Friday, May 17, 2013

Work, Love, Family, Unemployment and a Barrel of Dogs

Hello, all. It surprised me how long I have been away. As you can see, my last post was a rant against my little cell phone, but then life happened and more important things commanded my attention. Things like illness, death and poverty.

Often bloggers will attribute an extended absence to "family matters." We don't get details, so we miss out on the stress, exhaustion, frustration, expense and sadness of "family matters." In my case, over the space of two years I tried to keep a part time job in Canada, while orchestrating in the US a family move one year, (including the finding of the new apartment,) advocating for my mother during her final illness 18 months later, the settling of her estate and bills, clearing her apartment into storage, and other little labours of Hercules.

If you are a Canadian with American family and you ever plan to act as the final caregiver and executor for someone in the US, you should have not less than $5,000 set aside, because that's about what it cost me. Astonishingly, this doesn't include motel rental or maintenance of your own home while you're away. I was able to stay in my mother's apartment while in the states, and a friend came to my Canadian home a few times a week to feed the cats and bring in the mail. So, just in case you also need housing while away, set aside $8-10,000.

"Family duties" in America are not limited to fluffing pillows and wiping fevered brows with cool cloths. You get to navigate the grotesque, opaque and cruel medical system. Even if your relative is covered by Medicare, expenses encroach on every side, and to qualify for Medical Assistance (nursing home, in this case) you have to plow through a whole different opaque system in order to qualify, because Medicare doesn't cover long-term care.

Did I mention that when this is applied for, your relative's savings and assets must be paid out to allowable costs only (mostly towards medical and prepaid funeral costs) to less than $3,000, simply in order to apply? Whatever remains isn't theirs, though -- it must also be used towards those allowable bills. No inheritance, kids! The executor's expenses are not "allowable," and believe me, they will want to see the invoices. So pad your suitcase with your own Benjamins, because mom won't be able to help you.*

A two-week family visit in July, 2012 became a five month slog through exhaustion and frustration and hard work. If I had not been there, if my blind, widowed mother's care had been in the hands of the county, all this work would have been done by county social services staff, at who knows what cost to them. They get a salary, I got nothing of the sort.

Did I sit with her, for hours a day most days? Did I comb her hair and buy her little gifts -- a talking pocket watch, a box of chocolates? Did I finally learn how to navigate a wheelchair and check an oxygen tank to determine if it needed refilling? Did I bless every day the fact that her sharp wit and keen intelligence was unimpaired by her multiple illnesses? Oh, yes. Her final months were a blessing to me.

But I cannot deny I was suckered by the system. Systems count on our heart ties to drag us into unpaid work we never trained for, raising children, nursing spouses, helping parents in their illnesses. How many Canadian children will provide free labour to the US social and health system by stepping in to care for their American parents at the end of life? Thousands? As a percentage of GDP it's not a lot, but I can see that US children going north to help their Canadian parents don't have the same expenses.

When I returned home after five months, my job of 3 1/2 years was gone ("job abandonment" though they knew where I was and what I was doing.) My bills had piled up, and job-hunting at my age is a long term, frustrating process.

This is where the barrel full of dogs comes in. I returned home to fill in the little gaps of income with dog boarding and dog walking and pet care. It helps to put bread on my table between (small) pension cheques, but when I add in car expenses it pays way under minimum wage.

It's a luxury to the people who hire us, but pin money to those who do that work. No one would do it if they didn't like dogs. More heart-ties? Of course.


*She can't even give you a gift towards this expense. The state now looks back six years to find any suspicious large gifts.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Pantech PN-3200 Cellphone Rant

I wrote the letter below to Pantech, and then tried to send it via their customer reply service online.

I am stymied by the requirement in the image below, for something called a "Email host". Since I do all my mail through Gmail, I tried that and several other possible entries, none of which have worked. [NOTE: see update at bottom] So I remembered, "I have a blog!" I decided to post my Pantech rant here. Enjoy.


Dear Pantech,

About my Pantech PN-3200: This is my second year of using this handset, and this morning I have been trying -- again -- to get the photos out of my phone.

There is room in the phone's non-removable memory for 400-some photos. It is full now, and yes, I know how to erase them. But can you tell me who decided this model would not have a data port? It looks like it has a data port, across the lower edge of the handset, but I have been assured by your tech support staff that this USB hatch is not actually a data port, and there is no cord or apparent use for this port.

And who set it up so that in order to get photos out, you have to mail them to yourself, and that only one at a time can be mailed, and that once you have mailed a picture, the album view reverts to the screen with the earliest photos, not the place where you were before you found and mailed one of the 400 photos?

I thought, since this handset is Bluetooth capable, if I bought a Bluetooth device for my system I could triage the photos that way. Silly me. Your Bluetooth is only equipped to support a headset or hands-free device, or a dial-up network.

Finally, my battery died about 15 months into the three year contract.

I will be up for a new contract in a few months. I have learned a lot from your PN-3200. Never take anything for granted, however sensible it might sound, research handsets exhaustively before buying, and steer clear of Pantech devices.

Now, I realize that it's possible that my problems have a simple solution. I may have set myself up for humiliation, ha-ha.

