Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Apocalypse

Like any quasi-intelligent American, I woke up Thursday with trepidation because I was unsure whether or not it would be my last day on Earth. After all, if the Mayans are correct I had but a precious few waking hours to make my existence count. Should I call in sick? Should I buy a lottery ticket? Should I purchase a 2013 Mercedes SLK and spend my final days hand in hand with my beloved wife cruising with the top down?

Since I was unsure where to turn, I decided to seek out final day advice on the Internet. My first stop was which had two articles to offer. One was called “The steamy climax: Searching for sex before the world ends” and the second was called “How to Cope With Impending Doomsday.” Prioritizing on the fly, I ignored the salacious fluff piece and went directly to the serious journalism where I discovered that there were a growing number of people attempting to have sex before the end of the world.

While many clubs across the country were offering doomsday-themed parties, some have simply opted for ads on Craigslist seeking “temporary apocalyptic companionship.” Exhibiting a disarmingly-subtle grasp of the double entendre, one professional bartender was quoted as wishing to “go out with a bang” while another young woman was concerned that she would meet her demise in the midst of a “dry spell.” Personally, I found it refreshing that there were still people out there whose goal was to become the Earth’s last case of gonorrhea.

Far be it from me to judge, but if you need Craigslist to tell you who to spend your last hours with it is possible you have already made a few poor choices in the past. Isn’t there a family member, childhood friend, or regional sales director more worthy of your last moments than a complete stranger? Even if you do not believe in God, wouldn’t it be prudent to simply hedge your bets a little and avoid making, “Your e-mail description was somewhat misleading but given our time constraints we will make do” your final words?

Even more frightening is what happens on December 22nd when all of these people realize that nothing occurred? I can just see the guy waking up next his cousin in an Arkansas Super 8 or the model finding herself in the embrace of a Dungeons & Dragons fan-fiction editor and exclaiming, “I should’ve just rented a Porsche.” I can only imagine the number of Facebook privacy settings being altered Friday morning.

Now thoroughly disturbed, I went on to the “How to cope with impending doomsday” piece. Apparently a recent survey identified 6 million Americans who fully expected the world to come to an end on December 21st. That is an unnervingly-large number of people making their day to day decision under a cloud of impending doom predicted by a culture that was apparently unable to foresee their own end. Just for perspective, that is like convincing the entire population of Missouri that they will die simultaneously and should act accordingly. I can only imagine the film projects and TV pilots that were green-lit because the producer didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and assumed it would not matter anyway.

The article quoted Scott Bea, a clinic psychologist, who revealed that pessimistic people are more likely to accept the idea of a cataclysmic demise than optimistic people.  He felt that the media has played a large role in selling the Mayan apocalypse idea. His advice was to remain calm and prepare for the holiday season.   

I am glad it took a clinic psychologist to surmise that pessimistic people are more likely to accept the possibility of a global catastrophe than optimistic people. I never would have cracked that code. I think I gained more insights from the TOMS shoe ad on the side of the page than the article itself. Given the title, I was expecting a checklist of breathing exercises or at least a recipe for Apocalypse Pot-Pie. I haven't followed a hyperlink that misleading since I got an e-mail from the prize department at

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook

It is difficult to bring up the idea of gun control without being labeled as “reactionist” given the recent Sandy Hook Tragedy; and there is merit to that label. However, I feel that it would be a far worse fate to ignore what we are faced with and use naivety and ignorance as a shield. Gun ownership is a constitutional right and as such any steps to alter or limit it must be approached with the utmost scrutiny. Personally I resent the fact that society wishes to portray any opinions on this issue into outlier groups of either “ban all guns” or “law-abiding citizens have the right to own any weapon the military does” I will admit that I find myself trapped between these two extremes so I decided to do some research.
The first item on the list was assault weapons. This is a widely misunderstood classification that some would use to encompass any semi-automatic firearm. This is much too broad. For my purposes, I apply the “assault” designation to AR-15 type rifles primarily developed for military applications and/or firearms utilizing magazine capacities in excess of 30 rounds (most handguns are about half that). My decision to do this is based on their growing role in spree killings and the likelihood of their use to mitigate said spree killings.

