise don't have regular jobs - lots of elderly people with bad eyesight, arthritic hands, and no computer experience, who have no difficulty at all with index cards but can't manage these touch screens.”

Mr. Stoller, as long as you have put stereotypes on the table, let's discuss the scores of retail clerks over the years - teens and 20-somethings with an attitude of bored superiority - who have not been capable of correctly operating the cash register and when, on occasion, it has broken, don't know how to figure the change when the computer doesn’t tell them how much money to return to me.

Shall I tell you too about how they hand over change with the paper money in my palm first and the coins on top so that it all falls on the counter and the floor? I'll take age-related debility any day over slacker incompetence.

But I digress...

Electronic voting is in its infancy. Even you acknowledge that the machines don’t work well to begin with, have rarely been adequately tested prior to voting day and may have been fiddled by partisans with ulterior motives. And yet you expect them to operate properly.

As to your characterization of old people: when you were a little boy, you drooled, pooped your pants at inopportune moments, ran screaming up and down aisles of stores and otherwise made a nuisance of yourself that disrupted the lives of everyone in your vicinity.

We – your parents, other relatives, parents’ friends and strangers too - overlooked your bad behavior because you were too young to know better. It is not unlikely a stranger saved your life when you ran, unheeding of your or anyone else’s safety, in front of a car.

Society and the community make allowances for and go out of their way to protect children who haven't learned yet what is dangerous or even just annoying to others.

Now that you are of voting age, you might consider returning the favor to elders. You are correct that in old age, eyesight dims, movement slows and arthritis hinders manipulation of paper, pens and computer touch screens in some elders. For many of those people, it is painful to stand or even sit all day on hard folding chairs to man the polling station where you vote. Yet they volunteer to do so.

As adults tolerated you in boyhood, it wouldn’t hurt you to spare a little time for the old person who believes in democracy enough to overcome those hindrances for a day so you can vote.

In fact, if you are so passionately concerned with democracy, as the title of your blog suggests you may be, you might use the time gained, while waiting for a slow-moving elder, to savor your participation in direct democracy instead of treating it like foul-tasting medicine to be swallowed as quickly as possible.

You might even give up a day’s pay in November to volunteer at a polling station. That way, you could participate even further in the direct democracy you claim to love and along the way, you could even pass on some of your smartypants computer knowledge to an old person so that in 2008, you won’t be delayed on your way to all that important stuff in your life that requires you to rush through voting.


Crabby's Quotes on Aging

“Let me do it,” said Crabby Old Lady. “Whenever you post quotes about getting old, you edit out the negative ones.

The problem, I told Crabby, is that people who have negative but quotable things to say about age trick them out with cuteness and cleverness so readers don’t notice the prejudice in them.

“Not always,” said Crabby. “Sometimes they’re just straight-out nasty about getting old. I want to post some to show TGB readers how even writers and thinkers of renown are sometimes hateful or stupid or mistaken.”

“Doris Day is a thinker of renown?” I asked Crabby. Anyway, here is Crabby Old Lady’s collection of quotes about aging:

  • “The really frightening thing about middle age is the knowledge that you'll grow out of it.”
    - Doris Day
  • All diseases run into one, old age.
    - Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “It was one of the deadliest and heaviest feelings of my life to feel that I was no longer a boy. From that moment I began to grow old in my own esteem - and in my esteem, age is not estimable.”
    - Anatole France
  • “Old age is a shipwreck.”
    - Charles de Gaulle
  • “Whatever poet, orator or sage may say of it, old age is still old age.”
    - Sinclair Lewis
  • “Old age has deformities enough of its own. It should never add to them the deformity of vice.”
    - Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “I will never give in to old age until I become old. And I'm not old yet.”
    - Leo Rosten
  • ”Like many women my age, I am 28 years old.”
    - Mary Schmich
  • “In youth we run into difficulties. In old age difficulties run into us.”
    - Beverly Sills
  • “The trick is growing up without growing old.”
    - Casey Stengel
  • “Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”
    - Tom Stoppard

  • “There's no such thing as old age, there is only sorrow.”
    - Fay Weldon


Longevity – Don’t Blame Your Parents

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“’How tall your parents are compared to the average height explains 80 to 90 percent of how tall you are compared to the average person,’ Dr. Vaupel said. But ‘only 3 percent of how long you live compared to the average person can be explained by how long your parents lived.’”
- The New York Times, 31 August 2006

Many years ago, a friend was approaching his 40th birthday. He was convinced that because his father had died of a heart attack at age 42, his days too were numbered. I can report that, now in his late sixties, the man is still alive and healthy, but over the intervening years, I have met an astonishing number of men (much more so than women) who expect to die at about the age their father’s did.

