Thursday, September 24, 2009

Healthcare: America Needs an Enema

We are currently witnessing the strongest push for reformed healthcare since President Clinton attempted it in 1994. There are strong opinions on both sides of the table with the Democrats pushing what they see as necessary reform and the Republicans digging in their heels in order to defend capitalism against the scourge of “socialized medicine.” I, like most Americans, simply digested the word “socialize medicine” and associated it with a form of medicinal communism that would stifle innovation and cripple our financially-ailing federal government; and to be sure, I think all Americans can agree that our bureaucracies are unparalleled in their ability to misallocate tax-payer funding. With that in mind, the fear of an inefficient, poorly-managed government healthcare infrastructure is certainly not unfounded and perhaps even likely. However, I am equally as frightened of allowing healthcare insurance to remain a profit-driven enterprise where the number of patients receiving care inversely impacts the profits of that company’s shareholders. Simply stated, the more treatment you receive, the less money they make; and I have no illusions that my personal wellness is powerless against handsome yearly dividends.

So we find ourselves trapped between an existing system that forces 700,000 American citizens a year into bankruptcy for the misfortune of simply getting sick, and an untested government-regulated path that would become the largest overhaul of a healthcare system the world has ever known. As T.R. Reid pointed out in his book “The Healing of America,” there is one pivotal moral question that must come before all others: Should every citizen have the right to receive medical care regardless of employment or economic status? This question is and has been the driving force behind every successful healthcare reform movement of the past 200 years, because without a consensus amongst the populous concerning this issue, failure is assured. When I pressed myself for an answer, I had to elevate healthcare above a privilege and recognize it as a right. When I visualize a privilege I see home ownership, having a car, and even attending college; for these, to an extent, function as capitalist “spoils of war” and are not guaranteed.

Despite their intrinsic philosophical differences, both parties can agree on a simple fact: our current system is bloated, unfair, and dramatically ineffective. As Americans we pay more for health care than any industrialized nation on earth, spending around 16% of our gross-domestic product on healthcare and watching an average of 20% of that money finance advertising, administrative overhead, and profit for out private insurers. As a comparison, France spends less than 8% of their GDP on healthcare and their administrative costs run about 5%.

Now it is easy to dismiss a comparison like this by relying on the idea that “you get what you pay for” and sure we pay more, because we have access to the greatest physicians and hospitals in the world, right? Unfortunately for us, the comparison cannot be nullified that easily. In 2000, The World Health Organization ranked wealthy industrialized nations on the fairness and quality of their healthcare infrastructures. France was ranked number one, and the United States came in at thirty-seven.

So maybe we cannot tell ourselves that we have the fairest or cheapest system, but don’t we at least have the most innovative and effective? Again, the statistics are sobering:

· America ranks 19th in preventing death from curable diseases in people under the age of 75.

· America has the highest infant mortality rate out of the 23 industrialized nations surveyed and more than double that of Japan and Sweden.

· America was tied for dead last out of 23 nations in the category of “healthy life expectancy after age 60.”

· American diabetics have a shorter life span than diabetics in any of the other 23 industrialized nations.

The problem is not the training or skill of our medical community, it is the fact that the number of people financially able to reach that community is rapidly shrinking due to exponentially increasing cost. So does this mean we have to institute the dreaded “socialized medicine” in order to see the kind of results Europeans have gotten? Let’s look at how they do it:

· The Bismark Model – Providers of both insurance and medical treatment are private with employers and employees paying a portion of the cost. The government does negotiate fees for treatment with the medical community so that fees are standardized and costs can be adequately controlled. It is basically the same system that we use except the insurance companies operate as a non-profit entity and the fees are standardized. This is the model used in France, Germany, Japan, Belgium, and Switzerland.

· The Beveridge Model – There are no medical bills or fees and the doctors, hospitals, and treatment are all paid for and provided by the government through taxes. In this system, medical treatment is a sort of taxpayer funded community service like the Fire or Police Department. This is what most of us think of as “socialized medicine” and it used by Great Brittan, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, and (gasp) the Unites States Department of Veterans Affairs.

· National Health Insurance Model – The providers are still all private, but instead of several private competing insurance companies, there is one big government insurance pool that everyone pays into. This gives the government incredible bargaining power (which explains why they can buy the exact same drugs as us for 70% less) but they still do not own or pay the doctors or hospitals. This is used in Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, and (double gasp) the United States as Medicare (we even stole the name from the Canadians.)

Each approach has its pros and cons, but many are not as different from our current system as some would have us believe. While these models can be an excellent stepping stone toward a fairer and more efficient system, we must also remain aware that our challenge is unprecedented in size and scope since we are attempting to cover a population of over 300 million people (by comparison, the populations of France and Great Brittan combined barely cracks 125 million.)

So what have our Washington friends come up with to alleviate this problem? Several days ago I began searching for the similarities and differences between the Democratic offerings and the Republican offerings. Since most of the GOP offerings are similar in scope and approach, I will use the Patients Choice Act (helmed by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan) to compare to the Obama / Biden policy of the Democrats.

My initial impression was shock at how many components they both shared:

· Both call for a type of open-air marketplace called “The Exchange” that would theoretically stimulate competition between providers and allow better deals for the end consumer.

· Both would provide a form of “sliding-scale” tax credits that would allow greater federal tax deductions based on income and medical expenditures.

· Both plans would require guaranteed access to care for all Americans regardless of age, race, or pre-existing conditions.

· Both promise portability so that workers can take their health insurance with them if they happen to change jobs.

· Both wish to save money by digitizing all of your medical records & insurance history onto an electronic card that would be swiped at the doctor’s office to eliminate paper records.

· Both demand an increase in “transparency” concerning hospital costs, patient care figures, and percentage of premiums going to administrative overhead.

· Both promise more emphasis placed on prevention in order to reduce the number of preventable diseases killing Americans.

So at this point you might wonder what all the fighting is about. If the plans are so closely linked, why has this schism appeared between members of the two parties? The answer lies in the logistics of bringing these promised changes about:

· The GOP uncompromisingly believes that the Federal Government cannot be trusted to “deliver high quality health care to every American;” instead they believe that the necessary reforms can be made by returning the current system to “core values” through a matrix of tax incentives and non-profit insurance oversight committees, and member-owned entities.

· The Democrats believe that only the federal government has the negotiating and oversight power to implement and enforce the necessary changes and to ensure fairness and coverage for all.

What I Like:

· The digitization of medical records is long overdue and could save billions in administrative overhead and even prevent unnecessary loss of life and expensive duplication of efforts. Both plans are pushing for it, with the Republicans suggesting an independent member-owned Health Bank to house the data. My question is, if everyone is required to have digital records, who would not be a “member?” The Democrats suggest that a government branch should be established to house the records, akin to the existing social security administration. One entity will have all our health records either way, and it is disconcerting but necessary.

· The idea of transparency is a must, especially concerning the costs of rendering services. I could visit 100 different clinics, have the same tests run, and still end up with 100 different prices for the exact same service. It is like pulling in to get an oil change and instead of giving me the price, they just take my keys and tell me “We’ll just see how it goes and let you know how much the price is afterward.” In France, every doctor’s office and hospital has a posted sign with the prices for medical treatment on it, just like ordering from a restaurant.

