May 29


Several years ago, I wrote about a week in which my children passed several important milestones in their growing-up process. This time, we have two such events in one day. Today is Ruth’s twenty-first birthday, so she is now fully recognized as an adult by the laws of the land, even where the purchase of intoxicating spirits is concerned. And Ben is attending high school for the very last time; his final final exam is today. It’s all over but the graduating, baby!

May 23


I went to my dentist yesterday morning for some repair work; a bit of enamel had flaked away from the edge of an onlay that was installed a few months ago. In the afternoon, I visited my optometrist for my annual eye exam (no major change in my vision since last year). And yesterday evening, I got a haircut.
It wasn’t until later that I realized something. Yesterday was probably the first time in my life that I’ve sat in a dentist’s chair, an optometrist’s chair, and a barber chair in the space of a single day. And I’ll probably never do it again.

Apr 28

Getting rid of junk mail

A year or two ago, I noticed that virtually all of the paper mail addressed to me was junk, and I decided to find out what I could do about it. After researching my options at Junkbusters, I did two things:

  • I signed up for the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service, which is basically just a list of people who have asked that DMA members not send them any mail.
  • Because the vast majority of junk mail that I was getting consisted of offers to lend me money in some fashion (pre-approved credit cards, mortgage refinancing, home equity loans, and so forth), I thought it was worthwhile to also sign up for the Opt-Out list maintained by the four credit reporting companies. This list informs lenders that I don’t want to receive offers from them by mail.

I’m not sure what result I was expecting, but I was astonished to find that these two actions eliminated virtually all my junk mail. These days I receive almost none. So if you are tired of junk in your mailbox, these are a couple of things you probably should try.
Note: After I signed up for the Mail Preference Service, the DMA started charging a one-time fee of $1.00 for it. That’s mildly annoying, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it if I were signing up today.

Jun 04

Coming of age

When does a child become an adult? Our society doesn’t have a simple answer to that question. We confer greater freedom and responsibility on our adolescents gradually, in bits and pieces, as they pass through their teens. Instead of a single rite of passage, we have lots of them at differing ages, from bar/bat mitzvah (age 12 for girls, 13 for boys) to the ability to buy alcoholic beverages (age 21). As a result, it’s not possible to meaningfully say exactly when your children grow up. But when your family experiences several of these events in the space of a week, you can no longer deny that something momentous is going on.
My family has just experienced such a week:

  • On May 26, Ben (our 15-year-old) passed a written test and obtained his Limited Learning Permit. He can now legally drive a car with adult supervision.
  • On the 29th, his sister Ruth turned 18.
  • The morning of May 30, we attended Ben’s confirmation at Christ the King Lutheran Church.
  • That same evening, Ruth graduated from high school.
  • On June 2, Ruth obtained her Driver License. And she registered to vote.

All of these were major milestones. But the one that really got to me was something unscheduled and unexpected. Ruth enjoys baking, and on the evening of June 2, she felt the urge to make a batch of cookies. But when she started to gather the ingredients, she discovered that we didn’t have enough eggs. Marie suggested that Ruth walk to the nearby Food Lion (it’s only five minutes away by foot) and buy some. Ruth grinned and said, “No, I’ll drive. Dad, can I borrow your car?” I nodded, and she picked up her purse, strolled out the door, and drove to the grocery store. Alone.

