Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Big F***ing Deal


I've looked everywhere and I can't find them. Even though there are at least 50 boxes that have not been opened, I know they're not in one of them. The day the driver pulled up with his massive 70-foot rig filled with all of our belongings, they were the first things he handed to me. The mirrors to my scooter. I put them somewhere, but I can't, for the life of me, remember where I placed them.

This past Sunday, the temperature hovered near 70 degrees with plentiful sunshine. It was a perfect day for a scooter ride, my first since moving back to Ohio. I had to charge up the battery, but after sitting overnight it turned over on the 2nd or 3rd try. I grabbed my riding jacket, gloves, and helmet. I asked Donna to check the brake-light to make sure it was operational before I started out. Then, right before I was set to twist that throttle, I heard her call out over the purr of the engine, "Where's your mirrors?" The movers unscrewed them before hoisting it on to the truck in Illinois, and now I can't seem to recall where they are.

After the historic events this week regarding health-care reform, I've had time to reflect on my own health-insurance situation. It wasn't that long ago, while starting to work for KDKA, that I was asked to make the decision to either choose the plan offered by CBS or the one offered through AFTRA, the union. I remember going back to my little one-bedroom apartment that the station rented for me across the river at Allegheny Center and spreading out everything on the floor in front of me and trying to decide. I'm generally not very skilled when it comes to these things, since Donna usually just handles it. But I was alone and I needed to make a decision. Since the AFTRA policy required me to make no premium-payment, I decided that it was too good of an option to turn down. It wasn't long after that AFTRA announced that the fund could no longer enable us to be payment-free. Then, the premiums went up exponentially. Eventually, after being down-sized from my position, I could no longer participate in the plan after claiming "financial core" status. I was in the market shopping for insurance just like everyone else who is self-employed.

My plan is relatively mediocre, and in that sense I'm wagering a guess that it's not unlike many people's plans. When I started to shop, I had no shortage of insurance companies willing to talk to me. However, whenever I would get to the "pre-existing conditions" part of the application, things suddenly came to a grinding halt. "You have GERD, Mr. Anthony? Did that occur before or after you started sleeping with a CPAP machine because of sleep apnea? Is your apnea a result of your asthma, or vice-versa? What did the specialists at the Voice Center tell you about the effect of LPR on your voice?" Sure, they would take a couple of days to get back to me, and they never failed to do so. They also never failed to deny me coverage. After going through several of these applications, I finally found a company willing to take me on.

Certainly not everything about "ObamaCare" is perfect. Far from it. But I am still a bit perplexed as to why the Tea-Baggers, Glenn Beck, most of my friends on Facebook, and especially my parents are so gung-ho on supporting a maintenance-plan on the current system. When I made my trip to Pittsburgh to the Voice Center last October, absolutely none of the over-$1300.00 bill was covered by my policy, simply because I hadn't yet met my deductible. Not one test, including a very expensive videostrobe, that I had done the year before at the Missouri Voice Center was covered by my policy because of pre-existing conditions. The prescription they gave me to have filled after the appointment was also not covered, however Walmart would gladly fill it...for $239.00! When I visited my new doctor several weeks ago, I gave them my card so that they could make a copy of it, and then was prompted to pay a $40.00 co-pay, the highest co-pay that I've ever had to make. People are gathering together, spitting on congressmen and tossing out racial slurs because they don't want this re-formatted?

I'm convinced that the only way my insurance policy would be beneficial to me is if, G-d forbid, some SUV pulled out in front of me on Darrow Road. Many times while I've been riding, I've thought to myself that I really only have insurance in case something catastrophic were to happen, like twisting my spine into a pretzel-shape on this damned scooter. And yet, I'm lucky, because I've been able to scrape enough money together each month, so far, to pay my premium, unlike the thousands and thousands who can't even begin to think about coughing up a monthly payment for themselves or their children.

No, I don't like more numerals added to the deficit. If David Axelrod goes on This Week one more time and says that health-care reform won't add to the deficit, I'm going to bounce my remote off the LCD. I'm Pro-Life, so, yes, I'm concerned about government-funding of abortion. And I'm a bit puzzled as to why a good portion of this doesn't kick in until 2014. But what portion of "insurance companies can't reject you for pre-existing conditions" does the Republican party not like? An "insurance marketplace" in order to boost competition is bad....how, again? Mitt Romney didn't seem to mind it when he was the governor of Massachusetts. I watched the President's "Health-Care Town Hall" and I agree with the the Republican's proposal to allow customers to shop for insurance across state lines. But unless I missed something, I didn't hear too much more of substance from them, and being able to buy insurance in New Mexico, or wherever, is not going to renovate a system spiraling out of control.

