Waiting Room Recreation

I have always been a big supporter of streaming media. I think the idea of being able to watch a movie or see a television show while home or away is a great idea. I think it’s even a better idea for those of us who sit around in misery from chemotherapy or through disability. It helps to pass the time which ticks by so slowly when you’re feeling bad. When the various companies began their on demand streaming services, I was feeling celebratory that the Internet was finally doing something besides email, SPAM and porn.

You can get streaming content from the likes of Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO, Xfinity, Blockbuster, Amazon, and other outlets. I was thrilled by this –until I realized that most of what’s available for streaming is very old programming that people have either seen numerous times already, or are the B movies that no one can watch unless they’re highly medicated, prescription or otherwise. At least, that’s true with the available movies. Television shows do a little better, depending on the provider. Out of all of the choices, I am liking Xfinity the best because it gives me another way to get more for the money I pay to Comcast for television. If you subscribe to a channel, you can watch it on the go through streaming without further cost.  It lets you get at TV shows in addition to movies, allowing one to keep up with their favorites. Plus, you can get to those TV shows usually the day following or the week following their air dates. I just dumped my Netflix and Hulu accounts, choosing to save the $8 I was paying each but not using.

Then too, I found that I could not view a lot of the content I paid for on the Android tablet I bought specifically to watch streaming media while out of the house. The product description lured me in with promises of my favorite providers. However, when I got my Toshiba Thrive, I found out very quickly that changes had made it so that the likes of Netflix, Hulu and HBO were not viewable on the tablet, although my Android phone could still display them.  If I wanted to watch movies and TV on my phone, I would not have spent $500 to buy an Android tablet. Turns out that the later versions of the Android system did not support the streaming format, and so virtually all tablets were left adrift. Until someone comes out with add-on support for the streaming format, tablets are stuck as mere web browsers. While you can see some shows via HTML, they will be festooned with advertisements and won’t be the comparatively smooth and clear play of a stream.  More annoying yet, the makers of the tablets are content to sit on their haunches to wait for someone to create a new medium for the tablets, rather than taking the bull by the horns to provide the content they promised.

Long story short, I just killed off my Netflix and Hulu accounts. No reason to pay for programming I can’t watch. Then too, Netflix just ticked off the majority of its customers with a 100% price hike, setting their streaming and DVD rentals apart from one another and charging $8 per month each for streaming and for DVD rental. Customers are leaving the services in droves, because the people using Netflix were getting to see newer content via DVD and filling in time between movies by streaming from the selection of very old content.  When they divided the system, they offended literally their entire customer base. A look at the Netflix blog requires just a glance to see that every message from customers is filled with vitriol. Everyone is ticked off and showing it by removing their accounts. It was a stupid thing for Netflix to do, and is an obvious ploy to double their income while providing absolutely nothing in return. Most people might be foolish at times, but they’re not stupid –or as stupid as Netflix believed. We’ll see what happens to the corporation from here, but hopefully it will die a gruesome death that will be an object lesson for the profiteers in competing companies.

I have to admit that I think the rental prices for streamed movies (outside of Xfinity, which allows streaming of channels you’ve subscribed to) is way too high. I figure a movie streamed is worth a couple of bucks, but not $5 or more.  It would be a different story if one was able to keep the movies and watch it again and again for the rest of their lives. But this is truly discardable material and not worth what a lot of companies charge. That’s why I am enamored of Xfinity. I figure that it makes the price of subscribing to a movie channel a little more tolerable when I can see the shows I like on the fly. But there are bugaboos in Xfinity as well. It is merely a portal into the realms of the streaming offered by the various providers like HBO, Starz and Cinemax. The problem being, of course, that they use the streaming format not supported by the later Android tablet devices. So when it comes down to it, there is really no solution to the tablet foible –and won’t be until someone comes up with a way for Android to support the streaming.

If you want to be fanatical, you could buy an account with PlayOn, which is a method to allow you to share content downloaded to your PC with a mobile device. But this only works on your private in-home network. You can’t take your tablet on the road and get the same service over the Internet. At least, not without having serious network engineering knowledge and getting into stuff like firewall exceptions, DMZs and port forwarding.  If you don’t know what any of that means, join the club. Most people don’t. Also, PlayOn doesn’t offer their service for free, it costs about $80 a year for the privilege of seeing your computer pass your content from the PC to the home network. It is also a serious cost for bandwidth as the content is first streamed to the PC and then streamed again to the local network. Most home connections to the Internet will sag badly from this kind of volume, so even if you pay the $80, you still might not be too pleased with the result.

It’s funny. When streaming first started getting popular, I figured that it would be the insertion of advertising that would take the fun and pleasure out of mobile watching. But I was wrong. That stuff is still on the way, but right now it’s harder to get something streamed at all, commercials or not. Our smartphones are, with their older versions of Android, more capable of streaming than the tablets and devices made specifically for streamed content. If you’re happy with a two and a half inch screen, then you’re in luck. But for those of us who prefer something greater than postage stamp sized screens, our luck is waning. With the thrust of computing gone mobile the way it has, it seems foolish for the marketplace to be so scattered and convoluted. Were I the CEO of a content company, I would be driving a development team to get that content out to the widest possible customer base. That means a serious focus on mobile devices, almost to the exclusion of phones and actual televisions. Home PCs, tablets and Internet devices would be my primary focus –so that I could reach the majority of potential clients and also be clearly positioned for the future. And mobile is the future. Period.

Note: here’s a link to a USA Today article on media providers.

Fit to Print

I was looking on web for ebooks that I could find for free and download. There are actually quite a few sites dedicated to the passing along of literature. And as I was looking, I came across the audible book. I had heard of talking books before, where the author or someone with an expressive voice and tone would read the book cover to cover. I found a number of books and ended up making my way to Audible.com, one of the Amazon umbrella companies. For the most part, it looked as though most of what I saw in Amazon’s bookstore was available there too.

