Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Holidays!!

Contrary to popular belief, Christ was not born on December 25. The best guess of Biblical scholars puts the time of year more towards autumn, most likely some time in September. Late December is the time of the winter solstice, a sacred time for the nature-based religions of pre-Christian Europe...and of today. Near this same time of year Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of light, remembering a time during a siege when a store of lamp oil sufficient for only a single night miraculously lasted for eight. Even the pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia during late December.

During the time of the Roman conquest and occupation of Europe and Britain, Christian missionaries found that they could more easily sway the local pagans towards conversion through the simple expedient of co-opting pagan religious observances and giving them a Christian theme. "The Roman Christians, ignorant of his (Christ's) birth, fixed the solemn festival to the 25th of December, the Brumalia, or Winter Solstice, when the Pagans annually celebrated the birth of Sol." Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. ii, Gibbon, p. 383. (For a lengthy list of pagan celebrations that fell on or about December 25 of each year, click here.) By mingling Christian worship and dogma with pagan customs and traditions until they were inextricably intertwined, pagans ultimately became Christians...and the origins of many once-pagan customs became lost in the mists of time.

Late December is a time of observation and celebration of people of many faiths, not just an annually belated birthday remembrance of a person born more than two millennia past. The Festive Season belongs to Christians, Jews, and unbelievers alike. It is not a holiday originated or owned by Christians alone. Sadly, however, there is a movement afoot to seize this universally shared season of peace and goodwill and brand it their own to the exclusion of all others. The internet abounds this year with selfish please of exclusion, begging people to refuse to enfranchise their non-Christian brethren by refusing to say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" but to confine their greetings to "Merry Christmas," thereby behaving as if the observations of others are of no value and may be ignored--or overwritten, as it were--as if they do not exist.

The nice thing about "Happy Holidays" as a greeting is that it acknowledges and enfranchises everyone. From the most devout Christian to whom the word "holiday" still carries its original meaning of "holy day" to the non-Christian who may or may not have a holy day at this time of year to celebrate, the phrase "Happy Holidays!" and acknowledges everyone from the faithful to the devoutly secular, a phrase that joyfully wishes good cheer to everyone to whom it is addressed.

So what is the curmudgeonly excuse for those who admonish us to eschew such ecumenical greetings in favour of saying only "Merry Christmas"? While I find no fault in the phrase itself, I do find a meanness of spirit and flintiness of heart in those who would use the phrase a a means to exclude others from the festive nature of the season by denying them acknowledgement their own beliefs. How sad that a little knot of blindered, Scrooge-hearted souls can take a season revered for its goodwill towards all and turn it into yet another example of arrogant, unwarranted superiority by exclusion.

Those of us who believe that this season belongs to us all, please, greet your fellows with expressions of good will that encompasses us all. If you know the person you are greeting is not a Christian, perhaps you can take a moment to stretch yourself a bit and, rather than impose your own belief system on him, acknowledge his. Happy Hanukkah for Jewish friends, Happy Holidays or have a Joyous Festive Season for others. It's what the season is all about--celebrating goodwill to our fellow, not dampening their joy by implying their beliefs, whatever they might be, are inferior to our own.

Happy Holidays to you all!! And may your new year be bright, happy, and prosperous!!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How to avoid a lawsuit—

So, on Oct 4 at about 6 pm, I was in the supermarket doing something I have done at least weekly for pretty much the last 45+ years: grocery shopping. The only appreciable difference between South African supermarkets and American supermarkets is the hours they are open, so my shopping skills, finely honed in busy American markets, are eminently translatable from that country to this.
I was almost finished with the shopping and walking down the canned goods aisle when I remembered that I had used up my two cans of tomato puree the previous week making enchilada sauce. This particular market has a problem keeping things in stock (invariably I come away with things left on the shopping list because the market hadn’t restocked an item, sometimes for weeks), so I was concerned that I might not be able to get the tomato puree without going to another store—something I had no time for that evening.

There was a tall man in front of the display I wanted, so I waited patiently for him to step aside. When he finally did and I could see the display, I inwardly heaved a sigh of relief: not only was the tomato puree in stock, there was plenty! Neatly stacked two high on a shelf above my head, there seemed to be an abundance and all I needed was two cans,

To the left of the display of the 410 gram cans I wanted was a stack of half sized cans, also containing tomato puree. The 410 gram cans were stacked two high but the smaller cans were stacked four high and, because they did not have tapered bottom edges, the stack was not especially stable. I reached for one of the larger cans and, before I could get it off the shelf, the stack of small cans wobbled and two of them fell off the shelf—and one of them hit me square in the face.

It felt like I had taken a fist to the mouth. I staggered backwards with the blow, then retrieved my tomato puree cans from the shelf and re-stacked the two cans that had fallen. It was not until I reached the end of the aisle that my nose tickled and when I reached up to rub it, my hand came away bloody. The punch to the face did more then just step me back a pace and rattle my equanimity: it had opened a half-inch long wound about ¾ of an inch above the right side of my upper lip, and it was bleeding profusely.

I called Hubby, who was in another shop, saying that a can had fallen off a shelf and hit me in the face and now I was bleeding. He showed up and quickly took charge, going for a store manager while I pressed a folded tissue to my face to stop the bleeding and retard swelling. Anna, a management employee, escorted me to a private room where she cleaned the cut and helped me fill out an incident report. One of the things I tried to impress upon her was that the stack of cans was wobbly and should be moved to a lower shelf before someone else got hurt the same way I did. My husband asked if the store was going to pay the medical bills, as we had all agreed I needed to go to the ER for stitching, and Anna answered that the store would.

After a two hour wait in the ER, a doctor finally examined my face and decided that Dermabond—a surgical superglue—would close the wound with the least amount of scarring and an hour later my husband and I were finally able to go home.

The following day Anna called to see how I was doing. My face was swollen, I had a bruise both inside and outside my mouth, and the cut hurt…other than that I was fine. She wished me well and said she would call again to check on me. She called a couple of days later to check on me again and I asked if the cans had been moved to a lower shelf to save someone else from the same experience and she said they had not—the manager had looked and decided it was unnecessary and they had to be stacked that way. I thanked Anna for her concern and put down the phone.

Friday, however, the story took another turn. Early in the day Hubby stopped by the supermarket to submit the bills from the hospital and pharmacy. Several hours later I received a call from another supermarket manager, Joseph, who was apparently higher up the food chain than Anna, who informed me they were not going to pay my medical bills because the store had decided it was not responsible for my injury. I asked for the man’s name and telephone number, telling him that my husband would be in touch with him.

Instead of calling, however, my husband went to the market, furious. Joseph tried to bluff my husband with misinformation and outright lies, attempting to make the injury my fault. He told my husband that the can could not have fallen on my face because I was too tall. For some odd reason, he was under the impression that I was 5’11” tall [180.3 cm] (my husband’s height) when, in fact, I am barely 5’3” [160 cm]. With that misconception laid to rest, Joseph now tried to tell my husband that they had a witness who saw me cause the cascade of cans. We knew this to be false because we couldn’t find a witness to the event at the time it occurred—if anybody saw it, nobody came to my aid! And when Hubby demanded that Joseph produce his witness, the subject was dropped and he went back to blaming me.

Hubby suggested that they go to the aisle and replicate the incident. When they stacked up four of the half-sized cans (can B in the photo) and the department manager tried to lift a larger (size A) can from beside the stack, all four of the smaller cans fell on him, rather than just the two that fell on me! In view of the manager’s hands-on experience, Hubby was then told that our claim would be submitted to the supermarket’s insurance company…and gave Hubby a large bouquet of flowers to bring home to me.

On Monday Hubby returned the market and met with the store general manager who, incidentally, had been in the store at the time of my injury…and was notified of the injury…but never bothered to come into the office to see how I was. He told Hubby that he was willing to settle the claim on the spot, in cash, in exchange for Hubby’s signature on a claim release that said we would not submit any further medical claims for the incident. He gave no reasons for his abrupt decision to settle the claim immediately for cash, but it was the right thing to do—not just because the market was responsible for my injury because they unsafely stocked those cans, but for the store (which, surely, was his primary motive). A swift cash settlement in the amount of the actual medical costs accompanied by a signed release form virtually guarantees the market will not suffer the cost of a lawsuit for costs plus damages for negligence and legal fees as well. It was the prudent step to take, Joseph’s insulting bluster and posturing notwithstanding.

Oh—and Hubby went to the aisle where the mishap occurred and noted that after the manager had been showered with falling cans, those wobbly 4-up stacks of small cans had been moved to a lower shelf where, if they fell, the weren’t so likely to hit someone in the head or face. Imagine what they would have been dealing with that can had landed on the head of an infant in his mother’s shopping trolley instead of an adult??

The Dermabond came off after a week and I am now left with a half-inch long red scar on my face, just above the right side of my upper lip. I am thinking that manager was worried that I was going to want expensive plastic surgery for the scar and was in a hurry to get Hubby to sign the release that would protect the store. It’s a shame he didn’t get me, the actual injured party, to sign it, eh??

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Passive Income and Rental Property: Oxymoron!