According to several ongoing studies into longevity, reported in a remarkably thorough piece written by Gina Kolata in a recent issue of http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/31/health/31age.html?ex=1314676800&en=7a042fdf09063881&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss, this is bunk. Dr. Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark has studied 10,251 pairs of identical, same-sex twins whose genes are identical, and fraternal twins who are no different genetically from ordinary siblings.

Even with identical twins, says Dr. Christensen, “the vast majority die years apart.”

“…there was almost no genetic influence on age of death before 60, suggesting that early death has a large random component – an auto accident, a fall. In fact, the studies of twins found almost no genetic influence on age of death even at older ages, except among people who live to be very old, the late 80s, the 90s or even 100.”

Dr. Caleb Finch, a researcher on aging at the University of South California, who reports that genetically identical animals living in the same environments die at different times, further defines randomness:

“There are two phases of randomness,” he says. “There’s the randomness of life experience. The unlucky ones, who get an infection, get hit on the head or get mutations that turn a cell into cancer. And there are random events in development…random differences in development early in life can set the stage for deterioration decades later.”

Even the belief that certain diseases are strongly inheritable is being refuted.

“…only a few cancers – breast, prostrate and colorectal – had a noticeable genetic component. And that was not much…”

“…Alzheimer’s is so common in the elderly that it occurs in 35 percent of people age 80 and older. If genes determine who gets Alzheimer’s at older ages, Dr. Pederson says, ‘those genes must be very common, have small effects and probably interact with the environment.’”

“Heart disease appears to be indiscriminate, striking almost everyone eventually…”

“…the general picture is consistent in study after study,” writes Ms. Kolata. “A strong family history of even a genetically linked disease does not guarantee a person will get it, and having no family history does not mean a person is protected.”

Matt McGue, a professor of psychology who studies life spans as contrasted with personalities says,

“I’ve been in this business a long while, and life span is probably one of the most weakly heritable traits I’ve ever studied.”

That certainly appears to knock the old joke, "I come from a line of long livers," into a cocked hat. It has been conventional wisdom all my life that if our parents and grandparents lived to a ripe old age, we too, especially with the improved nutrition and healthcare we have benefited from in the 20th century, can expect to live unto the outer reaches of human longevity.

Maybe, maybe not. But it appears to have little to do with our parents' longevity. This story is popular journalism at its best, reporting practical knowledge resulting from recent and ongoing genetic studies in language laymen can understand. It's worth reading.


Elders For the Common Good

category_bug_politics.gif About 18 months ago, I posted an email a friend had sent, one of those things that makes the internet rounds and may have been doing so for years – there is never any way to know. It was titled, For All the Kids Who Survived the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

I liked it - and still do - as a minor nostalgia piece and it filled a void on a day when my blog mind had gone dry. You can read it here. In fact, you need to read it to understand the rest of this post.

Okay, are you back now?

I’d forgotten about it until a few days ago when a reader named “Brian” left the following comment on that post. I’ve re-paragraphed it for ease of reading, but it is otherwise unchanged:

“Oh yes, what a wonderful email. I can't wait to have a child of my own to smother in lead based paint.

“Only being born in 1981, I am just a young'n and still very new to the world. But there is one thing I would like to say. On behalf of my entire generation, the pampered, the spoiled, and the ‘overregulated’:

“Thank you. Thank you to all the risk-takers, the problem solvers, and to all the inventors. Thank you for directly handing down to us your great legacy. Thank you because we have now inherited a greater pile of problems, so urgent and so profound. The likes of which your great generation has never seen. If only we could keep you here to fix them.”

As he notes himself, Brian is young, so forgive him for not yet understanding that people are not created equal. That few are equipped to rise to positions of leadership where they can individually make a difference on a large scale. Forgive him for not understanding yet that the anointed – almost always those of great wealth – make secret decisions in board rooms and closed-door congressional meetings, beyond the ballot box and beyond the public’s ability to circumvent them until it is too late.

Forgive him for being still too ignorant to know that no one, even scientists, understood the danger of lead-based paint in the beginning, and that when it became known, we did something about it.