I haven’t had a lot of experiences with audible books. While I was in the hospital I tried to have my Kindle read to me, what with it transcribing the written word into voice. I managed to listen to what sounded like a very bored Stephen Hawking uttering words with no punctuation. It was like a list of words spoken by a computer. Needless to say I wasn’t a big fan of the text to speech utility of the Kindle. But sitting there on audible.com, I clicked on a link to listen to a segment of a book I’d already read. It was a one of the Detective Harry Bosch series called The Last Coyote. It was okay sounding, read by someone I thought I recognized, but couldn’t put a name to. Anyway, I listened to a few pages worth and decided that I would give it a try. They told me I could have three free audible books if I signed up, so I headed over to the sign up page. When I got there, I found out that these people wanted me to pay $15 a month to be a member, and that I got a couple of standard price books each month for the fee. If I wanted more, I could pay for them on a book by book basis.

I’m not so sure I want to commit to buying a pair of standard price books each month, nor did I relish buying audible books for $25 per, given I was reading the same titles for between $0.99 and $13. The majority of the books I buy are around $7, and I occasionally will pay $13 for a favored author. But $25 a book? Kinda pricey in my book. Plus that, I remember back to when I was in college. People  used to tape lectures to play them back later. They would listen to them in their sleep in the belief that it would help them pass tests. It didn’t, it just gave them bloodshot eyes and dark circles and had them too tired from keeping them awake as they focused hard on the lectures instead of going to sleep. It kind of blew the story about how you remember better in your sleep. Then again, the people that used this method were also the kind who were always reading self-improvement books.

I did my usual digging around the Internet, visiting sites I knew to specialize in downloadable content.  On one site I found a whole section dedicated to audio books, free for downloading with a Bittorrent app. I found the Harry Potter series, Steig Larsen’s  trilogy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a couple of Steve Koontz books and The Dark Tower series by Steven King.  But the vast majority of items to download were self help books. Books on how to pick up chicks, make women laugh, improve yourself by this way and that. The actual number of books that interested me was a tiny fraction of the selection. If I ever wake up some morning with no self-esteem, I will know right where to go to improve my pathetic, worthless, geek of a self.  Or, at least hear someone elses idea of the many things wrong with me.

It’s bad enough when I peruse the pirated music collections available for free download that I find very few artists I ever heard of anymore. I don’t recognize most, if not all, of the bands and artists. I have found that searching using a year number, that I am more likely to find things I like in between 1963 and 1979.  I get surrounded by old friends like ZZ Top, Heart, Pat Benetar, Quarterflash, Grand Funck Railroad and Iron Butterfly. There’s Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan, Santana and Joe Cocker. Even Ted Nugent before his guitar electrocuted him and turned him into a a gun toting yahoo while he played Journey to the Center of the Mind and Cat Scratch Fever. You know, the GOOD musicians. I could go on, say ACDC, or Jeff Beck and ROd Stewart, but I think you get the idea. My point here is that when I try to do that with books, my searches return zero results. Even if I type in names like Michael Crichton, John Griffin, and John Sandford I get no results. For some reason, no one is pirating that literature. I find that confusing because my reading tastes are actually pretty pedestrian and mainstream.

The authors I read are, for the most part on the NY Times bestseller list. Which, I assume means that either a publisher is bribing the hell out of someone or a lot of people seem to like and by the works of the same authors I do. But while I can find the music of my favorite generation, I’m at a loss to find things in my favorite genre for reading. And the books they sell are really beyond what I want to pay and I also don’t want a commitment to buying books I might never listen to. I’m still not sure when I would take a trip or find the time to sit around long enough to listen to a book read to me.

It’s just not like reading. I can sit and read for hours at a time with absolutely no interest in doing something else while I peruse my favorite tomes. But give me any other kind of entertainment and I will start looking for a robot to tweak, a circuit to solder, or a book to read while the TV or computer streams audio and video at me.  There is something about the written word that I find compelling, and to the exclusion if everything else. Only reading really penetrates and maybe that’s why I have never liked video tutorials, preferring instead a paper manual I can hold in my hand.  I know, a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but it ain’t always so.

I have downloaded a few audio books and I will give them a chance. But as I said, I’ll wait for a time when I’m more of a captive audience –or ill  and stuck on my back.

Disabled Credit

It’s definitely a buyers market when it comes to real estate. There are so many houses for sale that it makes the mind reel with the choices. In the past few weeks I have looked at quite a few homes. Houses that, just a couple of years ago would have run a quarter million bucks are selling for 180 thousand. Quite a discount. People are putting money into their homes, updating kitchens and bathrooms, in addition to painting or installing insulation and new windows. These people are doing this work and taking on the expense just to make their house more sellable. They will, they say, lose the money in the end, but the gain of selling a home just languishing on the market and rotting away motivates them to take the loss. The gain is for those of us out there looking for a home to buy.

Then again, it’s gotten fairly difficult to find a mortgage. The mortgage rates are excellent, but getting a home loan is taking a lot more work and is a much more complex process than ever before, never mind the mortgage feeding frenzy that caused all these homes to lose their inflated values in the first place. So it’s a good time to buy a home with a great chance you won’t overpay for the property. Assuming you can get a loan.

My credit isn’t great. But then again, it’s not that bad. To look at my credit report is an eye opener though. There are all sorts of bad marks on my report that are pulling my credit-worthiness down –in spite of the fact that they have nothing to do with me. Reading the report I see a number of things I don’t recognize, emblazoned with a social security number and name that is not mine, but for some reason these things are on my report. They are counting against me and raising the interest rate I might hope for while making it a lot more difficult to find a lender.

A few years ago when I first saw the many bogus entries giving me the look of a class A goldbrick, I was angered and outraged. It pissed me off to be saddled with someone else’s mistakes, what with my medical history already doing a good job of denting my credit rating. If you spoke with my creditors, all of them would say that I always pay my bills on time, and often early. The credit profile for me as displayed by Equifax, TransAmerica, et al is as bogus as a three dollar bill. So I paid fees and joined initiative groups. I wrote letters and had other people write letters in my favor. I did everything I could to get the bogus entries removed. What was accomplished in this flurry of activity was merely discovering a few new entries which had nothing to do with me. In fact, a couple of accounts listed in my negative column were actually in good stead and always had been. The creditors writing in for a correction of the record and getting no reaction.

