Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just Doin’ Muh Job

In post-9/11 America, the Bush administration has created and nurtured a climate of fear, a landscape where you don’t have to be all that paranoid to see terrorists in every shadow.

One of the saddest casualties of such a state is the loss of subjectivity, the abdication of common sense that results from an unyielding loyalty to regulations. I saw this in action Saturday afternoon at Kansas City International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 25, when an elderly man was pulled out of the security line and given the electronic-wand treatment, over and over and over.

He was an unassuming gentleman with a doughy face, a striped polo shirt, and a New York cap. They made him lift his arms while they ran the wand all around his body, and he complied willingly, cooperatively. I’ve been pulled out of line before and found it best to go along with a smile, to let the underpaid TSA guys do their thing without hassle, and that’s what this fellow was doing.

KCI is set up so the people who accompany you to the airport can stay in visual contact even after you go through security, and there outside the gate that day were a man and a woman—the elderly man’s son and possibly his daughter or daughter-in-law—watching to make sure the old man made it to his plane. The son was about my age, mid-40s or so, and after a few minutes of watching his father being inspected, he approached the emergency exit and asked the female TSA agent there what the holdup was. I didn’t hear her response, but the son spoke again in a more agitated fashion: “He’s an 80-year-old man, he’s not well, and you’re making him stand with this arms up for ten minutes!”

The woman signaled for assistance. Two white-shirted TSA guys came to the exit and asked what the problem was. Again the son appealed to their sensitivity, explaining that his father was old and not well, and that standing in that position wasn’t helping his health any. His companion asked “Would you treat your own father like that?”

The answer came straight of the manual: “We have to screen him. We have to follow regulations.”

The son said he wasn’t suggesting that no one screen passengers, and again asked that they be more sensitive to his father’s condition.

And they wouldn’t do it. Two more TSA agents poked their heads through the emergency-exit doorway. Two more seemed to be hovering outside the gate in case they needed to use force on this man pleading for common sense—essentially asking someone to let his father put his arms down.

Any one of them could have relayed that message to the guy with the wand. Any one of them could have said “Hey, Charlie—this guy’s 80 and his son says he’s not well. Let him rest for a minute.”

But they’d sworn allegiance to the regulations. They had to go by the book. As long as they could rely on the book, they wouldn’t have to think. The son raised his voice a time or two, he called the whole procedure ridiculous, and from what I could tell he wanted desperately to rush through the gate and rescue his dad—but he was remarkably restrained and stayed civil through his indignation, even while the screeners continued to take their sweet time clearing the old man for travel.

I shared a sympathetic look with the man and woman before I left. There wasn’t much else I could do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adventures in Hospital Billing

You want know how much I enjoy dealing with hospital billing departments? (Just pretend you do and say Yes.) Here’s how much I enjoy dealing with hospital billing departments: I find kidney stones and sore throats to be excruciatingly painful, but I’d rather have a kidney stone and a sore throat than deal with hospital billing departments.

In fact, I’d rather have a sore throat in my kidney than open another bill from people who assume that if you don’t pay the entire balance immediately, you must be planning to flee the country with their medical care still inside you.

Right now I’m dealing with a bill for a couple of hospital classes I attended last winter to learn about Type 2 diabetes and how to keep it from becoming Type 1. My health insurance covered all but about $307 of the cost, and of course if I’d paid the whole $307 at the outset I wouldn’t need to write this post.

However, I decided to spread my payments out over time, and they apparently don’t like that. I don’t understand why they don’t like it, because I suspect that if you took a survey of people who work in hospital billing departments, the results would show that all of them prefer convenient monthly payments.


First bill, I sent ‘em $25. The next bill came with a suggestion that I should call the billing department if I knew what was good for me, so I called and spoke to a friendly woman who set me up with monthly payments of $32. Next bill, I sent ‘em $32.