What we need to add:

· Both plans leave the current profit-driven private insurance industry intact. No industrialized nation has successfully implemented affordable coverage for all of its citizens while maintaining a profit-driven private insurance infrastructure. Simply put, there is just not enough money to cover everyone’s medical bills and still make shareholders rich because those are two conflicting ideals.

What I am not buying:

· The GOP promises to bring about all of the changes with no tax increases or new government spending. I am certainly no economist, but I am skeptical that we can establish many of the measures, such as nationwide “Health Courts,” state based “Exchanges,” new oversight committees, and affordable healthcare of everyone, without forking out something for them. It also seems unlikely that tax incentives alone could force a profit driven industry to bring the 45 million uninsured Americans under their wing for a reasonable fee to the consumer.

· The Democrats also promise to bring about these wonderful changes without “adding a dime to the deficit” by paying for everything upfront. This is also unrealistic as the government oversight measures and entities necessary to implement their plan will have to be funded by someone. I can guarantee you that no-one in Congress (Republican or Democrat) is going to supplement funding by reducing their own salary. The money has to come from somewhere.

If we are serious about changing the way healthcare works in this country, it will be painful and we will initially spend more money than we save. However, I, like so many others, have come to the decision that the goal of fixing what is broken justifies the frustrating trial and error that will no doubt accompany an overhaul of this magnitude. We can and should learn from the example of countries like Canada, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, and Japan, but while doing so we must remember that the system likely to emerge from all this will be uniquely American and that is something that I can live with.

Everyone should read the proposed solutions to make an informed decision. Here are the links to the detailed summaries for each side’s proposal:

Obama / Biden Proposal -

GOP Patient’s Choice Act -

*Facts and statistics come from the World Health Organization and T.R. Reid’s The Healing of America

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Humanity has come a long way. Given adequate time and resources, we have proven ourselves capable of everything from walking on the moon to mapping the human genome. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if all these accomplishments are nullified every time we are too lazy to place our refuse in a garbage can. Regardless of how you feel about global warming, environmental protection, or Al Gore’s choice of hairstyle; litter is a bi-partisan issue.

About two months ago I decided to take advantage of a beautiful summer day and complete some much needed yard-work. After removing the necessary lawn apparatus from my garage, I was fully prepared to begin entertaining my neighbors with my inability to pull start my weed trimmer when I noticed an odd collection of litter adorning my property. Further investigation revealed that my newly acquired yard potpourri was a combination of a Nachos Bell Grande value meal and a disturbingly-large bag of organic hamster food. Exactly what kind of nocturnal activities require both the delicate culinary delights of Taco Bell and immediate access to hamster food? Why did these articles suddenly become unbearable to have in their vehicle in front of my house? Who takes the time to feed their hamster and intentionally places the empty bag in their car to begin with?

This was not the first time I had found litter in my yard. Over my two years of residence I have seen beer cans, cigarette butts, fast food wrappers, plastic bottles, and even used paper plates. The volume was such that at one point I suspected I was the victim of an unusually passive hate-crime. I have since come to the conclusion that many of us reflexively throw our waste onto the ground without as much as a second thought, but we have long since passed the point of “innocence by ignorance.”

There are only a couple of valid excuses for indiscriminately disposing of waste outside of the proper receptacles. The first would be unavailability of a trash bin combined with the dire necessity of separating oneself from waste. This is perhaps feasible when on solitary wilderness hikes in bear country, but seems inapplicable in the majority of cases where studies have shown that littering most often occurs within six yards of a garbage can. I quickly marked this off my list.

The second possibility is that the perpetrator is blissfully unaware of the eclectic stream of trash launching itself from their vehicle. While this does occur, reports from state transportation departments seem to indicate that this “incidental littering” could only account for a very small percentage of the volume collected on roadsides. As it seems unlikely that someone could retain consciousness while remaining unaware that an entire value meal has catapulted itself from the seat of their car, I also eliminated this as a possibility. The unyielding facts left me with only one chilling scenario: I was the victim of a “litterbug.”

The term was coined in 1952 by Annette H. Richards while composing an article on vandalism in National Parks entitled “The Great American Litterbug” and has become synonymous with those who indiscriminately make their waste other people’s problem. Soon, I would be taking steps to unveil this hamster-loving menace.

Since our neighborhood is predominately comprised of closed streets, we see very little “thru-traffic” and I could safely assume that the scofflaw had ties to the area. This narrowed the field, but I really needed more if I was going to tighten my metaphorical dragnet…

Several years ago Texas conducted research to accurately profile repeat “litterbugs” (I can only imagine the federal grant money being channeled into this nugget) and the results caused a perceptible ripple amongst the litterbug profiling community: The typical litterbug is male or female smoker between the ages of 16-24 that travels more than 50 miles per day, eats fast food at least twice a week, and has never been married.

I thought that the last part was particularly insightful since the majority of 18 year-olds funding a nicotine habit while buying a full tank of gas every five days are probably still on the market. Nonetheless, I began surreptitiously creating a mental inventory of all local un-wed chain smoking miscreants too young to rent a car. While this narrowed the list of suspects to a more manageable number, I still needed more. I needed to go deeper, to unlock the primitive motivation behind this social deviance. Fortunately for me, the brave men and women of the Environmental Protection Agency of Australia are up to the task and have provided an easy to use classification system.

“Ignorants” – those mentally unable to link their littering to any environmental impact (these individuals are often in possessions of autographed Night Ranger ticket stubs)

“Willful Arrogants” – those who believe contextual littering is acceptable, such as urban littering, but will not litter in the countryside (because there are no baby seals at the bus stop)

“Anti-Establishments” – make a personal or political statement by purposeful littering (There is no greater catalyst of social reform than a carelessly discarded Fillet-O-Fish wrapper. “Take that, evil corporations!”)

Despite the plethora of profiling tools at my fingertips, I have, as of this writing, been unable to identify the offender. I am steadfast in my resolve to stop their reign of terror, but over the past several days I have come to the realization that my litterbug is by no means an endangered species.

So the next time that you are about to turn that value meal into yard shrapnel; do yourself a favor and let it ride shotgun for a few more miles, because if the litterbug profile is correct, you could probably use the company.

Reach, Inc: An Investigation

On the morning of Saturday, September 12, I was entering my local Wal-Mart store and noticed an unmanned portable table adorned with a rudimentary sign requesting donations for “Child Abuse.” Certainly I had seen other community organizations operating at this location (Salvation Army, Boy & Girl Scouts, Local Civic Clubs, etc.) but this seemed different somehow. For starters, the sign was devoid of any contact information; there were no phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or websites. Glancing back at the sign I did notice the name “Reach, Inc.” at the bottom, which I assumed was the recipient charity. I made note of the name and continued into the store.

When I emerged an hour later, the table was now accompanied by a slender woman politely beseeching shoppers for donations to help child abuse. As I made my way to the car, it began to dawn on me that this was not the first time I had been asked for a donation for child abuse under the banner of “Reach, Inc.” outside this particular store. I decided that it merited further investigation…

Two days later, I began researching the charity on the Internet. First, I tried the United Way of West Tennessee which covers my county plus nine surrounding counties. It would certainly stand to reason that a legitimate charity operating within the city limits would be listed amongst the 97 cooperating agencies, but alas Reach, Inc. did not appear.