Mar 12

Rite of passage

Holy cow! I’ve been linked to before, but now Whomping Willow has blogrolled me, right between Frank J. and Mickey Kaus! So I’d damn well better post something.
(The following begins with a couple of paragraphs of medical technobabble, but don’t let that scare you off. It rapidly veers into other areas.)
On March 4, I went back to Dr. Talluto for my follow-up appointment, one month after being diagnosed with glaucoma. As instructed, I had been putting the Xalatan drops in my left eye, while leaving my right eye alone. The result: The intraocular pressure (IOP) in my left eye had decreased from 23 to 12.5. Since the goal had been to reduce the IOP by a third, this was excellent! I was surprised to learn that the IOP in my right eye had decreased to 15, almost as much improvement as in the right eye. Dr. T. explained that Xalatan isn’t just a topical medication — it enters the bloodstream and ends up affecting both eyes, although the effect is greater when the medicine is delivered directly to the target.
So it seems that Xalatan is effective. Dr. T. gave me a prescription for it and told me to come back in six months so that we can verify that it’s working. (She’ll do that by comparing digital 3-D photos of my optic disk from now and six months in the future. If they’re the same, that will mean the shape of the optic disk has stopped changing — meaning that the optic nerve damage has been arrested). Putting drops in both eyes is now a permanent part of my bedtime routine.
When she wrote the prescription, Dr. T. asked me whether my health insurance had a copayment for prescription drugs. I told her yes, and she said she would write the prescription for three-month supply of Xalatan with one refill, instead of a one-month supply with five refills. That way I would only have to pay the copayment twice instead of six times. But it didn’t work out that way. When I filled the prescription, the pharmacist informed me that Blue Cross/Blue Shield only allowed me to purchase a one-month supply. I called BCBS, and they confirmed this. There’s a mail-order pharmacy that I can use instead, but the copayment for that increases for larger quantities, and ordering a three-month supply would cost me as much as three one-month supplies. So there’s no real advantage to the mail-order option.
The actual expense is no burden. But I found this development thought-provoking for a different reason. I have always viewed prescription drugs as a temporary thing; I would get a prescription because I was sick or injured, and would take the medicine until it was all gone or I got better. Then I could forget all about it. But now, for the first time, I have a permanent medication. If I ever stop using it, I’ll go blind. So I have to permanently change my habits, and the cost of the prescription will be a part of my family’s budget indefinitely.
“So what?” you’re asking. Millions of Americans, mostly older folks, have to take prescription medicines daily and allow for it in their budgets. That’s true. But until March 4, I wasn’t one of them. As I headed home from the pharmacy with the medicine in my hand, I found myself thinking that this was a significant transition in my life — one of those lines we all cross on the journey from cradle to grave, but often don’t notice until later. Exactly what this one meant was a little hard to articulate, but it made me think of the letter that (I’m told) everyone receives when they turn 50, inviting them to join the AARP. The Letter is only a wake-up call. It doesn’t mean you have to retire or join the AARP, just that you’ve reached an age at which thinking about such things is no longer premature.
Middle age contains a lot of these reminders. Like the first fallen leaf of autumn, they tell you that a transition is under way, whether you’re ready for it or not. You don’t have to make any concessions to it right away, but you can no longer ignore it. Some of the signs of middle age are gradual things, or happen earlier to some people and later (or not at all) to others: pattern baldness or gray hair, having your youngest child become a teenager, seeing your first wrinkle in the mirror, and so forth. But The Letter is a discrete event that divides your life into two parts: one day you’re not eligible to join AARP, and the next day you are.
Filling my first prescription for Xalatan felt like that. Before March 4, I wasn’t taking any prescription medicines; the next day I was, and would be for the rest of my life. The message seemed clear: You’re not young anymore.
I can live with that.

Feb 21

Things still falling apart

The new dryer arrived, was installed, and actually works.

The ailing computer came home from the shop, but the problem wasn’t solved. It continued to crash frequently for no apparent reason. I took it back to the shop and got a second opinion from a different technician. The motherboard is damaged and will have to be replaced. There’s nothing wrong with the CPU or memory modules, so we could theoretically just move them to another motherboard — except that no motherboard that could use them is being made anymore.

We could buy an old one on eBay, but what would be the point? No, this means we have to buy a new motherboard and CPU and memory, and build a new computer in the case of the old one. This is probably a good idea anyway, as the computer in question is increasingly unstable. For example, inserting the FlashPath adapter for my digital camera into the floppy drive causes the machine to reboot. So does opening the little plastic door that covers the front-panel USB port.

Last night, I tried to order the replacement components from TigerDirect, but I couldn’t remember the password for my account there. When I tried to use the “I Forgot My Password” feature to have the password e-mailed to me, it didn’t work. Nothing came.

This morning, I phoned TigerDirect customer service, waited on hold, and eventually spoke to a live human being. He investigated and told me that their e-mail servers are currently suffering from some kind of major problem caused by large amounts of spam. He recommended that I create a new account using an alternate e-mail address, and use that to place the order. I did.

Two MP3 players I ordered for Ben and Ruth arrived. They don’t work.
And Marie went to her dentist to have a toothache diagnosed. Result: she needs a root canal and a crown, which will cost over a thousand dollars.

Feb 17

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold

Over the last month or so, I decided to stop procrastinating and get some broken things fixed. I took apart a leaking toilet, replaced all the non-porcelain parts, and put it back together. I had the broken driver’s sun visor in my car replaced. I replaced several flaky light fixtures. I took a nonfunctional VCR to the repair shop. I sent the older of our two TiVos to Texas to have its ailing modem repaired and its hard drive and memory upgraded. I bought refill kits for our laser and inkjet printers, both of which were running low. I purchased replacements for Ben’s dead Palm and the dead video adapter that he had been using to play computer games. And I had the broken fuel door on our minivan replaced.

