News of the weird

The route that I take when I drive to work affords some lovely views of downtown Seattle, with Mt. Rainier in the background and the Seattle Center in the foreground. As I drove to work yesterday morning, I noticed that what had appeared the previous day to be a bright green tarp on the top of the Space Needle had grown. It was now a large green creature of some sort, with a head and two arms. My first thought was that it was the gecko, animated spokes-animal for the similarly named auto insurance company. I was a little puzzled by the idea of the Seattle Center’s allowing that sort of advertising on the Space Needle, but I had no better ideas.

I stopped at a red light next to the Experience Music Project. I noticed a woman standing on the sidewalk, her back to me, in what looked to be a chador or burkha … basically, full Islamic female covering… except that it was bright purple silk. I was wondering whether this was a modern woman’s take on covering when she turned toward me. And, oh my, her face and hands were… a lovely shade of blue. She was holding what looked like flyers. The traffic light turned green.

I arrived at the office, and mentioned these strange sightings to my co-worker, Paul. He suggested that there was something happening at the Center that might explain both sightings. And so there was.

Yesterday, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame – another pet project of Microsoft billionaire and 13-year-old-boy-in-adult-drag Paul Allen – had its grand opening. The big green blow-up doll and the purple-burkha lady? Aliens. Both of them. I saw aliens on my way to work yesterday.

Hot off the press wire…

President Bush and Vice President Cheney said yesterday that they remain convinced that Saddam Hussein’s government had a long history of ties to Santa Claus, a day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported that its review of classified intelligence found no credible evidence of the actual existence of a secretive, toy-distributing elf, much less a “collaborative relationship” that linked Iraq to such a holiday icon.

Mr. Bush, responding to a reporter’s question about the report after a White House cabinet meeting yesterday morning, said: “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Santa Claus” is “because there was a relationship between Iraq and Santa Claus.”

He said: “This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Claus. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Santa Claus. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with Kris Kringle, the head of Al Claus, in the Sudan. There’s numerous contacts between the two, each year in December.”

He repeated that Mr. Hussein was “a threat” and “a sworn enemy to the United States of America.”

Last night Mr. Cheney, who was the administration’s most forceful advocate of the Claus-Hussein links, was more pointed, repeating in detail his case for those ties and saying that The New York Times’s coverage yesterday of the commission’s findings “was outrageous.”

“They do a lot of outrageous things,” Mr. Cheney, appearing on “Capital Report” on CNBC, said of the Times, referring specifically to a four-column front page headline that read “Panel Finds No Santa-Iraq Tie.” Mr. Cheney added: “The press wants to run out and say there’s a fundamental split here now between what the president said and what the commission said.”

He said that newspapers, including the Times, had confused the question of whether there was evidence of Iraqi participation in Sept. 11 with the issue of whether a relationship existed between Santa Claus and Mr. Hussein’s regime.

Speaking of the commission, he said, “They did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and Claus in other areas, in other ways.” He said “the evidence is overwhelming.” He described many pictoral images, some featuring vehicles adapted for cold-weather conditions, and cited numerous links back to the 1990’s, including delivery of presents to the children of Iraqi intelligence officials.

The Vice-President went on to suggest possible links to terrorists currently active in the United States with a plan to take biological samples from sleeping children. He dimissed as “malicious poppycock” reports that small monetary payments are being distributed under their pillows. “This may be part of an attempt to undermine our sexual orientation,” said Mr. Cheney. Other sources have attributed the missing tissue samples and payments to a “Tooth Fairy.”

In a related story, Russian President Vladimir Putin today announced that Russian intelligence services had received multiple reports of attempts by Saddam to genetically engineer rabbits to produce brightly-colored eggs. Putin said he passed these reports to the US government, and had been thanked by President Bush. He added, however, that Russian intelligence had no proof that Saddam’s agents had been involved in jelly beans of any kind.

Jelly beans were a particular favorite snack of late President Ronald Reagan.