What's the role of government in our lives? What was the intention of the Founding Fathers? These are questions that have been the subject of Ph.D. dissertations since Harvard and Yale became institutions of higher learning. I don't know if one person can answer it, although Glenn Beck is convinced he can, especially when he breaks out his erase-board and his pointer. Does government have a responsibility to us, and if so, when does it start and stop? And what is my responsibility to my fellow citizens? Can I, or my government, sit silently aloof as fellow citizens suffer? Or is that considered "socialism", giving me free reign to leave threatening phone-messages for members of Congress? And if I'm a Catholic Christian, do I urge my government to have a responsibility to those citizens who don't have what I have, or does that add more fuel to the fire of the Church-State debate?

What I do know is this: I'm tired of sending off premiums every month and still having to pay for everything out-of-pocket. I'm tired of not being able to afford the prescriptions I need because those crucial to my well-being are not covered. I'm tired of apologizing to insurance companies because of medical conditions that aren't my fault. And as an entrepreneur, I'm tired of being penalized because I don't have access to a healthy amount of choices when it comes to choosing a policy. Joe Biden said it...it's " a big f***ing deal". Will the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cure these ills? Time will tell, but isn't it better than trying to justify the status quo?

The pundits say we have the best health-care in the world. The statistics from independent sources say we don't. I don't know. There are so many questions. Are insurance companies to blame, or is it the hyper-inflated cost of health-care? Are the wait-times for care in Canada really that bad? Would a government-option for health-care place all of American democracy in a situation of great peril? I suppose it depends on whether you're watching Fox News or MSNBC. As for me, I've had good doctors and not-so-great. As far as my condition, I've heard doctors from the same specialty come up with radically different conclusions. Sometimes it's a coin-toss.

I'd like to think about these questions, but I'd like to do it on my scooter. But I can't. Not until I find the mirrors. I can't ride without mirrors. I'll get arrested. Worse still, I might get in an accident. But at least I know that any ER charges above $2500.00 will be covered. I think.

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Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: m_bartosch / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, March 19, 2010

No Pain, No Gain

If I were to make a guess, I'd say he looked to be about in his late 50's. He had on a plain white t-shirt and gray sweatpants, the kind that, 20 years ago, were the only sweatpants you could buy. The "N" on the side of his shoes told me that they were New Balance, so at least part of his workout wardrobe came from this decade. He was taller than me, about 6' 5" or so, and, like me, he carried a paunch that was definitely not of the washboard variety.

I couldn't believe my eyes. I sat on my recumbent exercise bike in the weight-machine section of the Tallmadge Recreation Center, the area that looked down over the indoor-track that circled the inside of this expansive complex. The tall man in the plain white shirt and Soviet-bloc-style gray sweatpants was an absolute blur! Five times around this track equals one mile, and he consistently stayed in the outside lane and routinely passed the walkers and joggers time and time again. As I rolled along on my ride, I kept telling myself that he'll probably start slowing down and walking. Surely he couldn't keep up this kind of pace, not at his age. I stoppped counting at 30 laps, while he continued at his break-neck pace. Depression set in almost instantaneously.

It just seems like last month that my twin brother, Mark, and I walked into Esber's Restaurant on a delightfully warm Spring evening on a Saturday with our wives, thinking we were going to enjoy a peaceful dinner. As we opened the door, little did we know that a hundred or so people stood waiting for us to help celebrate our 40th birthday. "Tempus fugit," Fr. Kallaher used to say, at the seminary. Indeed. Now, as number "50" looms a mere six weeks away, I, like Mark, probably, take stock in what has transpired, not only in the last 10 years but also since that day at Aultman Hospital on May 2nd at 6:54 p.m. when Mark made his presence known, followed by me a quick 4 minutes later.

As I plodded along on the recumbent bike with the first Dire Straits album pulsating through my iPod, I stared down at my own paunch and wondered where I should be, health-wise, in light of my impending Golden Anniversary here on planet Earth. I know damned well that I couldn't keep up with the tall guy in the plain white t-shirt down there on the track, so what does that say about me?