The various mechanical devices in my household took notice of what I was doing, and realized that if I wasn’t stopped, they would all have to work at the same time. Unthinkable! They decided to retaliate. The toilet started leaking again. One of the new light fixtures developed exactly the same problem as the one it replaced. The new video adapter caused the computer to crash every half hour or so. Our dryer started making loud squeaking noises, and then stopped working completely on February 9. The color inkjet cartridge didn’t work even after it was refilled. (I ordered a replacement.)

Today, the repair technician came to look at our dryer and pronounced it dead. (I bought a new one, to be delivered Wednesday.) The replacement color inkjet cartridge arrived in the mail — and also didn’t work. (Apparently the printer is busted.) The replacement sun visor in my car broke in exactly the same way as the original one.

I should just give up, but I’m too stubborn to let a bunch of stupid machines defeat me. The crashing computer is now in the shop, and the TiVo arrived in Corpus Christi today for its overhaul. I bought replacement water hoses for our clothes washer (even though the original ones weren’t even broken yet!) and installed them today. I’ll have another go at fixing the leaky toilet sometime this week, probably buy a new inkjet printer as well. After the new dryer arrives and the computer and TiVo return home, they’ll undoubtedly meet with the new printer, the washer, the toilet, and the light fixtures to plan their next move.

Actually, I suspect that those devices are just the foot soldiers in this war; I’ll bet it’s really my computers that are doing all the planning and giving the orders. Even this one, the computer I’m typing on right now, is in on the plot. I know this because I discovered, as I logged onto Blogger, that the Tab key on its keyboard has stopped working. You’re all part of the conspiracy, aren’t you? Yes, dishwasher, I’m talking to you. Your drying cycle has never worked right. And you, microwave oven! I don’t trust you any more that your predecessor, the one that committed suicide by setting a potato on fire! I know you’re all out to get me! But I’m ready for you! I’ll —

Jan 18

The Battery Project

Ben recently posted about the “science project” he and I did to dispose of a bunch of old batteries. He provided some great photos, but didn’t go into much detail about what we actually did. I’d like to describe the procedure we used.
First of all, let me explain how this project happened in the first place. Disposing of used batteries is a bit complicated for most people. First you have to do some research to find out where and when you can turn them in for recycling (at your local waste management authority’s household hazardous waste collection, or a business near you that accepts used batteries for the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation). Then you have to pack up all your dead batteries and make a special trip to drop them off. But if you work at IBM, getting rid of your used batteries is much simpler, because IBM sites have special receptacles for batteries in employee break areas, right next to the recycling bins for aluminum cans and plastic bottles. So you just have to take your batteries to work with you.
Last summer, while visiting Marie’s family in Charleston, I noticed that they had a gallon pickle jar in their garage that was completely full of batteries. Marie’s brother Harold explained that he had been collecting them for some time (because he knew that they shouldn’t be put into the trash), but he wasn’t sure how to actually dispose of them. I told him about the receptacles where I work and said I would take care of them, and we brought the jar home with us.
But those IBM receptacles have a label warning that leaking batteries are not accepted. It was obvious that some of the batteries in Harold’s jar had leaked, and the stuff that leaked out of them had gotten all over the rest of the batteries. Most, if not all, of the batteries in the jar were probably fine for recycling, but they would have to be cleaned first. And that task was daunting enough that I put it off for several months, while the jar sat on our kitchen table.
Finally, I decided it was time to deal with the problem. But cleaning these batteries would involve more than just washing them off. I would have to chemically neutralize the leaked material. And not all of that was the same, because the batteries were of different types.
So the first step was to sort them out. This involved putting on a pair of latex gloves, unscrewing the lid of the jar, pulling out batteries one at a time, and sorting them into two plastic dishpans: one for alkaline batteries and the other for acid batteries. When I finished, there was a small amount of liquid in the bottom of the jar. Since the vast majority of the batteries had been alkaline, I concluded that the liquid was alkaline as well. I diluted it with a cup or two of water and then poured in some vinegar (a mild acid). This caused the liquid to begin fizzing — a chemical reaction was taking place, producing bubbles of gas — which meant that I had been right. It was alkaline. I kept adding vinegar and mixing until the fizzing stopped, indicating that the alkaline stuff had been neutralized. I diluted it with a lot more water and then poured it down the drain.
Now to deal with the batteries themselves. I took the dishpan containing the alkaline batteries, added enough water to cover them, and then added some vinegar. More fizzing. Ben continued adding vinegar while I stirred up the batteries with my gloved hands, until the fizzing stopped. I poured off the neutralized liquid, refilled the dishpan with warm soapy water, and washed the remaining crud off the batteries. Pulling out a few at a time, I rinsed them clean and handed them to Ben for drying; he put them into a cardboard box.
When all the alkaline batteries were clean and dry, we repeated the process with the acid batteries, using baking soda (a mild alkaline) instead of vinegar. Then I washed out the pickle jar with soap and water. The result was a clean jar and a cardboard box full of clean batteries. I inspected the batteries and found that none of them seemed to be leaking now. A few (like the 9-volt one that Ben took several photos of) had enough surface corrosion that I thought the IBM collection program probably wouldn’t want them. I set these aside for disposal at the Wake County collection site. The pickle jar went into our recycling bin with the rest of our glass jars, plastic bottles, and empty cans.
I could theoretically have taken the whole box of batteries to work at once, but it was really heavy. So I decided to spread them out over several days. I filled four quart-size Ziploc storage bags with batteries and took one of them to work with me each day until they were all gone. After three days of this, the receptacle in our first-floor break room was too full to take any more, but fortunately our building has another break room on the third floor. The receptacle there was almost empty, so I dumped the last bag of batteries in. The labels on these receptacles include a phone number to call when one is full; I called and reported that the first-floor one needed to be emptied.
Thus ends the saga of the Giant Jar of Batteries.