A letter (the unsent version)

Dear Group Health Options Incorporated Appeals Department,

My husband, Paul Davis (member ID ********), had major surgery at the end of February. This surgery was performed at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Since this was out-of-network care, there is a $400 deductible. After we have paid the deductible, you pay 70% of covered expenses (that means that we pay 30%). We have a stop loss of $4000. That means that, once we have paid $4000, all covered expenses are paid in full by Group Health. I have read our insurance policy (more than once). As my reading comprehension is really quite good, I believe that I understand our coverage. In addition, several Group Health employees have explained the coverage to me… in detail… as if I were a small, rather slow child. You do not need to explain it to me again.

We received some very large bills from UWMC and the UW Physicians for the surgery and associated hospital stay. Subsequently, we received quite a few “Explanation of Benefits” statements from you, indicating adjustments you made to their charges, what you would cover, and what amount it would be our responsibility to pay. The Byzantine structure of these forms was enough to test even my quite good reading comprehension and math skills. In an attempt to fully grok the situation, I set up an Excel spreadsheet to correlate billing from UW and your coverage. Please see the attached four pages. Please note that the amount indicated as our balance due (“patient responsibility” on your forms) is $5500, which is $1500 over the $4000 stop loss (see above).

Two weeks ago, I called your customer service number to discuss this issue. I spoke with Jasmine, who, after explaining our coverage to me, told me that, while she couldn’t review the amounts with me, she would put in an order for a complete detailed benefit statement to be sent to us, showing how much of each bill had been covered, and at what point we had reached the stop loss. (Apparently the computer file to which she had access did tell her that we had reached the stop loss, but did not provide additional information.) Jasmine told me that it would take about 5 days for the request to be processed and the statement mailed.

When 10 days had passed, I called your customer service number again. I spoke with Rose, who, after explaining our coverage to me, told me that she could see in our file that Jasmine had requested the statement, but that it had not yet been processed. I mentioned the 5-day time frame, and Rose said that sometimes it took “a little longer.” She suggested that, if we didn’t receive the statement in a few days, I call again and speak to Jasmine (who was not available at the time). I asked if it might be possible to speak with the person who would be processing the request. No, I was told, that’s the accounting office, and we can’t connect you to them.

Several more days passed; no statement. Yesterday, I called your customer service number again. When Lily answered, I asked to speak with Jasmine. Lily put me on hold, and shortly came back on the line to tell me that Jasmine was not available. I explained why I was calling. (Lily did not explain our coverage to me. I hope that this was not a failure on her part to follow your guidelines for customer calls. I did not mind.) I asked if Lily could tell me whether the benefit statement had been mailed. No, she said, it had not been processed yet, but the order was there in the file. I asked when we might expect it, alluding to the 5-day and “a little longer” time frames mentioned by Jasmine and Rose. Well, according to Lily, it usually takes about a month for such requests to be processed. I told Lily that we had outstanding medical bills, and that I wanted to pay them, but didn’t want to pay more than we really owed. She said that any overage that we paid would be refunded. I told her that I did not want to pay $1500 that we did not owe, because we needed that money for other things. She said again (and yes, more slowly and a little more loudly) that we would receive a refund for any overpayment. What could I say to that? I gave up.

I’m hoping that, by putting this in writing, I’ll get a more timely response. Is there someone with whom I can speak about this directly? I don’t think that your statement – whenever it finally arrives – will provide me with any information that’s not already on my Excel spreadsheet. Could you just give my spreadsheet to one of the folks in accounting, and have them call me? Really, I don’t even need to talk to anyone, if they’d just make the corrections to our account, and send UWMC an additional $1500.

Thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.



p.s. I just have to ask…What’s with the flower names? Does everyone in customer service get an alias? Or would I have to change my name to Tulip or Pansy or Iris to get a job there?

No news…

…is no news. We didn’t come up with anything really interesting to tell you about today. Soooo… it’s time to write about the weather.

It was yet another beautiful day in Seattle. Summer seems to have really arrived, several weeks ahead of schedule. I find this a little disconcerting, but I’m not complaining. Paul and I moved to Seattle in mid-June 5 years ago. We came from the Bay Area, which was at that point already well into the half of the year when there’s no rain. In Seattle in June of 1999, it was still raining. And it was chilly. Shortly after we arrived, we heard from at least a couple of folks that the conventional wisdom is that, in Seattle, summer begins the week after the 4th of July. I remember that one person specified July 10 as being the precise first day of summer here. That year, he was wrong. Summer never really came… at least not in a way that was recognizable to a recent California transplant.