I could ignore Brian based on his snideness alone, but I decided to take him seriously because I’ve been thinking lately that the state of world has become demonstrably worse than when I arrived on Earth 65 years ago.

Certainly there have been astonishing medical advances that have extended life spans by 30 years. Brian himself never faced the possibility of early death due to whooping cough, small pox, diphtheria and other childhood diseases that have been eradicated.

Technological advances, growing out of larger scientific discoveries and inventions, have made our daily lives much easier than it was for our parents and grandparents. And although I don’t see how going to moon and Mars has directly improved our lives, I have no doubt it can pay off in the future, just as Christopher Columbus’s trip across an unknown sea has.

But I’m not talking about those close-at-hand changes or even wars, which mankind seems incapable of renouncing. I’m more concerned with the much, much bigger picture, the “profound problems” to which (I think) Brian alludes.

No one mentions anymore, when we slather ourselves in spf 400 sun lotion, that it’s needed because overuse of hydrofluorocarbons and other chemicals have ripped a giant hole in Earth’s ozone layer.

It’s been years and years since mainstream media has reported on the demise of the rainforest and what it is doing worldwide to the air plants and animals need to survive.

Our president dismisses the now foregone conclusion of global warming (he’s not alone; other world leaders ignore it too) when strategies should be in place by now to reverse it, if that is possible and if it is not, to accommodate life on Earth as the planet warms up.

No world leaders step in to stop megacorporations like Coca-Cola who, on the pretense of creating jobs for the poor in India, build bottling plants in tiny villages and then pump the groundwater dry to produce sugared drinks no one needs while killing the villages and dispersing people who have no means to begin with. (Imagine if the source of water for your city ran dry.)

Forty or more years ago, we were warned of the consequences of overpopulation. No one talks about that anymore either and although growth has slowed as the world population begins to age, some countries like Russia pay women to have more babies while governments and corporations exhort us to produce more widgets and grow, grow, grow the economies.

Shall I go on? No leaders, anywhere, look beyond the next quarterly dividend and the further accumulation of wealth to the already wealthy continues unchecked, without a thought to the possibility of the death of our planet.

The problems are so monumental and so many, it’s hard to know where to begin. Scientists have warned us again and again, but they have no political power to change governments’ direction. The efforts of environmental groups, who are up against billion-dollar corporations and their handmaidens in government, amount to no more that a pimple on the – well, you know what I mean.

And the media, which do have political clout and have no difficulty saturating us 24/7 with pictures of the non-killer of JonBenet Ramsey and a movie star’s baby, have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve blood or obscene amounts of money.

Elders, by our circumstance, have more time to address serious issues than younger adults still raising children and trying to save enough money to educate them. We also have decades of accumulated knowledge, experience, judgment and, sometimes, wisdom that younger people haven’t gained yet. For those reasons, I believe it is incumbent upon us to contribute as much as we can muster to the common good.

So here are two questions. They are difficult, so pick just one and tell us what you think:

  1. What can we, ordinary people, do to get our leaders to attend to these crucial problems?
  2. What would you say in answer to Brian?

Five Years On

category_bug_journal2.gif In the late 1950s, there was an excellent television drama titled The Naked City set, of course, in New York. The show's tagline was, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them." And so it is today on Time Goes By, one small story among millions:

In the late summer of 2001, I was 60 years old, unemployed since the overnight demise, 13 months earlier, of the dotcom where I had been vice president of editorial and interactive.

The stack of printouts and folders on my desk had reached a height of two inches – more than a year’s worth of email and snailmail job applications, cover letters, lists of potential employment contacts, headhunters, notes of telephone conversations, rejection letters, follow-up schedules and spreadsheets tracking it all.

As everyone in the world would soon know, the morning of 11 September dawned gloriously cool, bright and sunny - a good day, if you were not working, to go to the park or bicycle down the urban path toward the World Trade Center or just walk the city. But not for me. The wolf had been scratching at my door for many weeks and on top of that stack of job search detritus was a list of contacts I intended to call as soon as offices opened.

By shortly after 8AM, I had been at my desk for a couple of hours working on a design for what would, before long, become my first blog (not this one). I only half listened to CBS News Radio88 in the background, the usual litany of national and local politics, deliberate and accidental death, and celebrity stories to fill in the blanks between commercials.

