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My Favorite Book of 2016

Posted: 01-01-2017
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It is that time of year when magazines and newspapers list the “Best Books of 2016.”  One of the novels making an appearance is News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  It is certainly on my personal list of favorites.

news-of-the-worldNews of the World is set in Texas in the 1870’s.  The story follows the adventures of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and a 10 year old girl.  Johanna was abducted by Indians at the age of 6, has just been rescued and needs to be reunited with relatives.  Capt. Kidd agrees to transport the girl from North Texas to the home of her aunt and uncle near San Antonio (Johanna’s parents were killed in the Indian raid).  Johanna wants to stay with her Indian family. She is not happy about the upcoming reunion.

Captain Kidd, who is pushing 72, questions his decision to escort the girl home.  “[ He ] worried about the very long journey ahead, about his ability to keep the girl from harm.  He thought resentfully, I raised my girls.  I already did that. But now it was different… because there was once again a life in his hands.  Things mattered.”

As the two travel together, they begin to respect and love each other. .  They become quite a team as they overcome the hardships and dangers of the long trip south.  Along the route, Johanna even helps collect the dime entry fee Capt. Kidd charges at town gatherings to hear him read newspaper stories from around the world.

News of the World is a great story and I really appreciate a main character who is one of my peeps (that is, old).  Capt. Kidd bends and hears “a light creaking of the spine” or sits and hears “the jointed sound as one vertebrae settled on another.”  His hand looks “as bony and wrinkled as those of a catacomb mummy.”

Like me, Capt. Kidd can be cranky and short tempered.   I appreciate his observations about being old like when he is dressing for one of his readings:  “young people could get away with rough clothing but unless the elderly dressed with care they looked like homeless vagabonds…”

A veteran of many wars, the captain still suffers from nightmares and flashbacks from past battles.  He awakens to the smell of cannon smoke from “those long years ago, almost thirty years.  It would stay with him always as everything you ever did stayed with you, every horse you ever saddled, every morning when he awoke with Maria Luisa [his late wife] beside him, and every slap of the paten on fresh paper…and his captain dying under his hands, always there like a tangle of telegraph wire in the brains where no dispatch was ever lost, what an odd thing, an odd thing.”

The author of News of the World, Paulette Jiles, is 73, about the same age as Capt. Kidd.  I am not sure a younger author could have been as successful in drawing a portrait of an aging hero.

Despite his advanced years, Captain Kidd is determined to deliver Johanna safely to her relatives:  “he must not become incapacitated, he must not be killed” before they reach San Antonio.

The Captain and Johanna face some violent encounters on their trek.   On one such occasion, their escape seems hopeless when they are pinned down by gunfire from three nasty hombres.  Thanks to some pretty creative thinking by Johanna and the aim of Captain Kidd, they survive.

The two eventually arrive at the home of Johanna’s aunt and uncle where the story takes an interesting twist, which I will not reveal.

I have read other selections on 2016 Best Book lists, notably Swing Time by Zadie Smith and Commonwealth by Ann Pratchett.  These books are certainly well-written but I do not enjoy lead characters who are self-absorbed and mean spirited.   Give me likeable characters like Captain Kidd and Johanna and a compelling story line, and I am hooked.  That is why News of the World tops my personal list of best reads of 2016.

Travels with The General

Posted: 12-06-2016
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Son Nick just left for two weeks in Cuba. His luggage consisted of a backpack and small tote bag. I take more stuff than that on a weekend visit to my daughter in Winston-Salem.

I like to pack in anticipation of any occasion. For two years, I included dress pants, dress shoes and a nice jacket in case my daughter unexpectedly suggested we go to a four star fancy restaurant. This never happened so I have finally stopped packing dress clothes. We always go hiking or take long walks at Molly’s.