The thing is, it serves the money market to have borrowers represented as badly as possible because it means that borrowers will have to pay higher interest rates and fees, increasing mortgage profits. Asking companies like TransAmerica to guard credit is much like asking the mice to guard the cheese. Of course, it’s not like we asked them to in the first place. Those who control who has money and who doesn’t set themselves up for the job and people just went along with it, much like nodding acceptance at Bernie Madof being elected president. So here I am with an excellent payment record and the undying admiration of my creditors being treated like a red headed step child as I request a loan.

I don’t have a credit card. Not like the Capital Ones of the world haven’t tried hard to give me one. Like most of you, I get invitations all the time to sign up for a card with hundred dollar annual fees and an interest rate of one third or more of my expenditures. For every buck I borrow, they want to charge me 33 cents. This is not any kind of good deal in my book, and so the invitations go straight into the garbage after a brief perusal and a laugh. I have had that kind of “deal” before. A few years back my company got a 0% interest credit card. For the first year there were no fees and interest. Since we needed a rise in inventory, this seemed a good solution to help. So we picked up the card and got our inventory. We owed 5 grand on it all. Then one day our bookkeeper made a mistake. She missed mailing the payment on time. The next thing we knew, our balance of just under $5000 turned into $19,000. It took them no time to assess a 36% interest rate and lay all sorts of fees on us. In less than a single month we threw $14,000 in the trash. Of course we paid off the debt immediately, which was a horrendous expense to bear. But if we hadn’t done it, we’d have owed more and more and more adding ridiculous interest to the principal we owed. That pretty much soured me permanently on credit cards. I’d never liked them personally, feeling that a guy should live within his means, but now I objected to them on a company basis as well.

I believe in credit for large item expense. By that I mean a car or a house. I do not mean recreational purchases like boats, RVs or airplanes. I mean the kind of large ticket purchase one really needs; a home, a decent vehicle.  Of course, that is why I have lived in the somewhat meager way I have. I stay within my means. That’s why I have always been able to pay my debts, except for the medical expenses I had to bear before the VA took over my care. Credit is for suckers who want to live beyond their means. That’s a pretty draconian attitude, but I just don’t have any sympathy for the people who saddle themselves with credit card and recreational debt that takes them beyond their means to stay abreast of their expenses.  When it comes to people who ruined themselves by purchasing real estate, I divide them into two categories. The first is people who bought a home knowing they couldn’t afford the home and based their purchase on the blue sky belief that their financial situation would magically increase before the ridiculously high balloon payment kicked in. They bought a home talking about all the entertaining they could do and how, if they happened to have a few more kids that there would be room for them. This is magical thinking and has always, without fail, unswervingly led to disaster. I’m sorry for the trouble these people got into, but I figured they asked for it and had their eyes wide open when they did.

The other group is made up of people who merely tried to consolidate their debt as they made a real estate purchase. They were swept into the current of catastrophe after doing nothing wrong or irresponsible. The collapse of the house of cards mortgage system, which I perceive as the greatest of all pyramid schemes, fell apart and left these good people with nothing. To make it worse, their taxes went to give the people who screwed up the mortgage system the money to bail themselves out. They took the money and paid incredibly large bonuses to the very people responsible for the collapse. Personally, I think that the financial institutions of America should all be socialized and the profits taken to support the nation that supported them. When they need money the whole world has to pay for it. But when the world needs money, they demand a heavy price for the loan. Think about an interest rate on the 700 billion dollars we just handed the financial corporations and what the interest they would owe if they were charged the same one-third they charge us. It would certainly fix a lot of what ails the nation.

But still, we are the beggars who have to go to the money lenders and beg their indulgence to allow us to make them a profit. When I look at it that way, suddenly my vision of a buyers home market fades to black. The money people have built a system which, like a casino, always pays the house its due and no one ever leaves a winner. So I’m not all that anxious to play their game. I don’t care what their incorrect records have to say about me, because I know that they enjoy a greater position of power and can get a higher return when my credit record looks bad, and so they’re happy to keep it looking bad. There is no motivation for them to fix the mistakes that were made. In fact, I sometimes wonder if bogus records are automatically inserted randomly into people’s records, just to sweeten the pot. Yes, that does mean I consider them to be crooks, and not the backbone of American progress. I blame the ruin we all face squarely on their shoulders.

Will I ever buy a home? I really don’t know. I am getting awfully tired of the idea of home ownership. The point to it is having an investment in the future, which we now know is fallacious thinking. It is a stake in our mortgage lender’s future more than ours. Home ownership imparts a better credit rating –so you can buy more and dig yourself deeper in debt. I’m just not sure that I want to play that game.  I have lived all of my adult life as a renter and done pretty well, all in all. I grant that I have no property to leave to my kids this way, but in fact, my kids all have their own homes and don’t need mine. Then again, a home in Spokane is far from the beaten path their lives are taking. Better to put the money into an account to pass along when I die. Then my estate is not divided into the creditors, the state and federal government. I bypass the middle man and simply give the money away in a living trust. No muss, no fuss.

This all means I am a reluctant buyer. I think that right about now, everyone should be a reluctant buyer. I think that we should be holding out for 3% interest on mortgage loans and 6% on vehicles. The thing is, if we all took this attitude, that is exactly where the interest rates would go, else the mortgage companies would go out of business.

Which I also don’t think is all that bad an idea.

Better Off

I was amazed as I read a mail message from a friend. I had been trying to explain what my experience with the VA had taught me about what steps to take, what evidence was needed and a general idea of what to expect. As I wrote and wrote and wrote email after email, I found that I was having a debate with this person. Literally everything I related to this person was handed back to me with an explanation of why it wouldn’t work for the situation they were in. When I tried to tell them that my situation was different and that they should not expect the levels of assistance I get, I found my words taken as a pissing contest. I came to the realization last night as I was reading my friend’s latest missive, they they were wasting my time. They wanted to have a discussion about how awful the government was and not to learn the easiest ways to get on the VA radar for benefits.

I’m not going to try and help this person anymore. I see no reason. I have a lot of things to complain about when it comes to the VA. Their policies can be and usually are mystifying and nonsensical, but the fact of the matter is that they are helping me, and doing a pretty good job all in all. Sure, I talk here about the things that the VA has done which have been less than comforting. But there is one fact that people seem to miss, and that is that I am still here and spouting my piss and vinegar because the VA was there to help, and help they did. My life is so much greater than it would be without them, that it’s time for me to say a good word about them. Overdue, even.