An general internet search for Reach, Inc returned several results: a charity based in Bozeman, Montana that provides support for adults with disabilities and an agency in Cherokee, North Carolina that provides services for abused women, but I could not locate any pages referring to an organization (charitable or otherwise) that dealt with child abuse and operated under the name “Reach, Inc.” Something was beginning to smell, and for once it was not my Ol’ Roy Cologne gift set…

Concerned that the shoppers of my local superstore were being mislead, I placed a call to the location in question, hoping that the manager would be able to shed some light on the situation. I offered a brief synopsis of my findings and asked if solicitors operating at the front doors were subjected to a screening process. She replied that the charities were screened locally by each individual store, and assured me that “Reach, Inc.” was indeed a legitimate charity. I thanked her for the information and requested a way to contact the organization, as I had been unable to locate any information on them and I assumed the store would have this type of data on file. She tersely replied that it was against policy to release the information in question. She suggested if I wanted to contact them I should try and catch them next time I was shopping.

Astounded that Wal- Mart was not allowed to divulge the website or contact information of an endorsed charity allowed to solicit donations from its own customers, I placed a call to the corporate offices and spoke to a customer service agent who verified the local screening process but was unaware of a privacy policy concerning the charities themselves. He suggested that I call the District Manager in order to bring the matter to a close.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 16, I placed a call to the office of Russell Steiner (my local district manager) and was informed by his assistant Debbie that he was on vacation for the rest of the week. She asked if she could be of assistance so I voiced my concerns about Reach, Inc. and the Wal-Mart screening process for charitable organizations. She promised to look into the matter and get back with me once she had gathered more information.

Less than an hour later, she called with a website provided by the organization: I thanked her for the prompt response, and pulled up the address in question discovering that Reach Incorporated (a non-profit organization) was the brainchild of a man named Luke Edwards (a Pentecostal Bishop) and is based in Eutaw, Alabama. According to the website Reach Inc. was “formed to help underprivileged and abused children, misguided teens and young adults, court-appointed first offenders, unwed mothers, the homeless, and welfare recipients looking for a hand-up not just a hand out.” The site also referenced a religious compound called “Holyland.” Intrigued, I began my search for information about the Holyland compound of Alabama.

In 1997, the Seattle Times published an article on Bishop Luke Edwards and the commune he helms in Alabama. Bishop Edwards made a name for himself in the 1970’s by convincing his congregation that their dependence on the government for support was weakening them and that the true key to their freedom was self-sufficiency. The result, after almost two decades, was a multi-million dollar business empire consisting of restaurants, motels, truck-stops, slaughterhouses, and more than 2,800 acres of land.

The Bishop’s commune rests on 54 acres in Emelle, Alabama and consists of several non-descript buildings which house its residents. This is pertinent because the charitable arm of the Holyland is indeed Reach, Inc. and according to several residents this charitable division generates revenue through a complex network of panhandling known internally as “The Route.”

Gail Walker, a resident who defected in 1994, claims that residents were placed on buses and shuttled throughout the country for weeks at a time to ask for money outside retail stores. This solicitation was always done in the name of abused children because; according to Gail, “it gets their hearts.” This is ironic considering the organization has been cited for 129 child-labor violations by the state of Alabama Edwards responded that he was unaware of the law at the time.
Even assuming that Reach, Inc. has cleaned up its act in the past few years, I could not locate any services or programs they offered within 200 miles of the South Jackson Wal-Mart where they were soliciting donations. In fact, the official website does not list any services or programs at all; the curious are simply invited to call them or write to the given address for information.

To her credit, Debbie had apparently reached the same conclusion after navigating the site as she called me back to voice her concerns. I gave her a brief overview of what I had found and forwarded her the Seattle Times article which she promised to distribute to other area stores. Hopefully, Wal-Mart will increase oversight of their screening processes in the future so that the only pleas for charity come from the voices of those who truly need it.


The Seattle Times article can be accessed here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spas: A Cautionary Tale

My wife and I had decided that we needed a relaxing weekend away and a friend had recommended a hotel & spa located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It offered a romantic weekend package for two that included a massage in their world famous spa. The prices were reasonable and my wife (who had been trying to convince me to have a professional massage) thought this would be the perfect opportunity.

By maneuvering our Honda Civic under the hotel’s entrance canopy, I apparently tripped a silent alarm that jolted the valets into action because soon we became surrounded by vested men. After informing them that I was unwilling to pay $10 a day to have them park my car, I was directed to their “self-service” garage two blocks away that resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic motion picture. Through the broken windows of the first level, we could see piles of garbage apparently ruled by a pack of mutated house-cats who were either unintimidated by people or had a taste for human flesh. Narrowly escaping the feline militia, we made our way back to the hotel and prepared for a romantic day of pampering and relaxation….

The much-anticipated morning of the massage was finally here and I braced myself for the impending bliss that was laid out before me. Ashley and I made our way to the spa entrance where a bespectacled woman in her late 50’s directed us to gender-specific entrances on either side of her desk. I was given a disposal bath mitt, which I noted with mild alarm, had the name Derek written on it with a permanent marker. Passing through the curtain, I was greeted by a large, muscular man brandishing a clipboard who, after glancing briefly at my bath-mitt, introduced himself as Derek and proceeded to confirm the options of my three-part relaxation package. First stop: a stress-melting mineral bath.

Derek led me to a curtained alcove where he instructed me to remove all my clothing and cover myself with the Velcro-equipped man-skirt I found inside. After several harrowing minutes, I was finally able to secure the over-laundered towel into what I believed to be an iron-clad hurricane-proof double-knot. Derek then led me into the main chamber where I was quickly greeted by the smell of mineral spirits and unnecessary male nudity. Only a congressional sponge bath could amass a more impressive number of unclothed geriatric white men. I felt like a visitor on the set of Cinemax’s “Studs of the AARP,” and the worst part about it was that no one else seemed taken aback by the scene unfolding in front of us.

Derek’s face remained expressionless as we navigated the shifting gauntlet of liver-spots and herniated disks, until we stopped at a cinder-block stall at the end of the row. He then restrained the wafer-thin curtain while I stepped inside to survey the apparatus necessary for a successful mineral-bath. The stall housed an archaic claw-footed tub that was partially straddled by what appeared to be the outboard motor of a fishing boat. As my eyes were tracing the frayed wiring of the device back to the electrical outlet opposite the tub, I became vividly aware that my man-bits were no longer residing under their complimentary Velcro awning. While I was silently contemplating my chances of surviving electrocution, Derek had taken the liberty of removing my modesty wrap and was now holding it hostage in his arms along with my bathing mitt.

With a tender firmness, he requested that I step into the mineral bath while he readied the “water agitation device.” Unwilling to prolong my impromptu nudity, I gingerly placed my feet into the tub and began lowering myself into the water only to find it so hot I would not have been surprised to find a chicken bouillon cube resting at the bottom. I was torn; do I continue my decent into the tub and risk igniting my genitals, or remain standing like a pasty-white lawn gnome? It dawned on me that Derek was not going to abandon me until I was fully submerging and giving the appearance of relaxation, so I mentally said goodbye to my future children and sat down while Derek fiddled with the boat motor.

