Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Galling (pun intended)

One reason I love Tuesdays is because that's the day the New York Times publishes Science Times. Almost always I find something in this section that I want to share.

In the Feb. 27 issue, Michael Mason has written an amazing piece revealing sites that help you bargain with hospitals about their sky-rocketing costs. I never knew you could negotiate with a hospital.

Get this. According to Timothy Cahill, president of My Medical Control, "The average provider -- doctors or hospitals -- has between 5 and 100 reimbursement rates for the exact same procedure. A hospital chain with multiple locations may have 150 rates for the same procedure."

I didn't know that. Did you? That's outrageous.

It gets worse. They keep the reimbursement rates a secret!

We're not talking small change. Mason writes that over the next decade, health care spending in the United States will double, to more than $4 trillion a year, a fifth of the gross domestic product.

Gradually, almost timidly, information is getting out. Mason says 32 states require hospitals to provide pricing information to the public.

I've always thought the health care providers -- doctors, clinics, hospitals -- have a goofy business model, if they have one at all. I have always wondered about the wisdom of young doctors and internships. Sleep deprivation does not make for good medicine.

Ah well, I stumbled upon this info just in time. I'm scheduled for gallbladder surgery next Monday. Maybe they'll be having a sale!

George

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hush

People go weird when you talk about dying. They don't want to.

Works for me. I was in the middle of a nasty divorce when my 30th high school reunion rolled around. I knew people were going to ask the inevitable:"Where's your wife?" And I didn't want to put a pall on the evening discussing The Plaintiff. So I hit upon this alternative when classmates asked: "Where's the wife?"

"She died."

Nobody wanted to talk about death. Clink. Party on.

I am fairly serious about death. Gotta be, I figure. Gonna happen. Might as well prepare a little. But it's frustrating because so many people find the subject uncomfortable. Case in point -- where is YOUR will?

Recently, I freaked out the doctor who implanted my pacemaker/defibrillator a few years back. Fortunately, my defibrillator has never fired off but I hear they kick like a mule and can knock you to the ground. So I asked my doctor: how do I die? I don't want to lay in the street, flopping.

He just walked away. I couldn't determine whether he was laughing or having convulsions.

(Footnote: when I told my better half I was blogging about my death, she said that would certainly please a lot of people.)

So, let's talk more of this in the future. OK. But before we leave the subject here's a true story from a recent seminar on death and dying. The young moderator thought he would open with a shocking statement: "How do you want to die?" he asked the audience.

And 86-year-old woman stood up and shouted: "In Tom Selleck's arms."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Printers are weird

Not the kind you plug into your computer. I'm talking about the ink-stained wretches you seldom see in daylight.

When I owned the little weekly newspaper in Goliad, Texas, we had to get printed a few miles away in Beeville. At the time, I was also working on two really old BMW's for my sons and I drove an even older Mercedes sedan.

Without thinking about it, for a three week period I drove a different car over to Beeville to get our little weekly printed. Most often, I would drive up as the printers were taking a smoke break.

Once, a dour printer blurted out: "What's the deal with those cars?"

Without missing a beat, I breezed: "Fellas, I drive two 20-year-old BMWs, one 30-year-old Mercedes and date one 50-year-old woman."

Next week, sure enough, I arrived just as their smoke break began. "I told my wife what you said," the dour guy said.

"Yes?"

"She said to ask the S.O.B. if he restored the woman, too?"

Friday, February 23, 2007

Race relations

To get over a broken heart, I joined the Navy as a young man. That's when I learned there were black people. Growing up in Lubbock, I'm sure I had seen black people but it's doubtful we ever talked. Or even acknowledged each other.

Romeo Parker was a tall black guy standing next in line to me at the urinals where the Navy ordered all recruits to pee in a cup. "Hold your cup up," Romeo said. I did.

"Hmmm," Romeo observed as he held his flask in the sunlight next to mine. "Not that much difference between black people and whites."

And that, friends, gets race relations down to basics.

A few days later, Romeo would save me from a serious ass whipping threatened by a giant from New Jersey, but that's another story.