The VA is a governmental agency. That means that much of what they do and how they do it is convoluted. Governments create procedures and then change them. When those changes create problems, they apply a band aid to fix it that, in its own right, creates even more troubles. But the whole point to the VA is to help veterans, and once you manage to swing through the obstacle course of policy, help is exactly what they do, and they do a better job at it than their private medicine counterparts. VA doctors and administrators are buried in the troubles specific to veterans and the problems they face. Private medicine doesn’t know to look in places that for veterans is commonplace to find problems. For ten long years I spent money I didn’t have going to the hospital for severe pains in the back and chest. I built up such a record of visits that the last private doctors were telling me that my problems were more the province of psychiatry than medicine. They thought it was all in my mind. But then the VA took over. In less than three months they had a bead on my problems and by six months had me started on repairative therapies. But they also did something that private medicine didn’t, they saw to it that I was comfortable. They gave me medications that dealt with my issues, they took care of me.

No, the VA did not cure my cancer. I am still going to die from it and the jury is still out as to when.  But then, I have a very particular kind of Multiple Myeloma that affects about 1% of the MM victims. I am a non-secretor. Then too, I am a non-secretor with a strain of cancer so rare, that I fit into only 1% of the 1% of total MM victims. That means that only .001 of the Myeloma patients in the world manifest similar symptoms and effects of the cancer I’m stuck with. Yet the VA picked it up and worked hard with me to try to  kill it off.  Just as my kind of MM was unusual, so are the sensitivities to drugs in me. I reacted terribly to the chemotherapy drugs I was given. In fact, the treatments nearly killed me on a few spooky occasions.  But all the way through, the people of the VA were on my side and trying the best they could to help me.  True, policies and modus opeandi of the VA was quite often counter-productive. I would take two steps forward and then three steps back. But every now and then a winning move was executed that took me five steps forward for the three back and the net gain was positive.  After all, I am still here when I should have been dead almost two years ago.

So as I am trying to help my friend get involved in the VA and get their journey started, I end up finding myself defending not just the VA, but myself. “You’re well enough that you have been able to go to parties!” my friend railed. I was being told that no one on her side was going to parties because the pain was too great for it. Yes, that’s probably true. But then, they had out of hand rejected the help and care offered by the VA and so no, they aren’t comfortable right now. Unlike me, their prejudice against the VA kept them from getting the help so freely offered. I accepted it. And while I make it a point to bitch and moan over the failings of the VA, I do so only because the VA has me well enough to do it.

I should have been speaking of the positives along the line here as well as the negatives. But negativity is much more powerful than positives are. Of course they are. Negatives trigger every single alert and alarm the body and mind has because of our survival instinct. The pain felt and the thoughts though it all deal in terms of fixing the problem and those things that get in the way of that repair. So we tend to focus more on negatives in life than we do the positives. Of all of the vets I have ever spoken to, every single one has a lot of complaints about the VA and the peculiarities of the system. But not a one of them would enjoy the level of comfort they have had it not been for the VA and they say this too.We complain about the things the VA does wrong, we do not complain about the VA itself and its purpose and successes.

There is only one thing that can separate a veteran from VA medical assistance and that’s a dishonorable discharge. Other than that, if you were in the service, you can get medical care from the VA. If your medical issues are the product of your military service, then the worse the problem the more helpful the VA will be. I have attained their highest level of assistance. That’s because I have a high level of of disability that is directly caused by my participation in combat. I am very badly broken and the VA is trying to apply positives that compensate for the troubles I suffer. Yes, quite often they step on their own toes (and mine) and take wrong turns because the regulations at the base of the system are flawed. But if it weren’t for the VA, I simply would not be here. Or, if I were here, I would not be feeling well enough to write this silly blog. I’d be too busy trying to mooch spare change to buy the bullet I was going to put in my head.

That is why I and the many other vets in America go to the VA for help. For all of its foibles and problems, it is still the only real hope that the average vet has to achieve some quality of life, when that life has turned against them. VA administration sucks, but not because it has bad people or it is like a pack of wolves getting ready to rend us limb from limb. The majority of people who work for the VA are kind, good and giving people who do the job because they want to see vets get a better deal out of life than they might without the VA. Sure, there are some morons in the weeds. Show me anywhere that doesn’t happen. The main focus here should be what a vet can have without the VA versus what they can have with it. Believe you me, the problems along the way have made me crazy and angry, but the sum total has been positive. The only vets who do not benefit from the VA are very likely fakers or people with dishonorable discharges.  Sometimes it takes an administrative battle of appeals and delays and delays and appeals. But it’s rare that a vet will go away with nothing unless there’s a pretty good reason. That doesn’t mean a reason that is likable, just that regulations or qualification prevent action. Sometimes the system is wrong, but mostly it appears to come out right. Sure, I read the stories about how a vet finally gets recognized, but only after they died. It’s awful that it happens, but it does. Every system of assistance has cracks into which people fall. But let’s not ignore the sidewalk full of passers by as we scrutinize the cracks for the odd mistake. Let’s try to fix the system, yes. That’s why people complain for the most part. They want to see the system fixed. It will never be perfect, but there’s no reason not to try for it.

We are a society of high military involvement. We have been the world’s police force for so long that it’s hard to find a country without a US military presence. That makes for a lot of veterans, and as time goes by, the number of vets needing care grows logarithmically. When you think about the sheer number of veterans assisted, it gets mind boggling. That the VA does the job it does, in an environment of regulatory peculiarity is mind boggling as well. I have been directly asked if the VA could do better and my answer is always yes. It can. With technology as it is today, many of the things the VA does could be done electronically and in a way much more speedy. Let the people do the process manually only when a veteran challenges the findings of the computers. That would make a huge difference in the VA because the primary complaint is the processing time it takes the agency to do anything. I have a lot of suggestions. But to be honest, by perspective is solely that of a user of the system, I don’t know about the logistics of the system or really the administrative challenges. But I do see that the VA is constantly trying to improve in a way that comprises all of the perspectives which have to be accommodated. So I may not understand the reasons that the VA is closing down many of its satellites while opening a few new ones, but I can see the improvement in my own facility and so I have to assume that in the big picture, things are getting better. Especially in light of the huge increase in qualified veterans using the system.