This year, he’s wrong again. Summer is here already, and it’s glorious. The weather forecast for the next 10 days varies from sunny to partly cloudy; highs are forecast to be in the low 80’s for the next 3 days (sorry, Houston, this is warm for us, not cool) and the mid 70’s after that; the chance of precipitation tops out at 15%. Yes, it’s a forecast, and we know that, in Seattle, forecasts are seen more as entertainment than as information. However, this year the sunny days seem to be actually happening when they’re forecast, the rainy ones not so much so.

Summertime, and the living is… well, not easy yet, but getting better. And who knows what July 10 may bring.

Journey of a thousand miles, single step, etc.

Thank you all for your outpourings of joy and support following Kimberly’s post from last night. In the interest of full disclosure, and at great fear of raining on various parades, I think I should share more details.

There is eating, and then there is eating. I did eat half a muffin last night, in the sense that I put it in my mouth, bit pieces off, chewed them, and then passed them on to my stomach. It was still a far cry from eating as I knew it, or as you know it.

It was far slower, for one thing. In the time it took me to finish the smaller side of an english muffin, Kimberly ate a full bowl of dinner, and another whole bowl of delicious fresh cherries from a local farm. This is explained by the fact that each of my bites was much smaller than before surgery, because my half-numb mouth isn’t very good at manipulating bits of food.

I also took forever (relatively) to process each bite before attempting to swallow it. I wasn’t close to swallowing solid food. Instead, after much chewing and kneading, I swallowed a sort of peanuty muffin-paste. And I was glad I’d been skimpy with the peanut butter; the one bite that had appreciably stickiness was a big problem for my clumsy tongue to handle.

Each swallowing operation was quite deliberate and full of concentration. I’d read a technique Kimberly downloaded from the Web. With food in the on-deck position, breath in and hold it. Swallow. Cough as you breathe out. This is what I was doing. The cough allows you to move food that hasn’t quite gone down away from your windpipe before you try to breathe again. If it works. If there’s too much food, you’ll aspirate some of it. Bad. (Another reason for the teensy bites.) The clearing food part sounds quite odd, and I can’t imagine feeling comfortable doing it in a restaurant.

So it’s a far cry from the automatic process that you all experience as eating. And I’m still quite leery of drinking. I did “eat”, and it did lift my spirits. And I’m preparing to try more and more over the next few weeks. But I’m not about to be scarfing down burgers any time soon.

As someone who has ridden a bicycle across the country, I can tell you that a journey of a thousand miles is actually pretty darn long. Heck, I also know from personal experience that even a journey of 26.385 miles has more steps than you’d want to count. I’ve just done one step so far. So, thanks for the cheers, but I’m gonna hold off on getting too excited until I’m out of sight of the starting line, so to speak.

On the other hand, I have made both those previous journeys. If I were going to pick someone I knew to embark on a long, slow process requiring patience and determination, I’d pick me. (Which is pretty handy, since I’m the one the Iron tapped for the job.) Past experience suggests I can do this, and we all know I’m eager to. So off I go. One small step, then another, and another. Repeat and repeat until done.

There’s just one thing: I don’t like Nutella. 😉

Success with feeding… and eating

For the past couple of days, Paul has managed to get a reasonable number of calories with very limited gastrointestinal distress. His total calorie intake – around 2000 – is a little less than the nutritionist recommended he have, but, at his current activity level, seems sufficient to keep his weight stable. What seems to work best is a little bit of lots of things: Odwalla juices, Carnation instant breakfast, Boost, Osmolite (as the name suggests, the low osmolality formula) and the occasional Coke or ginger ale. It occurred to me that we could bump up the calories on the instant breakfast by using some condensed milk; half condensed and half regular is working well. Add half a cup of coffee and you have the “instant breakfast mocha;” the little bit of caffeine makes Paul happy.