That was nearly fifty years ago but I still remember the clarity of Romeo's statement. There's not that much difference. Not biological, anyway.

Over the years, I came up with the theory that skin color had more to do with where you lived than who your momma was. I'm talking long term. Over thousands of years, skin tone was etched by how close your ancestors lived to the equator where they needed darker skin to protect from the sun's blaze. The further from the equator, the lighter the skin. That's how we got Norwegians.

Damned if some scientists and PhD types didn't come up with the same theory a few years ago.

I like it. That explains everybody but the Eskimos!

George

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Nearly famous

See the book on the left? When the News Went Live. Buy it.

Four of us (Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer and Wes Wise) wrote the book. Huffaker is the principal author. It's about our experiences reporting on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We were reporters for KRLD-Radio/TV in Dallas.

I was the newest, greenest reporter in Dallas. A skinny 24-year-old kid from Lubbock. Six weeks on the job and the world turned ugly real fast. Already, I had been knocked down three times by retired Gen. Walker, and that was in the first month.

Our book is a first-person account of what it was like to cover those terrifying events. We were so busy that we didn't even have a chance to cry until days later.

Even though I was a cub reporter, I am proud of my responses, often just gut instinct. Twice I hitched rides with strangers to get the story in.

When Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police department, he was standing just to my right. I never saw him come down the ramp. Nor was I aware of him standing next to me when he stepped out and fired that fatal bullet. The camera I was using had those big Mickey Mouse film-holder ears on top and blocked my vision.

Although other photographers had a wider, better angle, the Warren Commission was interested in my footage because Oswald appeared to look at Ruby just before getting shot. The conspiracy theory was born.

Lest you think I got rich selling that piece of film, my Christmas bonus was $8.62. True story. The bonus was based strictly on the amount of time I had worked for the station.

Footnote to history: You may recall that more than 20 other people met mysterious deaths. People on the tangent to the story. My then-wife always said she thought I was going to get murdered.

But I think she was just building an alibi.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Extra! Extra!

The headline (above) dates me. Extra! Extra! was the call of paper boys selling extra editions on the street corners in Jimmy Cagney movies. Jimmy Cagney? Don't ask.

I have a correction and some spin regarding my post yesterday.

First, the correction. My eldest daughter says she does, in fact, subscribe to her rural newspaper plus a horse newspaper and maybe ten magazines. But not the local daily. I stand corrected. Sorry, sorry, sorry (to lift a line from my old business partner).

Next, the spin. Admittedly, I was simplistic in claiming more geezer coverage would solve newspaper grief and woe. But I was merely making a point that precious few newspapers in the nation are devoting much more than columns on playing bridge when it comes to writing about aging issues. Running more grandparent stories, therefore, is a metaphor. Ditto, grandchild stories. The issues facing newspapers are much more complex. But why not write for your base?

This is as good a pivot as any to another war story.

As this story opens, we had purchased a struggling little weekly newspaper which had bankrupted two previous owners. A local politician, I discovered, was going around town saying our paper was trying to gut his wife's campaign for school board. We had fewer than 500 subscribers. That's not enough to gut a gnat.

At first, the weasel lied and denied spreading such a bodacious lie. Later the same day, at a party backed by 20 of his friends, he admitted spreading the manure. Why? "I was trying to send you a message," he purred.

I got right to the point: "Listen you silly SOB, you can talk to me direct without playing games. I tell you what. I've never lost an election (I had been campaign manager for many). I'll either whip your ass right now or I'll whip you in April (election time).

He didn't hit me so I walked the neighborhood repeating this story. Never printed anything of it in the paper, but the whole town knew. This was personal.

Well, his wife lost the campaign and the weasel hated me from then on. Perhaps with reason.

We were to meet again.

I helped the fledgling business group put on a street dance, complete with a celebrity dunking booth. Yes, I was first up. Enter the weasel. He must have bought $20 in softballs but couldn't throw any straighter than he could talk. Never hit the clapper. Out of ammo, he raced to the dunking booth, hit the clapper with his hand and dropped me into the cold, cold water.