As to medically, the VA is always raising the bar. It takes a while for the behemoth to see an issue and more time yet to bring its self to move for improvement. But it does improve. The difference I have seen in the last year are testament to that. And when you think that the number of vets using the system has almost doubled in that same period of time, if one is fair, then they must see and admit to the huge effort expended to fix the issues. The time in a VA waiting room used to be about 5 times that for a private medical facility. Now it’s about one-third of what private medicine entails.  In short, there’s a lot of good to the VA.

It is getting better. Sure, there are quagmires, landmines and a host of other tanglefoot that goes with the VA. But they have helped me and helped every other vet who was qualified for their help. But if you are qualified, then the VA, and organizations like the VFW and American Legion, and the veterans departments of states that can and will do a lot to help. It’s a huge and confusing morass of assistance, but if you work with the people who administer the programs, chances are you will get help.  It took me four years to get to this point in my life, and that time was spent working for improvement. My persistence paid off in that I have comfort and activity I wouldn’t have without them. Don’t get me wrong; I am suspicious of the VA and always alert to stepping on one of the bear traps the system has been equipped with.  But I recognize that I am better off than I would have been without them, and by a large margin.

Lawful Exchanges

The primary output of government is law. The point is the creating of a structure within which different people with differing ideas can coexist. It is often said that without law, there would be no order, But the law is not a perfect thing; not by any means. Law can be downright stupid and quite often is. That’s why every state has laws which they don’t enforce. In my state, Washington, We have a thing about Sundays.  In my state you cannot buy meat, mattresses or televisions on a Sunday, or at least, that’s what it says in the Revised Codes of Washington, the bible to which my state’s lawyers attend. It is also illegal to purchase lollipops in my state on any day. Of course, it is also unlawful to drive a motor vehicle in the state of Washington unless you are preceded by a flag man who walks in front of the car waving a red cloth to warn horses of your approach.

In Oregon, you must drip dry your dishes after washing them, may not whistle while under water, nor used canned corn as fish bait. In California, it’s unlawful to shoot game from a moving vehicle unless it’s a whale or to set a mousetrap without a hunting license. In Arizona, it’s illegal to refuse anyone a glass of water, and any crime committed while adorned with a red mask is automatically a felony. All in all, there are some pretty peculiar laws on the books.

A friend of mine is trying to entice her husband to go to the VA for help. He has, reportedly, a condition which causes him severe pain no matter what. He cannot even lay on a bed, because doing so is painful. Ergo, he sleeps in a chair; his life revolves around a battered old recliner from which he commands his ever shrinking world of what he can reach. I relate to this type of pain, after all, my situation is made of the same agonizing discomfort.  But unlike me, he dislikes the VA to such a high extent that he refuses to go to them for help and thus providing himself with relief. Worse, it affords my friend no relief as his wife; she must carry the burden of providing for their little family. Of course, all I know of the guy is what has been reported in exchanges between me and my friend, but what she reports is both saddening and infuriating.

Knowing pain on a first name basis has made me sensitive to the pain of others. In my case, I find myself more concerned with the pain and frustration his attitudes wreck on my friend –in spite of it being he who is in actual constant pain. The reason for this is because he could make a change in their life circumstances so sweeping as to make their current life unrecognizable. The pain needn’t continue, the strain on my friend having to do all for her mate could end, and their lives could comprise consistently improving, rather than merely treading water as they do now. But he would rather seethe in agonizing pain, watching his bride work the night shift somewhere seedy and exhausting, rather than dealing with the frustrating regulations of the VA. As I was pointing out, there are peculiar laws and rules everywhere, the VA merely being one of them. But no matter where you go in this land, you’re going to find rules that are annoying to those they are enforced upon.

In Arkansas, a man is only allowed to beat his wife once a month. I’m sure this appeals to a lot of Arkansas women, but might seem inconvenient to guys who wish to express their displeasure at being served spaghetti again when they had it last week. In Florida, it’s illegal to have a dream about another man’s wife or another man’s cow. Life is full of situations where regulation can be downright inconvenient. But that’s no reason to shun the regulating agency. There comes a point when that amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite their face, which by the way, is illegal in 16 states.

I have found the VA rules and procedures to be pretty darn frustrating. It’s a place where, as if controlled by quantum physics, one step forward equals two steps back. But unlike the point to Matthew Broderick’s posit in War Games, the only way to win is by not playing the game is as foolish as the dumber laws which ride the books of American jurisprudence. And there are some pretty strange laws out there. Did you know that in Hawaii it’s unlawful to appear in public attired in a swimsuit or to put pennies in one’s ear, and that it’s also illegal for a resident NOT to own a boat?  Like Hawaii, there are a lot of rules that might cause one to wonder about the sanity of the architects of VA rules, but they are overridden by the pleasure derived from visiting. Personally, I find being relieved of chronic and disabling pain to be better than a stroll on the beach, but that’s just me.

I guess I find it very difficult to understand why it is that someone might be so frustrated and frightened by the monolithic VA policies as to prefer to suffer and cause the suffering of another. It doesn’t help that the lion’s share of complaints about the VA come from those individuals who do not qualify for their assistance. Just being in the military doesn’t automatically qualify one for the full range of VA help. It does guarantee one medical care, but there will likely be a copay involved if one’s military service didn’t include participation in a combat area. In fact, qualification for VA assistance can be one hell of a catacomb of twisty little passages, all alike. It’s very easy to lose one’s way. But a bit of fortitude and perseverance usually gets things back on track. The thing of it is, that the majority of those who seek help from the VA are in desperate need of the assistance. So I just don’t understand how one could choose to live a life of such total discomfort over one of relief, albeit at the cost of being confused.

As I mentioned, the VA policies can be intimidating. It’s difficult to understand how an administrative aide can be eligible for war resulting privileges when they never, ever came close to any fighting or threat, yet men in ships of the merchant marine who serviced the ports and found themselves under fire and injured and disabled are disqualified. There’s nothing fair about the rules, they are simply the rules that exist. Like in Idaho, romantic gifts of candy must weigh in at greater than 50 pounds. In Indiana, it’s unlawful to bathe during the winter. No matter where you go, there are going to be rules that make no sense. To deny one’s own comfort out of distaste strikes me as a lot more peculiar than the rules under protest. Yet here is my friend’s spouse, doing just that.