I've always been fat. As a kid, buying clothes for school was always pretty easy. My mother would take Mark and I shopping and we'd start off with my wardrobe by going directly to the "Husky" section of Sears and Roebuck. Most of my pants had that elastic band in the waistline, for added comfort. For the ones that didn't, my mother, a pretty good seamstress, would always make sure that adjustments could be made later on in case "they had to be let out". But I wasn't obese. Sure, I was made fun of by other kids but it was never enough to prohibit me from participating with them. I played sports. In fact, as I look at some of the old picturs from my Mighty-Mite baseball teams, I looked quite svelte. But it didn't last long. I loved to eat. I operated under the dictum that you ate until you were full.

Even though I've always carried weight, I never espoused to the sedentary lifestyle. Throughout college and over the last 20 years, I've joined exercise facilities on several occasions. We've even purchased home-gyms a couple of times, even though they eventually became merely something that was used to drape damp towels over when they came out of the washer. And since the early 90's, I've been a fairly regular jogger. When we didn't have money for a gym membership, running became an inexpensive way to soothe the guilty feelings of knowing that I'd have Donna's lasagna a couple of hours later. But over the last year, jogging has really caused me a good deal of pain in my hips, for some reason, so much so that it's been sometimes difficult to walk the next day. So, this past year, I switched to a stationary bicycle and then, later, a recumbent bike.

I've never really been in-shape. My barometer for measurement has laways been the Shirt Tuck-In Rule: if I tuck in my shirt and nothing extreme is hanging over my belt, then I'm golden. Sure, we'd all like to be skinny, but transforming your body takes effort and will. For most of my life, I've danced around the workout-routine. I know where I should be as far as "weight" goes, but I can't imagine ever being at the weight-level that the pundits say I should be. Me, 185? Hell, I haven't weighed 185 since the 7th grade. It would be a major milestone if I could approach the 200-mark. If that ever happened, I might do something ludicrous, like take off my shirt outside while I mow the lawn. The skin on my torso hasn't seen sunshine, either, since 7th grade.

When I can break away during the workday to squeeze in my workout, I watch some of the other people in the gym and wonder where I should be. Pedaling along with reckless abandon, I catch a glimpse of the young college kids spotting each other on the barbells, trying to get buffed for their upcoming trips to Daytona for Spring Break. There's the young girl with the pony-tail and the skin-tight "Kent State" shirt, consistently looking at her watch to check her heart-rate while she does her laps on the track below. There are those dumbells that have the number "85" on them, and I can't imagine anyone actually lifting them, until the guy with the red board-shorts, the Harley scarf wrapped around his head, and the biceps bigger than my thigh hoists one with each hand, repeatedly. And then I wonder if he's looking at me, thinking, "There's that short, chubby, husky dude with the Wal-Mart workout clothes. Keep pedaling, brother. You got a long way to go". I can only imagine what he's thinking when he spots me coming out of the shower.

How far should I go? I'm an overweight almost 50-year-old asthmatic who has sleep apnea and recurring GERD. Should I do more reps on the military press? Should I try to do 500 calories instead of 400 on the bike? Should I hire a personal trainer so that I can feel good about taking off my shirt while I mow the lawn or should I keep doing what I'm doing because at least it makes me feel less guilty about the Sierra Nevada Glissade Golden Bock that I'm going to have later? I'm certainly not interested in having a heart attack, but I'm not sure how interested I am in achieving my optimum physical capability. Is doing just enough...enough?

I'm heading to the gym again today to do my bike-ride, lift a few weights, and maybe shoot a few basketballs. I'll more than likely see the guy in the white t-shirt and the gray sweat-pants there, too. I told myself that I won't count his laps, though. I've already broken my Lenten promise already so I feel bad enough. Maybe I'll just do an extra 50 calories on the bike today. It's Friday, and I think Donna's making lasagna tonight.

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* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at www.mattmultimedia.com

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ask for Forgiveness Later


She looked to be about 70 years old. She could have been much younger than that, but when you spend your days and nights as a homeless person, age tends to weather you a little faster than it does most people who have a mortgage or a monthly rent to pay. I'd seen her several times during the course of our almost-three-year stay in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. She generally traveled in a long gray coat, and she transported her possessions in a grocery cart. When the sultry St. Louis summers would hit, I would occasionally see her in a worn yellow sun-dress. She wore it the day she stopped at the Citgo station, as I was filling up the Xterra. She checked all her belongings, tied a knot in the large plastic Hefty bag that sat atop her cart, and went into the store. I replaced the nozzle and walked up to the door to pay. I looked through the glass and saw her way over in the corner, getting something from one of the coolers. I reached into my pocket, grabbed a five-dollar bill, and stuffed it inside the Hefty bag. A guy walking behind me must have known of her, too. He brushed past me and said, "If she knew you did that, she'd be pissed".