In the past year alone these weapons have played a prominent role in the random killings in Colorado, Oregon, and now Connecticut. I can only assume that they were chosen for their ability to deliver maximum casualties with minimal reloading. While these attributes are invaluable in combat environments, they should not be readily accessible to the general public.

Many reading this will immediately throw up their hands in exasperation and reply that blaming guns for murder is like blaming McDonalds for obesity. As insightful and constructive as it is to compare weight-management to the slaughter of children, this is an unsustainable and insulting metaphor. The primary purpose of a firearm is to inflict damage on something that had parents, the primary purpose of a mass produced cheeseburger is to generate profit through the delivery of empty calories.

Let me re-iterate that I am not in-favor of banning handguns, hunting rifles, or shotguns. Quite the contrary, I believe removing assault rifles from the equation will create an even playing field for the law-abiding citizen while retaining the intent of the second amendment. After all, how many licensed gun-owners are going to be toting a Bushmaster .223 when they swing by Bed, Bath, and Beyond or catch the 9:30 showing of The Hobbit? As it stands we are asking brave members of the general populace to intervene in a situation where they are increasingly out-gunned.

The first counter-argument to this is, “We did this assault weapons ban thing already and results, if there even were any, were negligible.” There is value in this observation, but the 1994 ban was largely symbolic due to a gaping loophole that allowed for the resale and ownership of assault weapons and high capacity magazines manufactured before the ban took effect. This meant that the 1.5 Million “banned” weapons and 24 million “banned” high-capacity magazines already in private circulation could still be easily acquired and legally owned until manufacturing resumed in 2004.

The second counter-argument is, “Crazy people will kill innocent people one way or another. Criminals don’t obey laws.” Again, this should not be easily dismissed and there is plenty of empirical evidence to substantiate this viewpoint. However, we do have the ability to limit the tools with which an unstable person can express their anger. In the three cases I referenced above the assault weapons were either legally-acquired by the perpetrator or stolen from an acquaintance who had legally acquired them. The shooters used what they used because they had access to it. I truly believe that had these individuals been given access to a nuclear weapon or a missile battery they would have been just as likely to use them and most reasonable people can agree that private citizens do not have the right to own or brandish these weapons.

Firearms are not the source of human violence, they are simply the most effective apparatus widely available to violent humans at this point in history. It is also somewhat misleading to compare America to European countries with tighter gun restrictions because it glosses over a far more complex set of underlying factors. For example, Great Britain averages .25 gun deaths per 100,000 residents while the United States averages 9.2. Because the UK has some of the most restrictive gun legislation one might be quick to create a simple correlation and believe suffocating gun laws will fix the issue.

The truth is that gun violence in the UK continues to decline even as gun ownership rates rise and disregarding legislation, they have always had lower gun violence rates per capita (and it isn’t even close when it comes to spree killings.) In fact, the United States has hosted 61% of the world’s deadliest mass shootings of the past 50 years and our closest competitor is Finland. The cause is rooted much deeper than gun laws, but while we continue to endlessly bicker over slippery-slopes and our ability to effectively participate in a theoretical insurrection, actual innocent people are dying.

After a lengthy discussion with friends, I realized that I might even be willing to heavily regulate, register, and tax all assault weapons thereby placing them in a different class than a deer rifle or a handgun, but what I am unwilling to do is dismiss any course of action that can reasonably be expected to save the lives of children or the teachers and administrators that protect them.

The second item on this list was school security. Some in Texas have called for licensed teachers and school administrators to carry handguns while at school. I have some concerns about this as well. Since 84% of all public school teachers are female that means there is a high likelihood that these firearms will not be carried on their person (purses, drawers, etc..) and being married to a public school teacher I know that it can be difficult to supervise 23 children at once so there is a possibility of a student getting their hands on one and hurting themselves or someone else. This would inevitably lead to a lawsuit against the teacher for contributing to the death of a child through negligence.

The only case I could uncover of an armed school official intervening in a spree killing was the 1997 case of Luke Woodham who stabbed his mother to death with a knife before taking a .30-.30 with him to his Pearl, Mississippi high school and shooting 9 classmates (killing 2). The vice-principal retrieved his handgun from his truck and confronted Woodham after Woodham had gotten back into his car to leave the scene.  