In March I moved from an apartment in West Des Moines to a house in Clive, and despite my very clear forwarding instructions to the US Postal Service the next bill didn’t get forwarded. I don’t know why. Maybe the USPS dog ate it. I was aware there’d been a long interval between statements, but since a large chunk of my March finances was already earmarked for moving expenses and car repairs, I didn’t get all that worked up about it. The hospital did. There was a note on the next statement that said I’d missed a payment and now owed $64, and that I should call the billing department again if I knew what was good for me.

I didn’t make that call. Partly because I have a stubborn streak, partly because I didn’t appreciate the intimidating tone, and partly because I didn’t see the point. The statement said I owed $64, so I sent them $100 as a sign of good faith, a sign that I wasn’t planning to skip out on the bill. That took my balance down to $118, and the way I saw it, I was a month and $4 ahead on my payments.

The hospital didn’t agree. (It’s Mercy Medical in Des Moines, by the way—I’d hate for someone to Google them and miss out on this story.) On the next statement, they listed the amount due as $118, with no mention anywhere of my agreed-upon $32 payments. There was, however, a note that said “Numerous attempts have been made to contact you” along with the requisite suggestion to call the billing department within 15 days if I didn’t want any trouble.

Now, the intimidation didn’t bother me as much as the greatly exaggerated claim that they’d made numerous attempts to contact me. When I signed up for the diabetes class in November, I listed my home phone number, my work phone number, and my cell phone number. I didn’t receive any voice mails from Mercy Medical on my work phone or cell phone (voice mails are a popular way to contact someone when you’re making numerous attempts to do so), nor did the caller ID on either phone reveal any unusual numbers. I suppose it’s possible that they called the home phone I listed, but since that number was disconnected in March I can’t believe they were dumb enough to try it more than once. There aren’t too many ways to interpret the phrase “You’ve reached a number that has been disconnected.”

So unless they just called a bunch of random numbers asking for Dono (which, technically, could be considered numerous attempts to contact me), I believe I caught them in a lie. And when I dutifully called the billing department and left a message, I politely told them so.

Three weeks later, they still haven’t returned my call.

Oh, Wait, Here’s Some More Stuff

* There are a whole mess of good reasons for European-style universal healthcare. This post wasn’t meant to be one of them, but hey, if the shoe fits.

* Microsoft Word’s spell check didn’t like the word “ureter” in the first paragraph. (Didn’t care much for it in this paragraph either.) It suggested urethra, greeter, renter, and writer as possible substitutes. Not sure why. According to Merriam-Webster, ureter has been in the language since 1543—about 90 years before the first use of urethra, if you’re keeping score.

* The new hospital under construction in West Des Moines is going to be called The Michael R. Myers Hospital. If you’re reading this in the Des Moines metro, please join me in referring to it as the Austin Powers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Master Humorist Mike Huckabee

Despite all the furor about Mike Huckabee’s misguided attempt at humor at last Friday’s NRA meeting, I don’t for a minute think he meant the punch line to refer to an assassination attempt. In case you’ve forgotten the story (thanks to the four-day delay between news events and Runes postings thereon), the former Republican presidential candidate was in the middle of a speech when he was interrupted by a loud noise offstage. Quipped the Huckster: “That was Barack Obama. He just tripped off a chair. He was getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him, and he dove for the floor.”

According to Yahoo News, “there were only a few murmurs in the crowd” after the remark. Man, Mike, if you can’t get laughs with a joke about a liberal Democrat being frightened by a gun at a freakin NRA meeting, you can’t get laughs anywhere.

Be that as it may. Huckabee may be a doofus, but he was guilty of nothing more sinister than shameless pandering. He thought the NRA audience would wet themselves laughing at the idea of Obama diving to the floor at the very sight of a gun. He thought he was playing to a crowd of Bubbas who would guffaw and snort “That’s right—them libruls is a-skeered of firearms!”

But the tepid reaction would seem to point toward a crowd with a slightly more sophisticated sense of humor, a crowd that felt uncomfortable about the suggestion of violence aimed at a presidential candidate, a crowd that probably wondered how the hell one goes about tripping off a chair.