A very smart friend of mine was filling me in on her “three year plan” for her finances. She’s an accountant and holds a very responsible management position in a fairly large firm…when it comes to money, she’s no dummy. But she said something that disturbed me—her next plan (this one is drawing to a close) is to create for herself some “passive income,” an excellent goal—but in the same breath she mentioned buying a second house for that purpose.
As a landlord and rental property manager, I had to tell her than owning rental property is anything but passive! There is nothing passive about 3 am calls that the geyser (hot water heater) has burst or that the roof is leaking onto the tenant’s bed! There is nothing passive about being on vacation and getting a call that the property has been burglarized and there are broken locks and windows all over the place. There is nothing passive about discovering your tenant has failed to maintain the garden, has broken a toilet, or stolen the satellite dish. In short, there is nothing passive at all about owning a house or flat that someone else—someone over whom you have virtually no control—lives in.

Tenants often surmise that because you own the property and rent it out to them, you must be rich. They assume that you own the property outright so that whatever they pay you in rent is pure profit to your pocket. To many of them, this means they don’t have to pay their rent on time or conserve power or water, and if they break something—oh, well—you’re rich, you can afford to fix it. The reality of owning rental property is often very different from the expectations—and different in ways many prospective landlords never dreamed.

First of all, it is unlikely you will turn a profit on the property in the first three to five years. Why? Because you are buying the property at market value which means your mortgage payments will most likely be more than the market value rent for the same property. It takes several years for rents to increase until the market rent is higher than your mortgage (bond) payment. And in a slow property market, that will be even more likely. When houses don’t sell, people rent them out, which puts a glut on the market and drives rents down. So, if you are planning to buy a property as a rental, you must expect to supplement the incoming rents in order to have enough to make your mortgage payments…and if you didn’t take out a PITI (principle, interest, taxes and insurance) loan, you’re going to have to dig even deeper for tax and insurance money.

Secondly, every dwelling has to have utilities: water, electric, trash, sewer, etc. It is tempting to tell the tenant that he has to transfer all these things into his name, thereby saving you the hassle of it. But that’s not always the smartest thing to do. The purveyors of water, electricity and the like tend to be pretty single-minded about getting paid for their services and if your tenant doesn’t pay the bills, the services get turned off. Not your problem, you say? Well, you’ll think differently when your tenant moves out and you find yourself with a mountain of refuse in the back yard—or worse, inside the house or apartment—(trash pick up was suspended for non payment), a dead garden (water was cut off for non payment) and you can’t turn on the lights to clean the place up after you get home from work (electricity shut off for non payment). And you’ll think even more differently when you go to get them turned back on…this time in your name…and the entity demands that you bring the accounts current and pay a whopping deposit before they will transfer them.

So, with this lesson in mind, you rent the property out keeping the accounts in your own name…you will bill the tenant for usage. But now, if the tenant fails to pay, you don’t have the legal right to shut off services! And if the tenant has kids, you can’t just put them out on the street with three days notice, either, you have to take them to court, which can take months—months during which the tenant continues to not pay the utilities and may even stop paying the rent.

Small claims courts have a rather low limit on what they will allow you to sue for, and that low limit will be reached very quickly if your tenant is using water and electricity at an alarming rate and not paying you for it. If the tenant also stops paying rent, you will end up having to fund a lawyer and pay court costs just to get the deadbeat tenant out of your property—and if you think you are going to recover that money from the tenant, think again. Unless you have the funds to hire a lawyer and take the person to court, you get nothing. In fact, even if you do have the money to take the person to court and you win, now you have to hire someone to collect for you! And the grim reality is, if the person is renting, they probably don’t have much in the way of assets for you to seize, nor a fat income to garnish: people who have fat incomes and valuable assets tend not to be renters.

Chasing rents and utility payments is hardly a passive occupation, and there is nothing passive about trying to get a vacant unit rented out, either. Free advertising exists on the web, but my own experience was that I got better response from a paid newspaper ad! First you have to get people interested in the property…motivate them to answer your ad. Once they call, expect half of them to fail to show up for their appointment: you get to drive over to the property, tidy it up for the showing, wait an hour only to have the prospective tenant no-show and often even fail to call to cancel.

Once you give the address of the unit, expect people to drive by and look at the place in advance of their appointment. Some of the cancellations I have received were astounding: “Didn’t like green houses” (the house was white and behind a masonry wall!); “Too far for me to commute” (we had already established it was closer than the current residence); “No garage” (that was already disclosed on the phone); “Doesn’t have a pool” (yes it does, you just can’t see it from the street!); “the house is too small” (you haven’t even been inside and you can’t see the whole house from the street!). Once they have seen the place, expect negotiations—some of them outrageous: “I can’t afford this, can you drop the rent by 25%? I’ll sign a year’s lease so you’ll know it will be rented for that long…” (Sorry, but if you couldn’t afford the advertised rent, why did you even call? Why are you wasting my time and yours? And I always require a 12 month lease—so you bring nothing to the table with your offer.) “Can we adjust the rent for work I do around here?” (What work?? The place is in good nick and your lease requires you to keep up the garden. Are you suggesting you are going to break things and expect me to pay you, via a reduction in your rent, for fixing them?) “I know the ad said small dog OK…what about my German Shepherd?” (Only if he weighs 10kg (22lbs) or less at full growth…) “Are you going to fence the pool/garden/front yard/patio? I have a small child…” (No, we are not. If you cannot keep an eye on your child then this is not the rental for you.)

Some people will also want to fudge the deposit: “Can I pay the deposit in instalments after I move in? I don’t have that much cash right now…” Trust me, saying “yes” this question has been a problem every single time we have agreed. Every time. If they can’t come up with your deposit in a lump sum, expect them to be unable to come up with the rent on time and in full as well—and don’t expect the deposit to be paid—ever.

The deposit is important because more often than not, the tenant leaves the property in need of expensive services. If you are lucky, the worst you will need is a cleaning lady and a carpet shampooer. If you are not lucky, you may require the services of an attorney to sue for damages. We have had both experiences and neither of them are passive—nor are they income! One tenant, for whom we agreed to accept monthly instalments on the deposit, we had to evict after only four months for harassing and threatening another tenant on the property (complete with police visits and reports). During his four month tenancy he did not make a single instalment on the deposit and when he moved out, damage to the property exceeded what would have been the deposit, had he paid it!! To add insult to injury, he consulted an attorney and we received a letter demanding a refund on the unused portion of his rent! Fortunately his attorney knew a losing proposal when he saw one, as we responded that we had applied the unused portion of his rent to the unpaid deposit which was then spent to replace the broken toilet, window, and clean the filth that he had allowed to accumulate in only four months (including sacks of rotting garbage in the kitchen), and that he owed us an additional amount for cleaning and damages, as the excess rent did not cover our costs. We never heard from the tenant or the lawyer again.

Assuming you are lucky enough to get a good tenant who pays their rent on time and doesn’t damage property (and credit checks...which cost money...won’t tell you that!), entropy happens—even to new and recently remodelled properties. We have a flat that was completely remodelled less than a year ago at a cost that approximates what we collect in rents in a year. The tenants are perfect…but the flat continues to need visits from our handyman and from the Body Corporate’s maintenance people: leaking roof, leaking pipe, leaking sink, wobbly tiles, burst geyser (hot water heater)…the list goes on. Another absolutely perfect tenant had to tell me that her brand new kitchen stove suddenly isn’t getting any gas, necessitating a visit from the handyman. Another tenant never, ever pays her rent in full and on time, necessitating constant contact with reminders and even threats to get our money. Other tenants are profligate with the electricity in their units to the degree that the property is now operating in the red. None of this is passive and all of it reflects an outflow of money rather than income.

So, the next time you are thinking about “passive income” and the idea of owning some rental property seems appealing to you, think again. There is nothing passive about being a landlord and precious little “income” until the property appreciates enough for you to sell it at a profit!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Some days...

...I should have just stayed in bed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This is just soooo wrong...on soooo many levels!

I received this email this morning:

Hello Dear

I am interested in establishing and operating a very viable business as a means of investment abroad. I do not know too well on how this is done in your country, so I will need you to help me in this regard. My preference is any good profit yielding business and I would appreciate any viable ideas you could come up with.

I will also need you to help me look for properties like homes and lands for sale as I am proposing to invest the sum of Twenty Million British Pounds Sterling (£20 Million) for this. I do not know if you can and will be of help to me. For a brief on my personality; About me, my name is Mrs Comfort Porky a Saudi National,living in London, retired Business woman. I am married with my late Husband survive with my 2 lovely kids.

Dear friend i wish to let know that contacted you to be my business partner is not by accident but by the will of God, the most reason why i contacted you to be my partner over this project is because of my dangerous sickness which am passing through i don't know whether i will survive it or not, for six years now i have been suffering for kidney problem which i have been denying me so many thing.

Now for the project, am making it on behalf of my kids, i will like us to make investment of Hospital or School, this is my own dream i don't know of you. So you are advised to give me your own opinion.

Let me assure you that this business is 100% genuine and real, all that matters is your full cooperation by once you send me your full information's as listed below.

