Monday, November 1, 2010

Trick or Treat?

Late last night, near midnight, my wife Gloria and I walked into our kitchen and smelled gas. There had been previous occasions when we’d wondered if we were smelling gas, but then we’d stop and smell some more and think… nah, there’s nothing wrong.

Last night, there was no doubt. We smelled gas and we called the gas company for emergency service.

A man and a woman from Peoples Gas arrived relatively quickly, but then proceeded to treat us in a horrific manner. We explained that we smelled something like the smell of rotten eggs, and the man said, “Our gas doesn’t smell like rotten eggs. We put Mercaptan in it.”

Wikipedia tells me that Mercaptan is “a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage.” So, I guess we were wrong. But, what you need to understand is the tone with which the man asserted that their gas didn’t smell like rotten eggs. It was derisive, haughty, and, frankly, insulting. As if we were idiots to describe that – threatening – smell in such a way. And, neither he nor his partner would let this faux pas go – they kept saying things like, “It doesn’t smell like rotten eggs” and “You don’t know what you’re talking about” and “We’ll determine whether or not there is any problem here,” etc. – all with that same, curiously hostile and dismissive attitude.

The man had a device with him to check for leaking gas, a handheld instrument with a tube attached to it, something like a Geiger counter. It clicked slowly, perhaps at one-second intervals, when there was no unexpected presence of gas, but clicked quite rapidly when there was a significant amount of gas present. When he steered the end of the tube behind our gas stove, it went ballistic, clicking like mad.

We had a gas leak.

This meant that the duo had to check all gas appliances in the house as well as the source of the gas coming into our house. Down to the basement we went – water heaters, fine; incoming gas line (in our tenants’ apartment), fine; upstairs gas fireplace, fine. Throughout all of these additional checks, they continued to be hostile and dismissive of my and my wife’s concerns. They did, in the end, replace the flexible hose leading from the gas valve to the back of our stove, but I doubt I will ever understand why they were so rude to us.

Discovering that you have gas leaking in your house late at night is rather troubling and worrisome. In that, well… the house could have blown up!

The kicker? The literature that they left with us after we signed to cover the bill contains the following line: “Peoples Gas adds an odorant (Mercaptan) that smells like sulfur or rotten eggs to alert you in the event of a gas leak.”

Maybe they should tell their workers that.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Identity Theft

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted anything on this blog – life has simply been overwhelmingly busy of late. In May, I completed my MFA in Writing and had the great honor of addressing my fellow graduates and the assembled guests at graduation. The following day, I enjoyed the privilege of giving a public reading from my recently published chapbook, Meeting Dad: A Memoir (Accents Publishing, 2010), at the Morris Bookshop in Lexington, Kentucky. (By the way, if you find yourself in Lexington, pay a visit to this terrific independent bookstore! They are great and friendly and knowledgeable and everything you want in a bookstore experience.)

Earlier this month, I started teaching at DeVry University here in Chicago. I am teaching English 112 (Essay Writing) to 29 high school students who are part of a wildly innovative program called the DeVry University Achievement Academy, whereby the students complete their high school education and earn an Associates Degree at the same time. I’m also teaching HUMN 303 (Introduction to the Humanities) to juniors in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree. Seven credit hours over an eight-week summer session is a pretty heavy load, but I am, by and large, loving it! It is a privilege to teach, and an awesome responsibility. (By the way, I don’t use the word “awesome” very often, but in this case, it is the exact, right word.)

So, why is the title of this posting “Identity Theft?”

I learned earlier today that my debit card number has somehow been compromised. I don’t know whether it was due to some store losing data that a thief got a hold of or whether someone transcribed the numbers while they had my card in order to process a transaction. My debit card is in the right front pocket of my pants at all times, except when it is on my desk when I go to sleep at night. But, I learned today that someone – some thief – made an innocuous charge of $2.49 to some company in Kansas and a very much less-than-innocuous charge of $1,675 to a jewelry store in Los Angeles today! The debit card has been cancelled, a new one ordered, and a fraud claim will be filed within the next day or so.

How the thief or thieves secured my debit card number is a mystery. The good news is that my bank has assured me that once I’ve filed a fraud affidavit, my money will be returned to me – along with any bank fees that might be assessed while this whole issue is working itself out. The bad news is that it’s going to take me a few days to clear up this whole mess, and that during that time, I will have no access to a pretty significant amount of money.

