Archive for December, 2010


December 18, 2010

You’ve all heard of Relic.  He’s our yard cat.  There was a time when he would not come near any human.  That was circa 2001.  He’s about nine years old now, can hardly see, and has diabetes — which commands a special veterinary-approved diet formula called DM [diabetes management].  Sometimes we run out of DM and go with Fancy Feast, an over-the-counter brand that a cat-friendly website told me was an OK substitute for cats with diabetes.  Relic’s vet, Dr. Sandy Pepper from White Oak Animal Hospital, is not too keen on the substitution but she allows some leeway provided we choose the pate-like selections, sans gravy [gravy has the excess sugars and fats].  So we go with the three-flavor variety pack of seafood consisting of 3-oz. cans of ocean whitefish and tuna feast, savory salmon feast, and cod, sole and shrimp feast.  Problem is he eats about four of those cans a day [a 12-pack costs about $7].

Last winter, with abnormally cold temperatures and unusual amounts of snow in our town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, I thought maybe he was eating more because he’s cold and needs more fuel to burn energy for heat.  So we got him a new bed for Christmas, which we set up for him on 23 December, figuring he would not know the difference in the calendar.  Relic feeds and sleeps on the screened-in back porch.  The two panels of screen above and by his bedding are covered with plastic sheets to keep out the cold and wind and rain and sleet and snow.  I upgraded it in mid-December when I found him sleeping in his bed while blanketed in snow.   He awoke unhappily, feeling wet and cold.  He went into his whining voice of pitches and vocabulary that makes you swear he knows English as a second language.

His bed was rudimentary, to put it kindly for my benefit.  It consisted of two empty Peter Vella wine boxes made of heavy cardboard and turned on their sides to create a base above grade for his “mattress” –- a large rectangular produce box from Bottom Dollar, about four inches deep and made of thick cardboard to assure support for heavier vegetables.  Inside the box we put Relic’s Scotch-plaid woolen blanket, which was actually mine when I was a toddler in Hoboken, NJ.  My dear late mother, who preceded the green era of “reduce, recycle, re-use,” would have approved neither the bedding [she would have gone with Eddie Bauer pet bedding] nor my blanket [citing the Separation of Species Act from my childhood’s family].

On 24 December, we surprised Relic with a bed from Wal-Mart made of soft, cuddly cotton and poly blend, shaped oval-ly and sized perfectly to fit inside his existing bed base, and on top of his blanket to provide extra cushioning.   We set his microwaveable heat disk beneath the blanket after cooking it for six minutes on high for an efficient 12-hour heat fix.    On 26 December, Relic must have been colder -– or just smarter -– than usual, because he burrowed himself under the cuddly bed between it and his blanket, creating a lumpy but warm and wind-free tent for himself.  Ingenious.

This year, we’ve added an igloo extension – soft, plush, warm – but he will only rest his chin on the entrance — guess he’s leery of a sense of total confinement not of his own doing.

I observed him again last night, after at-first not knowing where he was, after my usual 9PM lock-down of the back porch to protect the old guy from the nocturnal wildlife that roams our wooded property after hours.  Relic is too old and blind and ailing to fight anymore, yet he’s too proud to walk away from an altercation [Dr. Pepper knows the results of this].  So there he is – Relic, the yard cat, aging and squinting on the back porch -– still loving his bed and feeling “green” enough to exchange a few carbon credits for an order of catnip at the feline commissary…

Rob Grogan is allergic to cats.

… my favorite things…

December 16, 2010

My wife and I stuffing our stockings on Christmas eve is one of my favorite things.  Every Christmas, no matter our financial status, we hang our family stockings with care and each of us secretly fills the ones not our own: Virginia and I,  Alexis [our teen], Frisbee [our canine], and Relic [the yard cat] each have a plush fat stocking filled to our liking.

Stocking stuffing is very personal and loving.  What you stuff into a loved one’s stocking tells a lot about what you know of that person, what your relationship is, and how’s your sense of humor.

There were our years without a child when we would stuff with intimate items and quirky merchandise that, when we emptied our stockings on Christmas morn, would make us smile, or blush, or want to slip off into another room altogether… or just relax in front of the fireplace, wood burning only slightly hotter than our passions.

But wow, that was a few holiday seasons ago… More recently, we are whimsical. My wife is neurotic about public toilets, so I put a personal-sized roll of toilet paper and seat covers in her stocking.  She’s also a stickler on fighting stains, so I drop a Tide stain stick into her stocking.

Some of the usual items that bring joy to my wife include Carmex lip balm, note pads, pens, mechanical pencils, a paperback novel, Altoids, cigarettes, socks, perfume knock-offs of ‘Beautiful’ and the annual year-end People Magazine Special Issue of the 50 Most Interesting People of the year.   2008 was the last year I did the People Mag.   She recognized just two of the 50 and admitted that pop culture had passed us by…

One year, when our stocking stuffing tradition was at its obnoxious peek, I swear we combined for a $500 shopping spree for useful and useless, interesting but common, and appreciated but cast aside ‘stuff’ for ourselves, our daughter, our animals, and each other.  It became a contest of how large an object [a curling iron came in second to a pair of boots] could fit into a handcrafted family Christmas stocking.