Lyns suitcase

My orderly approach to packing

This means packing a variety of outdoor apparel, including sweatshirts (might be cold in the mountains), jackets (might be REALLY cold), sneakers, hiking boots, different weight socks, a sports bra, lots of wicking t-shirts and just in case we experience a break in global warming, gloves. You would think I was about to make an assault on Mt. Everest.
My husband on the other hand packs quickly and efficiently, unhampered by the need to fold the clothes before inserting them into the suitcase. I swear his suitcase is like one of those

Rons suitcase

Ron’s  less orderly approach to packing

clown cars at the circus. He just keeps pulling out all the right clothing from his teeny, tiny suitcase. Ron always has the right complement of clothing while I invariably find I have forgotten something.

Ron’s only failure at packing occurred because of me. We joined friends on a weekend visit to Lewes, Delaware. Unbeknownst to my husband, I used a suitcase identical to his to pack bed linens. We arrived at our rented beach house and my husband opened his suitcase only to find a stack of sheets. Off we went to Dollar General and for less than $30.00 we outfitted him for the weekend. The General (Ron’s new nickname) was quite a vision in his shiny blue warm up pants and slightly irregular bright yellow nylon shirt. My husband became quite attached to his new wardrobe but I made sure his new clothes never left Lewes.

All the travel advice columns for Old People suggest packing light to avoid physical strain. I am going to try my best to follow this guidance on future trips. I take comfort in knowing I will always have Dollar General as backup.

Medical Bills Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Posted: 11-12-2016
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Medical bills are driving up my blood pressure and causing me anxiety.  Despite my best efforts, I simply cannot understand what I am being billed for.

For three months I have doggedly tried to understand a medical bill from West Virginia University Healthcare Physicians for a routine outpatient medical visit.  The visit lasted 30 minutes.  Figuring out the bill has taken considerably more time.  Here is the bill:

Office visit:                        $124.00

Insurance payment:          – -19.21

PB-INS contractual adj       -37.99

Amount Due:                      $105.22

 

I was a liberal arts major in college but I can still do basic math.  If the office visit is $124.00, and the two deductions (insurance payment and contractual adjustment) equal $57.20, shouldn’tmaxine-cartoon-medical-bills the owed amount be $66.80 instead of $105.22?  And what the heck does “PB-INS” mean anyway?

If Dante were alive today, I am sure he would add another level of suffering to the Inferno:  figuring out medical bills.

I started my quest for answers with the number on the bill for West Virginia University Healthcare Physicians.  The lady who answered my call said she had no idea why the bill did not add up and suggested I call Medicare.  There is no reference to Medicare on the bill.     I suggested a billing specialist should know the answer and not send the client to another agency.    She connected me to her supervisor who was equally confused and promised to get back to me.  I never heard from her again despite my three follow-up calls.

Undaunted, I started the process again.  I ended up being transferred all over the system again. At one point someone explained a double minus sign  (“- -$19.21 insurance payment”) is actually an addition to the bill because two minuses equal a plus.   Thus the $19.21 should be added to the total, not subtracted.   I replied this billing sleight of hand was really, really sneaky. How could anyone be expected to know a double minus equals a plus?  The billing specialist replied (I KID YOU NOT!) that “any fifth grader knows two negatives equal a plus.”

I answered using my best mathematical logic:  “Let me speak to your supervisor.”

The supervisor admitted that statements should be better formatted.  She  blamed the computer billing company for the lousy format.  In fact, everyone I talked to about this bill said it was the fault of the billing company gremlins and good luck in getting anything changed.  Apparently finding someone with the authority or the concern to change the billing format is more difficult than finding a doctor who makes house calls.

I won’t bore you with more details, as I am sure every medical consumer can share a horr
or story or two.  A friend in Maryland shared a medical bill she recently received.  She simply could not figure out why a single procedure on a single day performed by one doctor involved 4 different “General Surgery” fees at $1000 each and  two “General Surgery “fees at  $300 each for a total of $4600.00.  Here’s the kicker:  my friend is a doctor.  If someone who has spent 35 years as a physician can’t understand a bill, what hope do the rest of us have?