It makes me wish I could reach out and provide them with everything they need, which is pretty much what the VA does when it is asked, and all of the columns in some table somewhere line up properly. The VA does say no, but it usually does it with reluctance while at the same time making suggestions of alternatives –where there are alternatives. The VA will also compromise, much as do the courts who preside over the stranger laws languishing in the various state law books. A veteran who maintains an open mind and employs a little common sense will come away from the VA richer for the experience in just about every case. It’s not like being in Maryland, where it’s illegal to mistreat oysters, no matter the provocation. There’s give and take which is, more often than not, results in veteran gain.

The point here is that in many case, the VA can be an annoying attribute to ones existence. But there is benefit to be found here, and quite a bit of it at that. But one has to qualify for the benefits being requested and then make application for the benefits sought. The VA doesn’t comb the streets looking for vets in trouble. Okay, I guess that’s not true. The initiatives to find homeless vets and help them does just that. But the focus here is that there is a lot of help available to veterans who can get over themselves and work with the various programs. While the VA does many thing which might indicate the opposite, the agency exists to provide living assistance to veterans. If one takes on the big picture, the VA is much more likely to be a help than it is a hindrance.

Don’t get me wrong. I find that many of the things the VA does to be problematic and I have had my patience drawn to the breaking point in working with them. But the truth is that I am much, much better off for their help than I am without it. Their requirements can be confusing and even irritating, not unlike Massachusetts where one cannot wear a goatee without a license.

The Wrong One

“Just stand over there and we’ll get to you in a minute.” said the clerk, his facial expression made me think of constipation.  I rolled myself in the direction he indicated and thought that he’d used an interesting choice of words. Not that I want to be confronting or anything, but I’m disabled and can’t stand. I sort of figured that the wheelchair was a dead giveaway.  But I rolled on over to the waiting room and proceeded to wait as instructed. I did that for 30 minutes.

My name was called and I rolled over to the doorway and the woman who’d called my name. She stood there holding the door open and smiled warmly at me as I rolled past her and into her little office. It was sparsely decorated with nothing hanging from the walls, but her desk was a little island of color in the midst of a fog of beige. She had a variety of stuffed animals and dolls cluttering the desk, gaily attired in bright primary colors. Protruding from a pile of fur and fabric rose a framed photograph of the woman and some guy standing in front of a car.  It’s good I brought my own chair, the only other one in the room she just placed her somewhat wide behind on. She smiled at me, I smiled back. She looked down at the papers she held in her hand, then plopped the papers into her lap and said “Oops. I’m not the person you need to speak with about this.” She tried to look embarrassed, but I thought she looked a little glad.  “If you’ll go back to the waiting room, I’ll have the right person call you soon.”

Back in the waiting room, I managed to pass another 30 minutes. The woman stepped out of her office again and looked at me. “I can see you now.”

I performed a rapid mental head shake, the kind that makes your lips go bdia-bdia-bdia as your mind makes the sound of tires skidding to a stop. “What?” I said. I’m sure I sounded confused, after all, I was.

“You’re up!” she beamed. “Come on in.” she stepped back halfway through her door, again holding it open for me. I rolled over at stopped at the door.

“I thought you said you weren’t the right person to see me?” I developed a minor eye tic.

“It’s the funniest thing. It turns out I am the right person for you to talk to.” she replied.

“What happened in a half hour that changed you from the wrong person to the right person? I don’t get it.” I said.

“Why, in that thirty minutes I found out I was the right person to talk to you, of course.” she said. The way she said it made me feel stupid for a second. Then I got annoyed.

“What. What in that 30 minutes told you this?”

“I looked it up.”

I would have replied, but, I mean, what do you say? I rolled back into the office and she passed me and took her chair by the desk. She smiled at me, then picked up a sheaf of papers and scrutinized them as if for the first time. Her phone rang and she answered it. I was two chapters further along in Lassiter, Paul Levine’s new book in a series about a Miami lawyer with a much more adventurous life than I when she hung up. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I have to go.” She stood and walked over to her door and held it open. “Go ahead and make an appointment for tomorrow and we can finish up.”

I rolled out of her office and out of the building. The mortgage company clerk called to me from behind the desk as I passed, he said “Don’t you want to make a new appointment?”

“I’m not the right person to talk to.” I said.


I am a disabled American Veteran who became disabled at war, fighting for my nation. It should be no surprise that, as a patriot, I tend to look at the various conspiracy theories with a somewhat jaundiced eye. But, believing in the individual rights I fought for,  I am also not the kind of person who will dismiss things out of hand, simply because they sound awfully far-fetched. Were I to do that, I would have to dismiss much of what I say myself, so I have cultivated myself as a good listener. I make it a point to stay informed, and so I watch all of the most respected and accurate news analysts through vehicles like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Steven Colbert’s Colbert Report.  I learn more about what’s going on by watching these two shows than I do watching CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NWCN and the BBC. Combined. They all seem to be so preoccupied with politics that they seem to shun, eschew, and ignore  literally every other possible news story –unless it picks on a competitor or features a celebrity with a large draw.

The tidbits I glean from the two hallowed institutions of the Comedy Central point me to things to go query Google News about, which draws from many news sources as well as professional blogs. It is this way that I manage to keep up with things; I learn about what’s happening on the planet. Not only are the programs handy for information with a lot less bias than found anywhere else (1% less biased), but they have pointed out to me a lot of good books, which I immediately buy from Amazon for my Kindle. Being disabled means one has a lot of time to read.  Some of us have so much time, we write. But long story short, assuming this was a story and not a bland recitation of facts, I’ll get to the point. A great friend of mine sent me the following YouTube video that was uploaded by the Corbett Report. No, not Colbert, Corbett.  It is a succinct explanation of the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks, and couldn’t have been better worded if it was written by the dedicated journalists at America’s finest news source, The Onion.