Derek, apparently satisfied that the “water agitation device” was reaching critical mass, turned his attention to me, donned the bathing-mitt, and asked if I would like to be “sponged-off.” I heartily assured Derek that his services past this point would be unnecessary and he seemed content to leave me unsupervised; parting with an assurance that he would return in fifteen minutes in order to begin phase two of my pampering: a soothing hot towel wrap.

True to his word, Derek materialized again just as my internal organs began shutting down from heat-stroke and asked me to stand up with my back toward him. Fighting the overwhelming urge to call him warden, I complied and soon found his forearms encircling me as he deftly refastened my modesty linen and helped me out of the tub.

I was then directed back into the chamber of flesh where a set of padded tables supported what appeared to be the mummified remains of The Senior PGA Tour. Derek brought me to an empty table and requested that I lie down on my back while he applied scalding hot towels to my face and torso, leaving only my mouth, nose, and eyes unobstructed. He asked if I needed anything else (like my dignity) and then disappeared.

Suspecting that I had already suffered irreversible damage to my circulatory system, I removed my linen-tortilla in an attempt to lower my body temperature. Unfortunately, Derek took this action as a personal affront and asked if there was something unsatisfactory about the service I was receiving. I tried to diffuse the situation by explaining that the towels had simply triggered my selective claustrophobia disorder and that perhaps I would skip the hot wrap and head straight to the massage.

Derek, ever the consummate professional, would not hear of it and requested that I enjoy the deluxe sauna in lieu of my hot towel wrap. I agreed, and was taken into a room sweltering enough to be Hell’s exhaust pipe; its only other resident was an unnaturally-hairy patron who gave me a brief, yet informative, presentation on the advantages of sweating out one’s impurities. Thankfully, it was soon time for the grand finale: the massage.

The massage wing was akin to a Civil War-era field hospital in that any seclusion was made possible by a hanging white sheet that only provided the idea of privacy without any structural follow-through. After passing several “Stalls of Paradise,” I found myself shaking hands with a wiry senior citizen named Bert who was to be my masseuse for the next thirty minutes. It was requested that I remove my towel (since apparently nudity was a pre-requisite for relaxation in this place) and lie face down on a table that, by appearances, seemed to pre-date the building itself.

Bert busied himself with extracting pre-heated massage oil from a brothel-sized drum that adorned the corner of the room, and without warning began slapping my back with his arthritic hands. This continued for several minutes (during which time I tried to recall the statute of limitations on assault in Arkansas) and ended with what he referred to as “The Rubdown,” a process probably borrowed from his days as a stable boy.

Having been slapped senseless and rubbed like a donated pack-mule for the past thirty minutes, I was elated to see Derek and anxious to retrieve my clothing and escape. Back at the changing station where my journey began, Derek reminded me that he would be within earshot if I “needed anything.” My torso now safely ensconced by layers of processed cotton, I peered through the gap in the curtain to see if the coast was clear because I knew that Derek expected a handsome tip for his services. I waited several minutes, but every time I attempted to emerge he would come back into view. It became clear that this man was no amateur and barring a long overdue structure fire, I didn’t have a prayer of escaping unseen. I sighed, placed a crumpled five dollar bill into the palm of my hand, and walked toward the door depositing the crumpled bill into Derek’s hand as I passed.

I do not remember the journey back upstairs to our suite, but my wife insists that when she opened the door I was seated on the edge of the bed transfixed to the television that I had never turned on. This ended my first, and only, professional massage.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Your Regulatory Fees Are Showing

This past week my wife and I embarked on our bi-annual journey for a cellular phone service provider as our previous two year contract had been fulfilled and we were now free agents. The task is depressing, but unavoidable; much like paying taxes or catching Ryan Seacrest on cable. But as we walk into a cellular store, it quickly becomes apparent that the carpet, lighting, and strategically placed displays provide the atmosphere of a technological petting zoo; and yet this knowledge only makes it that much more tempting. Make no mistake; every facet of your cellular experience has been handcrafted by teams of engineers, marketing executives, and fee ambiguity specialists to generate the greatest amount of corporate stock options possible.

Your wireless provider realizes that there is nothing more intoxicating to a consumer than the illusion of empowerment through customization. It is with this in mind that their marketing team has created an array of deceptively-unhelpful options to fit your mobile communication needs. A seductive matrix of bright colors and exciting package names (Super Nationwide Family Share Unlimited Talk 4,000) assaults your senses as you peruse the brochure only to find you are presented with two choices: Overpay for a set amount of minutes with the possibility of a monthly overage suddenly forcing you into bankruptcy or drastically overpay for an unlimited number of minutes and enjoy a more gradual slide into bankruptcy.

Having decided on a voice plan, you are now presented a list “enhancements” like text, picture, and video messaging, roadside assistance, GPS navigation, data access, smart-phone tethering, and Canadian bail-bondsman voice-dialing. Once you have decided on a plan and enhancements, these choices will be conveniently consolidated into a single document: the service contract.

At twenty four months, the service contract routinely outlasts celebrity marriages and is revered for its ability to enforce cellular-monogamy through an intricate web of early- termination fees and penalty clauses. Only violent street gangs could sustain lower numbers of defectors and in either case the penalty is the same: a beat down.

The second wave of the onslaught involves the equipment, and one of the most soul-shattering weapons at their disposal is the mail-in-rebate. Like a siren’s song, it lures the unsuspecting to their doom with the promises of low-priced handsets and bargain smart-phones. It is only after you have left the store that you realize the rebate takes 2 trimesters to process, is likely to be sent to the wrong address, and will be issued in the form of an Arby’s gift card. As if this wasn’t travesty enough, you will be tempted to purchase “Wireless Insurance” to protect your newly acquired hand-candy only to find that it will not cover a replacement if the phone has ever been exposed to a “substantial amount of liquid”. However, these pale in comparison with the greatest deception of all: the first bill.

Waiting on the first cell phone bill of a new contract is comparable to sitting in a doctor’s office before you first colonoscopy; you do not know exactly what will be involved, but you can be pretty certain that it will be unpleasant. This overwhelming dread is an early symptom of “ambiguous fee syndrome”, a debilitating condition caused by terms like “regulatory recovery charge” and “911 access fee”. Would it really be that difficult to integrate the fees into the advertised plan price? Does it really require $40 worth of man hours to activate a cell phone in 2009? We all criticize the oil companies, but at least they have the decency to tell us the whole story on the sign before we even bother to pull up to the pump.

Of course, there is an alternative to all of this madness: the prepaid phone. Heavily favored by both Jason Bourne and transient narcotics dealers, the prepaid phone provides all of the convenience of wireless communication channeled through the most visually unappealing handsets available. It is as if the service providers hope to shame you into falling in line with the rest of America by distributing cell phones from the “Saved by the Bell” props department.

We are one of the only countries that tolerate proprietary phones and over-priced contracts. In Europe, virtually any network-proprietary stateside device (iPhone / Blackberry Storm) can be purchased independently and then used on any carrier by simply acquiring a SIM card. If for some reason that carrier is not satisfactory, you can take your business (and your beloved smart phone) elsewhere. If desired, you still have the option of a contract (albeit at much more reasonable rates) and in the case of Vodafone (the second largest wireless service provider in the world at 264 million subscribers) sometimes you can be unaware that you are even their customer.