There were tough times, too, slow economic years — like when we started our business earlier than 14 Christmases ago — when the stockings hung thinly on the chimney with care, and our wrapped gifts in boxes under the tree barely cashed in at a hundred dollars total.

One year, in Roseland, NJ, after we had quit our day jobs and had no frivolous money and no gifts to give  each other, was perhaps our most fun Christmas ever, pre-Alexis.   My wife cut out pictures from gift catalogs, magazines and travel brochures.  She found discarded boxes at Fairchild’s Market, and recycled tissue paper and giftwrap from a previous year.

On Christmas morning, I spied several rather large packages and found myself on the verge of a panic attack as I wondered what on earth was in each box and how the hell she had paid for them… When the time came, I slowly opened the first one with my name on a tag, and pushed aside layers of paper and tissue, only to discover a tiny square of colored glossy paper deep inside the box.  The square revealed a catalog picture of a long, warm coat I had wanted and needed. Taped to the back of the picture was a note that said, “This is the coat I would have gotten you if I could… I’ll find other ways to keep you warm instead.”

We laughed for hours as we opened all of the ‘gifts’ that day, and we shed tears of joy, not worry or remorse, for the simple, loving, thoughtful gifts of that Christmas day, when hot chocolate spiked with brandy was as good as a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.  For my part, I had gathered acorns and dried leaves for ‘a gifts of nature’ Christmas, as well as plastic chains with beads, from which I’d made ‘expensive’ jewelry and facsimiles of what she would have wanted, had I had the money…
We both took away and gave memories we shall never forget.  Since then, we both still give some modest gifts that mean a lot more than their priced value, even today.   My wife would love a “Kindle” electronic book reader for Christmas this year, and  I’ll probably get it for her.
Before she opens it, however, she’ll see a package labeled  “kindle.”   It will contain small dry pieces of fire wood.  We’ll throw those into the fireplace, and we will laugh, and we will hug us both a merry little Christmas.

The Underbelly

December 1, 2010

Barack Obama should call me and set up a lunch date. Better yet, he should see my wife for a nice fireside chat about healthcare. At the local, keeping-it-real level, my wife and I know the real deal and we have had it with the system. Barack should hear about this… Give us a call, Mr. President.

And where would I begin to tell him what’s up? How about starting with medical billing and collections, the underbelly of the healthcare system.

In FXBG, VA, the Mary Washington Healthcare system has a collections department -– the cloak-and-dagger ODC Recovery Services. A conspiracy theorist would have a field day analyzing my efforts to decipher the coded ER medical bills; the time elapsed between my dates of medical services and the billing department’s filings of my insurance claims; and, the actions of ODC regarding my MRI.

Operating on a first-name only basis, from an undisclosed location, this group’s staff — in my dispute with a radiology practice that charged way above the normal and customary amount for an MRI – sprang into action prematurely, then went undercover for nearly four years, only to resurface as the statute of limitations on debt collection neared expiration; long after assuring me, the customer -– in plain English –- that my so-called ‘debt’ had been set aside because, as I had argued, the bill was “unreasonable and uncustomary”, i.e., greedy.

In court, the two ODC operatives who finally responded to my second subpoena gave honest answers under oath, but failed to recall some salient details.  There were a dozen or so other Medicorp cases that day alone, all staffed by ODC personnel, their umm, attorney, and an honorable judge.  The faces of the defendants — guilty of becoming ill while under-funded and at the mercy of the excessive costs of healthcare — mirrored the look of deer lost in the headlights, helpless to truly defend themselves.

This unforgettable scene sadly depicts the underbelly of our healthcare system.  It is time for the court of public opinion to come to session — to be heard loudly, clearly, and frequently.

It is six months later, and we continue to receive a steady stream of installment invoices to settle the debt over time, with interest. This month, we received the same bill twice, dated two days apart, with something like an 11-cent difference in the remaining balance. Same account. Two bills. Two different amounts.

I called and left a voice message for ‘Bobby’ – who handles my accounts [I have the distinct honor of having three accounts under his watch, thanks to the price-gouging MRI and two unrelated ER visits]. When he called back, I was not home. Instead, Bobby got my wife — and a life-altering experience.

After they had gone over and around and through the latest contentious debtor-debtee debate, my wife sighed and said in all sincerity and empathy to Bobby, “You must really hate your job… You should probably look for another line of work. This can’t possibly be healthy, working to collect for doctors in a system wrought with greed… I really hope you will find something better for yourself.”

I love my wife. I imagine seeing Bobby on TV someday as a champion of patients’ rights and a whistle-blower on the healthcare system.  Maybe he’d write a bestselling expose and dedicate it to her…

It probably won’t happen though. Life is not that way. ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’ wasn’t real, and neither is real healthcare reform in my lifetime. Just follow the money. Greed will win as it always does.