Going to Space

Don and Burt lived together in a two floor saltbox house on the west side of town, over by the water treatment plant. The two were undistinguished, one being tall and the other not, and they spent the majority of their days on the glassed in back porch of the house looking into the woods that grew up to and around the house.  They would sit there and drink coffee and talk about the one thing in the world that was important to both of them; Don and Burt wanted to go to space.

There was one other thing that the two did, and that was drink a lot of cheap wine. They’d drink more expensive wine if they had more money, but they didn’t and so cheap wine was just fine for them and they drank quite a bit of it.  Einstein said how his relatives could go through time, they’d heard, and so they saw no reason why they couldn’t go to space, after all, it was right there just above them. Much like an equation from Einstein, the boys managed to represent a oddity, and aberration and random event much like the million monkeys and the million typewriters eventually producing Shakespeare’s sonnets. During a drunken stupor one late afternoon, after consuming a goodly amount of cheap wine, Don and Burt became momentarily sentient and had an idea. Quick as you please, they started writing down their thoughts. They wrote and wrote until eventually they’d sipped and sipped so much they both fell asleep on the glassed in back porch of their saltbox house as the sun went down and the stars revealed themselves above.

They woke within moments of one another and both of them felt an urgency like they’d never felt before. An urgency to accomplish something, something great. So they took turns urinating and rid themselves of the sense of urgency and sat down to see what it was they’d written before they accidentally bedded down for the night. Each of them read a few pages and then traded papers and read again. In the end, they looked at one another and nodded their heads and started to work. They pulled the water heater from the second floor bathroom and fetched the lawn mower from the garage. They pulled out plumbing from the basement and the house gave up its electrical wiring. After hours of backbreaking work, they’d assembled a huge pile of seemingly useless junk. Again they looked at one another and nodded, and then again set out to work. They used hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and a blowtorch. They slathered pain and glazed glass and hammered and screwed until at last it was ready. Tired from all the work and feeling a bit parched besides, the guys each drank a bottle of cheap wine and curled up to take a short 10 hour nap.

On the third day they woke up to find the big machine taking up most of the living room. They walked around it, surveying it in wonder until at last they’d seen it all. They looked at each other and shrugged, for neither of them had the first idea what it was they’d built. Not, at least, until they found the pile of notes they’d written on the top of which was written “Space Machine.”

“Oh, yeah.” said Don.

“Yeah, right.” said Burt.

And then the guys sat down to have a little wine and decide what to do, which was a real good idea what with the Space Machine taking up the majority of their living room.  They each pondered it through a bit of Muscatel and then finally they decided as how one of them should probably get in the damn thing and see what happened. They tried flipping a coin but they’d spent the last of their money on wine, and didn’t have a coin between them. So they tried rock, paper, scissors and it kept coming out a draw until finally Burt just hit Don in the head with the Muscatel bottle and then muscled his prostrate form into the machine. He welded the door closed to make sure there’d be no last minute arguments. It took a chainsaw and six hours of hard labor, but at the end Burt had Don and the machine in the front yard. He pulled the starter cord on the power mower motor and it roared to life. One second later the machine heaved itself skyward at a remarkable rate.

“Launch detected.” said the soldier at the monitor of the North American Defense Headquarters hidden deep in a mountain somewhere undisclosed. He pressed a button which summoned the duty officer, who arrived and asked what the soldier wanted. “Launch detected.” he said again. The officer became quite excited and started yelling to scramble the fighters. He pressed a very large red button in the center of the console and was rewarded by a shrieking siren. He let it scream for 10 seconds and then pressed the big button again, shutting the siren off.  But his point had been made, and across the secret base, secret fighters started rolling down the secret runway on a sortie to protect the North American Defense headquarters. It was his job, after all, to make sure that the agency survived in case of nuclear war. Well, any kind of war, really, just so long as it killed everybody but them. If they died too then they’d be a failure, which is what drove them to protect themselves so well.

“Jeez.” said Don, rubbing his head. He looked around and realized that he was in the Space Machine. He tried to remember how it was he’d become the one to test it, but decided that the wine must be cloudy his memory because he didn’t remember volunteering even though he must have. After all, he was there, wasn’t he?  Don looked out the glass portal that he had installed himself and admired the glazing job. Then he looked past the glazing to see the ground far below him, moving along at quite a clip. He closed his eyes and remembered the time he used Google Maps once and then looked below again. He couldn’t see the lines they showed on all the maps, but it surely looked like he’d just passed Seattle and he was coming up on his home town after… well, after however many orbits he’d made and he wasn’t sure how many that was.  He also could see the jets flying up towards him, silhouetted by the flame of their after burner exhaust. As he watched, little points of light detached themselves from the jets and streaked towards him straight on. “Holy cow.” said Don, and then never said another word because at that moment one of the rockets fired by the jets struck the Space Machine and blew it into a million tiny pieces and one big one.

Burt stood below, eyes on the skies and watching the drama above play out above him. He saw the flash of light and knew his friend and room mate was gone, and wondered if he’d mind if Burt finished off the half bottle of cheap wine Burt knew he kept hidden in his room. He was staring through a pair of binoculars he’d bought at K-Mart one day when the urge consumed him so that he just had to have them. He was glad he’d given in to impulse else he wouldn’t be able to see what happened to the Space Machine and his friend.  He stared myopically at the tumbling item that seemed to blossom his way from the ball of fire that followed the brilliant flash of rocket impact, thinking to himself that it certainly looked like it was getting bigger and bigger. He was still staring when the rumpled mass of a crushed water heater fused to a lawnmower motor struck and crushed him flat.

I’m afraid there’s nothing more to the story I can tell, what with everyone involved having been killed.

It’s Crazy

With summer over and the nights chilling up again, I have been thinking about how this summer has not exactly gone as I was initially hoping. In June I was defending myself against a VA proposal that I could not handle my own affairs. Fortunately, I had more information about my competence than the VA did and was able to convince them to call off the dogs.  But I still think about how the VA appeared more concerned with the invocation of the Veterans Disarmament Act than the idea that they were proposing the loss of my mental freedom. The VDA (HR 2640) was championed by John Dingell, Lamar Smith and Rick Boucher, and is also championed by the National Rifle Association. All of the involved proponents of the Second Amendment and it’s a mystery why they advanced and lobbied for the bill.