But if I am a smart woman with skillful reading skills, and I can't figure out the "simple" ways to solve these problems, even after discussing this with tech support, then perhaps there's a problem with the manual?


UPDATE: As soon as I posted this, in accordance with Murphy's Law, I figured out what the "E-mail host" thingy was. So Pantech has received my letter, and I will tell you what comes of it, if anything. --NM

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Super-Steve!! Man of Epoxy!!

First he united the right! Now, he has united the left!

What more can this man do! Let's not find out.

Go Coalition, Go!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The trace elements of a nation

A long discussion over on Angry Bear dealt with how economic choices, rational in the short term or in the service of one economic actor, can cumulatively cripple the societies in which these choices are made. Well worth hopping over to read the full conversation, and also taking another hop to read the 1994 address of Sir James Goldstein to the US Congress.

I added to the conversation, and was pleased enough with that comment that I lifted it for here.


For some reason, this discussion is reminding me of the "dead spots" in the ocean where fertilizers poured in and encourage the growth of oxygen sucking algae.

Like so many other issues in economics, the issue of training versus skills versus cost of acquiring those skills rests on a matter of balance. How does a society support the acquisition of skills which are, when all is said and done, not going to be needed frequently enough to support a large number of artisans? I took a tour of an engineering firm a few years ago, where they make to order generators and motors. The men doing this work are all my age now, and will probably be retiring shortly. The workplace was not a factory floor as you would at ordinarily imagine it -- instead it was like a very large workshop, and the "coils" inside the motors and generators were actually bent from lengthy slabs of specially shaped copper. I know for a fact that units produced by this company were integral to parts of the space program from the 1960s.

Motors, generators and transformers have shifted over the past 30 years to a very small number of producers, most of them offshore. Although I'm not in the field anymore, at the time I retired there were really only three or four producers of large power transformers, and the lead time for a single transformer might be three years. In some cases, there would effectively be only one producer because the others were not at that time taking new contracts.

In an emergency situation, how do you quickly replace a damaged transformer? They are not kept sitting on the shelf, one of these would be large enough that it would only fit in my two-story house if I removed strategic portions of flooring and walls.

The crisis of American manufacturing is not, I think, primarily one of job loss. It is instead the loss of capacity to rebuild oneself independently in a crisis. That capacity is only partly dependent on the infrastructure -- the factory floors and steel mills. More importantly, the working knowledge of how these things are built and the working attitude of coming in every day and bending some more copper into shape, but doing it precisely right, have been punished out of the American workforce I believe.

To become skilled in one of these jobs often requires an opportunity loss of becoming skilled in other areas -- in order to train a good machinist requires enough time that the skill becomes the individual's only resource, and if that resource is no longer in demand, the entire field looks like that oceanic dead zone where there isn't enough oxygen to survive.

A balanced diet includes many things -- sugar and fat and protein in large amounts, and iron and chromium and zinc in tiny amounts. But if a person's diet includes no trace elements they end up with deficiency diseases.

I think the loss of niche professions is a deficiency disease in a nation. Identifying and supporting these fields of work may not be financially efficient -- it's much easier to eat a candy bar than it is to eat a balanced diet. But the result of always making the candy-bar choice is a particular disease that weakens its host out of all proportion to the size of the elements needed.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pack a lunch, we’re going for medical supplies

Canada Post is out of the question

When Frodo Baggins set off on the quest of the ring, he sang, “The road goes ever on and on / out from the door where it began…” I wasn’t singing, but I was at least humming, as I headed out to get filters for my CPAP machine.

A CPAP is the cheapest, simplest solution to sleep apnea, a common disorder affecting 2 - 4% of adults. In sleep apnea, as a person falls asleep and then slips into deeper sleep, the air passage relaxes and air can no longer pass, sort of like trying to suck a milkshake through a collapsed straw. To resume breathing the sleeper must rise to a lighter sleep state, something they are not aware of, so they never enter deep, restful sleep.

The CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, pronounced SEE-pap, was invented by an Australian in 1981. It solves the problem by squirting air up your nose while you sleep. This sounds goofy, and looks goofier (imagine headgear like a cross between the creature from the black lagoon and a vacuum cleaner) but it is an elegant effective solution to a non-trivial problem.

As you might imagine, if you’re going to have air blown up your nose, you probably want to filter the air. Thus, my quest for new filters.

Our province covers these supplies. Four years ago when I was diagnosed, the supplies were available from the main hospital in the heart of the city, and thousands of people dealt with them.

Then 18 months ago the province farmed out this part of the job to Rana Medical. What nice, patient people they are. It’s too bad they’re so far away.

They are NOT in the heart of the city, nor even the liver or gall bladder. No, their offices are in the lower left ankle of the city, in a galaxy far away.

So when I drove down there today, it took an hour and a half to get there, pick up my filters, and go back home again, a 32 kilometer round trip, mostly on main routes.

