Tuesday, October 28, 2014


     America is a competitive society—just look at some of TV's top rated shows: American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The Superbowl, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Olympics. The simple win/lose drama in made-for-TV competitions is a consistent safe bet for drawing viewers.
     Nothing's wrong with healthy competition but it doesn't take much or long for who-cares? fun to turn into serious I-want-it-bad winner-takes-all contests that aren't so fun anymore. (I used to play doubles in Honolulu Tennis League with a C-2 rating and some players took it far too serious).
     The thing about competition is someone has to win and someone has to lose and sometimes the winners are the biggest losers of all if it means losing their self-respects, friends, perspectives, or humanities (see my prior Competitive Sports essay for further discussions regarding), for poor winners abound.
     Comparing one's self or children to others, then, can have similar pitfalls (Who's better? Who's best?) especially when it comes to selecting what to compare to whom. All too often, I hear parents express feelings of “inadequacy” or “stress” when comparing their kids or lives to those of others. Is it any wonder when they choose to compare that in which they or theirs' aren't especially strong? Shouldn't they instead focus on those that have things far worse off, say the suffering billions that aren't even in on any competition due to want of daily sustenance? Wouldn't such scrutiny result in greater appreciation for what they have and perhaps even generate some sympathy or compassion, or motivate generosity? 
     So whenever I hear hints or even suggestions of comparisons with others—“They must be doing well...,” “Is he in honors English?” “Believe me, they can afford it,” “Wasn't she (elementary school) valedictorian?”—I cut it off. “No need to compare,” I say, or “Don't worry about her, she's not our child.” After all, children, adults, and families each possess their own strengths, weaknesses, and struggles and not one has everything all together. “Would you prefer her as your daughter? Or to trade their lives with ours?” are questions worth asking that I've never heard a “Yes” to, thank God. 
     Like our parents, we've focused on our kids' academics and who they are in raising them as none of them will make it as professional athletes, stars, or artists as far as we can tell. But if they're decent, law-abiding citizens that are capable learners and workers with positive attitudes, independent and strong, we feel they'll be well-equipped—with God's help—to thrive as adults.
     Perhaps as a society we should scrutinize this comparative/competitive-based decision-making compulsion that seems ever more prevalent in schools, businesses, financial markets, and even homes. If there's a single pizza slice left should jan ken po (a paper, scissors, rock hand game) decide who gets it? If there's enough money for only one kid to go to college should the most “deserving” one with the highest GPA automatically get it? Should limited housing always go to the highest bidder, need or merit be damned? And where does cooperation and helpfulness, essential for success in tomorrow's and today's world, fit in? All too often such altruism seems squeezed in as token gesture or for show rather than performed out of duty or for pleasure. 
     And let's not forget the effects of the shrinking world. I see it; my friend Norm in Seattle sees it. He complains of the burgeoning Hispanic population sweeping in and changing the close-knit complexion of his community and of Middle East and other ethnic immigrants refusing to conform to local standards of common courtesy and consideration. (Some Arab mothers of his fellow Karate students refuse to remove their footwear upon entering their dojo, disregarding the sign and customs that he knows they have read, observed in others, and understood. His Arab lady friend of a younger generation that always wears a headdress and conservative attire in public said they're just acting like jerks: there's no custom or religious tenet forbidding removal of footwear in such circumstances.) 
     Deanne and I, too, have noticed huge influxes of immigrants over the last decade from India, Europe, Asia (our new next door neighbors are from Japan), and the South Pacific, plus transplants galore from the U.S. Mainland, mostly Caucasian, but lots of African Americans too. Most blend in well. Hawaii is by far the most diverse state in the U.S., laid back and cosmopolitan, so that's the type of immigrant it attracts. It sure has changed a lot since I was a kid, though, when Japanese and Caucasians were predominant, followed by Chinese, Filipinos, and Hawaiians (not necessary in that order.)
     The good news, I told Norm, is that succeeding generations very quickly assimilate (though Penelope surprised me the other day when I asked her to describe her school hang-out. She said across from the concrete slab where she and her friends sit during recesses are benches where a group of students congregate speaking Chinese. I asked are they recent immigrants? She said I don't think so, they also speak English. Are they some of the smartest kids in class? Do they speak English with an accent? I asked. They're smart and no, she said. I found it surprising they'd choose to speak Chinese so publicly but guessed maybe they grew up together, with immigrant parents that were close friends).