Your Full name..........................
Your Mobile number........................ ...
Your Telephone number.....................
Your fax number.........................
Your Residence address.............
Your current age.........................
Your International passport......................
Nationality :.................................
Profession ...................................
Your photo...........................

Thanks and waiting to hear from you.

Yours Sincerely,

Mrs.Comfort Porky.

Mrs. Porky is a Saudi national? In what dream world?? And does she really think I am going to send her , on a silver platter, everything she needs in order to counterfeit my passport and steal my identity? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the email's "sent" address hails from a Muslim widow with the surname Porky (PORKY?? Doesn't the idiot who wrote this have even a clue about the relationship between Arabs and pigs??) who is living in the UK (and has somehow amassed £20 Million) sends me...a complete email from Russia with a 100% genuine business proposal but I have to hurry because she is dying of kidney failure? Really??

The only thing more pathetic than this completely stupid fiction is the sad fact that, somewhere in the world, someone even more moronic than the sender is going to fall for this. Probably not an American, though...80+ percent of us are too insular to even have a passport.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A new kind of weight loss idea...

I have to go on a diet. I don't want to. Not because I don't want to lose weight, not even because I object to reducing my caloric intake...I don't want to because I know what I will be expected to eat and I don't want to eat it.

Margarine is feels disgusting on the tongue, and tastes like grease. I won't be giving up butter.

"Diet" or "diabetic" ice cream is like eating frozen skim milk...almost as disgusting as margarine.

I'm not willing to fill my plate with veggies I hate...and there are a few that fit that category which dietitians and other people who invent recipes for dieters seem to hold in high esteem. No kind of yellow squash crosses these lips unless it has been made into a a pumpkin pie...which totally kills the diet. No kind of bell pepper, regardless of colour, gains entry to this body. I will spend half an hour picking them out of my chow mein or off my pizza or hunting them down in a salad and discarding these recipe inventors who mistakenly think that "colourful" food somehow makes up for overwhelming, meal-dominating flavour can count me out. Spinach and other leafy greens? Only in salads, my friend...and then only spinach. Ever eaten chard? High on the disgusting list, whether raw or cooked into stringy slime.

I am also choosy about the meats I eat. No mutton, thank you, very little lamb, and fish must be avoided unless it is salmon or trout, and then in small quantities only. No organ meats...none, zero, zip, nada. If it ain't a muscle meat from a chicken, turkey, pig, or cow, feed it to someone else. No meat fat---augh! gross!!---bacon should be fried crisp or left on the pig.

You may be getting the picture my advanced age I have some seriously entrenched food likes and dislikes and I'm not up for changing them...poached eggs vs those scrambled in butter? I do not think so! (Unless I put some butter on them when they hit the plate!)

So, given that I'm not very open to changing certain aspects of my diet and I do have to lose some weight, what is the solution? Portion control.

Now, by this I do not advocate the lame current concept of starvation by choosing portion sizes so small they don't qualify as a respectable snack. Two days on the currently trendy portion control diet and I would be eating the wall paper in desperation. One serving of red meat every ten days, and the serving is as big as my palm and as thick as my little finger?? Not bloody likely!! No, instead of taking arbitrary measures of foods and imposing them on people who may have been eating several times that amount (which will definitely leave them feeling deprived and hungry), my idea is to start with your own portions of the foods you normally eat and simply reduce those portions. There is a bit more to it than that, but that is the essence of it: eat whatever you normally eat, just less of it. And if you eat less food, you will lose weight. Not rapidly, perhaps, but it will come down...and it will come down without you feeling like you can never eat cheesecake again!

So here are the basics: you need just a few tools: a scale to weigh yourself on; a scale (electronic, set to weigh in grams) for weighing food; a notebook and pen, and for the arithmetic challenged, a calculator. That is it.

Start with weighing yourself: in the notebook write down the date and your weight. Leave the rest of the page blank for now, as you will record subsequent weights here. (If you are bashful about a scale, an alternative is to measure yourself where you think you are the fattest: waist, hips, thighs...and record those numbers. I don't like scales and I can tell if I am losing or gaining weight by how my jeans fit around my middle and bum.)

Now, the next time you want to eat something, go to your food scale. Put the portion you would normally eat on the scale and weigh it. Write that in your notebook; now, calculate half that amount and write that next to your normal amount. Put half of the serving back and you can eat the other half. It doesn't matter what the food is: butter for your toast (one slice instead of two), ice cream, chips...whatever it is, measure out your normal portion then put half of it back. Exception: if the food is something you ordinarily will have second helpings of, like mashed potatoes or chili or spaghetti, take your normal portion and skip the seconds. Next time you want a food, you need only look in your notebook to see what the appropriate serving for you is because you have already calculated it.

This rule applies to virtually everything you put into your mouth: sauces, dressings, oil in the pan to cook something, gravies, jams and jellies, desserts, snacks, dips...if it goes into your mouth, the 50% rule applies. Exceptions: low cal veggies: you can have all the carrots, beets, green beans, celery, tomatoes you want...but only half the sauce, condiments, butter that you usually use. Fruits, however, because they contain sugar, fall under the 50% rule, as do starchy vegetables like corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, yellow squashes.

You cannot eat more frequently than before...that just shifts the time you eat and allows you to eat the same amount of food instead of reducing it. You can have three meals and three snacks daily, but your intake must be half of your previous intake. If you find this too stringent in the beginning, then calculate 1/3 and put that back, eating 2/3 of your normal intake.

This means you can't eat out much at first because you have to weigh things for a while to start getting an idea of what a "normal" portion is for you and how much of it to leave behind. My own plan is to simply eat half of what is served at the restaurant, take the other half home and have it for lunch the next day. Same with desserts: you can have desserts but just don't eat the whole thing. Share with someone else or eat half and take the other half home for a snack the following day.

I plan to follow this eating plan for six weeks and then check my measurements. If I am not happy with my weight loss after that time, I will reduce my portions further, perhaps cut out some things. As it is, I am not a big bread, cake, or cookie eater, and I have cut candies of all kinds from my diet for now. I drink sugar-free drinks and use sweetener in my tea with 2% milk. These reduce caloric intake, but I can reduce it further without feeling deprived.

And that, I think is one of the significant causes of weight-loss failure: people find their eating taken over by strangers who have no concept of (or respect for) their food likes and dislikes and suddenly feel deprived. There is nothing like feeling deprived of something to make you want it! By allowing people to continue to eat their preferred foods (but in reduced quantities), the chances of losing weight, I think, will go up.

For those who are ready to jump in here with the "healthy eating" noise: shut up. I think trying to do too much at one time is another reason so many people fail at weight loss. The time to change what you eat is after you have learned to change how much you eat. Once your stomach has shrunk to be accustomed to smaller meals and some success greets the dieter in the mirror, healthier alternatives can be introduced. But to tell someone who is struggling to drop some poundage that she must give up not only satiety but comforting, familiar tastes as well...well, I think that is just too much for some of us! Do not expect me to give up my butter---you will be disappointed!

So, who's with me on this? Anybody wanna be a guinea pig and give a revolutionary new concept in weight loss a try? You have nothing to lose but some unwanted poundage!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Great Baby Ban

Today I laid my hands on another person’s child…actually, I could have easily walked off with said child and, except for the fact that he and I were of widely divergent colour, nobody would have blinked…not even his so-inattentive parent that s/he didn’t object to my manhandling the child, probably because s/he never saw it happen.

There is a movement afoot these days to ban children from…or at least limit their access to…certain venues where, for the last couple of decades, they have been increasingly allowed to behave like uncivilized, unrestrained wild animals. This child today was a case in point: no more than six years old, he was hanging around the bottom of an up-escalator, playing with the device and blocking access for people who wished to use it. Shopper after shopper stepped around the child, gaining precarious access to the moving stairway while the boy obliviously continued to treat the device and its moving rails like his own exclusive amusement device.

I’m old. I’m cranky when it comes to the ill-mannered of any age. I also have a bad back which causes me balance issues. There was no way I was stepping onto that escalator without having unimpeded access to both the steps and the handrail the child was using for his personal playtoy. First I stopped in front of him and stared at him. Most young children, when glared at by an adult, particularly a grumpy-faced old woman, will have second thoughts about whatever it is they are doing. Not this kid. Obviously so poorly reared that he did not even recognize this common social cue, he looked at me and, with no change in his expression whatsoever, kept right on blocking access to the escalator, clinging to the moving guardrail with his hands until it transported his upper body upward a bit, then letting go, standing up straight, and then repeating the process.

I found myself wondering what kind of parent allows a child this small to 1) wander loose and unsupervised in a busy mall; 2) allow the child to play on something as potentially dangerous as an escalator (people have been caught and died on them!); 3) fail to teach a child about such things as blocking the access of others; 4) fail to teach a child the most basic of social cues; and 5) pay so little attention to their child in this busy environment that s/he could easily be stolen by an ill-meaning stranger. But wondering wasn’t getting me up the escalator, so I reached down and firmly grasped the child’s upper arm and removed him from in front of the escalator to give myself access…dragged might be a better term, since he was reluctant to remove himself from his command post.