Now everyone knew I had a temper. A small crowd gathered to watch the fireworks. But somehow, I managed to hang on to a trace of cool and said nothing.

The gods honored my inner struggle. The weasel was next up at the dunking booth.

Just as I hit the clapper dropping him into the cold, cold water I shouted in a stage whisper: "I peed in the pool."

It was my finest hour.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Worth fixing

Newspapers. What happened?

As a child, I threw a paper route in Ft. Worth. Every afternoon, I would heft a sooty canvas bag filled with the Ft.Worth Press, hop on my bicycle and hope I managed to hit the front porch. Although the Press was the second newspaper in the city, nearly everybody in the neighborhood subscribed. Life was good.

Flash forward to the present. My kids grew up in a newspaper household. They became orphans the day we bought the Westlake Picayune because their parents were working 14 hour days. Or more.

Today, not a single one of my four grown children (great oxymoron) subscribes to a newspaper. Not a one. Yet they are well informed about the nation and the world.

Like so many others, my kids prefer to get their news in a variety of ways. Internet news and cable TV primarily. Like I said, they are generally well informed about the big stuff. But they lose a lot of the little stuff, the local news that helps describe the fabric of their community. For example, they didn't know our favorite hamburger joint had been sold. And if you are serious about your burgers, that's news.

But even before the Internet, there was a seething resentment of the local newspaper. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I really dislike the local daily editor because he is a bully and a name-dropper. But that's another story. I'll try to keep my thoughts pure as I ramble on.

Why the wide-spread discontent? Well, for years newspapers were the most powerful game in town. And in some towns, that power bred arrogance in the news room that spilled over into the newspages. Mainstream media was not always burdened with the bad connotation that MSM lugs around today.

I was proud to be a reporter. But would I tell my mother today? Public opinion polls rank reporters below trial lawyers, if you can imagine.

Will newspapers exist in the future? I certainly hope so.

Currently, newspapers are floundering in misguided attempts to corral the new media. Hobbled by old think, they are haviing difficulty with new think.

Here's a radical idea: Why not get back to basics? It's easy to identify the biggest block of current newspaper readers. It's the geezers! Yet precious few newspapers in this country have a beat reporter covering this extraordinary event called aging. The passing of the Baby Boomers is shaking up everything but newspapers barely wink at the need for coverage.

Back to basics! Start writing about the older people, sprinkle abundant photos and stories of the grandchildren and the subscribers will return. With advertising not far behind. And do it on the Net.

I have other thoughts on this subject and you'll hear more from me later, when I am ready.

George

Friday, February 16, 2007

Perspective

Too many politicians get too religious once elected. They think they are God.

My old boss, Cong. Jake Pickle, never lost his perspective. A rare quality for a man born to bask in the spotlight of politics.

His humanity sometimes surprised those around him.

Once, he was dedicating a new rural water supply system outside Bastrop, Texas. Although Pickle was a Democrat and Nixon was in the White House, the head of the FHA flew in from Washington for the ceremonies. A healthy crowd of locals attended plus two TV crews from nearby Austin worked the event. It was a good ceremony, a worthy project.

On the drive back to Austin, Pickle suddenly barked: "Stop the car." Safely on the side of the road, Pickle pointed out the window to an old man pouring water from a new faucet into a rusty old bucket.

"Someday you'll be driving through here with your grandchildren," Pickle said. "And you'll do what I did. You'll say stop the car. You'll say see that old man getting water. I got him that water. I got him electricity. I built this highway."

It was unlike Pickle. You could almost hear the Star Spangled Banner playing softly in the background.

Then he leaned over with a twinkle in his eye and said: "And you know what? Your grandkids really won't give a damn."

And that, my friends, is political perspective.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Obit. Ibid.

I'm fairly certain my readership has thronged to eight or nine. And yesterday's obit entry drew a response from a practicing Luddite in the D.C. area who cannot savvy how to post herein. Neither can I explain how.