I decided to compare apples to apples and shop for the same phone with comparable service from both European-provider Vodaphone and North American-provider Verizon Wireless:

On Verizon, the phone is $99 up front and a plan with 450 minutes and data is $75 per month with a $35 activation fee.

On Vodaphone, the phone is free and a comparable 750 minute plan is $55 a month with no activation fee.

Vodafone offers a better plan, no upfront cost, and is still $20 less a month than Verizon. Perhaps the most infuriating part of all is that Vodafone operates in America as Verizon Wireless (they own a controlling share). We are paying higher rates simply because we do not have the fortitude to demand lower ones.

Shouldn’t we demand better phones, cheaper rates, and up-front pricing? There are an estimated 270 million cell phones operating in the United States and according to Forbes magazine the average monthly single –line service plan hovers around $50. This means that we as consumers control 13 billion in monthly revenues for service providers, and yet I cannot even get someone to explain to me how a “Federal Universal Service Charge” can be different every single month. It is time for us to demand a change in the way our wireless service is provided, and I plan to start the revolution as soon as I charge my overpriced Blackberry…

25 Random Facts About Me

1. When I was a senior in high school, I entered a scholarship essay contest for the Tennessee Ready-Mixed Concrete Association (TRMCA on tha' streets). The requirement was that I write about how concrete has changed our nation's infrastructure in general and my life in particular. It took me about two weeks and I even ended the paper with a ready-made slogan: "Concrete: A Firm Foundation for America's Future". As I placed the essay in the mail, I was already planning out the inevitable book tour / university lecture circuit that was sure to follow this literary gem. A month or so passed and I received a copy of the prestigious (and criminally under-circulated) TRMCA magazine. As I opened the front cover, I mentally prepared myself for the accolades that were sure to be showered upon me; but when I got to the essay section I discovered that I had been out-foxed by a girl! As I began to read her essay, my indignation melted beneath the waves of the biggest pant-load of crap ever put on paper. Make no mistake my friends: this girl was a pro. She even wrote about how as a young girl growing up on the wrong side of the tracks she used to sit on the roof of her parents house and gaze up at the concrete overpass that crowned her neighborhood; and she realized that if this overpass could sustain all that weight, she too could rise above her own circumstances and utilize her God-given talents. I am not sure, but I suspect she is already in negotiations with the Hallmark Channel for the movie rights. At any rate, I did receive a consolation prize in the form of a fluorescent green backpack which sported the outline of a concrete truck and a certificate of achievement (which I still have).

2. My coworkers thought that I was Mormon for the better part of a year because I did not drink caffeinated beverages and “seemed really nice”.

3. The first conversation I ever had with my wife was when we were both working in the mall and I suavely attempted to “drop some game” on her while the guy she was currently dating happened to be standing in line directly behind me. She acted somewhat indifferent to my amorous advances which I mistakenly believed was due to my imitation Calvin Klein cologne (thank you Kmart). She later explained to me that I had put her in a rather difficult position by hitting on her in front of her current squeeze.

4. When I was 11, I yelled at my grandfather in front of a whole group of people at a Boy Scout meeting that he was kind enough to attend with me. He died of cancer shortly thereafter and I never really told him how sorry I was. It haunts me to this day.

5. I sometime wake up with the opening measures of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in my head and it makes me feel ashamed. It is in my head right now……. It cannot be stopped…… Steve Perry has a huge nose……

6. In high school I was walking a date out to her car while simultaneously suppressing a rather ferocious case of gas when my defenses broke down and I let one “rip” as they say. In desperation, I blamed the rather loud flatulence on my nearby sleeping dog. I have since consoled myself by believing that she bought the story, but I have never known for sure…

7. I was once late for work because I became engrossed in the E! True Hollywood Story of “Home Improvement”. May my children forgive me.

8. Arkansas is my least favorite state for several reasons: They spent thousands of taxpayer dollars to put up signs that state “Road May Become Dangerous If Underwater” / They decided to use “Access Roads” in lieu of an actual interstate infrastructure / and all of their interstate rest areas are adorned with stainless steel urinals and toilets which makes me feel like I am filming an episode of “Scared Straight” every time that I have to pee.

9. I tend to eat based on the texture of foods. For example: I love applesauce, but will not eat an apple / I love orange juice, but will not eat an orange etc….

10. I have absolutely horrible vision and without glasses or contacts I could not recognize a person even at arm’s length from my face. It has been this way since elementary school and my mom still has a picture of me wearing my ladies-pleasin’ Neil Sedaka glasses.

11. I have the ability to remember some pretty complex numbers (I have my driver’s license number, all my bank account numbers, product keys for software programs all memorized) yet I cannot remember dates of any kind such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc..

12. As a teenager I had fairly bad acne which was joining forces with my bad vision and crooked teeth to make me quite the catch. In order to remedy this, I convinced my mother to get me a prescription for Accutane because some friends had taken it and the results gave them the complexion of a 14 year-old Greek boy. Unfortunately, the Accutane had no effect on my acne but did cause the following side effects: I gained 15 pounds in my face and was subsequently known as “Cabbage Patch Boy” / I became quite overdramatic and when my parents would ask me how my day was I would respond with some variation of “Just let me live my life! You don’t understand!” / I was overtaken by an insatiable lust for generic Oreo cookies (this may have been a contributing factor the previously mentioned Fat-Head Syndrome).

13. My wife had dramatic oral surgery about 2 months after our first date and was completely wired shut for weeks. Several times I fed her with a syringe while she was in the hospital.

14. When we were both in high school, my sister and I got into the most brutal fight of our lives over her spending my change from pumping gas on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a 20oz Coke. We almost broke the French Doors in my parent’s house.

15. My other grandfather helped liberate the Buchenwald Concentration camp in World War II and took several pictures of the bodies stacked in ditches “like cordwood”. He kept these pictures in a trunk to remind him of the horror of the Holocaust. When he was dying, someone wrote an editorial into the local paper stating that the Holocaust was a myth. After reading this my grandfather was so incensed, that he drove to the newspaper offices to get the photos published. They ended up doing a rather lengthy story on his experience at Buchenwald. Unfortunately, he died before I was born.

16. I have two nicknames: Tay-Tay and Strings (I do not count, “Hey Stupid!”)

17. I despise Paul Walker (the guy from Fast and the Furious that is NOT Vin Diesel) and rented Flags of our Fathers just because I heard that he died in it. I was not disappointed.

18. If I ever win the lottery I plan to open my own movie theater and one of the snacks I will sell is a fried-okra / sweet tea combo.

19. My first job was as a dish sanitation engineer at the Western Sizzlin. It was every bit as prestigious as it sounds.

20. I eat cereal almost every day, but only for a pre-bed snack. Favorites include Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Honey Bunches of Oats. (Smoke on that Kashi Go-Lean!)

21. One of my greatest pet-peeves is when wire clothes hangers get tangled together. If I ever commit a homicide, chances are that it will be “laundry-duty-induced”.

22. The one and only massage I have ever received was from a rather salty senior-citizen named Bert at the Arlington Hotel Day Spa. This message was the culmination of a day of pampering which including having some guy named Derrick whip off my towel and ease me into a genital-scorching mineral bath. I declined his offer to “sponge me off” and fear I will never be able to look my offspring in the eye.