Ah well… these things happen. I’m not going to let it ruin my day or week. I have classes to teach, papers to grade, and an upcoming birthday for my wife to prepare for. I guess I wanted to share this with you simply to say, be cautious. Be careful. Shred anything that might have account numbers on it. And, most importantly, be well.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

You Don’t Know Jack

So I just watched the premiere of Barry Levinson’s new film, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian. It was extraordinarily well made and featured the most nuanced and understated performance I’ve seen from Pacino on-screen in, well, a long, long, time! He was great, as were Brenda Vacarro (as Jack’s sister Margo) and Susan Sarandon (as a Hemlock Society organizer who is stricken with pancreatic cancer) and Chicago’s own, Rondi Reed (as the judge who finally sent Jack to jail).

More importantly than it being a good film, however, is the issue with which the film engages – namely, assisted suicide, death with dignity, or euthanasia – depending upon your point of view. I personally believe that if a human being is suffering unbearable pain with a terminal illness and is rational that he or she should be allowed to request that a doctor help usher him or herself out of this world with some dignity, some grace. I understand (and respect) the concerns that some have about potential abuses if we as a society were to embrace this, but I also believe (strongly) that there are some pretty simple ways to avoid abuse – like getting two or three opinions from licensed doctors that the patient is mentally competent.

Look at what happens all too often now: many folks are bankrupted in the last months (or weeks, or even days) of their lives spending all they have on medical care that is more about prolonging their life than improving their life. Or making them comfortable. Why is it okay that people go bankrupt to spend another several weeks in agony? Or, why can’t we trust that a patient who is in constant pain and has no chance of recovery might reasonably wish to simply let go – say their goodbyes, get their affairs in order, and let go? Is that irrational? I think not.

This whole subject seems to have moved to the back burner of our national discourse in the past several years – understandably so, given wars and the recession, et al – but perhaps its time we start to discuss it again. At the moment, only the state of Oregon has any allowance for physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps I’ll move there if I am unfortunate enough to contract a life-threatening terminal disease.

It’s a conversation worth having, I think. It’s hard, yes. It’s painful, yes. But it matters. None of us want our loved ones to suffer needlessly and yet so many do, every day of every year. I’m hoping that this fine movie might help spur an increased dialogue on this very important – and, very controversial – subject.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

That Didn’t Take Long, Did It?

Less than 36 hours after President Obama signed the historic health insurance reform bill, more Americans now support it than don’t, according to a USA Today poll released today. The newspaper reports, “By 49%-40%, those polled say it was ‘a good thing’ rather than a bad one that Congress passed the bill. Half describe their reaction in positive terms — as ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pleased’ — while about four in 10 describe it in negative ways, as ‘disappointed’ or ‘angry.’”

What’s more, fully 52% of those polled said they feel the bill either “makes the most important changes needed” or is “a good first step, [although] more changes are needed.” With most in the GOP and many right wing pundits screaming about the bill being “shoved down the country’s throat” and wildly asserting that “the vast majority of American don’t want health care reform” one has to wonder how these numbers could have developed so quickly.

Might it be that Americans are beginning to learn what’s contained within the bill? Might it be that most Americans – that is to say, a clear majority – are tired of things like pre-existing conditions and being dropped just when one needs health insurance? How about the fact that this bill assures that check-ups and other preventive care will – for the first time in history – be covered by new insurance policies with no co-payments?

Is it perfect? Of course not. And no one – no one – has suggested that it is. Is it a start? Indeed.

What troubles me the most is the deception and fear-mongering that has informed and surrounded this so-called debate. Taxes are not hiked on the middle-class, they are hiked on those earning more than $250,000 a year. In the last twenty-thirty years, the real rates of taxation have steadily fallen on the wealthiest in our society while rising on the middle and lower middle class. It’s about time that this trend gets reversed. I’m not engaging in class warfare here; rather, I am advocating some basic sense of fairness. The gap between rich and poor has never been as wide as it is today. Closing it would be a good thing for all Americans. Does this bill fix that problem? Not entirely, no. But it’s a good start.

Obama ran on health care reform. He told the American people that this would be his biggest domestic priority. So, how can anyone express great surprise that he pushed hard for this? It’s what we elected him to do!