I have often wondered why these public school shootings tend to take place in small rural or suburban communities. Newton (30,000 people) Bart Township, PA (3,000 people) Columbine, CO (25,000) Chardon, OH (5,000 people) were all sites of recent school shootings with multiple deaths. Why aren’t these occurring as often in inner-city schools located in areas with much higher overall crime rates? Is it greater security at the school? Police presence? Have they armed the tenured staff?  

The truth is that, for whatever reason, more and more Americans are choosing random killings as a manifestation of their anger.  Some believe the list of culprits encompasses everything from violent video games to media coverage to the deterioration of the nuclear family. There is probably some legitimate culpability to be found in all of these, but not all the blame rests with any one of these. We are broken people reaping the harvest of a broken world, but when it becomes overwhelming I remember this quote:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

For those who wish to discuss the “This is what we get for keeping God out of public schools” nonsense or other religious aspects of the tragedy, I suggest you read Rachel Held Evan’s insights here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Search for Pertussis

Several months ago, we were advised by my wife’s doctor that we would both need to receive a pertussis (whooping cough) immunization before our son is born. They gave her one in the office, but because he is not my physician I was unable to procure one for myself. I was told simply to drop by one of their walk-in clinics in order to get one.

I then called the walk-in clinic and they informed me that I would have to see a doctor before they could issue me the immunization which would run me close to $200 since I have a deductible. I argued that I did not need to be seen by a physician since my only malady was a susceptibility to whooping cough which could be cured by an injection.

Unwilling to drop $200 so that a doctor could walk in, shake my hand, and then send in a nurse to give me a shot, I decided to call a few other health emporiums. Each and every one insisted upon medical counsel before they would dispense the goods, an unusual caveat for a service I can get from a pharmacy tech at a Walgreens.

I finally decided to schedule an appointment with the local health department where, for $50 cash money I could receive both immunity and a lollipop. At my wife’s next doctor’s appointment, I was asked if I had received my pertussis shot yet. When I brought him up to speed on my difficulties and swore that I would have my mechanic give me the injection before I dropped $200 on it, he insisted on intervening on my behalf.

He informed me that the clinic itself had a “shot clinic” that dispensed routine immunizations without the cost of an office visit. Elated, my wife and I walked to the counter of the “shot clinic” and I asked the receptionist what the cost would be for a pertussis immunization. The conversation quickly slid into lunacy:

“How much does the pertussis shot cost?”
“Do you have insurance?”
“Then we can go ahead and give you the injection and just bill insurance”
“I have a deductible so the cost will be out-of-pocket anyway and I just wanted see if this way would be cheaper than the health department.”
“Well, we will not know how much the shot costs until we bill insurance.”
“How is that even possible in a capitalistic society? If you have a static cost for the shot and a built-in profit margin you already know the amount of the bill you will send them so just tell that amount to me.”
“We cannot generate the cost until the service has been rendered.”
“Well I am not about to allow you to render a service until I know what it will cost.”
“Perhaps you could call your insurance provider and find out the cost.”
“How could they possibly offer a better perspective on the cost of a rendered service than the entity rendering that service?”
“I am not sure what you need me to do.”
“OK, let’s say I just walked in, don’t have insurance, and wish to simply hand you a pre-determined amount of American currency in exchange for a pertussis immunization. What would that amount be?”
“Sir, are you saying that you no longer have insurance?”

At this point we had involved three employees and the woman behind me looked as if she was contemplating violence if I did not get out of the way, so I just told them to forget it and decided to go to the health department. My plan was foiled; however, when I looked on my insurance provider’s website and they indicated that the shot should be covered 100% as “preventative care.”

Now, a less frugal individual would have simply gone to the health department and moved on with his life, but I decided to call my insurance helpline and go for the win. I spoke to young woman named “Rebecca” who informed me that the shot would be covered as long as it was billed under the name of an in-network physician. When I informed her that the allure of the “shot clinic” was the absence of a physician, she informed me that this was impossible and asked me who requested I get the shot. When I replied the suggestion had come from my wife’s OBGYN she replied that it would be rather difficult to file that claim.

She then called the clinic with me on the line and after ten minutes of bartering the clinic agreed to bill my shot under whatever doctor was listed as “on-call” at the moment the needle entered my arm. I was assured that this would allow me to receive my desired immunization at my desired price. God help me if I ever need surgery…….