In the time I spent there, I've always wanted to take her picture. For some reason, though, I never had a camera with me. (my Blackberry at the time wasn't camera-equipped) I like photography, although I've never considered myself very good at it. In the three months that we've been home, I've been trying to get involved in something other than staying hunkered down in my studio all day or unloading boxes. I've managed to take out my acoustic guitar every once in awhile. My friend Tim Sheehan has been actually playing acoustic songs live in coffee-houses and such, and he's been an inspiration. Still, aside from considering entering a Masters program again, I've tried to find an outlet to both ward off the crushing winter blues and to, quite simply, just get out there and do something. While perusing a University of Akron Continuing Education catalog, I spotted an "Introduction to Digital Photography" class, so I decided to sign up for it.

This class is being taught by David Shoenfelt, a local Akron photographer who has, from what I understand, amassed quite a portfolio of work in the 37 years that he's been a professional photographer, as one would expect. We spent the first class looking inside the DNA of the camera, what the digital realm has done to the world of photography, and, in a sense, how to familiarize ourselves with our individual cameras. By the looks of some of the cameras that these people brought, you would have thought that they have 37 years of experience! My little Canon Powershot A630 was seemingly no match for these gargantuan Nikons. But, as David pointed out, digital technology gives everyone a somewhat level playing-field. Then, during the second class, we discussed "shutter-speed" and "aperture settings". Finally, our assignment: go take a picture of something important to you.

This assignment turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had envisioned. That weekend, I announced to Donna that the Canon Powershot A630 and I were taking that Sunday afternoon to go scout for pictures. It was a typical gray, overcast day with dry roads but with at least 8 to 10 inches of snow on the ground. First, I drove to the park and tried to frame several ducks that wandered near the side of the road. I came across a babbling brook that seemed to invoke a sense of calm and tranquility. I also tried to take pictures of objects that were encased in snow or ice, in order to generate a winter motif-aura. But as I looked at them, nothing really jumped out at me. The question was asked in class, "How do you know you're taking the right picture"? David's response, to these kinds of questions on several occasions, was, "Beauty is in the eye of the buyer!" As a working photographer, he's made his nut on satisfying the whims of the client. Would it be the picture he would take for himself? Nope. Whomever is paying decides who's taking the right picture.

I had trouble using that as a barometer, however. I was trying to utilize my eye for creativity, but I was amazed at how challenging it was to take a photo of something that was both important to me and would make the class go "ooh" and "ahh". Since my initial jump into digitally capturing the natural world proved to be unenlightening, I decided to move on to structures. I drove past St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church and thought I had made some progress. But the overcast monotony of the day proved to be un-inspiring. I went over to the ballfield and the tennis courts, thinking I could find a representative winter shot, but the angles weren't right, and, to be honest, a back-stop covered in snow just wasn't that enthralling.

The next weekend I decided to move indoors. I've been going to Mass on Saturdays and I thought it might be a good time to see if anything inside the Church proved to be good lens fodder. I felt a bit guilty. During Mass, I kept looking around to see if there were relevant shots that might prove interesting in the following Tuesday's class. I liked the way the light was coming through one of the stained-glass windows, and I made a mental note to do something about it. But by the end of Mass, the lighting had changed. I tried some shots of several of the altars, and a few actually turned out to be quite nice. I even asked the woman who played the piano if she wouldn't mind posing for a few shots, and she gladly complied. I then went home and toyed around with them in Photoshop. But none of them elicited that satori moment I was looking for. And as David reminded us, Photoshop can be heavy-handed. The real work gets done when the shutter snaps. I suppose you can't plan these things. Maybe I'm looking too hard to get an easy picture. Sometimes things just happen, and you have to be ready. Maybe when the light was perfect during the homily at Mass, I should have just jumped up and took the picture. David says that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. He's right.

This is harder than I thought, but I like it. Ever since I saw exhibits of the work of Helen Levitt and Eugene Smith, I've been very interested in photography. Next week we're talking about lighting. And after that, choosing the proper subject. Had I been with my camera at the Citgo station that day, I think I would have been able to capture something pretty poignant. Of course, if she would have been upset about the money, I'm sure she wouldn't have been pleased about some stranger taking her picture. It's easier to ask for forgiveness, though, right? I don't care if she was pissed, though. I hope she found the five dollars.