But what if I didn’t have a car? That’s even better. Here’s the bus schedule, one-way at midday.
Option Transfers Departure Time Arrival Time Total Time Walking Time Wait Time
Option 1 2 14:38 15:44 66 minutes 8 minutes 7 minutes
Option 2 2 14:38 15:44 66 minutes 9 minutes 6 minutes
Option 3 1 14:47 15:57 70 minutes 17 minutes 5 minutes
Option 4 1 15:00 15:57 57 minutes 12 minutes 1 minute

An hour each way, including 8 to 17 minutes of walking, is a good chunk of time. (At other times of day it takes even longer.) But I suppose if you’re poor enough to not have a car, then you must have a lot of free time.

But wait – there’s a little bit more.

These filters weight nothing, maybe an ounce or less. Mailing them would cost $1.00 at present. But when I asked if Rana would mail them, I was told by their patient, sweet receptionist that they were not allowed to mail supplies. In fact, I was told that stipulation was in the bid contract from Manitoba Health – no mailing of supplies even if the winning bidder wanted to.

So let’s see what this means. While I was there, another seven people crowded the front desk to get supplies or replace broken equipment. How many people go to Rana in all? At least 7000, probably double that by now.

Say 10,000, that means that on average these CPAP patients travel 320,000 km each year, and spend a little over 2 years of total travel time each year. And who knows what the infirm or elderly do.

Is the savings in money to Manitoba Health worth the extra burden of time and trouble to their patients? I guess it depends which side of the ledger you check – the government side, saving ten grand on postage, or the patient side, making their pilgrimage every year to the wilds of south Fort Garry.

Next time I'll pack "Canterbury Tales."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pumping up the underclass

In many ways, the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict

Today's NYT talks about bankruptcies, with a real good chart. A little chunk from the article tells us
Downturn Drags More Consumers Into Bankruptcy

...the number of personal bankruptcy filings jumped nearly 8 percent in October from September, after marching steadily upward for the last two years, said Mike Bickford, president of Automated Access to Court Electronic Records, a bankruptcy data and management company.

Filings totaled 108,595, surpassing 100,000 for the first time since a law that made it more difficult — and often twice as expensive — to file for bankruptcy took effect in 2005. That translated to an average of 4,936 bankruptcies filed each business day last month, up nearly 34 percent from October 2007...
This raises a few questions in my mind.

Foremost is the question: what happens to an individual when he files for bankruptcy?

The answer is twofold. On the plus side, whatever debts he had are dealt with and the collectors are off his case.

On the minus side, a host of difficulties are added to his life, and these persist for a good, long time. In many ways, the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict (although at present, he doesn't lose his vote).

Ordinary living becomes more expensive. The cost of money, of course, rises. Even the modest leeway of a small credit card or a line of credit may become unavailable.

Jobs become harder to get, too. Many background checks look at credit history and exclude bankrupt people.

Health insurance, of course, is out of the question. Considering that 50% or more US bankruptcies occur in the wake of a serious health crisis, the nasty old "pre-existing condition" clause is going to rule that out, even if money isn't a problem.

In short, we are watching from 50,000 to over 100,000 (October data) Americans per month declaring bankruptcy, with a disproportionate number of them being families with children (either married (about 15 per 1000) or single (about 23 per 1000)). The overall bankruptcy rate is something over 7 per thousand.

There are, in fact, more people declaring bankruptcy than going through divorce. Why don't we hear about them? Because, as law professor Elizabeth Warren tells us, "You can't hide divorce, but you can sure hide bankruptcy."

Every year, another million Americans, increasingly with above-median income, enter the bankrupt zone with all the increased expense and risk and shame that carries with it. Will this have an effect on how they raise their kids, where they live, what opportunities they will have? Will it reduce the social cohesion of their families and set them adrift, scrambling still to make ends meet but with new strikes against them? If they couldn't make it before filing for bankruptcy, how will they manage post-filing?

I said at the top, "... the bankrupt person becomes the equivalent of an ex-convict...", but here is the difference. The bankrupt didn't break a law, isn't being punished, and usually has reached this point by trying to pay their bills, feed their kids, and care for their sick family members. "...job loss, medical problems, and family breakups are cited in nearly 90 percent of bankruptcies."

In other words, random events (with the possible exception of divorce) are tipping people, mostly people with children, randomly into a poorer financial domain where their happiness and their utility are deeply, often permanently reduced.

And it's not just younger families heading for the waterfall -- upcoming retirees are in trouble too. In the same issue of the NYT we read "...To date this year, the average employee's 401(k) balance has dropped by 21 to 27 percent..."

Is that any way to build a nation? No. That's how you impoverish a nation. No terrorists could possibly damage Americans as profoundly as it has been damaged by the credit, mortgage, insurance and financial industry assaults on their substance and prospects.

I hope that a new hand on the tiller and a new mind planning the course will be able to reverse these depredations and set in place new safeguards for the majority of Americans. The initial indications are good, but the forces in opposition, forces which are increasingly feeding off the modest dimes and dollars left over from the monolithic big expenses of daily life, are still strong.


[1] Health insurance was no proof against financial disaster either -- 70% of bankrupts, Warren tells us, had health insurance in place at the time of the health crisis that took them down. The safety net wasn't a net -- it was cotton candy, big and impressive and expensive, but without enough substance.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Approaching the runway ... sorta

As the year winds down, we remember his accomplishments.