My first surprise was that he did not scream bloody murder when I grabbed him. I fully expected an outraged parent or irate security guard to accost me and demand an explanation for me putting my hands on a child clearly not my own. The second surprise was that no parent arrived, indignant and ready to give me a faceful of invective for manhandling little Johnny. In fact, nothing happened at all, except that the child was temporarily moved, like a gate, to allow me and my husband access to the escalator and then he resumed his amusement, playing on the escalator and hindering the access of all those who came after me, not a parent in sight.

It is winter here and it is cold outside…very cold…cold enough that some of our outlying suburbs reported snow flurries in the last few days. The sky was a brilliant, crisp, cloudless blue…the kind of sky that truly frigid days are made of, with no cloud cover to keep even a modicum of heat trapped to the earth. And so instead of outdoor activities, everybody went shopping…the mall was crowded. And crowded malls can be noisy, a combination of the various shops broadcasting their music into the walkways, people talking to each other, the rattle and clatter of bags, high heels on the tiled floors and, of course, the inevitable screaming child having a meltdown while Mama continues to shop, Junior’s eardrum splitting wails conveniently shut out. The older I become, the less inclined I am to suffer these indignities silently. As I passed one toddler shrieking his displeasure from his stroller (pram) while his mother obliviously chatted with a friend, I said to my husband in a voice designed to carry to the oblivious mother “My, it sounds like somebody needs to go home and have a nap.” I have little hope that she heard me, though, because if she could tune out the hellacious racket her little darling was broadcasting, it is unlikely she was able to hear my none-too-subtle suggestion that she take her noisy brat out of the earshot of the rest of us.

Then there was the kid, barely two, I would guess, whose mother just abandoned him in the queue for the cashiers when it became her turn to pay. I don’t know…maybe today was the day for other people’s children to act as impediments to still other people’s progress. Anyway, the kid started snatching candies from the impulse-buy displays and, instead of putting them back, Mama instructed the cashier to ring them up, meanwhile leave her little man standing at the head of the queue, blocking the rest of us from getting to cashiers as they became available. Who, after all, wants to trip over a little toddler with her arms full of crockery or shoes or a stack of pre-season sale summer dresses? We gingerly skirted the child…whose mother’s back was to him the whole time, making him fair game for the kind of monsters who steal and abuse children…and while my husband paid for the purchases, I was treated to an example of what becomes of children whose parents teach them that they are the centre of the universe and respect is something other people are supposed to give them.

A short time earlier I had been in the shoe department of the store, trying on bedroom slippers as my 10-year-old Walmart specials have popped a big hole in the sole. I found a pair to try on but, with the back issue giving me balance problems, I opted to go to the other side of the department and sit down to try the slippers on rather than drop them on the floor and stick my foot into one to see how it fit. Now, mind you, this is not an elegant, up-scale department store…this is Ackerman’s, the housewares and clothing equivalent of Safeway…and the shoes and slippers hang on racks by little plastic hangers. The aisles between the rows of shoes are narrow, not wide enough for two super models to pass each other, not even if they sucked in their tummies.

The slippers fit and my husband, thoughtful man that he is (and aware that I have been trying to find replacements for the Walmart specials for several months) offered to buy two pair, an offer I readily accepted. Unfortunately, when we returned to the rack, we were greeted with an enormous bum…bigger than mine, even!...bent over and blocking access to the one display of slippers I needed. This woman was not trying on a pair of flats or sandals she could drop on the ground and just quickly stick a foot into to check for size, no…she was bent over assiduously buckling one of a gazillion buckles on a particularly hideous pair of “gladiator”-styled demi boots. I waited politely for her to finish.

When she removed the boot and began looking again at the rack, still blocking my access to the rack behind her, I said “Excuse me, can I get in here?” She ignored me! I tried again: “Excuse me…” She flicked her eyes in my direction so I know she wasn’t deaf…but she didn’t move an inch. So, I just stepped forward, bent down, and reached into the size section I wanted and retrieved a pair of slippers. Did my shoulder inadvertently graze some unnamed portion of her anatomy? Yes. Did I acknowledge or apologize? No. Did I ignore her just as diligently as she had ignored me? Yup—there was nothing else to do if I didn’t want to start a row over her rudeness, which would have been rude in and of itself.

But the story of this self-absorbed adult brat doesn’t end here. I walked away from the rude cow and went to the tills, was treated to the candy-pilfering toddler and eventually got to a till myself. As I was observing the toddler while my husband paid the cashier, who should wander up to the cashiers but Shoe Cow herself, with a plastic basket full of shoes and boots. I kid you not…one of those baskets, like you pick up at the supermarket when you don’t need a whole trolley, and it had no fewer than six…and it looked more like ten…pair of shoes and boots in it. And, true to her oblivious behaviour in the shoe department, when one of the cashiers called “next!” this rude, selfish, inconsiderate cow simply skipped the queue of half a dozen people patiently and politely waiting their turn and marched straight up to the open cashier, plunked down her basket and began rummaging around in her handbag for her wallet. The woman who was supposed to be next was half way to the till when Rude Cow stepped in front of her and put her basket down and if she even saw the woman, she did not acknowledge her any more than she acknowledged me in the shoe department.

This woman was a young adult, young enough to have been brought up after the concept of teaching your children manners and respect for the rights of others had begun to decline. Obviously she had learned her lessons well: spoiled and entitled, she could not courteously share space in the shoe department and neither could she take her turn in the queue like everyone else. What she wanted is what she got and to hell with the rest of us.

This is the attitude I see parents actually teaching their children today…screw everybody else. Don’t like the grades on your child’s report card? Blame the teacher for “giving” your kid a bad grade, don’t blame the kid for earning a poor mark. Don’t feel like taking the time or making the effort to teach your kid some manners? Make excuses for your kid’s behaviour (“kids will be kids”), inflict them on other people in places they shouldn’t be in the first place (like five star restaurants, evening screenings of movies, supermarkets at 10 pm), then blame others when they get testy about your brat stealing morsels off their plates, talking over the screen dialog, or screaming with fatigue when they should be home in bed. Do you know what kind of adults these kids become? Rude cows. Selfish, disrespectful, inconsiderate cows who have no sense of propriety, no sense of respect for others, no sense of anything outside their own immediate wants…and who raise brats and bullies just like themselves.

So it is no surprise that restaurants, movie theatres, even airlines are beginning to listen to grumpy old people like me…there are so many of us fed up with the world becoming dominated by obnoxious children!! we complain about unrestrained children allowed to run amok, turning what could be a pleasant excursion into an Excedrin moment. Kids will behave like kids, it’s true, but that has only become a problem since parents have stopped behaving like parents.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Chronic Pain 101: Insights for the unafflicted.

This last Saturday I got up early, took a leisurely shower, washed and conditioned my hair and then set off with my husband for our local warehouse store for the monthly bulk purchase of staple goods. After the store, we took the purchases home and put the 9 lbs of butter that was on sale into the freezer, then headed out for a late breakfast and our weekly grocery shopping. After unloading the groceries we again headed out, this time to a hobby shop he’s been dying to go to, then a stop for a late lunch, then on to the supermarket-sized plastics store where I was finally able to find the food storage containers I have been needing and even the kitchen scale that was, surprisingly, not stocked by the warehouse store. From there we went home for a little TV and R&R.

Unremarkable? Maybe for you, but it has been more than a year since I have been able to take on such a day without being sidelined half way through it with crippling, unrelenting back pain. The day was more like a miracle for me because only one week before, I had been unable to take on even half that without resorting to opiate pain meds and stops to rest and release the muscle spasms in my back every ten minutes or so. Then, a week before this remarkable day, I was treated by a neurosurgeon with massive injections of corticosteroids in my lower back. Within hours my stamina had improved and within a week my ability to stand and to walk had reached near normal.

But it was a long road to this juncture, this point where I was able to return to near-normal functioning (I still have to wear a back brace and lose some weight), a road fraught with scepticism, doubt, dismissal and frank disbelief on the part of people around me, doctors included. I had had several x-rays that disclosed arthritic damage to my lumbar spine, but it was decided, by those who did not share my pain, that the damage was not sufficient to induce the kind of debilitating pain I was complaining of, and so it was dismissed with the trivializing “lose some weight.” Nobody wanted to hear that the back pain pre-dated the weight gain…everybody, friends and family included, simply decided if I was thin, my back wouldn’t hurt. As a result, I not only did not receive adequate medical intervention, people treated me as if the pain did not exist (it’s my fault, therefore I deserve no sympathy, therefore they can expect me to perform as if the pain did not exist). Worse, I took to dismissing it myself. Finding no avenue of relief other than spending as much time as possible sitting, the weight didn’t shift but the back pain slowly grew into a monster that controlled my life.