The basics of the Veterans Disarmament Act is that veterans have been trained in the use of firearms, and are therefore a threat, unlike those who have no training and just like shooting. In order for the VDA to take effect, a veteran has to be declared incompetent to handle their own affairs by the VA. As I have seen and experienced, a proposal can come out of nowhere and be completely baseless, yet still succeed. The meat of the proposal in my case came from a 15 minute conversation with a so-called examiner of the QTC company, which usually does drug testing and urine testing for prospective employers and insurance companies considering a hiring or policy offering. The basis for proposing my incompetence was that I was being treated for cancer and had low energy. It would appear that the VA was easily convinced that accepting treatment for cancer is proof of a person’s inability to manage their own affairs. The concept is so sweeping that it takes one’s breath away. If a vet chooses to try and fight a disease that is killing them, then they are obviously unable to judge right from wrong and should lose their ability to make medical and financial choices. It seems to me that the loss of one’s ability to be self directing is a lot more important than being put on a list of people that the government would prefer didn’t own weapons. Of course they do. In the land of the free and home of the brave, the last thing we want is for veterans trained in the use of firearms that are harboring a huge distaste for the government. Is the answer to be very careful about which veterans are proposed for a finding of incompetence? No, the answer is to use ridiculous reasoning that is fallacious on its face to declare incompetence and to just make it illegal for the victimized vet to own a gun.

Also buried in this morass of sewage is the routine transfer of a veterans private medical information to various law enforcement without limits or controls. The sharing of a veteran’s private information is supposed to be verbotten, but this is an example of how the HIPAA protections of that information fall far short of private. Once the private information has been transferred, none of the protections for that information are valid anymore, and the information may be freely shared with whoever for whatever purpose anyone in the law enforcement community wants to. No controls whatsoever.

People have asked me why I am so bothered by the VA and the whole competence milieu –given that I was able to defeat it quickly and easily. Except that I wasn’t able to defeat it that easily. I was simply very, very lucky. There is no oversight or real regulation about how the VA might choose to have a finding of incompetence. There is no real appeal of decisions made against the veteran, save to ask the people who made the choice in the first place to take another look at it. That’s akin to asking a dog if it has had a change in mind about cats. But I lucked out in that the QTC examiner who opened my particular can of worms just suggested I was mentally incompetent, and provided absolutely no evidence or examples of my disability of the mind. That, and the fact that I was able to come up with 20 different individuals, some of which were mental health professionals and financial advisors of excellent reputation, allowed me to sneak past the obvious bear trap left in my path. Had the examiner come off one iota less of a quack, I would be a ward of the federal government right now.

We know very little about how the mind works, and so we can only observe others and comment that their approach to things is different than ours, and perhaps even different from the usual. But no one can really say much more than that. Very few of the mental aberrations that have been identified also hold a threat of violence. But because there is so little science and a whole lot of opinionizing about mental health, it is a completely slippery slope upon which to work. Lawyers have found consistently that for every so called professional with one opinion, it is possible to find equally lauded professionals with the opposite opinion. One would think that before the government took the reigns of ones life from them, that they would have firm science upon which to base their decisions. But they don’t. The most marginal of statements is able to trigger a finding against a vet, the majority of which do not have the resources of friends and business associates I do.

Today I am sitting fairly pretty as it might go with veterans. I have been found to be physically disabled fully, and so I am eligible for the full spread of assistance that the VA has to give. But I was a single word away from having nothing at all of quality left in my life. Had their finding been ‘incompetent’ versus ‘competent,’  I’d be a miserable little guy in a lot of pain he could not make any choices about. Yet the thing that they felt was most important to communicate with me, was that I am not allowed to have guns if found incompetent. Their concern was more about trying to convince me not to take up arms in my disagreement with the finding than it was to inform me of what rights I still might have had. The truth is, I don’t really care so much about guns. But if I did, I would most assuredly be in possession of firearms which were not on any list or contained in any reports the government might have. Each and every one of the people I know who are weapons aficionados speak with pride over the cache of weapons they have that Uncle Sam knows nothing about.

That’s the major flaw in all of the attempts to regulate who can own a gun and who can’t, in a constitutional environment that supports an individual’s right to have a weapon. For all of the assaults and murders out there, regulation of the firearms used in crimes hasn’t stemmed the tide one iota. It has been proven time and again that the people who use guns lawfully are the only ones affected by anti-gun regulation. The perpetrators of crimes don’t seem to think that the regulations are important, in as much as the regulations have never seemed to stop them from unlawful use of unlawful weapons. This is not an argument benefiting deregulation, it merely points out that regulation is completely impotent and therefore irrelevant. What’s more regulating guns isn’t the same as regulating people, which are the real perpetrators of crimes. Guns are merely one of the many tools available to do harm to another.

So it occurs to me that what the government should be doing to limit the damage done by guns is to force the realms of psychology to employ real science with provable, repeated proofs and conclusions, so that it might be a science rather than an art and receive the same cogent attention for mental aberration as they do physical. . That way, the government might more readily identify people who are a threat to themselves or others in substantive ways rather then through ridiculous innuendo and baseless accusation. Right now the science is there to show, conclusively, that more veterans are likely to injure or kill themselves than they are to damage others. With an average of five thousand suicides each year, the jury is definitely back with a verdict of failure for the VA to identify the soldiers who need mental and emotional help. If they cannot adequately do anything to identify and sway veterans from harming themselves, it’s a far stretch for the VA to even consider the remote possibility that a vet might hurt someone else.

Yet we have such lofty things as the Veteran’s Disarmament Act out there when we should be putting the money and attention on helping vets, rather than placing them in the indefensible category of nut job. The attention given is misdirected and only furthers the injury people end up encountering through offering themselves as soldiers. We all hear the expression “The thanks of a grateful nation,” but in especially this avenue of demonstration, it’s a thanks we could do without. Veterans need healing, not criminalization, and especially not criminalization born of illogical thought and absent any evidence. It’s just another of the many ways we all see that “Support the Troops” is merely political gibberish akin to a “chicken in every pot.”  But one thing is sure; it does make sense that a government wielding such unfettered draconian power so often misused, that it would prefer its victims to be unarmed.