Using the pump to get in a few hundred calories overnight has helped. Spacefood can be tolerated overnight, at a very slow rate, although Paul finds that, if he wakes up in the night, there’s a lot of belly gurgling going on. There’s was apparently a little gurgling last night with the Boost, too, so he has decided to forego the pump for tonight.

Now that calories are getting easier, it’s time for a nutritional assessment of the foods on the safe list, to verify that he’s getting all the nutrients and micronutrients that he needs, and add supplements if needed.

And the big eating news: this evening, Paul ate half an English muffin, toasted, with a little butter and peanut butter on it. Did you get that? Paul ate – as in, put in mouth, chewed, and swallowed – something larger than a Cheerio! And there was no choking, and (as far as he can tell) no aspiration. There was, however, rejoicing in our little corner of the land. While that was only a small fraction of the amount he’d need to eat each day in order to get rid of the tube, it’s a step in the right direction. And I know that sitting with me, and eating something while I ate my dinner, was really satisfying for Paul. It felt pretty damn good to me, too.

On venting

For the first several months of this blog, I spent a fair amount of time working on my posts. I wrote a lot of things that never made it in front of any eyes other than my own, and sometimes Paul’s. I used writing for the blog as a way to process what was going on. I’d write a bit, save a draft, do something else, come back and delete, edit and write more. I was on a leave of absence from work, and was at home most of the time, so I had lots of time to give to my writing.

For the past month, I’ve been trying to hold down a job again. It has taken a while for me to work back up to a relatively normal schedule, but I’m getting there. What this means, however, is that I have many fewer hours each day in which to deal with household chores and medical bills, process my feelings about the myriad things that are “up” for me right now (Paul’s health and emotional well-being, my physical and emotional well-being, our finances, our future… you get the picture), and, oh yes, think about blog posts. So I’ve been spending less time writing my posts. Sometimes, because it’s just easier, I’ve posted photos of our cats or written travelogues about past anniversary celebrations. Or, when I’ve been particularly worked up about Paul’s medical care, I’ve done what, for me on this blog, passes as venting.

You may not have recognized my posts from May 27, May 28, June 3 or June 5 as venting. Looking back at them, I recognize that I wasn’t particularly clear in expressing my frustration and anger (though you could certainly see it leaking out all around the edges… need more therapy, Kimberly?). There was a whole lot more kicking and screaming going on in my head than I put down in writing. And there was a whole lot less processing of and reflection on my feelings than went into many of my earlier posts.

Melanie nailed it in her description of the downward emotional spiral arising from the absence of needed attention/care: frustration, anger, depression, withdrawal, isolation, resentment. I won’t speak for Paul, but I’ve gone pretty far down that spiral a few times recently, and for me, each repeat trip seems a little faster. And, unlike the rat who, having learned the maze, gets to the cheese faster, this human still isn’t getting her (or her husband’s) needs met. Clearly, we have not found a satisfactory strategy. So, how to get the needed care? First (deep breath), I have start again with the (previously held) assumption that the folks at UWMC are both able and willing to help us solve the problems that Paul is having. (And that if by some chance they can’t, someone else can, and we just have to keep looking.)

Just so you know, I’m not planning to dump on Dr. Futran’s desk either the President’s Cancer Panel report on survivorship, or the large number of patient-education PDF files and web pages related to swallowing and tube feeding that I’ve found on the web sites of other hospitals/organizations and even UWMC. Here’s what I am planning to do: Along with Paul, write a letter to Dr. Futran, using the list of recommendations from the CPC report as a (hidden) framework. In the letter, discuss how we feel about the care that Paul has received (both the positive and the negative), and what we want/need now in the way of records, information, resources, etc. Include a list of questions that we want to have answered regarding Paul’s healing, swallowing, tube feeding and follow-up care. I’m thinking about faxing the letter to him a couple of days before Paul’s appointment on July 1, so that he’ll have time to read it before he the appointment.

In the meantime, I’ll try to work on a little more clarity here, too. But understand that there may still be the occasional passive-aggressive leakage… or lots more pictures of the cats.

Sasha’s Saturday

Ever had one of those days when this was about all that you wanted to do? When you’re a cat, no one expects anything more of you than this.