You cannot explain to a person what a pain feels like. It is simply not possible. And chronic pain is in a class by itself, even if it is not high level. People whose experience with pain is brief and acute…a prolonged labour is brief and acute compared with months and years of daily, hourly, every-waking (and sometimes sleeping)-minute pain…simply cannot relate to the chronic pain sufferer and how it shapes virtually every choice in their lives. Without the empathy that sharing the pain can bring, people can easily judge the chronic pain sufferer or, simply, over time, become exasperated with him/her and lose all patience…and perspective. We, the pain sufferers, learn to shut up, to stuff our feelings, to attempt to do more than we should in an effort to not alienate family and friends, to not get fired for being a malingerer, to get through the day. And still, even with superhuman effort, we must fall short of our goal to “live normally” because the pain makes choices for us, choices we would not make outside it’s pernicious influence.

“Wanna go on a 5k run with me Saturday?” a friend might ask then, remembering you have back pain, amend it with “you can walk…” No, friend, I can’t walk 5k…I can’t even walk to the other end of the house some days without having to sit down.

“I’ve got vouchers for this great food and wine fair…wanna go with?” Does the venue have lots and lots of seating scattered about? Will there be non-alcoholic drinks because I can’t mix booze with my pain meds. Is the parking close to the venue? Because unless the answers to all three questions are “yes,” my back won’t let me go.

Chronic pain, regardless of where it resides, can influence virtually every decision a person makes. Drive to the market and find the parking lot crowded…drive home because there is no way you will have the stamina to walk from the furthest reaches of the parking lot, do the shopping in a store that provides no benches to rest on, and then walk back to the car…never mind having to unload the car and unbag and store the groceries. Grocery shopping can be an overwhelming task for those of us whose pain only waxes and wanes but never subsides.

The worst part is living with the eventual impatience and lack of empathy from close friends and family members, the resentment that your limitations imposes on others. Recently my husband and I went to a resort. He had to partake in some of the resort’s activities solo because I just couldn’t walk that far, participate, and then walk back. One excursion had my back exhausted when we had walked only half way to the venue.

But worst of all is dealing with doctors, particularly those who dismiss the pain. “Lose some weight” a rheumatologist once told me, and refused to treat me until I did. What part of “I cannot exercise…I cannot even walk for a single city block…with this pain,” did he not hear? Or how about the doctor who read the x-rays and decided that his interpretation of the x-rays told him more accurately about my pain than my personal experience and therefore no procedure or pain-mitigating drug was warranted.

I recognize that recreational drug-seekers make it tough on people who have legitimate pain, but that doesn’t excuse dismissing someone with long-standing chronic pain. How do you tell them apart? Well, maybe you can’t, but is it better to send someone in crippling pain away untreated or to mistakenly treat someone who is faking? The dismissive attitudes I have encountered with regard to my pain have, over the years, driven me to conceal it, to “suffer in silence” as it were, and to live my life increasingly homebound. When someone rolls his eyes or exhales a huge puff of exasperated air because I can’t walk “that far,” it used to irritate me…how insensitive can a person be, for mercy’s sake, I am hurting here. Now I feel hurt…and guilty…that I get no empathy and that I cannot just make a wish and the pain will disappear.

This neurosurgeon was a breath of fresh air. A couple of weeks after seeing him, I was being interviewed by a physician as I was joining a diabetic clinic. I put my meds bag in front of her so she could see what I was taking on a regular basis and when she pulled out the pain meds from the neurosurgeon, her eyebrows rose. “DF 118?” she said, her voice surprised. “You must be in some serious pain.” Yes…serious pain…and after more than a dozen years of suffering with it, I finally found a doctor who takes my serious pain seriously…although the clinic doctor probably did not until she saw the degree of pain relief the specialist had prescribed for me.

If you must interact with a person who suffers chronic pain, here are some things you need to know, understand and practice.

1. They aren’t doing it on purpose. Chronic pain has a mind of its own. Depending on the condition, the person can be relatively OK one day and barely able to move another. This does not mean that s/he is using the pain to excuse her from what she does not want to do. Some days I could bend over and pick up a pin from the floor…other days I was doing well just to touch my knees.

2. Losing weight is not a panacea. Yes, it may be helpful to some people with some conditions, but you simply cannot dismiss chronic pain in a person as the result of excess weight. Some of us got the pain first and the immobility dictated by the pain helped the weight to add up. Even it the pain is caused by excess weight, telling the person to lose weight neither ameliorates the pain nor makes exercise a feasible suggestion. Have some compassion—and if you can’t, then keep your mouth shut.

3. Come up with compromises: rather than expect the person with the pain to come up to your level, throttle back your expectations to theirs. Instead of a day walking around the mall followed by walking around a museum or aquarium or outdoor market, plan a day that includes frequent rest stops…sitting on a bench to look at a display window, stopping at a café for some coffee, breaking up the day with a movie. Don’t wait for your friend to expire with pain and be forced to beg a rest…offer a rest periodically…it will do both of you good.

4. Never dismiss someone’s pain, not even with your facial expressions. No eye-rolling (“oh no, not again!”), no “are you sure it’s that bad?” no “Oh, c’mon, it’s just another block…” Trust me, by the time the chronic pain sufferer brings it up, it is already at the unbearable stage. I have walked in malls until my back hurt so badly I could barely move my legs. This, of course, slowed me down, which slowed my companions down…do you think being annoyed with me would have made it any better?? Being impatient or dismissive or exasperated is unproductive both for you and for your friend in pain, and it actually adds to the pain with feelings of guilt. Believe me, if your friend could wave a wand and take the pain away, she would, in a heartbeat, and then run circles around you.

5. Don’t offer a host of non-traditional remedies, if you must make suggestions, stick to conventional medicine. Why? Because the time for non-traditional treatments is after the conventional workups are done and such things as tumours, bone spurs, infections, ruptured disks, broken bones and other things that could be causing the pain are ruled out. My grandmother had an infection in her spinal column that kept her bedridden and on antibiotics for weeks until it cleared up. Had she opted for some non-conventional treatment instead of the investigation that found the infection and the drugs that cured it, she may well not have made it to her 84th birthday…she could have died of encephalitis, had the infection remained untreated and it migrated to her brain.

6. Don’t tell the person to “ignore it and it will go away.” Pain is a symptom that something is wrong. It is like shouting: the worse the problem, the louder the shouting (the more pronounced the pain). Too often well-meaning people use this phrase in a misguided effort to help but believe me, if the pain is truly chronic…which means it has existed over an extended period of time…the sufferer has already exhausted his ability to ignore it and the pain has broken through that barrier. Don’t suggest hypnosis, either…the only thing to suggest is to see a doctor and if the sufferer has done that and gotten nowhere, then suggest different doctors or simply shut up and empathize. I quit trying to find a doctor to treat the pain for years simply because the doctors I did see were so dismissive…if they gave me drugs at all, they wouldn’t kill a headache, let alone chronic lower back pain. It was not until it got so bad I couldn’t stand long enough for a proper shower that I started going to doctors again…and this time I got lucky.

7. Try to up your own empathy and patience quotient. It will not only be helpful in dealing with a friend or family member who suffers chronic pain, it will help you in many other areas of your life as well. People who hurt can be depressed, angry, impatient, despondent, and difficult in other ways as well. They need compassion (not pity) and patience (not long-suffering on your part) and a willingness to accommodate their limitations without rancour.

Life without pain is preferable, but for some of us, it is an elusive goal. If there is someone in your life who suffers chronic pain, try to remember that it is not a chosen way of life and most of us are simply doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Give us some encouragement…and a break.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The snake in the garden…

I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the headline “No religious freedom in SA.” In fact, I found it so amusing, I had to click on it and see just what this person was on about.
You see, South Africa is just about the most free country, with respect to religion (and many other things) I have ever heard of. Women walk down the streets in burquas, Hindu festivals are public affairs attended by everyone, Christian churches dot the landscape like freckles on a sun-exposed arm. Christian observances are marked by the government in the form of public holidays (two days off for Christmas [Christmas and Boxing Day], and Easter [Good Friday and Easter Monday]). Animist religions and sangomas coexist peacefully with better-known faiths and their leaders, and nobody tells my local supermarket it cannot have a kosher meat gondola or eggs my in-laws’ homes for their colourful statues of Hindu deities and other publicly-displayed artefacts of their faith.

OK, there is a wee fly in the ointment, a snake in the garden, if you will, and it probably won’t surprise you that the disruptive element in this country’s otherwise peaceful religious landscape are fundamentalist Christians. In a place where equality (including gender equality) is enshrined in the Constitution and the government provides a free court for people to bring their equality issues to, I see these people—very small numbers of them, mind you—picketing a women’s clinic that provides, among other things, abortion services. Never mind that it is none of their business, nobody is asking (or forcing) them to avail themselves of services, and that a woman’s right to her control over her body is, in this country, absolute. No, these busybodys, who make up a tiny minority of the population and would appear to have entirely too much time on their hands, have made it their mission to exercise their freedoms under the Constitution by attempting to frighten women away from exercising theirs.