23. If it was socially acceptable, I would wear pajama pants and a t-shirt to work every day.

24. I am terrible at math, which is somewhat embarrassing considering my father is a brilliant CPA.

25. It really bothers me when I see people spend extra money to purchase name-brand charcoal starter fluid. It either will or won’t ignite, there is not much expectation of performance after that.

An Ode to a Pontiac

It was the summer of 2001 and I was searching for a vehicle to replace my decade-old white Chevrolet Cavalier with the optional date-repelling protective finish. It had carried me through high school and an embarrassingly unproductive year of college, but now it was time for the Cavalier (a name rooted in the derogatory Latin word caballarius meaning “horseman”) to go to that big wholesaler in the sky. I was convinced that I needed something that had cache, something that oozed sophistication while fitting comfortably within my budget constraints, and something that a member of the opposite sex would ride in of their own free will. After several weeks of fruitless searching, I took delivery of a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe and all of the good times it would bring to the threshold of my life…

A brief list of features that gradually revealed themselves after purchase:

1. The driver seat was permanently reclined to the “gangland assassination” setting.

2. The glove box latch seemed to have been manufactured using hardened licorice and would only close every third time.

3. The overly-accessorized and under-glued rear view mirror would randomly break free from its perch and remain suspended from the electrical wiring that fed the reading lights. This created a fatality-inducing pendulum effect since it would randomly reflect sunlight into my eyes as I drove.

4. The transmission sensor was broken so the key would not release from the ignition when you parked; and because you could not turn the key into the off position, the daytime running lamps and dash lights would remain illuminated until the battery died.

5. In order to neutralize feature number four, the parking brake could be engaged to turn off the daytime running lamps and salvage any voltage left in the battery while allowing the key to remain in the ignition.

6. This would invariably lead to me placing the car in reverse and gunning the engine in frustration before I remembered that I had engaged the emergency brake to counteract feature number four and it was still on.

7. The tires were a specialized size that could only be purchased through a particular Dutch monastery.

8. The “paint” on the spoiler had the weather resistance of a Crayola spray and wash marker and I began to suspect it had been lifted from a child’s Power Wheels electric toy.

9. The sunroof took so long to close that by the time its cycle had completed the weather had shifted and you wanted it back the way it was before you pressed the button. As a bonus, it not only leaked, but seemed to actually channel rain-water into the driver’s seat.

10. The driver’s side mirror housing had completely broken off and had to be re-attached to the vehicle using liberal amounts of duck tape.

11. The power steering would randomly fail at high speeds causing a dramatic chain reaction that often ended with me soiling myself repeatedly.

12. Despite having been serviced on several occasions, the air-conditioning would generally cease to function between late June and early September.

In September of 2007, my matrimonially-dedicated life partner and I purchased our first house and I had taken a few days off to get everything unpacked. The following Monday would be my inaugural morning commute as a newly minted home-owner and I was anxious to see how the traffic would flow and how it would affect my time getting to the office. With a spring in my step, I made my way to the suburban chariot and began my journey. About halfway to downtown I found myself waiting to turn left at a fairly large intersection, and just as I began my embarrassingly-gradual acceleration; I heard a mild thud quickly followed by the sound of breaking glass.

Immediately suspecting my tape-restrained side view mirror, I glanced to my left and felt relief wash over me as I realized that it was still there. At this point, I haughtily began to glance around in an attempt to rubberneck at the poor schmuck who was to blame for such a sad display. It was at this moment I made two key observations:

1. The woman behind me was swerving erratically while contemplating the most efficient hand to give me the finger with.

2. My passenger side mirror and housing was no longer visible from my current vantage point.

As I was turning, the entire mirror apparatus fell from my car and was subsequently crushed by the three vehicles that had the misfortune of following me through the light. I was stunned. The passenger side mirror had been the one reflective surface that I could rely on, and there had been no indication it was even loose. After I recounted this unprecedented chain of events at the office, my coworkers offered a plausible (if slightly insulting) hypothesis:

Feeling itself slipping and having witnessed the slow and painful degradation its driver-side counterpart, the passenger side mirror had thrown itself from the vehicle in order to end its tenure with any remaining dignity. In short, my car had become so embarrassing that even its own extremities could not bear to be associated with it any longer.

Despite its formidable list of shortcomings (both mechanical and aesthetic), the Grand Am did posses a powerfully endearing quality: it was paid for. This and this alone gave me the patience and perseverance necessary to continue relying on my 2-doored companion day after day. However, all of this changed one spring day when I received a letter from the Pontiac Division of General Motors labeled “Important Message to Owners.” At long last it was finally here; an official apology from the world’s largest automaker for creating a product so devoid of craftsmanship it made a Dr. Phil Theme Park seem like a sound investment.

Unfortunately, the envelope contained a reliably impersonal letter informing me that they have identified a problem with floor-mounted air bag sensors in my car. It was at this point that the letter’s author reassured me that this defect is only associated with vehicle interiors exposed to substantial amounts of water (say, through a precipitation-hemorrhaging
moon roof) and that there was no need for concern if your car does not fall into this category.

If, however, your interior (and thus your floor-mounted sensors) had been exposed to liquid; the defect would likely manifest itself in one of two ways which we will refer to as scenarios A & B.

Scenario A – The sensor would fail to detect a qualifying head-on collision and your front air-bags would not deploy, leaving the steering wheel (and recently dislodged rear-view) to arrest the forward motion of your soon-to-be-misshapen cranium.

Scenario B – The sensor would malfunction and deploy the front air-bags during normal operation of the vehicle (such as pulling out of a Wendy’s) resulting in the newly-blinded driver instigating the type of horrific accident the air-bags were designed to save him from.

The letter drew to a succinct close by informing me that for my own safety I should have the issue repaired by a qualified dealership, and although replacing the airbag-sensors is an expensive procedure; my safety is their number one concern. While touching, their concern for my safety was not accompanied by a voucher or coupon for the repair.

I was at a crossroads; I could handle the permanent ignition key, the self-ejecting mirrors, and the stroke-inducing lack of air-conditioning, but I drew the line at a randomly-deploying airbag. It was time for one of the most feared transactions in retail: the trade-in

Entering a car dealership carrying the scent of vehicular desperation is daunting enough, but when combined with the financially pressing need to portray my car in the best light; I had little hope for a favorable outcome. After a few hours, we had decided on a car and the delicate waltz of negation could at last begin.

The sales associate landed the first blow by strategically placing a worn and rather conspicuous copy of The Bible on the desk between us, as if only the promise of a commission could lure her away from her study of Leviticus. It was unceremoniously swept aside to make room for the credit-check forms and we were offered complimentary bottled water while we waited to see if we qualified as preferred buyers.

Early formalities aside, the real battle began and we stepped outside to have a look at my trade-in.
We watched expectantly as her eyes swept across the front of the ailing coupe, and grimaced slightly as they paused on the duck tape. Apparently undeterred, she walked to the driver’s side and requested the keys. I informed her that I had taken the liberty of ensuring they were in the ignition for just such an occasion, and with a flick of her wrist the Grand Am stumbled to life. Her quick inventory noted that I was missing the entire mirror housing, the air conditioning did not function, she was unable to roll the windows up, a lug nut had broken off, and there was a faint odor of gasoline in the air.