Medical bills need to be more understandable.  We expect doctors to take the time to carefully explain medical procedures.  We should demand billing companies show the same consideration when it comes to billing procedures.  Telling puzzled consumers to go find the answers themselves is unacceptable.   Billing information should be presented in understandable terms, not like my friend’s medical bill which explains “payment from BCBS of MD (Local XW) & out of.” There should be a uniform format for all medical bills that has been vetted and reviewed by consumers.   I asked a representative from University Healthcare Physicians if they had a consumer advisory board to suggest such improvements. They don’t.

I just received the third billing notice for $105.22.  The billing technocrats are certainly persistent.  I wish they were just as persistent in making medical bills understandable.

 

Don’t hang up! It might be my son!

Posted: 10-28-2016
Blog Articles

My son is one of those people you love to hang up on.

Nick is a field organizer for the Democrats in Prince William County, Virginia.  He is relentless in his telephone pursuit of people to volunteer.  I live in West Virginia but I get similar calls from Democrats here.  I have to admit I quickly say “no, thanks” and hang up.  As a retired elected official, I have paid my political dues.

In early October Nick appealed to me as his mother and a lifelong Democrat to be a weekend canvass captain in Prince William County, Va…  I said I would help but made it clear I would not make ANY phone calls—except to order pizza for the team.  No problem, said Nick, another volunteer would be in charge of phone calls.

nick-and-me-canvass

That is how I found myself in an unheated garage in Dumfries, Virginia, working for my son.  My job is to hand out packets with lists of Democratic voters to volunteers who go door to door harassing, I mean encouraging, residents to vote.  After two weekends working 10 hour days, I suggested to Nick that maybe I could stay home one weekend.  After all, I reasoned, Hillary is ahead in the polls.  My son has clearly drunk deeply from the political campaign Kool-Aid.    He reminded me in very strong terms that we are saving the republic and how could I even think of risking our nation’s political future by relaxing in my heated living g room underneath a thick blanket watching reruns of “Call the Midwife?”

I am a diehard Democrat but I am a mother first.  I relented.

As a Democrat, my experience in Dumfries has been rewarding in many ways.  Meeting volunteers from all walks of life who give up their weekends to canvass is wonderful.  It is a nice antidote to all the negativity occurring at the national level.

As a mother, the experience has been even more rewarding.  We parents don’t often get the chance to share our children’s work life.  My daughter, who is a bio-medical engineer, says her projects are top secret and if she tells me anything about her job, she will have to kill me.  Working side by side with Nick has been a great chance to see him perform on the job.    He is really, really good.  All the volunteer canvassers light up when they realize I am Nick’s mom. Two of them even volunteered to work for Nick if he ever runs for office.

My time in Dumfries has renewed my enthusiasm and trust in our democratic system.  On a more personal level, I have thoroughly enjoyed basking in the kind words about Nick from all the volunteers I meet.

 

REMEMBER TO VOTE – or I will give your phone number to my son.

Cinque Terre Italy: Travel Tips for the Old But Slow

Posted: 09-26-2016
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Cinque Terre, Italy, is wildly popular among Americans these days. I know because I just came back from visiting all five (Cinque) towns strewn along a rocky portion of the Italian coast (Terre). We heard more English than Italian. Everyone seemed to have a copy of Rick Steves Guide to the Cinque Terre tucked somewhere on their person. Even the hotels we stayed at had copies of Steves’ guidebook and one hotel offered a 10% discount if you showed them your copy.

vernazza from trail

View of Vernazza from the trail

The towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, dating back centuries and clinging precariously to the steep hillside, are certainly worth a visit. . But the main reason my husband and I and two other couples traveled to Cinque Terre was to hike the 12 km (7.5 miles) foot path that connects them all. For centuries this rocky trail was the only connection between the villages. The arrival of train service and adjoining roads has reduced the importance of the trail to everyone but “i turisitci” (tourists).