The religious right wingnuts aren’t as powerful or visible here as they are in America, nor as numerous. Our media doesn’t find their antics newsworthy, so they have little clout. And that, apparently, is what the author of the whinging polemic referenced above is unhappy about: his lack of clout in bending the country’s educational system to his whim and forcing it into the consciousness of all of the children in this land, be they Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or even more enlightened, evolved Christians. No, according to him, his exercise of his religious freedoms requires the violation of the religious freedoms of everyone else in the country, most specifically those who have children in the government school system. In other words, if the local school doesn’t teach all of the children his own personal religious view on matters otherwise considered scientific, then his religious freedom is being violated. I know—HUH??

There are, of course, private schools that will pander to this man’s religious delusions and, for the life of me, I don’t understand why he just doesn’t whisk his kids off to one if he finds the government schools not to his liking. Parents who insist on high academic standards for their children have been doing this for aeons, all over the world. And, unlike America where the schools are “free” because they are funded through taxation, South Africa schools are funded by the parents who pay school fees each term. Rather than hand this money over to the local government school and then whinge about the curriculum, why doesn’t this parent simply take the money to a school with a curriculum that better agrees with his view of science? Consider a school with a student body of 500 children, each of whom has two parents who think that because they pay out of their own pockets for the operation of the school, each individual parent has a right to dictate curriculum for the entire school. Imagine the chaos! Imagine the din! Imagine the education not imparted to the students? Unlike American parents who have to dig deep into their pockets to provide the kind of misinformation masquerading as education that this man wants for his children, South African parents can simply direct their education funds to alternatives that suit their personal prejudices and fantasies better than the government schools.

If I didn’t know better, I might be tempted to think this was a disingenuous attempt to stir the social pot a bit, a troll’s attempt to get a little controversy boiling, some sparks flying. But unfortunately, the rant has the unmistakeable stench of the mindset of one who cannot seem to grasp the point that to give him his way would be to trample the freedoms of the rest of the citizens. He cannot seem to grasp that government, which is answerable to more than just him and his own narrow little über-Christian mentality, must provide services to all in such a way that respects us all, and that failing to favour him is not, in any way, depriving him of his rights. His rights, after all, do not include being given preference over everyone else in the country.

No, this smacks of being the real deal, the dunder-headed thickie who thinks, like a small, spoilt child, that not getting his own way means that he is somehow being deprived of something to which he is entitled. Perhaps he is just too lazy to teach his children the phantasmagorical nonsense he prefers to believe over science and wants the school to do it for him; perhaps he is too lazy to take his kids to church and Sunday School where they can be taught their mythology as truth. Certainly he does not want his kids exposed to the religious-neutral concepts of science that are taught in schools today—perhaps he, himself, is too poorly educated and ignorant to effectively counter those insidious little facts and keep his kids on the fatuous straight and narrow.

I find it very interesting that neither the Muslim community nor the Jewish community, which both share the same creation story with Christians, have not come to support this push for substituting Genesis for genetics. And what about the Hindus, whose creation stories predate Genesis by a millennia or more? Why aren’t they out there, lobbying the schools and the government to substitute their traditions for the discoveries of science? Could it be they not only have a better grasp of reality, they understand the concept of respect for others in a way that is simply outside the ken of fundamentalist Christians?

Whatever it is, this guy needs to get a grip and realize that favouritism is not a right, religious or otherwise.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dear Google Mail:

I have been a loyal user for more than five years now, and during that time we have happily...and effectively...shared the bond of English as our common tongue.

It appears, however, that you have begun taking language lessons, a la our erstwhile symbologist and musician, the singer formerly and presently (with a hiatus in between as a symbol) known as Prince. It didn't help his image or communication to become something unpronounceable that people had to stumble around to understand and/or articulate and, trust me, it's not helping yours, either.

There used to be a button with actual words on it...words that informed me of its purpose...that took me back to the inbox from an open email. There was no question in my mind when I wanted to go to the next mail which button to click. But recently I have found that button missing and in its place is a symbol that looks like the arrow on my enter key. How am I supposed to intuit the meaning of this symbol? I do not want to enter something, I just want to go back to the list of emails, ya know?

I may be a little late to the party here, since the first substitution I noticed was a replacement of the word "refresh" with the browser symbol for same. OK, a little more straightforward than the bent arrow, I must admit, but still not English...and still overlooked by the eye hunting for the button written in English that has been so clear and serviceable all these years.

I am sure that if you respond, it will be to tell me that you are changing this to make a single symbol-laden mail page for people of all languages, that making the interface in twenty gazillion languages is an unnecessary and undue burden on your resources. But when your attention goes to your bottom line at the expense of engaging your customers, you leave them little choice but to "vote with their feet" when the next latest and greatest alternative comes around. And it will--look what happened to MySpace when FaceBook reared its ugly head.

Facebook is digging itself a grave, one unwelcome change at a time and perhaps you should take notice of the dissatisfaction of its users...oh, you have--that's what Google+ is all about? Well, apparently you have missed the motivation for the customer dissatisfaction that will drive them out of Facebook's arms and into yours: gratuitous changes to the interface that the users don't like. It's not enough that the change somehow benefits the site, it must also be either explained to the users in terms that makes the change to their benefit or convenience or the benefit/convenience must be immediately apparent to the user. When a change renders an interface inconvenient, annoying, or cumbersome to the user, the user grumbles. When enough cavalier, grumble-worthy changes occur, the user begins looking for alternatives. Facebook opened its arms to those dissatisfied with MySpace but has committed an endless string of offenses in the eyes of its users and those people will migrate, without conscience, to Google+ if they perceive it to be more friendly to them and their concerns.

So, Google, let's not queer the deal before it even gets off the ground. Stop behaving like Facebook and changing things willy-nilly, putting your corporate objectives ahead of the preferences of your users. We don't like things that work to be changed unless the change is an improvement...and a symbol I cannot read and must ponder to decipher is not an improvement over a button clearly labelled in my mother-tongue.


Longtime user

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chronic pain: the unwelcome life’s companion

Until it starts to abate, I don’t think even the suffers realize how much long-term chronic pain can diminish their lives. It does more than limit activities that exacerbate the pain, it affects and informs virtually every aspect of life, from mood and sense of well-being to sleep to willingness to go and do and simply experience life. It limits not only motion, but endurance as well, both physical and mental. Chronic pain, even with palliative treatment, can be exhausting.
And that’s where I have been over the last weeks: an unwilling and increasingly debilitated subject of acute and chronic lower back pain, a legacy of too many unwitting injuries coupled arthritis in the lower spine. I had reached a point that nothing I did…from buying a new mattress to loading up on OTC codeine meds…gave me any appreciable relief. I would awaken dreading the activities of the coming day, knowing that the only question regarding my pain would be “how bad?” and “how soon?” There was no pain-free day or even time of day…it was all a matter of degree.

On a good day, fortified with pain medication, I could make it through the supermarket without bending over and leaning on the trolley to take some pressure off my lower spine. Most days, however, were not good days. Walking through the mall became an exercise in bench-spotting: if my back got so bad my legs were starting to give out, where were the benches? Pain even dictated where to park the car: if we couldn’t find a space close to the business we wished to patronize, Hubby would drop me at the entrance to begin the shopping (or find a bench) while he found parking.

Pain circumscribed and dictated my world. I could not participate in any activity that required walking more than five minutes; I could not participate in anything that required prolonged (more than five minutes) standing. Queues at supermarkets, banks, even waiting lines at restaurants, were daunting as standing in one place was even more painful than walking. The pain awakened me at night when I tried to roll over in bed. I began sleeping with a pain tablet and drink on the nightstand next to the bed.

My doctor knew of my back pain but I had not discussed its steady increase in intensity with her. My husband was sick and my focus, medically, was more on helping him. But the day came that I could not prepare dinner…not even peel and chop an onion…without sitting down to “rest” my back. I could not put it off any longer.

Doc started with x-rays, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers, and more potent pain killers—and a prescription for physiotherapy. Six weeks later, I was not improved…in fact, despite treatment, it was slightly worse. The x-rays revealed some lumbar facet joint arthritis, likely the source of my pain, but the treatment she prescribed had had no effect. She renewed my prescriptions to try to keep the situation from deteriorating further, and referred me to a neurosurgeon for a more detailed workup and treatment.

Have you ever had an MRI? If you have even the slightest tendency towards claustrophobia, I recommend against it! It took only twenty minutes—and my eyes were closed the whole time—but it was one of the more unnerving experiences of my entire life. And God forbid you should have an itch or a cramp or some other compulsion to move because you have to lay as still as the dead while inside what feels like a coffin, the upper portion of the machine literally inches from your nose! Then it shakes, vibrates and quivers while making the most horrific noises, everything from a deep rhythmic thrumming to an eerie space shipish sound. I endured, of course, as many before me have done, but the experience would not be on my list of things I’d enjoy doing again!

The result of the MRI was pretty much as expected: degenerative stuff due to aging and repeated injuries (accidents with horses, motorcycles, cars, stairs), slightly bulging disks, but nothing worthy of surgical intervention, a mixed blessing because it spared me another trip under the knife but limited the treatment options. He gave me some new prescriptions, this one for a high-level pain killer and a nerve-stabilizing pain reliever, prescribed a back brace and scheduled me for a procedure to have steroids injected into my back.