Then the breaking-news alert sounded. I remember groaning; it would be just another fender bender or commuter traffic snarl breathlessly reported as though it were the start of World War III. But instead, the news reader said something about an airplane and the World Trade Center. I dashed to the bedroom to turn on the television and saw to my horror that perhaps it was, this time, World War III.

It’s the little things in life that can turn me into a crazed harridan. When the big things happen, I am calm and rational, running potential next steps through my mind and then taking action, if any is needed. My lifelong broadcast career training kicked in; I needed to get to the office right away to help cover the story. But I had no office to go to. So, I phoned a journalist friend who was recently retired from full-time work.

“It’s like the Empire State Building years ago,” he said. “Some pilot lost his way.” “No way,” said I. For three years, I had worked in an office on 11th Avenue overlooking the Hudson where I had watched planes large and small move up and down the river all day. I knew that 1: no planes are allowed to fly over Manhattan and 2: pilots are taught to ditch, when something goes wrong, in water and there is plenty of that around Manhattan. “It’s a terrorist attack,” I told my friend.

As soon as we hung up, the phone rang - my upstairs neighbor. His wife took the two boys to school in Brooklyn each day by subway and then returned home. She was late, he said. He just knew she had stopped to shop, as was her habit a couple of times a week, at Century 21 across the street from the World Trade Center. She didn’t have a cell phone with her. He was terrified.

My Greenwich Village apartment was half a block from the intersection of Sixth Avenue, a major north/south artery, and Houston Street. For 20 years, it had been my private ritual, as I left home each morning, to check north for a view of the Empire State Building and then south to check the twin towers of the World Trade Center. If they were there then all was right, I believed, with my world.

A second, less uplifting ritual – mental exercise, really - that began following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, was my now-and-then attempt to calculate, should a Trade Center building fall over northward, whether the top of it would crash into my townhouse. My conclusion had been that it didn’t matter. Even if it didn’t reach as far as my block, the concussion would probably kill me. You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life. But my mind wandered back to it from time to time.

On that morning five years ago, my upstairs neighbor and I sat watching television near his phone waiting, hoping, silently praying to all the gods the world has ever worshipped to let us hear from his wife. We took turns joining neighbors at the corner of Sixth and Houston, staring south to the fire and smoke and, before long, the collapse of the buildings.

Within an hour or so, my neighbor’s wife telephoned from a friend’s house in SoHo and soon, sitting on our stoop together, we saw her, covered in soot, walking toward us. Later, she told her story:

Yes, she had been shopping at Century 21 and was just entering the stairs to the subway in the lower concourse of the World Trade Center when there was a tremendous noise above, which shook the entire building. Debris was raining down as she and everyone raced out and away, not looking back. She hadn’t known what had happened until she reached her friend’s house.

I heard many more stories that day. I spent much of it sitting on my stoop and as thousands of survivors walked north on Sixth Avenue toward their homes, some turned into my street. The first time, I was surprised when a stranger in a dusty business suit, carrying a briefcase plopped himself down beside me and wept on my shoulder as he told me his story. When he had collected himself enough to head home, another stopped, and another, sometimes two and three at a time. We wept together for the dead, for ourselves and for our city.

That evening, the journalist friend I had spoken with in the morning came by and we walked Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat dinner. Hardly any restaurants were open and those that were, were crammed with people, most of them strangers to one another just wanting to be with other people. We joined them and then wandered over to Washington Square Park where thousands of others had gathered too.

The next morning, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood, but by then, sadly, it wasn’t necessary and I was turned away. Home-made posters with photos of the missing were posted on many buildings in the neighborhood. Spontaneous memorials with American flags, candles, flowers, prayer cards and notes had appeared on many street corners.

The authorities shut down traffic except for emergency vehicles below 14th Street for the next four days, and we used the winding Greenwich Village streets as the cowpaths they once were, ignoring street lights and crosswalks, walking where whim took us.

During those days, knots of people – sometimes neighbors, sometimes strangers – gathered here and there. The first question, carefully worded, was always, “Is everyone you know okay?” Sometimes they were; sometimes they weren’t. Often we just stood together silently for awhile, stunned still by the events of that terrible day.

Three weeks later, at last, I was offered a job and a week after that, I was on a plane to Florida for a conference. Planes approaching New York travel up the Hudson River and then turn toward LaGuardia Airport. On my return from Florida, I deliberately chose a window seat on the Manhattan side of the plane because although I had seen the aerial photos of Ground Zero, I wanted to see it "for real".