Now, I don’t want to give the NRA meeting attendees more credit than they deserve—for all I know they all reached for their concealed weapons as soon as they heard the noise backstage. I also hate to let Huckabee off the hook for buying in to the whole “Gun lovers good, liberals bad” horseshit. But dammit, I know a little bit about humor. I’ve been writing and performing comedy in some form for most of my life, and there’s a lesson here I can’t pass up, even when it helps a pipsqueak like Huckabee. (There’s a precedent for this. In the April 14, 2007 edition of the Runes, I offered Ronald Reagan an easy fix that would have greatly improved his lame joke about bombing the Soviet Union and would have made it actually funny. My advice went unheeded, presumably because Reagan had died sometime during his second administration.)

Anyway, Huckabee, listen up. Next time you’re at an NRA meeting and there’s a loud noise backstage, here’s what you do. No, wait—here’s what you don’t do: You don’t make any kind of reference to someone aiming a gun at Barack Obama. Got that? It’s rude, it’s unfunny, and it doesn’t look good coming from someone who purports to be a Christian. No, here’s what you do instead: You misrepresent the Democratic Party’s position on gun control, and build the humor on that. (Don’t worry—it’s not hard to do. It’s second-nature to most Republican candidates and pretty much all right-wing pundits.)

OK, ready? Here comes your improved joke. There’s a loud noise backstage, and you say “Hey, that must have been Barack Obama trying to take someone’s gun away from him.” Rimshot. Adjust tie. Big laughs. And if you’re feeling confident in your timing, wait a beat and then say “And tripping off a chair.”

Now, I know I’ve said in the past that verisimilitude is the essence of humor. It has to sound real to be funny. But in this case, don’t worry. Misrepresenting what your opponents believe in will sound real enough to the sort of people who would invite you to speak to them anyway.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

It's Good To Be Back

It’s good to be back. If, indeed, I am. It’s hard to say right now.

I’d like to apologize to the twos of readers who missed the Runes during its lengthy absence, and who sent emails expressing their fear that something heavy might have fallen on me or that I might have been incinerated by divine lightning bolt after manufacturing a quote from God in my August 14 post about the concerned Christians of Athens, Alabama and their efforts to outlaw liquor sales in their community. No such lightning bolt materialized, though I did receive a sarcastic chiding from an anonymous reader who said that quoting God is a good way to get into heaven.

This was obviously an anonymous reader who hadn’t spent much time in the Runes archives.

Anyway. It’s been nine months since I posted, and on the off-chance you might be wondering why, here’s the closest thing I have to an explanation: Last August I got busted for surfing the internet at work. They got me dead to rights and showed me a whole list of sites I’d visited: a St Louis Cardinals fan site, my credit union online teller, a couple of political blogs, and the Runes. Scandalous, I know—not a naked picture in the bunch, but nevertheless I contritely agreed to curtail my web-surfing during working hours.

But wait, you might be asking—where’s the connection? Why did you stop posting at the Runes just because you couldn’t surf the internet at work? Why didn’t you just write and post from home? Why did you stop when you were on such a roll?

(OK, you might not be asking that last one.)

Truth is, it suddenly felt dirty. I know I don’t have much of a following, but by golly I want people to visit the Runes because it makes them laugh, or because it makes them think, or because they share my indignation about hypocrisy and self-righteousness and willful ignorance, or even because they’re strongly in favor of those things. The idea that anyone would look at the Runes for any other reason just kind of creeped me out.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good explanation.

So here it is April 2008. I’ve passed up some choice stories just because I wasn’t in the Runes frame of mind. But today, with John McCain trying to make people forget he’s spent the last seven years making a nest in the Poor Dope’s shorts, and with the Poor Dope continuing to smirk his way through the last year of his disaster, and with the Democrats we elected to get something done in 2006 still doing nothing, the time is right.

Back to the Runes. Let’s see what happens.