At my age (68) I wondered if I had the stamina to complete the trek. After scouring reviews of the trail, I concluded I could hike it as most reviewers said the trail is challenging but manageable. Even the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, caretakers of the trail, rank the difficulty of the trails as “low.” I should have checked the age of these reviewers. They clearly are not part of my “old but slow” cohort.

cinqueterre-trail-surface

The trail surface

My husband and I intended to do the trail section by section, day by day. On Day 1 we hiked the 2.1 miles section between Monterosso and Vernazza. I consider myself in fairly good shape for an old person. I walk a lot, favoring flat park trails or the treadmill at the gym. None of this activity prepared me for a trail that is very rocky, narrow and steep and features hundreds and hundreds of rock hewn steps. Going up was difficult but coming down was equally challenging. I gingerly negotiated steep, uneven rock steps carved into the mountain. There are no level parts. I often grabbed my husband’s hand not from love but from fear I was going to trip. (My husband is in much better shape than I am)

I truly enjoyed the vistas. They are the perfect excuse to stop, gasp for air, wipe the sweat from your brow and gulp lots of water. I am going to write Rick Steves to suggest a nice trail accessory for older hikers like me would be a defibrillator

Many times I heard footsteps behind me as younger, fit hikers approached. Moving to the edge of the trail to let them pass was challenging because the trail is only 18 inches wide in places. Step too close to the edge and you will find yourself ensnared in grape vines or dangling from the branch of an olive tree.

After successfully hiking the section from Monterosso to Vernazza, we tackled the second part (Vernazza to Corniglia) on Day 2. The 2.1 mile trail was somewhat easier but still steep, still rocky, still lots of steps. As I struggled to catch my breath while enjoying a dazzling vista of Corniglia, the sea and vineyards, I met a gasping older couple from Seattle. They too had heard the news from park administrators that section 3 and 4 of the rail were now closed due to rock slides. We looked each other and proclaimed at the same time, “THANK GOD!”

Even with sections of the main Cinque Terre trail closed, we racked up a lot of miles just exploring the hill towns and adjoining paths. According to my pedometer, we walked over 5 miles sight-seeing in Riomaggiore alone. In nearby Manarola, 374 steps and ten landings connect the town center to the train station. (There is a shuttle for wimps)

Even hotel accommodations have lots of stairs. My husband and I stayed in a room at the top of 60 steps (no elevator). We expected sympathy from our traveling companions who stayed nearby but got none since they had to climb 120 steps.

Despite all this exercise, let me quickly say I still gained weight. Too much pasta slathered with pesto, too many generous portions of homemade lasagna and too many glasses of vino accompanied by cheeses with names like “fragole” and “pecorino pienza.”

The best way to appreciate the history and landscape of Cinque Terre is on foot. But the terrain is difficult on and off the trail. Of the thousands of steps I took, I would guess only 1/3 were on level ground. I would advise my fellow “old but slow” peeps to get in shape before visiting Cinque Terre. If you are not physically fit, here is an important bit of advice that you won’t find in Rick Steves’ guidebook:  the medical emergency number in Italy is 811.

My Olympic Gold is in My Molar

Posted: 08-24-2016
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Olympians proudly wear their gold medals around their neck.

My winning gold is less obvious.  It takes the form of a dental crown and sits amid my back molars.  Decay has found its way into the 28-year old crown and it needs to be replaced.  Continuing the Olympic theme, my crown is roughly a decade older than Simone Biles and every other each member of the US Olympic gymnast team.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09: Simone Biles of the United States poses for photographs with her gold medal after the medal ceremony for the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 631390975 ORIG FILE ID: 587771206

I don’t mind having a crown replaced because the dental office is the one place I say YES TO DRUGS.  Staring with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and continuing with every numbing agent available in modern dentistry, I will feel nothing.  The only pain is when the bill comes and I discover my dental insurance does not agree I need all that pain relief.  Apparently, my insurance only covers laughing gas for children and not for adults.  I am NOT laughing at that policy.

Back to the gold.  My dentist informs me she will remove the old crown, sterilize it and (get ready) give it to me so I can sell it to a gold-monger!!!!  I have literally struck gold!

gold-crown

The value of an Olympic gold medal is about $300.00.   A gold crown is not quite in that league but still may be worth from $40 to $100.