     With this ever changing populace then (my new boss grew up in East Asia and speaks with a thick accent) when no one knows who will be working with or living near whom, comparing self or family to others becomes even more fruitless (as everyone has their priorities), resulting in unjustified pride or envy, or feelings of undistinguished mediocrity.  (Penelope's middle school's quarterly newsletter lists honor role students—a practice I find invasive and inappropriately competitive, perhaps shaming students and their parents that achieve lower GPAs or are off the lists altogether. It may also demoralized those that due to genetic learning difficulties (Braden), autism (a family friend), dyslexia, etc., struggle hard just to keep up.) It would be much better if everyone just did his or her best without worrying about others or standings, or better yet, be considerate and helpful. I'm all for courses that teach and instill cooperation and helpfulness and grade students for such. (Group projects help, but sometimes result in even more competition and selfishness, as anyone who has worked on such teams surely has witnessed.)
     I recall a most unseemly competition involving my high school's senior class race for top academic award. Our salutatorian cried during her commencement address for shame of “losing” the competition and being a poor loser (she didn't put it that way but everyone knew). It was sad that such a bright, attractive, and popular girl had felt so driven by perfection that she couldn't much enjoy her special moment and chose instead to focus inwardly on her “failures” and indirectly on her “enemy”—the one she lost to, a fine, decent fellow, meek and humble, who once confided in me that he never went to a movie with friends (I felt guilty for months afterward for not inviting him along, his confession obviously being a hint. I just knew he wouldn't fit in with us uncouth Philistines, though—a lame excuse, I know, thus the guilt. We talked at our twentieth year class reunion. He's doing fine as an actuary at one of the state's largest insurers, which is fitting as he's brilliant in math—his dad was a math teacher—and scored a perfect 800 on his SAT.)
     Continuing this ever escalating competing and comparing as a society is bound to lead to ever more disgruntled losers and all-too-few humble, appreciative, and generous "winners."  Or, we could choose not to participate but to instead care for and nurture one another—always a win-win, especially to the giver—learning what it means to live together peaceably and cooperatively. It's great when it happens following a natural disaster, but must it happen only then? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Growth Spurts

     High School's been good for Braden so far. He's matured physically and grown more responsible.  Over the past two years he's sprouted three inches to over five-feet nine, a bit shorter than me. The orthopedist who examined his x—ray for mild sciatica (he's fine, with only fifteen degrees maximum curvature of the spine) says he has another year's growth spurt left in him that should take him past me. That pleased Deanne who's always been height-conscious about our kids. (In regards to Penelope who had early menses—she stands about five-feet four and continues to grow—she's been especially concerned. I told her, “Her height's fine. God decided it, so it's perfect. What do you want her to be a giant for?” (Deanne comes from a tall family and is just used to it, I guess). 
     When he entered high school this fall, catching the bus to and from school as usual, Braden acted a bit flaky, asking after three days if he could switch his shop elective to JROTC. I asked why? He said I don't know. I said electives are your choice. But later that evening I said give it at least a quarter, if you still want to switch, then you can. I don't want you switching now, then two weeks later hear you saying can I switch back or something like that. Plus shop is very useful—I still use stuff I learned from it back in middle school. 
     He said okay, but two day later asked if he could add JROTC as a before-school extra-credit class, giving him seven total credits for the quarter instead of the usual six. I said, “To catch your bus on time you'll have to leave around six o'clock—before me on some days if you catch the early bus, plus you'll have to make your own breakfast and wash you own dishes and get everything ready on your own. Plus you'll have to wake yourself up every morning and not expect someone to wake you 'cause you're too lazy to wake yourself. Can you manage to do that every morning? He said yes. I said okay, I'll sign it, but if your grades suffer, you'll have to drop it. (He knew that I meant he had to earn all B's or better 'cause when he was in middle school and joined Robotics Club and his grades sank below that mark, we made him quit). He said, I understand. 
     On his own he went and spoke to and got all the necessary approvals from counselors and teachers and didn't even need our help or signature. Best of all, from then on he self-started every morning and got out of the house sometimes even before Deanne got up. (He used to sometimes sleep through his beeping alarm clock until one of us roused him—a vile habit I detested. It reminded me of a college roommate that asked me to rouse him if he over-slept; I never did. I'd return from breakfast and his alarm would still be beeping...) .
     Soon, a scouting friend of his joined JROTC and offered Braden rides every morning (his family lives just up the street from us). Braden still caught the bus home, however, but got to sleep in an extra forty-five minutes the four days a week he had JROTC. But his morning routine stuck, waking independently and making his own breakfast—quite good for a fourteen year old. Mid-quarter, for the first time ever, his school's progress report showed all A's except for one B for JROTC. I didn't make a fuss about the A's even though I was astounded pleased because in the past it's resulted in subsequent poor performance.  I instead encouraged him to keep it up because it's just going to get tougher. By quarter's end his grades had slipped to B's for English (honors level albeit) and Social Studies but rose to an A for JROTC. 