Oct 15

Test results

I donated blood again on September 19. On the 30th, the Red Cross office in Charlotte sent me a letter that said, “When we tested your blood, we obtained some inconclusive results. These results indicate that you may be infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. In almost all cases, individuals with these inconclusive results are found later to not have the infection at all, but rarely individuals are found to be in the early stages of infection.” The letter went on to urge me to see my physician about this and have further testing done.
Me, infected with HIV? It didn’t seem possible. I’ve never engaged in any risky sexual activity, never used intravenous drugs, never received a blood transfusion. I’ve had no contact with other people’s blood or accidental needle sticks. What other methods of infection are there? I couldn’t think of any. It had to be a mistake.
I won’t keep you in suspense. I visited my doctor on October 7 to have blood drawn for HIV testing, and I got the results today. All the tests were negative. I’m not infected. Which is what I was expecting, but this is not the sort of thing about which you want to have any doubt.
So I can breathe a sigh of relief and forget all about this, right? Yes, except for one thing. The Red Cross’s letter included this statement: “For the safety of blood recipients, the American Red Cross cannot accept blood from donors who have inconclusive test results for any infectious disease. This means that you are no longer eligible to donate blood.” The Red Cross has no choice about this. They are bound by the FDA’s policies concerning the blood supply, which are very clear: “Although the need for donors is great, it is in the best interests of the recipients of such donations to err on the side of safety. Unfortunately, once an indeterminate or inconclusive result is obtained, the donor should be indefinitely deferred.”
I’ve been through this before. In 1993, one of my blood donations showed elevated levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT). This liver enzyme is an indicator for possible hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. At the time it was the best test available to the Red Cross for screening out HCV-infected blood, so they sent me a letter informing me of the test results and telling me that I couldn’t donate anymore.
But elevated ALT levels can be caused by a number of things other than HCV, including obesity (which was a plausible explanation in my case, back in 1993). This led the Red Cross to indefinitely defer a lot of donors who didn’t have HCV, which made chronic blood shortages even worse. As more accurate screening methods became available, the ALT test’s value declined. In January 1995, the National Institutes of Health recommended that the use of ALT for HCV screening be abandoned. In August, the FDA concurred. The Red Cross revised its donor policies, and I received letter telling me that I was welcome to resume donating.
So “indefinitely” doesn’t necessarily mean forever. In a couple of years, I may get another letter from the Red Cross begging me to come back. If not, I suppose that after 24 years and over five gallons donated, I’m entitled to retire. But I’ll miss the free cookies and Diet Coke.

Sep 29

A chill in the air

I guess I can’t maintain my state of denial anymore — autumn is here, and there’s no pretending otherwise. I’ve been obstinately putting on lightweight short-sleeved shirts every morning in the hope that this would cause the warm weather to continue, but when I walked outside this morning it was chilly enough that I had to scurry back inside and root around in the closet for a light jacket. (When I say “chilly,” I mean a temperature of about fifty degrees. Jen is undoubtedly laughing as she reads this, since what I’m describing is a heat wave by Minnesota standards. She probably has icicles hanging from her mailbox already.)
This was the first time I’ve put on a jacket since last winter — and when I got to work, I realized that I had no idea whether I had anywhere to hang it. I’ve only been working in this office since May, so I’ve never brought a jacket here before. Fortunately, there turns out to be a hook on the back of the door.