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Adventures In Texas

Over the Thanksgiving holidays my wife and I visited her family in Texas, a trip which requires about twelve hours of driving. Although this was not the first time we had made the journey, it was certainly the most eventful.

While on a Texas state highway, I had someone pull out in front of me with apparent disregard for our close proximity. This, in and of itself, was not unusual as you don’t drive 700 miles without becoming accustomed to being cut off. What was unique was the fact that this individual was sitting astride a poorly-maintained Yardman riding mower, a vehicle with a top speed comparable to a brisk walk. Oblivious to the oncoming traffic, he meandered across both lanes until he reached the median and appeared to have forgotten his purpose.

This remained a point of highway conversation until the journey home when we found ourselves bumper to bumper on Interstate 30. I was riding behind a large Ford Dually in the far left lane when it violently swerved into the adjacent lane to avoid an overstuffed recliner resting in our path. The armchair was fully reclined, neutrally colored, and facing oncoming traffic. I, too, swerved into the adjacent lane just about the time my sphincter muscle consumed the rear seam of my jeans.

With all this excitement we found several occasions to stop, stretch our legs, and reflect upon our existence. During one such hiatus, I found myself in a gas station restroom that was on the cutting edge of latrine/urinal hybrid technology. While a lesser petroleum dispensary would simply have purchased a Kohler and gone about their lives, the fine folks at this establishment decided to reassign some sheet metal and pipe to create a “Lurinal.”
The Lurinal
The “Lurinal” did feature a type of automatic flushing mechanism in the form of a suspended length of pipe that dripped water into the basin of the apparatus. It was unclear whether the leakage was intentional or the result of poor craftsmanship, but either way all body fluids were moved toward the drain. Its width suggested that it could be utilized by more than one person, but it was not long enough to allow tandem pissing without a marked degree of social discomfort. While the service station technically resided in Texas, it was close enough to the Arkansas border to explain the copious use of stainless-steel bathroom fixtures.

Traveling aside, I and several other male family members had an opportunity to spend a few hours at an indoor rock climbing facility. The building was about three stories tall and contained several climbing areas of varying difficulty. So, after donning my rented shoes and unflattering crotch-harness, I found myself clinging to a wall some twenty-five feet in the air as my atrophied muscles constantly reminded me that I had chosen computer science as a career.

Despite this, I found a small sense of accomplishment in being able to ring the bell mounted at the apex of the facility. This physical triumph was quickly diminished as my companions and I watched an employee laterally traverse the entire rock formation, without a harness, and while wearing a weighted vest. From that point on, it became somewhat difficult to celebrate summiting the beginner tower while Flex McNimble recreates Cliffhanger in your peripheral vision.

Our hotel was well-maintained and staffed by attentive and friendly employees who always went out of their way to insure your stay was as comfortable as possible. The one exception was the breakfast, which was served off a menu in the lobby restaurant instead of being presented buffet style. The choices were essentially the same (pancakes, cereal, toast) but they were “made to order” by the resident chef.

The first morning I requested a waffle and bacon only to have the cook appear at our table and, in what became a familiar ritual, explain why that entrée was unavailable. In my case, the waffle maker had sustained a rather serious injury during a routine cleaning and was no longer functional. This table-side visit became so commonplace, my wife and I would snicker as she appeared, menu in hand, to explain to other crestfallen guest why their order could not be fulfilled. To her credit, she had a gentle table-side manner but the sheer volume of unavailable meals suggested either laziness or espionage.

Part of our morning routine was speculating as to how she was explaining the lack of oatmeal or unavailability of the blueberry scones:

  • “I am so sorry Mrs. Jones, but there was a violent insurrection in central Florida last week and as such we are unable to offer fresh squeezed orange juice.”
  • “I apologize Mr. Franks, but an unnervingly-specific electrical fire has rendered the omelet griddle inoperable while leaving the rest of the kitchen intact.”
  • “This is embarrassing, but a disgruntled maid urinated in our bagel oven so we are unable to offer that selection until the health department can be onsite to re-certify it.
They could have saved time and just asked whether we wanted Frosted Flakes or Raisin Bran, but I suppose the pageantry was necessary to maintain appearances.