Her investigation coming to an end, she cut the engine and unsuccessfully attempted to remove the key. I halfheartedly tried to sell the key’s reluctance to release as a theft-deterrent, but I don’t think she bought it. For several minutes she seemed to be pondering whether or not it would be rude to ask me to move it behind the building so as not to discourage other buyers, but eventually she sighed as asked if they could keep the $200 CD player I had installed five years ago. Sensing that this was going to be a deal breaker, I reluctantly agreed and she seemed encouraged enough to continue negotiating.

Back inside she delivered a gentle, yet unmistakably direct, oration concerning the blatant undesirability of my Pontiac which she quickly followed with an offer of $1,000. Clinging to the fading dignity I had left, I pretending to be insulted as asked for at least $2,000. This was met with a look of disbelief as she pointed in the general direction of my car and said “You want us to give you $2,000 for that?” I replied that if it made her feel better, she was welcome to give me $1,000 for the car and $1,000 just because it was a Friday.

Rising from her chair, she declared that a transaction this outrageous would have to be reviewed by the dealership’s most shadowy figure of all: The Sales Manager. Leaving us with only our bottled water and her copy of the Holy Scriptures for company, she charged into the glass-encased (yet unexpectedly-soundproof) office of the sales manager. For several minutes they pantomimed a conversation on how best to recover from the devastating financial hit they would incur by offering me $2,000 for my car. Our sales representative then returned with a feigned look of shock and informed us that although she herself could not fathom his reasoning (perhaps he was juiced up on crystal meth and liquid plumber) the sales manager had agreed to our terms if we planned to purchase the car today.

Finding this acceptable, my wife and I became the owners of a respectable four-door sedan. The last order of business was to say good-by to the Grand Am while a couple of employees decided the best place to move it to that would not be visible from the road. And so, I could take solace in the knowledge that someday my 1997 Pontiac would get what it deserved: non-existence.

My First Credit Card

“I think that we should get a credit card.” A simple phrase, often uttered in the same unceremonious timbre one would reserve for placing an order at Sonic; yet, the implications of it (much like the chili-cheese Coney) will continue to resonate long after the words are spoken. In this particular instance the phrase was spoken by my wife, who shares my disdain for credit cards but felt it a prudent accessory considering our upcoming travel plans. We had decided to take a trip to Europe this summer (in lieu of procreation) and she was concerned that in a medical emergency we might be unable to cover say, an emergency room visit. As much as I hated to admit it, the thought of lying on a stretcher while my wife attempted to trade a watch and our battle-weary luggage for an appendectomy was troubling.

So, being voted man of the house (it was a close race) I set about procuring a piece of plastic adorned with my name and backed by a somewhat shadowy hierarchy of financial institutions. Before I go any further, it is necessary that I reveal some of our financial history:

We have no debt other than a mortgage and one car, are both college educated, have individual credit scores above 700, and full time jobs.

Armed with a clean credit history and a desire to rejuvenate our ailing economy, I got online and filled out a credit card application. The lucky recipient of my query was a financial institution into which I had been depositing my paychecks for the past 11 years. If anyone could be assured of The Taylor family’s financial prowess, it was this bank. A smile crept across my face as I pressed the submit button and prepared myself for the inevitable phone call from the bank’s president, thanking me for the honor of extending us such a large credit limit. A follow-up page informed me that most credit decisions would be made the same day. It was almost too easy….

Eight hours later I checked my e-mail, but was slightly disappointed after I had cleared the superfluous Facebook notifications and found no correspondence from my FDIC-insured financial franchise. No matter, with over a decade of loyal service they probably felt that such impersonal electronic correspondence would be an insult to one of their star customers. That night, I collapsed into my bed and slept the sleep of a man whose fiscal destiny was to become the fodder of legend; a tale to be recounted at banker’s conventions and C.P.A. retreats for years to come.

A week or so passed, and eventually I received a rather official looking non-descript envelope. This could mean one of two things: I was now the official owner of Visa Platinum card (complete with a spending limit that bordered on sacrilegious) or the local Dodge Dealership had fooled me into opening another coupon for “Smokin’ Hot Deal Days.” As it turned out, it was a letter informing me that after careful consideration; they were unable to approve us due to “a lack of revolving credit history.”
I was flabbergasted! We were being refused a credit card on the basis that we did not have any history of using a credit card. It was like refusing to sell someone a handgun because they don’t know what it is like to shoot someone. I hadn’t felt this betrayed since I found out that Mr. Ed was cancelled in 1966 and all the episodes I loved as a child were Nick-at-Nite reruns. At any rate, I was determined to hold on to my newly-acquired domestic presidency; and any hiccups could be grounds for impeachment.

For the next few days I was racked by insecurity: “Am I damaged goods now that I have been turned down?” / “Is this retribution because I always refused a Macy’s card when asked by the clerk?” / “Would my wife’s ex-boyfriend have been able to get a card?”

Thankfully, I was comforted by the thought of another institution that I had overlooked; an institution that currently protected our cars, our home, and even the life from which I speak to you now: our insurance company.

I fired up my trusty laptop and within minutes was completing an application for their “members only” Visa card. I was in there like swimwear, and the only thing standing between me and the purchasing power of a small third-world village was my indecision over the card design. Minutes later my application was adrift in cyberspace and I was intoxicated by my own ingenuity; nothing could stop me now….

Another week or so passed, and as I opened the mailbox I spotted another official looking envelope sandwiched between a Pottery Barn catalogue and a notice that I needed my teeth cleaned. I groped the envelope but felt only paper; a sure sign of denial stated at the expense of an old-growth forest. Gingerly unfolding the letter, I started to realize that all credit card companies must be issued some sort of “After careful consideration, we regret to inform you” template. The rejection was identical to the last one even down to liberal use of the phrase “lack of revolving credit history” for good measure.

I was incensed by the injustice of it all. Why must we sit by and watch our friends and relatives new-couch and plasma-TV themselves into financial oblivion while we were stuck on the sidelines with a checking account and a debit card? Exactly who is responsible for this “careful consideration”, Inmates? Fourth graders? The French?

It was at this point I decided that I was simply not appreciated by these traditional institutions. I needed to take the battle to the frontlines of the new generation, a place where fresh thinking about money could be understood, a place that would welcome my desire to make purchases sans money. And my dearest friends, that place was Unrivaled in price, selection, and volume of reviews; had served as my online retail haven since I was legally old enough to rent a car. Time and time again I had passed up the lure of an extra 30% off while proceeding to my shopping cart, but not today. Today, I would embrace my monetary destiny and become the proud recipient of an Visa.

I waited expectantly for the message that I was the new owner of an Amazon card, but as days stretched into weeks; my enthusiasm gave way to despair. Soon enough, that same inconspicuous envelope delivered the official mantra of my credit quest: “lack of revolving credit history”. What in the name of all that is holy was happening here? When I turned 18, pre-approved credit card offers were as ubiquitous as cannabis brownies at a Pink Floyd laser show. What had changed?

I was being constantly bombarded with the details of a bad-debt driven economic crisis that seemingly threatens the very foundations of capitalism, but the coach wouldn’t let me off the bench. Dejected, I had to then explain to my wife that the man she married now commands a portfolio barely capable of sustaining a Blockbuster account.