The rest of us just postpone our health exams and shop for policies with lower premiums and huge deductibles. We are at risk but we can’t afford to intervene. And somewhere in America tomorrow, a middle class man will be billed the average $700 to $900 for a simple MRI, without contrast.  He’ll be lucky at that price.

Me?  I still owe more than 1100 on my $2800 snapshot. The monthly installment bill comes with interest. Sometimes two bills, two days apart, with the latter adding on a few cents more to the same account, part of which goes to paying their, umm, attorney’s fees [to the victor goes the spoils?].  My physician [ex, thank you] got a referral fee for it, I bet, and I occasionally see doctors from that radiology practice enjoying the good life of fine dining downtown.  That part is OK. It’s their right and privilege to do so. I would do the same thing if I had wealth.

But I have bills, and I bitch about these medicine men and of what I perceive to be their greed.  And Bobby?  Bobby has a lot to think about as he brown-bags-it to his job of collecting for these high-life doctors…  I wish him well.


Why I am not a plumber

December 1, 2010

The shower stall was clogged, as any moron could see. Water filled the basin with every run of the shower. I had to act.

So I poured a bottle of Liquid Plumber Gel down the drain and waited the requisite 15 minutes. Next, I opened the shower stall door and turned the hot water on full blast, according to the instructions.

But I had forgotten to turn off the vertical spray jet. The scalding water shot out at me like a piercing arrow with heat on its point. The crotch of my jeans got soaked in 1.5 seconds. I slammed shut the shower stall door.

Hot water filled the basin. Up, up, and over the edge. Onto the bathroom floor…

Being in an old house — late 19th century, at that — the floor is not plumb. The water thus ran like a river tide into the master bedroom, scouring the old wood floor with a solution of hot water and gel acid.

I thought to turn the shower off, but feared I’d get scalded by the water, which had reached optimum deterrent temperature. I ran downstairs to the basement to turn off the main water valve and shut this flood down. It took a few minutes to descend the two flights, maneuver through two doors, race to the far corner of the basement, with all of its poorly placed clutter as foreboding obstacles, and shut off the valve …

I started back upstairs toward the third floor crime scene when I heard a cascading sound on the main floor. I stepped into the parlor. Water was pouring through the plaster ceiling at a point where it had been patched before. I ran back to the kitchen to get a bucket. Not finding one, I emptied the trash can of its plastic liner, tied the bag loops, and set it in the kitchen sink beyond the dog’s reach.  I grabbed paper towels, bath towels, and cloth rags by the rolls and bundles, and charged onward and upward. Managing to apply first aid to the parlor floor and the furnishings within the flood zone, I next ran outdoors to the garage to retrieve the shop vac, which I lugged across the yard into the house and up the stairs..

Back in the shower room, I sucked up all the errant water, then poured the heavy load into the toilet, slowly, carefully. It was another hour before I was all cleaned up as though nothing had happened.

I was exhausted after three trips up and down two flights of stairs, and hands-and-knees on the floors cleaning up.  Then putting everything away in the kitchen and garage, and washing all the towels and rags I’d used to help soak up the flood waters.

It was after 1 pm and nothing on my ‘Just Do’ list was done, not even item #1 — ‘unclog the shower drain’, which I had begun at 10 a.m.

A day and another dose of hydrochloric acid later, the drain ran freely again. The wood floor still shows its scar from the scouring it underwent, and the plaster ceiling downstairs looks like it has a rash.

The words of Lewis Butler, Master Plumber, come back to haunt me. Lewis has been plumbing this old house since two owners ago. He’s seen ghosts on the stairways, heard non-existent babies crying in the attic, and has dealt with every conceivable household plumbing situation. Years ago, when I tried to install a new faucet and failed, it was Lewis who answered my emergency call and fixed it right, fast.  As he left, he turned to me and said, “Remember, let me do the plumbing. You do the writing.”

In other words, Rob, you are not a plumber… Now I finally know why. The hard way. The way of a writer.


Derek Jeter is a Yankee

December 1, 2010

Derek Jeter is a Yankee. They owe him, yes, but he owes them a lot. If he is seriously committed to the Yankees having a legitimate shot at title #28 in the next three years, then he should take the deal and be a leader. His ultimate numbers matter most if they are all as a Yankee. His best money is as a Yankee. His quickest route to the Hall is as a Yankee. His legacy as a team player is as a Yankee. But if he is so greedy and so naive as to think he can do better elsewhere rather than free up some money for the betterment of the rest of the squad and thus enhance the Yankees’ chances of winning another World Series with him, then let his old body go to another team. If he comes to that, then he’s all about Derek and not about the franchise that made him who he is. Enough money is enough money. A championship and the dignity it carries is priceless.

Look at our rival, Boston.  Mike Lowell — he knew when to leave.  Big Papi will do his next contract and retire, too.  Come on, Derek.  Your best years are behind you.  Man up. Sign up. Win #28.