Of course, the whole crown replacement has to be pre-approved by the insurance company and we might be viewing the winter Olympics by the time that gets through the system.

That gives me plenty of time to decide whether to cash in my gold crown or convert it into a smaller version of an Olympic necklace.

 

You’re Not Teaching Middle school Anymore

Posted: 08-17-2016
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This fall I shopped for school supplies for the first time in 10 years.  Not for my kids.  My children are adults and I only wish their needs now were as simple as a box of No. 2 pencils.

I went shopping this year for my good friend Patti who is making the switch from teaching at the local middle school to elementary school.  After teaching pre-teen boys and girls for decades, Patti felt a change was in order. She will still teach kids with special needs, but now she will focus on math for youngsters in grades 3, 4 and 5.

Even though Patti is a seasoned teacher, she will be new to her school.  Some of us gave Patti some elementary school goodies to ease the transition.   The gifts included a new lunch bag, themed socks for holidays, a stapler, “I Love Teaching” stickers, scotch tape, paper clips and a mug with the school name.

I was a bit mystified by a few gifts provided by Patti’s teacher friends.  The fly swatters for example.  Apparently there is some math game where the kids compete to be the first to run to the black board and “swat” the right chalked in number as an answer to an equation.  This game is not as successful in middle school level because students apparently prefer to swat each other.

The bundled pack of pencils with “Happy Birthday” embossed on each also puzzled me.  I had never heard the story of how Patti always gives a similar pencil to students on their birthday.  One day, she was in the student’s bathroom (it was closer than the faculty lounge) and two gals came in.  One wished the other happy birthday.  The birthday girl replied,   “I hope Mrs. Corley isn’t going to give me one of those stupid birthday pencils.”  Patti yelled out from the stall, “Don’t worry… I won’t!”  Both gals were long gone when Patti emerged.

Grade schoolers will hopefully be more appreciative of Patti’s generosity.

Patti will be able to use all her new supplies in her new classroom.  Only one gift will have to remain at home.

The miniature bottle of gin should probably be consumed off school property.

Bit of a Rebate for Low Speed Broadband

Posted: 03-28-2016
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Thanks to an “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance” between the Attorney General of West Virginia and Frontier Communications, some high speed broadband customers are getting a discount on their monthly bill.  The operative word here is “some”.  The discount only applies to those getting the lowest of the low download speeds.

Many Frontier customers like me have been complaining for years about the injustice of being charged high speed internet prices for low speed service.  The agreement reached in December 2015 provides a credit to those broadband customers struggling with a download speed of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) or less.  Instead of paying up to $35.99 per month as they have been in the past, customers will pay $9.99 as of January 2016.  The new rate affects 28,000 customers state-wide and 880 customers here in Jefferson County.  The new rate appears as a credit on the monthly bill.

Unfortunately, thousands of other customers enduring lower speeds than Frontier’s high speed broadband promise of “up to 6.0 Mbps” will get no relief.

For those unfamiliar with the world of bytes and bits, here is a simple primer.  The term Mbps is a measure of how fast data is downloaded from cyberspace. In automobiles, the measure of fuel efficiency is MPG or “miles per gallon.”  In the world of broadband, the measure of speed is Mbps or “megabits per second”.   The higher the Mbps, the faster information is transferred.  What constitutes “high speed broadband”?  The WV State legislature has adopted the Federal Communications Commission definition of high speed broadband as 25 Mbps. The national average in the United States is 12.5 Mbps.   For those who enjoy streaming movies, 4 to 5 Mbps is the minimum speed to avoid buffering problems for high definition downloads.

Frontier high speed internet service promises “up to 6.0 Mbps.”   Unfortunately that “up to” can mean providing speeds as slow as 1, 2, or 3 Mbps.