I walked into our bedroom this afternoon to find that Sasha had burrowed his way into the quilt folded on our trunk. This was the view at one end; at the other, two tufted white paws poked out. When I snapped his photo, he opened his eyes a little more, yawned, then went back to sleep.

Deep Springs and Vanity Fair

There have been a number of references to Deep Springs in this blog, though I can’t recall if we’ve given enough of an explanation of my alma mater to illuminate those who haven’t heard the whole story before. Avid comment readers will be able to identify other DS alums, Jacob and Loren.

The June issue of Vanity Fair has a multi-page story about the place, which I read courtesy of our friend Corinne, who kindly sacrificed the pages in her copy, and mailed them to me. It makes for good reading. I’ll post my thoughts here, and invite my fellow alums, and others with opinions, to comment.

First, the background. Every few years, some enterprising journalist hears about the college in some way, and figures it will make a great story. How could it not: two dozen young men with the SAT scores to get into any college they want, somehow end up out in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, working on a cattle ranch, while simultaneously taking classes on everything from Locke and Bentham to the sessile benthonic organisms of the Cambrian Era. Oh, and staying up late at night debating about what the rules for their own conduct should be, who should be admitted for the next year, and what teachers to hire. Fabulous story. And each time it gets written, the journalist, who comes in to this odd place with his or her own preconceptions and biases, comes away with a slightly different approach on it. It’s like a Rorschach test. Usually, I find these stories feel pretty far from the one I lived. It doesn’t help that it’s a moving target; it’s a two-year program, so the entire student body changes quickly, and that matters in a community so small that one individual makes a big difference.

That said, I liked this article. First, the photography was excellent, both as photographs and as visual communication of the feel of the place. But the prose, written by a woman who had the benefit of marrying an alum, was also good. It’s probably the best article I’ve read at allowing someone to understand the place.

How did the author, Evgenia Peretz, do it? Well, for one thing, it’s longer than most articles I’ve seen. That gives her time for quite a few telling anecdotes as well as the obligatory explications. (It is true that some of her facts are wrong, but not in a terribly annoying “WMD” kind of way.) For a place as odd and complex as Deep Springs, the extra space matters.

Second, she starts, and continues, with vignettes of the brilliant oddballs who populate the student body. She transcribes some of the heated rhetoric and pretentious outgassing that passes for conversation there. It’s charming to read about students 25 years after my arrival who indulge in the same wacky experiments in behavior, hygeine, politics and philosophy that I saw then. I imagine that her “native guide” husband was of some assistance here.

But she does go beyond the quirky characters to identify a few elements of the experience that ring true to me, and seem telling. One is the idea of “dealing when you haven’t got a clue.” I’ve never heard it expressed just that way, but that forced self-reliance and learning to do what you can while you figure out what you should be doing, was a key part of my time on the ranch. I never had to deal with a flooded dairy barn in the middle of the night with no instructions, but there were other, similar experiences.

Another thing she gets right, mostly, is the experience of feeling that your role is important to the well-being of the community. I won’t repeat the quote from one of the students, but it did recall that sense of having to work with and worse, depend on, guys you hated. I long for a greater sense of this in Washington, often.

She also touches briefly on the possibility that Deep Springs leaves you “out of step” with the society you return to. I won’t say it leaves you ill-prepared, but rather, better acquainted with notions of reliance and responsibility than your peers “outside.” I still recall feeling out-of-place at Brown, where people complained of, and failed to do, reading assignments I thought relatively light, and where even the supposed political sophisticates acted like whiny children.

I was also impressed by the fact that it wasn’t all about the students. She did mention several of the adults who’ve been critical, like the ranch manager, the president, and several of the Trustees. The discussion at the end about the dicey financial history, and the changes in the last 10 years was a good idea. I thought it gave a meaningful view into “what happens to these guys when they grow up”, beyond the usual list of ambassadors, spies, scholars, writers, and congressmen.

This is probably long enough, and has thoroughly bored anyone who hasn’t read the article, so I’ll wind up. Look for a copy of the June 2004 edition if you’d like to read the article and see what I’m blathering about. Jake, Loren and anyone else who has anything to say, comments are invited.