The size of the devastation was shocking. I'd had no idea that much of downtown was gone. A big, ugly, open sore on the city, much larger than any photo or video had conveyed.

The first anniversary of 9/11 hit me as hard as the first anniversary of the deaths of loved ones I’ve buried. I mourned for the dead, for the kind of world we had come to live in now, and for the damage done to my city.

It disturbs me still that from the day of the attack – and still – when I have stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, I can’t remember which buildings the World Trade Center towered above when I looked south each morning. It feels as though my lack of attention all those years to their exact location in the sky is a betrayal and I am sorry for that.

Today, it is five years later and now we, the American people have been betrayed. The president used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to launch a war with lies that have been proved to be so beyond doubt. Nearly as many American soldiers have died now as died that day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 20 thousand more have suffered injuries they will live with until the end of their days.

And what have we gained?

Columnist Frank Rich summed it up yesterday in The New York Times [subscription required]:

“…so here we are five year later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead.”

Social Security and Identity Theft

When my wallet was stolen a few years ago, I went through the usual rigamarole of replacing all the various cards we carry. Among the chores, I went to the local Social Security office, filled in a form, showed my driver’s license and received a replacement card in the mail a couple of weeks later.

In the past few years, identity theft has become the fastest-growing crime in the U.S. and to help stem the tide, the Social Security Administration has instituted new, more rigorous requirements for replacement cards.

During most of our lives, our Social Security cards sit in our wallets or home document storage folders unused. After 65, however, the need to show it turns up more frequently, thereby creating more opportunity for it to be misplaced or stolen, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with these new replacement card rules which also apply to the need for a new card due to name change.

In addition to filing Form SS-5 which is available for download online at the Social Security website, and at local Social Security offices, you must show documents proving citizenship and identity. Acceptable proof of identity includes an unexpired:

  • U.S. drivers license
  • State-issued non-driver identification card
  • U.S. passport

If none of these three documents is available, other choices include:

  • Employee ID card
  • School ID card
  • Health insurance card (not Medicare)
  • U.S. military ID card or
  • Adoption decree

Acceptable proof of citizenship includes:

  • U.S. birth certificate
  • U.S. consular report of birth
  • U.S. passport
  • Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship

All documents must be originals or copies certified by the agency that issued them. One document can serve as both citizenship and identity proof.

The Social Security Administration strongly advises NOT carrying your Social Security card in your wallet. Additionally, it is a good idea to guard your number as closely as a state secret because all an identity thief needs to monumentally screw up your life and cause untold grief setting it right again is your name and Social Security number.

The only entities that may legitimately require your Social Security number are government agencies such as the Social Security Administration, Medicare and the IRS; employers; banking and investment institutions; or others that are required by law to report transactions to the federal government. No one else needs or should be given your Social Security number, including credit card companies.

Amazingly, many retailers and service companies still require a Social Security number which they use in their computer records for customer identification. Don’t do it. In setting up accounts with local utilities after I moved to Portland, Maine, one asked for my Social Security number. When I refused, they insisted. Eventually, we worked out an alternative.

It is also a good idea to check that all three credit reporting companies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – are not including your Social Security number in their credit reports to lenders, employers and others who purchase it. You do not need to pay for this service; you are entitled to one free credit report per year from each company and they must remove your Social Security number upon request.

Remember too, when you are applying for employment, not to fill in the Social Security box on the application until after you have been hired.

Your Medicare card can also put you at risk because your Medicare number is nothing more than your Social Security number with a letter attached at the end. Identity thieves know this, so guard that card too. And if your state still uses Social Security numbers as driver’s license numbers, that card should be carefully protected.

A few years ago, I helped a friend straighten out her life when her identity had been stolen. It is a nightmare of paperwork, uncounted numbers of telephone calls, endless hours on hold, flurries of photocopies, mailings, forms and not a few tears involved to repair your credit because even with the proliferation of identity theft crimes, many companies still assume the fraud is yours. So better to take as many precautions as possible.

This has been a free service of Time Goes By. Blog reading ain’t just fun and games, you know.


Skewed Blog Survey Report

Surveys about the internet and particularly blog usage are always of interest and this recent one from the Scripps Survey Research Center of Ohio University grabbed my attention, reporting that “just” three percent of Americans 65 and older read blogs at least once a week.

