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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Best Thing I've Read Today

Talk about a mic drop.

In the final four paragraphs of Julie Bosman's piece in the NY Times about the candidates for governor in Illinois, she writes about this interaction between Republican Jeanne Ives and Democrat Chris Kenney...

At a bipartisan candidate forum in Chicago in January, Ms. Ives addressed the issue of gun violence.

“And you know how you’re going to solve it? Fathers in the home,” she said, as the audience booed.

Perhaps most offended was Mr. Kennedy, who was 4 years old in 1968 when his father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated.

“Well, I wish I could agree with you. I didn’t have a father in my life. Somebody shot him,” he said, as audience members clapped and rose to their feet. Mr. Kennedy then walked off the stage and left the building.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

It's the end of the week, so the topical trivia category is Have You Been Paying Attention? Test yourself, then share your score and challenge your friends at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

I See Red Tape

I have spent far too much of this week dealing with paperwork on behalf of my mother. She's 93 years old and suffers from dementia, so doing her taxes and paying her bills and managing most of life outside her assisted living facility is simply impossible.

While my brother deals with the medical side of her situation -- a not insubstantial matter in and of itself -- I'm handling the financial stuff, including gathering information for our accountant to work up her tax returns, as well as handling the influx of invoices from medical providers and explanation-of-benefits forms from insurance companies.

I'm not surprised when there have been mistakes made, mostly with inputting her various account numbers. Those I can correct relatively easily with just a phone call. But then there's the monster that is Medicare. It is a wonderful program that alleviates the financial distress most seniors would find themselves in without it. I'm impressed by how they seem to smoothy handle all the claims, pay the providers, and pass on the rest to third-party insurers who cover much of the rest of her costs.

But it only works if you have the required information. If you don't, you're going to bang your head against the wall trying to get it.

Yesterday, I needed to know something about my mother's Medicare account so I could fix a problem with one of her providers. The woman I spoke to at Medicare informed me that, because I haven't been authorized to access Mom's account, the HIPAA law bars her from sharing any of its details with me. I asked, "How do I get authorized?" She replied that if I could put my mother on the phone for 5-6 minutes and ask her some questions, that would do it. I explained that my mother can't concentrate on the same thought for more than 5-6 seconds, let alone minutes, because of the effects of this dreadful disease. I asked if there was an alternate route I could take.

The woman told me to look at a specific page on the Medicare.gov website via Mom's online account, where I could request the authorization form. I told her my mother had never set up an online account, and when I had tried to do it for her, it needed a piece of information I did not have -- the month and year her Plan A coverage began. So, could this woman please provide me with that date? No, I was told, because I'm not authorized.

I knew that would be the answer, but I continued, asking if there is a third option. She said yes, we can send it to the address we have on file for Mom. Since I wasn't sure they had her current address (she's only lived there for a few months), I asked, and of course I was told I'm not authorized to be given that information.

Trying to remain calm, I appealed to this woman's better nature. I told her I understand that the system is set up to protect the privacy of people like Mom (and me and you), but she can't be the only American suffering from dementia who needs help from a family member like me. How does Medicare handle this situation for everyone else? The woman replied that she was sympathetic, but this was the only available procedure.

Finally, I agreed to option three -- send the form to whatever address Medicare has on file for Mom, and I'll somehow get my hands on it, fill it out, and then figure out a way to have her sign it so I can send it back. Presumably, at that point (it may take as long as four weeks), I'll have the authority to talk to other human beings on her behalf.

Meanwhile, don't even get me started on the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the banks, and other institutions whose mud I've been stuck in for days. I spent dozens of hours just going through Mom's filing cabinets to uncover the secrets of her paperwork -- and that was when she was lucid, last summer. I can't imagine how much worse all of this would be if we had procrastinated.

I'm sharing all of this with you not merely as a way to vent my frustration. I hope you'll take it as a warning not to leave such matters until it's too late.

If you have a parent or any family member who is getting up there in years, sit down with them and go over their financial life. Fill out Power Of Attorney forms, write down all the information for their credit cards and bank accounts, plus their utilities, cable company, cell phone provider, pharmacy, doctors, medical equipment suppliers, insurance companies, accountant, lawyer, and anything else you can think of.

From my experience, there will inevitably be one or two that slip under your radar, leaving you to ask months later about some bill from someone you've never heard of. I found things like a medical service that charged her a hundred bucks every quarter (for over two years) because she had not opted out of their subscription plan. She knew nothing about it and drew no benefit for it, but they kept debiting it from her bank account.

Don't wait until your loved one is in such a bad mental state that they can't remember any of this. Do it now.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Random Thoughts

Using our voices instead of our fingers to get information from search providers and elsewhere is becoming more and more common. I recently bought an Amazon Alexa and am amazed at how good it is at voice recognition. I rarely have to repeat myself, and the response is nearly instantaneous. Google's voice search is also excellent. But Apple is way behind. Too often, when I ask Siri a question (on any platform), she either doesn't understand me or can't return relevant data. Even if I asked her to explain Apple's lag in voice recognition with the question, "Why, Siri?" she'd probably respond with a link to the local Y.