So you'll just have to trust me when I tell you my friend Jim says he is designing his own cremation urn.

Complete with a false bottom and mad money.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Last laugh

I'm nearly a hundred and it's only natural that I begin to tidy up for that final journey. So I gave a little thought to how I would like my obituary to read.

Memo to my children: copy, cut and paste...

George Phenix
1938 -- ?

This will be brief. George wouldn't want to spend much money on this chicken newspaper (the Austin American Statesman).

He loved his work, his kids, his grandchildren, some good women -- and a couple of bad ones.

That's a wrap.

Monday, February 12, 2007

First grade, first day

When my son Steven came home from his first day at school, the first thing he asked his mother was:"Is mother f**ker a bad word?"

She punted. "Wait until your father gets home."

I figured if he had heard that word, surely he must have been exposed to others. So the two of us went to the den for some man talk.

Sure enough, he had a working vocabulary in cussing a blue streak. Patiently, I explained the meaning of each word. After about half an hour, I asked: "What do you think? Do you understand this stuff now?"

Steven shook his head. "I don't understand any of it."

So I took a deep breath and started over. After about fifteen minutes, I asked again: "What do you think?"

"I think habit's hard to break," the little guy said.

"What? I don't understand."

"Well, he reasoned, "when you say mother f**ker, it just feels good in your mouth."

I couldn't argue with such overwhelming logic.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Movie star

My favorite character of all time is former congressman J. J. Jake Pickle. Working for him was one of the favorite times of my life, too. He had a wonderful zest for life which was underscored by his impish personality.

Once, I grew a moustache. Don't remember why. But I thought I looked quite good. Dashing. But I forgot about Mr. Pickle's way of bringing me back to earth.

Several years after leaving his staff, I stopped by his office one day not realizing he had not seen my newly-decorated upper lip. He stopped in mid-sentence, staring at me. Slowly, he collected himself and began to mumble: "Movie star. Movie star."

Indeed, I thought, he's right. Visions of Redford and Newman swirled through my head.

"Movie star. Movie star," he continued to mumble and my head grew bigger.

Suddenly, Mr. Pickle snapped his fingers. He had it.

"Jerry Cologna."

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Big trouble

All my life, I've been an information junky. Before the Internet bloomed, I was subscribing to four daily newspapers. Now, I dink around daily to feed my need for nuggets.

This morning, I found some incredible reports on a Minneapolis TV station (I'm in Texas but spend time up there). Forgive my clunky approach in directing you there, I haven't yet learned how to link. Anyhow, search for kare11.com with your browser.

They've run a couple of amazing stories about the retirement wave which is about to wash over Minneapolis -- and the entire United States.

Forget real estate as a big time investment. Sure, there will always be hot spots in the market but most Americans will soon see their real estate holdings grow only around two percent. In the next ten years, there will be more retired people in Minneapolis than school children. That, coupled with slower rise in home values, spells trouble for funding the public school system up there.

Society is aging. The world is aging. And fast. For the first time in history, there will not be more people coming along behind us than in front. The retirement wave is going to be world-wide.

Makes me wonder whether the U. S. social infrastructure is ready. Probably not.

Are the medical schools training more doctors and nurses in geriatrics? Not enough.

Are the automobile manufacturers designing cars that are geezer-friendly? We need higher seats to facilitate entry/exit via aging hips. We need higher storage platforms for ease of getting grocery bags out of the car. And could somebody come up with something to corral those damned plastic bags that spill the oranges every time! And headlights. Would it be too much to ask for brighter lights to help with failing night vision?

The drug companies are going to become even richer. After all, we buy more prescriptions in the first five years -- and the last five years of life. Are any of the major drug manufacturers taking an active role in making sure we have enough doctors?

And what about AARP? That organization has the money, the muscle and the manpower to lean hard on all segements of society to get us ready for the retirement tsunami.

Thirty-five million AARP members. Heave!