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* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at www.mattmultimedia.com

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Rise and Fall of the 10,000 Things


In the living room, I have a beautiful leather rocker-recliner. It could possibly be the most comfortable chair in the house. But for some reason, when I'm watching my favorite teams and the game is coming down to the wire, I'm incapable of sitting in it. Take last week, for instance. The Cavs were playing the Nuggets in a nationally-televised game. It was over-time. The score was tied. And when it gets to that point, I, for some reason, feel the need to stand up and start pacing. Maggie hates it, since, as Cesar Millan says, dogs can sense our tension. And Donna has become accustomed to it, since I tend to do it in the 9th inning during Indians games and, especially, during shoot-outs when the Penguins are playing. Will this display of anxiety help LeBron find Anderson Varejao underneath for an easy lay-up to go ahead? Will it assist Sidney Crosby in flicking a wrist-shot high on the glove-side to light up the lamp?

Growing up, my father used to harass me all the time whenever a game would be close, score-wise, and I'd display that sense of nervousness. I have trouble sitting still, anyway. As a kid, I would sit on the living room floor during Browns or Indians games and literally rock back-and-forth. The pace would, of course, pick up if, say, the Tribe were down by a run and had men on 2nd and 3rd and only one out. He would ask, "Why do you get so shook up over these games? You can't change the score so why even worry about 'em!"

I'm not sure I understand exactly the innate psychology behind why we "root" for a team. I suspect that some analysts would say that it has something to do with the fact that we're overcompensating for some kind of inadequacy, and then follow it up with the ever-famous "we're living vicariously through our heroes" observation. On some level, I don't doubt that. But I have to admit that when the smoke clears, the game is over, the infield is being raked by the grounds-crew, and the totals have been tallied, I do admit to feeling...a little embarrassed.

Do you ever feel small? Inconsequential? I do, sometimes. As the death tolls continued to climb in Haiti, I wondered time and again about the value of human life. A person as old as me, struggling to get by, with the same dreams and visions and cares and concerns, going about his normal day and all of a sudden is snuffed out in a monent's notice. And not just one, but thousands and thousands. I'm no more important than they are, and yet their lives are over in an instant. Events like these happen on a daily basis. A couple in Iraq having a leisurely breakfast outdoors are suddenly killed by a terrorist bomber. A family in Peru sitting down to dinner dies instantly as a mudslide destroys a whole village. The Beacon Journal today had a story about a family who left Haiti after the earthquake to go to Chile, only to experience homelessness again due to another earthquake!

Again, I'm not sure what to make of it all. My theological sensibilities become disoriented. As a Catholic Christian, I'm told that my life has express meaning and purpose and that I'm loved by a God, unconditionally. And my meager understanding of Eastern thought tells me that these events are as a result of the natural order, the "rise and the fall of the 10,000 things". But knowing that thousands of lives, also with purpose and meaning, can be summarily extinguished sometimes makes me feel not as crucial as I'd been led to believe. Am I any more important than my cousin Champ, who, in his 40's, spends his days confined to a wheel-chair in a facility in Thomas, West Virginia, stricken with MS? I see his posts on Facebook and I look at the photos he takes of birds outside of his bedroom and I know that, aside from ruminating on his past high school athletic successes, the immediate world outside of his bedroom is his only world. And for that I feel guilty and embarrassed and powerless. And yes, small.

I received a note the other day from a former co-worker at KDKA. Another co-worker and friend of ours was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. Perhaps it wasn't that recent, since they've already placed her in a hospice. Donna says that's not good. I called her the other day and I'm sure she knew it was me, although she was under heavy medication. I thought of her lying there and I wondered if she felt inconsequential, and then I cursed myself for having the audacity to try to wonder if I understood anything about what she's feeling right now.

So maybe that's it. Perhaps this incessant need we have for our sports teams to do well is that it offers a brief reprieve from the natural order of things. Sure, it gives us bragging rights along with a solid entertainment option, but I suspect that it's also an ointment, a small band-aid that we apply to occasionally soften the blow of a world that just sometimes doesn't make sense. You know, if Travis Hafner can just pull one down the line and if Cabrera gets a good jump, well a run scored would tie the game and...that makes sense. At least for awhile.

So I pace. Somedays it's the only exercise I get. Luckily, the floor underneath my chair is new, so I won't have to worry about wearing a groove in it, at least for now. Baseball season will start in a month, so I'll have a chance to break it in. It didn't seem to help the other night against the Nuggets, though. The Cavs lost in a squeaker. Good thing I'm going to the gym today. The Indians aren't nearly as loaded as the Cavs. With the Tribe's bullpen woes, I may not have to worry about too many close ballgames in the late innings.

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* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at www.mattmultimedia.com