Three percent of the 65-plus population (about 1.08 million people) can hardly be characterized as “just.” Considering that unlike young Americans, elders who use computers learned how only in midlife, many later than that and others not at all yet, the number is remarkably large. But the wording in the report suggests that few elders read blogs and therefore either elders aren’t keeping up with technology or blogs are not as important as you’ve heard in the media.

In this case, it is the latter drum the writers are beating – to cast a suspicious light on all those nutty people who read or write blogs regardless of age.

Another section of the story discusses a survey question about how many days a week readers get their news from blogs. Since anyone familiar with blogs knows they are rarely if ever sources of hard news, 88 percent sanely answered “never,” but the writers of the story had a different spin to put on that answer as the full quotation shows:

“The survey asked: ‘How many days each week do you get news from a blog on the Internet?’ Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they never use blogs to get news, 7 percent said they read blogs four days a week or less and 5 percent said they read them five days a week or more.

"’I'm not sure that rate of usage is set in stone. For now, the significance of blogging is that it influences the influencers,’ said David Kline, co-author of Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution is Changing Politics, Business and Culture.

So now it is obvious that the story and, because it is written by two people within the organization which conducted the survey, perhaps the survey itself, is biased. It is impossible to know, in the second sentence of the first paragraph, if those other two numbers refer to readers looking for news or something else. And the second paragraph reinforces the first idea that interest in blogs isn't as widespread as you’ve heard; it’s just those elite media types who take them seriously.

It then becomes evident that the goal of the story (if not the survey) is to tag all bloggers as members of the tinfoil hat fringe. Here is the coup de grace:

“The poll also found that people who use blogs are significantly more likely to believe in anti-government conspiracy theories. Nearly half of those who read blogs say they suspect the federal government may have been involved in the assassination of President John Kennedy or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"’This kind of conspiracy-mongering has existed long before the Internet," Kline said. "But, let's face it, bloggers are skilled amateurs who have a greater disposition to believe in conspiracies.’"

So, with apologies to Willie Nelson, don’t let your children (or elders) grow up to be bloggers. You wouldn’t want them to become part of the crackpot element that questions the government, or surveys or how news stories are slanted.


A Healthcare Success Story

category_bug_politics.gif The Medicare prescription drug program, Part D, has enriched pharmaceutical companies beyond all reason while leaving poor elders choosing between drugs and food or cutting their pills in half. This is particularly so now that many are hitting the infamous “doughnut hole” during which time they must pay one hundred percent of their drug costs until they reach the magic expenditure total of $5100 when the program kicks in again.

Not counting Part D, Medicare works pretty well. For a government program. There are some important quibbles to be made which can be addressed in time, and something must be done about disallowing doctors to opt out of taking Medicare patients before 2011, when the leading edge of the baby boomer generation becomes eligible and swamps the program. For now, considering the inefficiency of bureaucracies (and not counting Part D), it is not a disaster and most people get the care they need when they need it.

But there is another government health program that not only beats Medicare in delivering higher quality care, lower mortality rates and much lower cost per patient, it also exceeds private sector healthcare in those benchmarks. It is the Veterans Administration.

Last week, Time magazine published an informative piece on how the VA transformed itself in the past decade from an operation so substandard that Congress nearly shut it down into a space-age, high-tech organization:

“Patient records were transferred to a system-wide computer network, which has made its way into only 3% of private hospitals. When a veteran is treated, the doctor has the vet’s complete medical history on a laptop. In the private sector, 20% of all lab tests are needlessly repeated because the doctor doesn’t have handy the results of the same test performed earlier…

“Another innovation at the VA was a bar-code system, as in the supermarket, for prescriptions. With a handheld laser reader, a nurse scans the bar code on a patient’s wristband, then the one on the bottle of pills. If the pills don’t match the prescription the doctor typed into the computer, the laptop alerts the nurse. The Institute of Medicine estimates that 1.5 million patients are harmed each year by medication errors, but computer records and bar-code scanners have virtually eliminated those problems in VA hospitals.”

Time, 4 September 2006
[may require subscription]

The VA has also invested in heavier preventive care with 300 new community clinics which cuts down on hospital visits.

Time reports that as word of the improved service got around, more vets gave up private healthcare for the VA, overwhelming the new system. So instead of increasing funding, the Bush administration has limited care to the poorest vets and those with service-related injuries and illnesses.

From a social obligation point of view, that last item is shocking. One way America has traditionally honored those who have faced death and injury on the battlefield to protect our way of life is providing for their healthcare until they age into Medicare. It embarrasses me that a soldier or sailor is now required to have suffered a battlefield injury to receive this benefit.