I left his office with mixed emotions: on the one hand, I was looking forward to the pain becoming just an unpleasant memory; on the other hand, anything involving needles and tender parts of my anatomy (my back was even tender to the touch) did not inspire great waves of enthusiastic anticipation!

The new drugs were an improvement over the old but still not able to adequately mask the pain. I hurt less, definitely, but my ability to go and do was not appreciably improved. The relieved the intensity of the pain but didn’t make it go away so, despite my trepidations, I was almost looking forward to the procedure.

It was amazing. Within hours my stamina had tripled: where before I had to sit down about every ten minutes while out on an excursion, two hours after the procedure I was walking around an antiques show and only had to sit down three times in an hour. The very next day I was able to take a shower and wash my hair without taking a break to sit down and rest my back and within days I was doing the grocery shopping without having to lean on the handle of the trolley for support. Before the week was out, I noticed my outlook was improving, that I felt more energized, less immobile, more willing to go out and about, looking forward to excursions rather than fearing them.

The back brace is a miserably uncomfortable thing, but it works synergistically with the continuing pain meds and the injections. I am returning to physical therapy and soon I shall see a biokeneticist to create an exercise plan to strengthen my back without risking the fragile progress we have made against the pain.

I’m feeling so much better, in fact, I’m beginning to feel like writing again…

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Saving money by buying smart

“Watch your pennies,” my grandfather used to tell me, “and the dollars will take care of themselves.” The old man was right—there are a zillion ways we waste money, some of them obvious, some of them not-so-obvious, all of them draining pennies from our pockets, pennies that add up.

 Several years ago my husband and I purchased a house that we planned to turn into a rental and when we took possession of it, it was not in the condition it was in when we made our offer. Among many other problems, numerous things were missing and/or broken, so I began making a list of things that would need repairing or replacing, intending to price them at my local home improvement store. When he saw me write down spindles for the toilet paper holders and plants missing from the landscaping, my husband thought I was being petty, but when all the little items on my list added up to nearly $10,000, he took a considerably different view: those little things added up to a sizeable sum.

It is no different when you are shopping: a small amount saved on a multitude of items can add up to some significant savings. Thinking about purchases and buying with your head instead of your heart can help keep your pocket plump. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that people who appear to be affluent don’t need to manage money and therefore can’t give you useful tips…most of the well-heeled people I have known in my life got there through careful money management, not profligacy. Here are just a few ways you can make your money go further:

1. Avoid debt. For most of us, debt to buy a house, debt to buy a car is necessary…but debt beyond that is not. Debt costs you interest and money you pay in interest is money you don’t have for something else…like a savings plan or investment or an education fund for your kids. If you have a credit card either pay it off in full at the end of each month or keep it for emergency use only. And by emergencies, I mean true emergencies like replacing a blown tire or head gasket. It’s five days to payday and you’re out of cigarettes is not an emergency, no matter that if feels like one.

2. Eliminate costly habits. Smoking is one very expensive habit; bottled water is significantly more expensive than water you filter yourself with one of those tap attachments; professional manicures and pedicures should be an occasional treat, not a regular expenditure; designer labels and big name brands are seldom worth the extra cost—know when to spring for the name brands and when to go for the generics (i.e., supportive footwear vs. designer handbag). Little luxuries, indulged in regularly, add up to big bucks: if you spend $5 a day for a Starbuck’s coffee, that’s $25 a week or $1300 over the period of a year: wouldn’t it be better to put the money aside and, at the end of the year, buy that designer bag with actual cash (and not pay credit card interest on it)?

3. Get over the “ick” factor with regards to second hand goods. With the exception of undies, swimwear, and things that go in your mouth, there is nothing wrong with buying second hand. And you can do it without looking like a Goodwill diva by going to consignment shops where the affluent fatten their pocketbooks by selling their gently-used high-end clothing, bags and shoes. Second hand furniture (some of which is called “antiques” or “vintage”) can be attractive and functional as well as reasonably priced. And everybody should know that buying a car brand new is an exercise in financial foolishness: the minute you drive it away from the dealer, you are underwater: the car loses 30% (or more) of its value while your car loan is based on the sticker price (which the car is no longer worth). Beware of buying electrical/electronic goods second hand from private parties as they may be unreliable (and possibly stolen). Better to buy them from a shop where you have some recourse if the product does not perform as expected.

4. Learn to say “no” and mean it. Kids are instinctive manipulators. I once stood in a queue at a drug store behind a woman who had a boy about eight years old with her. Her first mistake was allowing the child to roam the store while she stood in the queue: she should have made him stay with her. Why? Because he came to her carrying a huge toy truck, asking her to buy it for him. She told him “no” and to put it back, which he did…but returned carrying another expensive toy. The queue was long and eventually the firmness of her “no” wavered: she started making excuses “I don’t have that much money with me” she told him at one point. Eventually after he persistently returned to the queue with one toy after another, pleading for her to buy it, she gave in and paid for the toy with her credit card. She had taught him that if he pestered her long enough, he would eventually get what he wanted, even if she had to borrow (and pay interest on) the money to pay for it.

You must learn to say “no” to everyone who wishes to raid your pocketbook for non-essentials, even yourself. That new CD by ReDickLess, your favourite artist…will you live without it? Can you spend the money better elsewhere, like on the electric bill or for gas or to pay down your existing credit card debt? Oh, but it’s on sale! It’s half price! Well, even at half price…could that money be better spent elsewhere? Learn to tell yourself “no!” and make it stick!

5. Don’t buy “premium” unless it really makes a difference. That applies to gasoline, clothing, furnishings, cars, food…virtually anything you spend money on. If you are driving a little Korean econobox, why are you buying premium grade gasoline for it? It’s a car, you can’t reward or bribe it with extra goodies and unless your owner’s manual specifies premium petrol, you are wasting your money buying it. Can you really tell the difference between name-brand and store brand cottage cheese? Will your coworkers wrestle you to the floor and hold you down so they can see if your shirt sports a designer label?

6. Don’t skimp where it counts. Cheap furniture, for example, doesn’t last…not only do trends change frequently, the materials and construction of cheap furniture (especially chip board) do not stand up over time. Better to spend on a sturdy piece of second hand furniture that will last until you want to replace it, not need to replace it because it fell apart. This allows you to save the money you would otherwise spend on repeated replacements of cheap stuff…or spend it on something else. This applies to anything that should have a long life…refrigerators, cars, shoes, leather jackets, etc. Buy the best you can afford, then take good care of it.

My last two cars lasted 15 years each (and out of that 30 year period, I was free of car payments for 25 years!) and my present car is 11 years old (and also free of car payments). You don’t want to drive an old car? Well, would you rather drive an old car (mine is a Mercedes, BTW, bought second hand) and have money in your pocket? Or drive a new car and be broke? There is no reason, aside from vanity, that you need to trade your car in on a new one every two or three years, and every reason to pay it off then keep it for as long as possible. How do you know when to trade it in? When it is out of warranty and the cost of repairs (annualized) is close to the cost of the monthly payments (annualized) on a new car.

7. Don’t rent/lease when you can buy. That applies to everything from washing machines to cars to homes. When you lease a car you pay every month for it, just as if you were buying the car…but at the end of the lease, you have nothing to show for it but a pile of cancelled cheques. You couldn’t qualify for a loan to buy that fancy BMW, you could only qualify for a second hand econobox? Well, if the state of your financial health is more important than your ego, you should have bought the econobox. At least, when the sales contract is finished, you have a car to drive and more money in your pocket. When you rent/lease furnishings, you pay more over the course of your contract than if you had purchased the item(s) new…and many times leased furniture and appliances are anything but new. Renting or leasing your home should be a temporary measure, not a lifestyle. Rent small and in a safe but not trendy area: not only will your rent be lower, you don’t have to buy much stuff to fill a small apartment. The money you save by avoiding large flats in trendy complexes with a built-in dating pool will allow you to put money aside to buy your own place.

Don’t want to buy your own place? You are OK with buying property for other people with your hard-earned cash? Because that it what it comes down to: the money you pay for rent is used by your landlord to pay his mortgage on the property. Once his mortgage is paid, he either invests that money in yet more rental property (my husband and I own five rentals to date) or lives on it. Either way, you are working to increase another person’s wealth, not your own. Property market makes you nervous, all those people getting foreclosed or with underwater mortgages? Well, many of those people getting foreclosed couldn’t truly afford to buy their homes in the first place and ordinarily would have been turned down for mortgages…that is what the “subprime” fiasco was all about. The phrase didn’t mean “sub prime interest rates” it meant subprime loan applicants who were granted loans when they didn’t meet the criteria for creditworthiness. These people got loans they couldn’t afford at higher interest rates than a “prime” applicant would get just so the banks could rake in the interest before the homeowner defaulted, after which time the banks could reclaim the houses and sell them on, taking interest from another sucker.