A conservative friend of mine recently griped to me that many of the proposals take 3-4 years to kick in, as if this proves that it’s bad. Obama addressed this issue directly before signing the bill yesterday, explaining that certain elements are phased in over time so that changes are made responsibly, adding, “We have to get this right!”

I agree.

I believe that as Americans learn what this bill does and does not do that support for it will only continue to rise. I believe that the Democrats will run on health care reform next November, not away from it. I, unlike Rush and some of my other friends on the right, want this president (and by extension, our country) to succeed, not fail. And, I’m not ashamed to say it.

Certainly we will find there are things that can be done to make this bill better. Great, let’s do them. But let’s also try to engage one another once again with a modicum of civility and honest recognition of what is and is not in this or any other bill. The fact is there are some two-hundred GOP proposals contained within the bill Mr. Obama signed yesterday. The bill didn’t garner any GOP votes, but it’s got a lot of GOP ideas. As it should. Let’s all turn down the rhetorical heat a bit and keep our eyes on what’s important. Namely, our country and the health of our citizens.


Friday, January 22, 2010

A Regrettable Ruling

Thirteen years ago, I received a letter from my natural father, Bob Jaycox, in which he railed against “legal fiction of the corporation,” observing that they have “never breathed a breath of air, never watched a sunset, never held a child,” but they “feed at the trough of government largesse, wield political power on a measure which should never exist in this nation, and cast off those who live and breath at their own whim and convenience.”

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations should be able to spend whatever they want to spend in political campaigns, arguing that corporations had the same rights as individuals and that this spending was protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. But, wait a minute… First of all, are corporations really individuals? The Supreme Court has held as much for many years so let’s put that aside for a moment. But, another question: I, as an individual, am limited as to how much I can spend on a political campaign. I have a cap on my contribution to a candidate or party I support. Now, corporations have no limitations whatsoever, but my ability to contribute to a candidate or party remains limited. What’s up with that?

Is a corporation now more of a “person” than I am? Or than you are? Your political contributions are strictly limited under current law and yet Aetna or Philip Morris or Pfizer can now donate whatever they want. No limits. None. What in Sam Hill’s name is going on?

My friends on the right (and I do have some) will likely not approve of what I’m about to suggest but I think the time has come for serious reform of campaign finance, and the reform I want is public financing. This would stop the millionaires from having an unfair leg up on the rest of us and level the playing field. We would (collectively – uh-oh, he must be a Socialist!) finance campaigns for all federal elected offices; states could decide what they want to do for statewide elections on their own. But it seems to me it wouldn’t be that hard to create a legitimacy test for prospective federal candidates that entitle them to public financing. Once they satisfy that test they could only receive public financing and we would have a level playing field in terms of ad buys and the like. Each candidate would have to prove him or herself in the arena, through the cleverness of the ads the public finances allow them to buy to their personal pressing-of-the-flesh to their performance at debates. Let the best woman or man win.

Corporations are NOT individuals. As my late father said, they’ve “never breathed a breath of air, never watched a sunset, never held a child.” Individuals do all of those things. We breathe, we notice the sunset (and the sunrise), we hold children, even if we don’t have them ourselves – we hold our nieces and nephews or the children of friends, or, our own younger siblings. We are individuals. We breathe, we see, we touch, we taste, we feel. Corporations don’t cry or hurt or laugh. Their stocks rise or fall and individuals involved with them might cry or hurt or laugh, but corporations themselves demonstrably do not. That’s why they can lay off 10,000 workers at a time without blinking an eye.

Let me be clear. I am not anti-corporation. In fact, I, along with my wife, own a corporation. It’s called Russell Creative, Inc., and we formed it because it was a good tax move. But Russell Creative, Inc. is not and never will be an individual. It is a tax haven. It is a way for us to pay for medical expenses and research expenses and other business related necessities on a pre-tax basis. But, I wouldn’t ever in a million years argue that Russell Creative, Inc. should be thought of as an individual. It is demonstrably NOT an individual. It is a VERY small company run by my wife and me. It exists because given the current tax laws it makes sense for it to exist. Why should it be able to spend more money in support of a candidate than I am able to? This makes no sense.

This ruling will surely be overturned eventually, but meanwhile, I urge you to be in touch with your Representatives and Senators and push them to enact new legislation to try to work around this abominable ruling the Supreme Court. Our lives do, in fact, depend upon it.