The agreement between the WV Attorney General and Frontier provides relief to Frontier customers getting only 1.5 mbps or less.  Affected consumers will pay a reduced rate of $9.99 per month until the download speed increases to 6.   When I asked how the Attorney General and Frontier arrived at the 1.5 number, I received this official response from Frontier:   “We effectively created a lower price tier for Internet Max customers with speeds 1.5mbps or lower.  In the context of an overall compromise, this pricing made sense to both parties.”

The compromise might make sense to “both parties” but I doubt it makes sense to Frontier customers still paying full price for low speeds.  The simple solution would be to offer the same rebate to all customers experiencing download speeds of less than 6 Mbps.  The “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance” simply does not go far enough.

Frontier representatives speak at length about how the internet speeds are being increased in West Virginia.  That is great.  West Virginia is a rural state and I appreciate the difficulty of expanding service in rural areas.  But that does not change the fact that more consumers deserve relief from paying high speed prices for low speed service.

 

 

Diogenes and me

Posted: 02-24-2016
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diogenesA new medical report states walking an hour a day will fend off death. No problem. I walk more than that each day searching for items I put somewhere in the house but can’t remember where. I will end up like Diogenes who eternally searched for justice with his lamp only I will be searching for my car keys.

Deal Me In!

Posted: 02-23-2016
Blog Articles, Retired. Now what?

 

Now that I am retired, I am spending a lot more time playing bridge.  I learned the game decades ago because my mother believed knowing how to play bridge was as important to succeeding in college as good SAT scores.  She adored the game. I always helped Mom prepare when it was her turn to host the bridge ladies for an extravagant lunch and an afternoon of play.  My job was to iron napkins and tablecloths, wash the good crystal and polish silver.

Based on my childhood experience, I came to associate bridge with liquor, linen and lasagna.   Add a few glasses of wine and/or sherry and  it was amazing my mother’s bridge group was coherent enough to actually play bridge.

When my mother sent me to bridge lessons, she hoped it would help me find social success in college.  I found other interests in college and put bridge on hold.

Fast forward to 1990 when I started playing bridge with a small group of ladies in Charles Town.  Naomi Moses, my bridge span into the modern era of bidding, invited me to join her group for an afternoon of play.  I welcomed the invitation and decided to skip breakfast to save room for a lavish lunch a la my mother.    I arrived at Naomi’s home and viewed the kitchen table, adorned only by two decks of cards and a score pad.  No buffet.  No lasagna.  No silver cutlery.  The only food was a bowl of cantaloupe squares pierced with toothpicks.

I could barely hear the introductions of the other players over the rumblings of my empty stomach.  These ladies were far more interested in teaching me “weak two bids”, “negative doubles” and “strong artificial 2 club opening” than feeding me.

I loved it.  Unfortunately, working full-time and raising a family cut into my bridge time.

Now, freed of work and young children, I am back at the bridge table.  There is quite an active group of bridge players in the area, ranging from weekly bridge games among friends to more structured, duplicate games in Martinsburg, Charles Town and Shepherdstown.

I am one of the youngest players at my regular bridge game in Shepherdstown.  No matter—these ladies are sharp!  Recently, my 93-year old partner (who has been married longer than I have been alive) reminded me after we failed to make our bid that the Jacoby transfer convention is still on after an interference bid by the opponent.

I nodded to give the impression I knew what she was talking about.

In Charles Town, I have played with a hero of World War II,  Fred Mayer.  Or as he is referred to in Wikipedia, “Frederick Mayer (spy)”.   During World War II Fred parachuted into Austria, then posed as a German Army officer to learn about troop movements near Innsbruck.    He was captured and tortured by the Gestapo.  Fred was freed in 1945 by American troops and later awarded the Legion of Merit and a Purple Heart by the United States Government.  What an honor to sit at the bridge table with an American war hero.

My mother insisted bridge would help me socially in college.  That never happened but her investment in lessons is paying dividends now that I am older and retired.  Playing bridge has introduced me to a wonderful new group of friends and acquaintances.

Best of all, knowing an opening bid of 2 No Trump promises 20-21 points is considered far more important than knowing how to iron linen napkins or polish silver.