Underwater mortgages scaring you? Why? It only matters if you want to sell the house…and even then, does it truly matter? What other item do you purchase on the instalment plan that you expect to appreciate rather than depreciate? Seriously…you buy a car for $20,000, what do you expect it to be worth in five years? And why does the fact of your mortgage being underwater bother you if you are not contemplating selling the house? Your car goes through a period of being worth less than you owe on it…a house has traditionally been different, but why does it have to be? Because you can’t get an equity loan? Don’t you think that might be a good thing, since it keeps you out of further debt?

8. Use loyalty cards, coupons, rewards schemes. Check them out carefully before you join and if there is no cost to you and there is even a small reward, go for it…small rewards add up into large savings over time. Worried about privacy concerns? That the supermarket will sell your info to marketing firms? Well, bucko, unless you have managed to drop off the grid, that info is already out there and you’re not making any money (or saving any) as a result of it. Why not get a break on the groceries as compensation? My favourite supermarket has a program that if I use their card, I get a 1% rebate on my purchases which accumulate until I want to convert them into cash (to be used at that market). It may not sound like much, but add up what you spend at the grocery store in a year, then calculate 1% of that: if you spend $100 per week, that is $5200 per year and 1% of that is $52…half a week’s groceries! The local gourmet market has a card that entitles you to discounts on selected merchandise. Yesterday there was a 30% off special of kitchen gadgets, 20% off on kitchen towels, tablecloths, and napkins…but only for card holders. And there was a special on chicken breasts for cardholders. We also belong to a rewards scheme on one of our credit cards: they give a 1% award on all things charged to the card. So, we charge everything we can to the card, from groceries to petrol to clothing to household maintenance services, to generate the largest award possible. Of course, we pay off the credit card in full at the end of every month…and we use the awards points to buy gift cards to…the local warehouse store (where I do our bulk shopping) and the gourmet supermarket! Last month we got enough in vouchers to pay our entire warehouse store monthly purchase (about $150) and three trips to the gourmet supermarket (because I buy most of our fresh fruits, veg, and meats there due to their quality).

9. Whenever possible, buy in bulk. That means buying what you normally would buy in larger quantities when there is a sale. Butter has doubled in price over the last couple of years: when it goes on sale, I buy as much as 10 pounds of butter and put it in the freezer, otherwise, I buy just enough to get to the next shopping day, waiting for the next sale. Anything that you can freeze or that will not spoil if kept at room temperature for a long time is a prime target for bulk buying, but only if you can save money doing it: paper goods such as toilet paper, paper towels and napkins, laundry soap and additives, cleaning products such as floor polish, cleansers, and spray cleaners, white vinegar, dishwasher soap, feminine hygiene products, insecticides, automotive oil, personal grooming products like deodorant, shampoo, bath soap…the list is virtually endless. Make sure you have storage space for what you buy, that the price you are paying worth the investment, and that these are products that won’t languish, unused in the back of the cupboard…who need 10,000 paper plates—but who won’t use 100 rolls of two ply?

10. Use traditional skills. If you don’t know how to sew, learn the basics like sewing on buttons, tacking down zippers and pocket corners, mending a hem, sewing up a split seam. None of these require a sewing machine, they can be accomplished with a needle and thread (available inexpensively at any supermarket). Instead of replacing something that has come unstitched, repair it. Learn basic cooking and cut down on fast food, eating out, take out, and supermarket meals…cooking for yourself is cheaper and healthier. Brown bag your lunch with sandwiches you made yourself or, even better, leftovers from last night’s dinner. Don’t send your clothes out for laundry, do them yourself (go to the laundromat on weeknights between 6 and 8, while everybody else if having dinner and you’ll have your pick of the machines). Do your nails yourself; wax your legs yourself; the smallest things you save money on still can add up to a surprising sum: saving only ten cents a day by doing some things yourself adds up to $36.50 at the end of the year…which may not sound like much, but if you save ten cents a day on ten different things, that’s $365 that can be applied to anything your heart desires, something you otherwise could not have afforded!

My mother used to call my shopping habits “poor people shopping” but I think she missed the point…there are ways to live within your means and get the most “bang for the buck.” Live for yourself, not the nebulous “others,” live within your means so that you aren’t wasting precious resources on mountains of interest, and use the many means available of stretching your dollar. You’ll have less stress, more money, and a happier life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Things I miss...and don't miss...about America

I miss...

Dreyers Rocky Road Ice Cream. Rocky Road ice cream of any kind, in, Rocky Road is a kind of candy...and not very good, either. I haven't even found any good chocolate ice cream, either...for some reason, plain chocolate isn't good enough, so whenever I can find chocolate, it is full of chips or chunks or blobs of bittersweet chocolate (ew!) or little shreds of Belgian chocolate (not as good as it sounds).

Oscar Mayer Weiners. We don't have weiners here. We have Viennas, Russians, bangers, bratwurst and, occasionally, "American hot dogs." Most of them aren't that good...and none of them hold a candle to Oscar Mayer Weiners. On a positive note, however, I have managed to find French's mustard. In the Kosher section of my local market. Who knew??

Central heating. That bears repeating: central heating. Tonight it is supposed to get down to 1C...just one degree above freezing...and we live in brick houses with no central heat. Some of us have fire places, the rest of us have portable heaters that we drag from room to room. And we live in brick houses that cannot, for the most part, be insulated as there are no hollow spaces in the walls to put the insulation. Once one of these houses gets cold, it is like being inside a refrigerator!

Window and door screens. And our windows are configured in such a way that it is almost impossible to screen them. We have security gates on all of our exterior doors and burglar bars on our windows, but nobody has screens to keep the worst villains out...biting and stinging bugs. As someone horribly allergic to mosquito bites and bee stings, I find this to be an egregious oversight on the part of local home builders!

Things I don't miss...

Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards: I have been here more than seven years and have experienced none of the foregoing. In that time, there has been one light (and very short-lived) snowfall in Johannesburg, a small surprise tornado in Pretoria, a mild earth tremor near the Wild Coast, and while the coastal areas get some impressive winter storms, nothing approximating a hurricane. Don't miss US weather at all.

Gender politics. Gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution and protected by the courts. In fact, it is taken so seriously that when two gay men approached the courts saying that the country's marriage laws discriminated against them, the court agreed and gay marriage became legal here. Abortions are legal and I have yet to see or hear of a medical facility being picketed because they perform abortions: a woman and her doctor make the choices and nobody else may have a voice. We even have an Equality Court that costs the plaintiffs nothing to bring a case to justice. This country takes equality seriously!

Attitudes about the poor. America seems to view poverty as a choice people make and should be punished for. South Africa, by contrast, recognizes that poverty is most often a result of circumstances and the government has a role in helping to change those circumstances. Every month people move to the large cities looking for work, making homes for themselves in rude squatters camps until they can better themselves. In American, such squatters camps are routinely bulldozed, the squatters chased away, as if destroying their meagre possessions will make them disappear. In South Africa the government brings in chemical toilets, clean water, and subsistence levels of free electricity in an effort to prevent disease and devastating shack fires. Free hospitals and clinics are available for anyone who hasn't the money for private care. Taxpayers do not moan and complain about paying for these things...they seem to accept that it is just a part of living in a country with a 25%+ unemployment rate and rampant poverty that, if allowed to fester, will create even greater social problems.

Aggressive religious presence: Oh, we do have the occasional religion peddlar come to our door, but they politely go away when asked and they are rare...perhaps one or two visits per year. And we don't have a movement of religious nuts trying to take over our schools and government, either, even though we do have a religious-based political party (which gets little more than a blip worth of votes each election...what does that tell you?). Don't think that South Africa is an atheist-leaning country has an incredible abundance of churches...virtually every one I have ever heard of and quite a few that are new to me. And the people attend church, can always tell when church lets out on Sundays because the roads, malls, restaurants and parking lots are suddenly mobbed! Not being Christian ourselves, Hubby and I make it a point to get our Sunday morning errands completed before they "release the Christian hordes," as he likes to put it.

Personality politics: In this country, you don't vote for a person, you vote for a political party...then the person who is the head of that party takes office (if it is the presidency) or appoints the mayor or whatever office the party has been elected to. This is actually a good thing: not only are we spared mudslinging campaigns prior to the elections, we also can get rid of a crappy politician before the end of a term...his own party replaces him mid-term!

Political signs, billboards, TV spots, etc.: Pre-election signs are limited in size to about the size of a sheet of newsprint. That's it...nothing bigger! And you can't say anything about your opponent in those signs, either...maybe a picture of your party's leader and an admonition for you to vote, but not much more is allowed. The absence of backstabbing, muck-racking, mud-slinging political advertising is a breath of fresh air, even though our politicians really aren't any better.

Inadequate regulation in financial, fuel, transportation, and other industries: The global economic downturn didn't hit South Africa all that hard because our highly regulated financial industry was forbidden to participate in the subprime fiasco that bankrupted Iceland and caused world-wide financial havoc. Gasoline prices are regulated by the government, so oil companies can't gouge or raise prices at will: the government raises...and lowers...the price according to market forces, not according to opportunities to gouge a little more money out of the driving public. Government exists to serve the citizenry rather than big business.

On balance, I think the things I miss are pretty petty in comparison to the social and political nightmares I'm glad to be shed of. Seems it ain't time yet to think about going back.