According to Time, American Legion commander Tom Bock has what he describes as a “win-win-win" idea: let elder vets trade in the their Medicare coverage for VA benefits.

“Medicare, which pays more than $6,500 per patient annually for care by private doctors, could save with the VA’s less expensive care, which costs about $5,000.”

And how about this too? Take Mr. Bock’s suggestions and then expand the superior VA service not only to vets currently on Medicare, but to all Medicare recipients, and then to all Americans. But as Time explains, that is not an option in Congress or, rather, the current Congress:

“…conservatives fear [the tradeoff of Medicare for VA care for veterans] would be a Trojan horse, setting up an even larger national health-care program and taking more business from the private sector.”

Trojan horse? Wait a minute. It sounds to me - for lack of any other idea from this administration - like a good horse to ride. But of course, it’s politics as usual. And, the partisan objection falls apart when you consider that the “private sector” conservatives are so concerned with enriching would still be needed: pharmaceutical companies, laboratories, medical equipment and services, assisted living facilities, etc. Even for-profit hospitals for the extremely wealthy who could afford them.

Part of the VA’s success at cost containment is directly due to the fact that they negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies. When Congress enacted the legislation for Part D, they specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating with the pharmas.

That’s your Congress at work for you…

Keep that in mind for the next two months. We are in high campaign season now for the November congressional elections and this is the first in a series of political posts from Time Goes By about issues we believe are worth thinking over as you consider your votes for your senators, representatives and governors.


Elder Body Image – Take 2

category_bug_journal2.gif According to a new study, women who accept their bodies as they are, are probably healthier eaters.

“’The message that women often hear is that some degree of body dissatisfaction is healthy because it could help them strive to take care of their bodies,’ [Tracy Tylka, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Marion campus] said.

“’But it may be just the opposite: an appreciation of your body is needed to really adopt better eating habits.’”

- Medical News Today, 15 August 2006

Ms. Tracy and her colleagues conducted studies based on the concept of “intuitive eating” which includes eating when hungry – that is, relying on internal hunger signals to determine when and how much to eat - and permission to eat anything you want. In the study, those who followed the precepts of intuitive eating had a slightly lower body mass index.

“It seems amazing,” [said Ms. Tylka], but it’s true. If you listen to your body signals in determining what, when and how much to eat, you are not going to binge and you’re going to eat appropriate amounts of nutrient-dense food.”
- Medical News Today, 15 August 2006

As I’ve written here in the past, about ten years ago I gave up life-long dieting and began eating “intuitively,” although I didn't know to name it that. I stopped forcing down breakfast because I’ve wakened every day of my life feeling as though I just finished Thanksgiving dinner. It takes four or five hours before hunger beckons.

My taste leans to fish and chicken over beef and pork, I often crave a giant salad containing a wide variety of vegetables, and fresh fruit, as far as I am concerned, is mother nature’s special blessing. Still, there is that damned sweet tooth. I’ve lost my taste for a daily infusion of chocolate, but pie and certain cookies are irresistible and in my life, ice cream is one of the seven basic food groups.

It wasn’t long after I began eating intuitively that the predictable happened. Fireplug comes to mind in describing my body type. I don’t like it, but if the fit of my clothing is an indication (the bathroom scale has long been ditched), my weight hasn’t changed in many years.

The trick to intuitive eating, according to the study, is to appreciate one’s body:

“[Study participants with high levels of body appreciation] were less likely to spend a lot of time thinking about how their body appears to others, and more time considering how their body feels and functions.”
- Medical News Today, 15 August 2006

Well, isn't that a fine Catch 22. Body appreciation is a key to healthier eating, but healthier eating is required for a body one can appreciate - a difficult trick in a culture which measures attractiveness on a scale of youth and thinness. But Ms. Tylka has some sensible thoughts on that issue:

“’There are going to be a variety of body types. For most people, their ideal body type will hover around the range that doctors say is healthy. But some will be healthy at a higher weight, and others at a lower weight.’”
- Medical News Today, 15 August 2006

The study was conducted with 199 college-age women, so there is no way to know if there is a correlation with elders and with men, and for women, it is notoriously more difficult to maintain a healthy weight after menopause.

So, as I said in the first Body Image piece, I’m sticking with Judi Dench as my elder role model and I’ll keep working on that body satisfaction part.