As if this travesty hadn’t gone far enough, a few days later were received a pre-approval offer for one the very cards that had turned us down. That was the final straw; they had called my financial stability (and by extension, my manhood) into question and now they were utilizing the postal service to mock me. There was only one explanation for this: Identity Theft.

I ran my credit reports though all three major bureaus, certain that I would find some indication that my good named was being soiled by an international con artist or perhaps even a terrorist sleeper-cell; but every report was spotless. I, Brian Taylor, was unfit to wield the broadsword of capitalism and there was no one to blame but myself.

We eventually received a card from a local credit union, but the experience highlighted a fundamental flaw in our credit system: Purchasing power is more readily available to the eager than the responsible. We have created an infrastructure that rewards those who spend with reckless abandon and punishes those who carefully consider their choices. I am not suggesting that the interest generated from my personal credit account would have offset Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, but I am worried that companies have become reticent to extend credit to those who are not dependent on it; and that is a habit that needs to change…

My Worst Monday Ever...

It was a brisk Saturday morning and I was attempting to wield my ridiculously large shopping cart while simultaneously producing my membership card for the middle-aged woman guarding the door. As I passed into the exclusive oasis that is SAMS Club, I felt a brief moment of pity for the ignorant fools who purchased retail quantities of manufactured goods. They would never know the reassuring heft of a 350 pound bag of dog food or the satisfaction of owning exactly one metric ton of Hidden Valley Ranch; but some of us are destined for something greater, something that must be displayed on a wooden palette, something that requires industrial shelving to store…

I digress, for my mission that day was to acquire a few items for the house and spend the money our office has pooled together in order to secure mass quantities of soda, water, and assorted candy bars. As I checked off my list and returned to the car, I placed my spoils in the trunk of my passively-stylish Honda Civic and returned home. Since the majority of items I procured where to be taken to the office the following Monday, I did not bother to open the trunk, instead, I left the car in the driveway while I polished off some yard work.

The car remained unused the remained of the weekend and as I was showering Monday morning, I felt a chill run down my expertly-lathered spine. It occurred to me that one of the items I had purchased for the house, a heifer-sized tray of ground beef, was still resting in the trunk of my beloved automobile. Toweling off as quickly as I dared, I dressed and entered the garage with keys in hand. Disengaging the trunk latch, I was confronted with stench so vile that I momentarily blacked out and began reciting Chili’s lunch menu in Hebrew. My trunk smelled like a three week old moose cadaver wrapped in the broken dreams of a communist orphanage and I had to be at work in a half hour.

After several minutes I was able to arrest my dry-heaves and plan my next move; I immediately began to empty the trunk of bottled water and the 24-pack of Dr. Pepper cans in order to assess the damage. The once-crimson meat platter had turned green and somewhat liquefied in the summer heat, leaving a sizable pool of “stank juice” on my trunk-liner. Unfortunately it had permeated the cardboard cover for the spare tire and jack as well so I removed all of it and went into the house to equip myself for chemical warfare. I managed to locate an industrial fabric cleaner that felt that the phrase “Works on Feces!” was worthy of the front label so I figured that it must be pretty good.

I emptied the contents of the fabric cleaner on my felt liner; left it crumpled in the front yard, and inspected the other purchases for collateral damage. Unfortunately, some of the putrefied meat juice had gotten on the Dr. Pepper cans. Not wanting to witness the effects of salmonella on my coworkers, I hand washed each can and placed them into a clean bag and positioning them precariously on top of the spare tire.

Running out of time, I closed the trunk and began my fragrant journey to the office. Upon arrival, I recount the morning’s events to my co-workers and then return to the parking garage to retrieve the cases of water and the cans of Dr. Pepper. While removing the items, a can of Dr. Pepper came out of my hand and landed on the jagged metal of the newly-exposed jack. The impact caused a carbonation-fueled explosion that enveloped the trunk, my upper body, and the remaining hand-washed cans of soda.

Now, instead of the solitary stench of rancid beef, my trunk had transformed into a vomit-inducing potpourri of soft drinks and bovine carcass. I knew the situation was growing dire and I needed to take immediate action if I wanted to salvage the drivability (and resale value) of my beloved import. Aided by a co-worker (and his unscented vehicle), I again returned to the retail metropolis from which all my trouble had arisen: SAMS.

We quickly procured an industrial size package of baking soda and returned to the office only to find that the stench seemed to be growing more powerful by the hour. I sliced open the bag of Arm & Hammer and began dispensing it with the reckless abandon of a priest at a group exorcism, but it quickly became apparent that victory would not be such a smooth road. Another colleague suggested an odor absorbing gel that might produce more favorable results and I set to Lowes out to find this magical elixir.

Although they had a “car size”, I opted to purchase the industrial supply that was rated to remove odors from a 1200 sq. ft. house for a period of three months. At this potency level you are given only two choices of fragrance: Crisp Linens or Vanilla Bean. Deciding that “Crisp Linen” was the least effeminate of the two, I located the shortest checkout line. I can only imagine what the cashier was thinking when I approached her line with an armful of odor-removing gel and a look of sheer terror.

Trying to engage her in light conversation, I inquired as to whether she had any experience with the products that I was purchasing. After explaining the situation to her, she leans in conspiratorially and informs me that if this doesn’t work I will be left with only on other option. Before she is able to continue, I jokingly interject that if this is unsuccessful I plan to fire-bomb the car and commit blatant insurance fraud. Apparently the humor was not as conspicuous as I thought, because this sentence was met with a look of bewilderment and a barely audible “Good Lord” We then briefly discussed the merits of Febreze, but as I left the store I was still fearful that a call to Crime Stoppers was forthcoming.

I installed the scent pods in my car and returned to work eager to bring my day to a successful close. Later that afternoon I was recounting the day’s events to a police officer who quickly pointed out the inherent dangers of commuting home in a car that smelled like a dead body and was littered with large quantities of white powder; sensing the wisdom of his statement, I resolved to vacuum out the baking powder that very evening.

That night, armed with only a shop vac and a newly-strengthened gag reflex, I began the tedious chore of removing the powder from the trunk and back seat. Because the filter was constantly clogging, I would have to remove it from the vacuum and shake it to restore the suction; this left residue all over the back of the car and garage floor. I then laid out my trunk liner in my driveway in order to properly scrub out the juice that I had been unable to address that morning. I worked well into the night applying laundry detergent to the liner and rinsing it with a high pressure water nozzle.

Whether it was the result of paranoia I could not say, but I began to perceive strange glances from my neighbors as they came by my house and observed me hard at work. It was only after several of these that I began to realize how my nocturnal project might be misconstrued. Here I was standing in my driveway covered in white powder and furiously trying to remove moderate quantities of blood from the trunk liner of my car. To make matters worse, my wife was suffering from a sinus infection and had rarely ventured out of our home the past several days.

So there I stood a coked-up jealous husband whose wife’s disappearance seemed to coincide with his sudden urgent need to remove blood from the trunk of his car. I wondered home much time I had before Nancy Grace became involved…..

Happily, the day ended without incarceration and Ashley made a full recovery thus quelling my neighbor’s fears. As of this writing, the car still has a distinct “meat-funk” but no longer requires me to drive with my head out of the window.