Speaking of tech companies, I see that Melania Trump will meet with Facebook and Google to talk about cyberbullying. I notice she isn't going to meet with Twitter, the social media outlet used exclusively by her husband, the man who put the bully in bully pulpit.

My wife and I laughed out loud several times while watching the new Ricky Gervais standup special, "Humanity," on Netflix. It is not for the easily offended, but contains a lengthy chunk on how he has dealt with people offended by his comments in the past. Yes, he's arrogant and condescending, but I'm glad he's gone back to standup, because most of his recent projects ("Derek," "David Brent: Life On The Road," "Life's Too Short") have been remarkably unfunny. I prefer his HBO series "Extras," his 2009 movie "The Invention of Lying," and his two "Out Of England" standup specials.

I've watched every episode of every season of "Survivor," which means I've seen Jeff Probst impose his will on the show more and more each year. I can't think of another reality show host who yells at contestants during challenges as much as he does. Also, each season, I'm surprised when, after four or five episodes, the camera somehow lands on someone I didn't even know was playing the game. She or he has been left out of the edit completely up until that point, while the dominant players got all the attention. I wonder what it's like for those leftovers to watch the show at home with their families and have to remind them, "No, really, I was there, too!"

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is The Ides Of March -- and the bonus category is Space In Your Face. Play any time, on demand, at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

As I Tweeted

  • Headline we’ll never see in America, unfortunately: “Body of genius Stephen Hawking to lie in state in Capitol rotunda as honor for his brilliant work.” That’s reserved for evangelists, not scientists, in this sad society.

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is March Madness -- and the bonus category is History Class. Play any time, on demand, at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Pleasures And Pitfalls Of Interviewing Authors

I wrote recently about how interviewers can do a better job, so it's only fair I talk a little about guests. The best are those who come to the interview with more than just expertise. They must have the ability to tell a story or explain things in simple, common terms.

Authors can be good interviewees, because they've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about their subjects. With someone like Dave Barry or John Feinstein or Lenore Skenazy or AJ Jacobs, I know I'm not just getting someone who's knowledgable but, better than that, they have a sense of humor and know how to tell an engaging story, too. They make my job easy.

The ones who make it tough are the ones who either give monosyllabic answers, or who are too busy promoting the book to have a real conversation. They've clearly been told by their publicist to mention the name of the book as often as possible. So, no matter what I ask them, they begin every response with, "Well, in my book The Phlegm Incident, which is available now on Amazon...." I understand that you're here to try to sell some books, but let me -- your host -- handle the blatant promotion. I'll never forget to plug the title and your name. You'll serve your purpose better by engaging the audience with a few well-told anecdotes, or some information they've never been exposed to before.

I've also had instances in which I have asked an author a question specifically designed to lead them into a story I know they tell in the book, only to have them answer, "It's obvious you didn't read my book, or you'd know that...." How presumptuous. You're probably right that I didn't read your entire book before your appearance on my show. That's because it would take me several days to get through every word you wrote, and I don't have that kind of free time considering all the other things I need to consume to fill my head in preparation for a daily talk radio show -- particularly since we're only going to talk about your masterpiece for 10-15 minutes on the air. However, I did glance through the book and the publicist's notes to glean the general idea and to find a few stories worth guiding you towards so that you can entice listeners to buy it and read more. I'm so good at my job that the listeners will believe I read the whole thing when, in fact, I came up with these questions by leafing through your book for less than a half-hour. Now tell the damn story I so professionally asked you to tell!

Sometimes authors come to an interview with a chip on their shoulder. I have a friend who used to be an independent publicist, the kind hired either by small publishers or the authors themselves in an attempt to get some media attention for their work. Even when helping out a writer who'd be lucky to sell a few thousand copies of their book, she'd find them resistant to doing interviews with any media outlet they deemed too unimportant for them. They all wanted to be plugged by Oprah for her book club, or invited to do "Good Morning America" and "Ellen." In their eyes, a conversation with a radio host on a local station in St. Louis was a waste of time. They also had a lot of disdain for the world of bloggers who can serve as a second promotional front. She'd line up some cookbook author to talk with a bunch of food bloggers, one right after the other, and the author would yell at her for not getting her onto Rachael Ray's show. This publicist was very smart about these perpetually unhappy authors and, to her credit, would actually steer me away from those she knew would be bad guests for my show.

My favorite guests were authors who shared stories about a world most of us know nothing about. Caitlyn Doughty has written about working in a crematory and her fascination with death rituals around the world. Molly Bloom was quite open with me about her life running high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles (several years before her book was turned into a major motion picture). Kevin Hazzard told tales about being a paramedic in a dangerous neighborhood. Mike Massimino explained why he was so scared the first time he was launched into space as a NASA astronaut. Shep Gordon talked about hanging out with Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper.

Those aren't subjects you hear about every day. All of them, and thousands more, were a pleasure to talk to. And although I'm no Oprah, I bet I helped them sell a few copies of their books, too.

Today's Harris Challenge

The topical trivia category is about Forbes' new billionaires list -- and the bonus category is full of fun animal facts! Play any time, on demand, at HarrisChallenge.com