George Phenix

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

AARP screwed up

If you'll pardon this approach, I tend to think of AARP and Listerine in the same breath. Remember the old Listerine slogan: hate the taste but use it twice a day? That's how I feel about AARP. I'm not sure I like them but I do use their services quite often as I dink around for info on aging. I've been a member off and on for years.

AARP is good, but suspect.

From its creation, AARP has been a vehicle to sell health insurance to older Americans. Since 1958, the organization has grown into a powerhouse with an annual budget larger, maybe, than some Third World nations. At $800,000 million, the AARP budget is five times larger than the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, according to the Washington Post. With a claimed membership of 35 million, AARP is 10 times the size of the National Rifle Association says the Post.

AARP is the largest lobby organization in the United States.

So how the hell did we end up with such a convoluted formula on Medicare prescription drug benefits. That program is needlessly confusing.

Let me tell you, if I ran the largest lobby machine in America, your drugs would be delivered to your front door.

Sure, that's an obvious over-statement. But it makes my point. I don't blame the Congress or President Bush as much as I fault AARP. They let it happen. Without a doubt, the bill would have never passed without AARP's support. They were wrong and older America is paying for AARP's mistake.

How did it happen? AARP has over 1,800 employees, many of whom are damned smart.

Isn't it obvious? AARP cut a deal with the drug manufacturers. Wish we could follow the money trail.

George Phenix

Monday, February 5, 2007

Noble, but wrong

Term limits. Just the very term connotes something is wrong with our political system and needs fixing.

True enough. Once elected, our representatives seem to value holding on to the their seats of power more than doing the people's work.

But I don't think term limits is the fix we seek. There are several reasons.

Chiefly, there are no term limits on the people who really run our government: lobbyists and bureaucrats.

Think of their joy in getting a freshman class every few years. Fresh meat that the lobbyists and bureaucrats would have for breakfast.

Why do you suppose there has been no lobby reform? The Democrats are in power. The Jack Abramoff/GOP scandals are fresh. What's the problem? Is it too far-fetched to suspect the lobby is gumming the works?

Re-districting is closer to the root of the problem than term limits. Case in point: Tom DeLay who forced the Texas Legislature into hyper-gerrymander and carved out five new GOP congressional seats.

It's an oft-told tale. Too many seats are safe seats. What we need is an impartial computer-generated redistricting which makes every seat a 50/50 race.

Ahh, but that leaves the voting public vulnerable to lobby money lavished on their candidates who "vote right." Spending caps anyone?

There. Take two vitriol and call me in the morning.

george

Noble, but wrong

Term limits. Just the very term connotes something is wrong with our political system and needs fixing.

True enough. Once elected, our representatives seem to value holding on to the their seats of power more than doing the people's work.

But I don't think term limits is the fix we seek. There are several reasons.

Chiefly, there are no term limits on the people who really run our government: lobbyists and bureaucrats.

Think of their joy in getting a freshman class every few years. Fresh meat that the lobbyists and bureaucrats would have for breakfast.

Why do you suppose there has been no lobby reform? The Democrats are in power. The Jack Abramoff/GOP scandals are fresh. What's the problem? Is it too far-fetched to suspect the lobby is gumming the works?

Re-districting is closer to the root of the problem than term limits. Case in point: Tom DeLay who forced the Texas Legislature into hyper-gerrymander and carved out five new GOP congressional seats.

It's an oft-told tale. Too many seats are safe seats. What we need is an impartial computer-generated redistricting which makes every seat a 50/50 race.

Ahh, but that leaves the voting public vulnerable to lobby money lavished on their candidates who "vote right." Spending caps anyone?

There. Take two vitriol and call me in the morning.

george

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Political party -- oxymoron?

A party all right. At our expense. Not a one of them knows how to just tell the truth. Or has courage enough. Rather, the politicians get "on message" and stay there. In a rut. Lying in a rut, pun intended.

I've always said the Republicans screw up because they don't understand power (Bush).

And the Democrats screw up because they don't understand sex (Clinton).

Meanwhile, the voting public gets gang raped at the voting booth.

Like the angry man said in his letter to Lincoln: You'll hear more from me later when I am ready.

george

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