     One area in which Braden hasn't shown equivalent maturation is in self-discipline. For years now I've noticed whenever he's out of time-out for long and doesn't have to do dishes and vacuum the floors every night as a result, he gets into more trouble. So a couple of months ago when he was about to emerge from an extended time-out, I assigned him permanent dinner time dish washing duty, plus his usual chores of emptying the rubbish and setting up the vacuum. It's been working well; he didn't even complain or sigh or hiss displeasure when I told him or explained why. (Deanne and I have given him chore breaks now and then, when he has scouting or is sick or has behaved extra well. And he usually does a diligent job with the dishes, sometimes even better than Deanne.)
      His speaking ability has also improved. As a youngster he was a fast talker, slurring and mumbling, mispronouncing words, and poorly arranging sentences or paragraphs, mainly because he spoke just to be heard—random spontaneous thoughts that often made no sense. Rather than speaking to be understood or having a worthwhile purpose, he seemed to be merely vocalizing social-sounding noises that were annoying to listen to and correct all the time. Whereas now he takes his time to gather his thoughts, speak sensibly, and enunciate well, which makes him a pleasure to listen to. 
     Praise God, people and kids in particular can improve.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


     There'd been times when I'd felt irked by the box and wished someone would do something about it. Then I remembered my dad once calling to complain of coconuts at the local municipal golf course being a hazard should one fall and maim or kill a golfer. By the following week muddy tire tracks lined the gold course fairways but the trees were stripped bare of coconuts.
     Following his example, earlier this year, I make a call to Honolulu's local land-line telephone company about one of those unsightly utility boxes beside the road. It's approx. 4' x 3' x 2 1/2'—the size of a mini-refrigerator—and has for years been either toppled over on its side or standing on rusted-out footings which are so eaten through they aren't bolted down to their concrete base—it's impossible to secure them they're so bad. The two access holes in the concrete base are empty, lacking wire leads. The cabinet itself is gutted—I recall its door once being open. There's a nearby park, and an elementary school just down the street, so some kid—groups are always passing by—is bound to climb on top and get hurt when it falls. 
     The phone company person says, I'll send the info. to repair technicians to take care of.  You may or may not hear back from them.
     Since the box isn't labeled, I then call Hawaiian Electric Company the same day and the representative says, We'll check it out but I doubt its ours. The next day the company calls and says it's Verizon's trunk box—a former land line company I know to be defunct, though they still provide wireless service.
     A month and a half later, the box is still there unchanged so I call the city's General Complaints hotline. We'll follow-up on it and get get back to you, I'm told. But they never do. 
     During the following two months, I see the box first graffitied, then spot-painted over, so, getting exasperated, I call the police. We'll have someone go out and take a look and notify the proper party about it, I'm told. 
     A month-and-a-half later, the box is now dented-in and newly defaced by fresh graffiti that depicts a face of a dead drunk person with X's for eyes.  I speak to the pastor of the tiny church that stands across an unpaved parking lot behind it.  Quiet but dignified, the man receives me warmly, even though I'm in the midst of a three-and-a-half mile run, and says he too wants it taken away and thinks it's been there twenty years. At my gentle suggestion that maybe they'll listen to him more than me, he says he'll call the telephone company.
     The following day, I call our local state government representative and leave a message on the answering machine requesting assistance. 
     The day after, I call Verizon. It's not ours; wireless doesn't use street-side trunk boxes, I'm told. 
     Ten days later I again call the local telephone company and this time leave a message with the trouble rep. requesting assistance while mentioning my earlier attempt with them to get rid of it. 
     Two-and-a-half months pass, during which time whenever I see the box during a run, I think of the useless inaction of everyone I've spoken to and sometimes imagine sledge hammering the box into rubble, hack sawing it into strips, or (most sensibly) asking permission to haul it away, but I always stop short as these are just idle dreams, and instead I pray and wait. Then, one day, the box is gone!—one of our neighborhood's last glaring blights. My run feels so light after that, I can already taste the once-in-every-three-weeks drink I'll consume with dinner.
     It takes a month, but finally during a run I see the church's pastor.  He's walking in the parking lot, turning the corner of the sanctuary out of sight, so I call his name and jog over, smile, and wave as I stand off to one side before his car, engine now running. He opens the door, steps out, and we exchange pleasantries. I express gratitude about the box's removal and he says he's happy too. 
     “Did you call anyone about it?” I ask. 
     “Yes, the telephone company,” he says.
     “Good. Thank you,” I say all smiles. “I call”—here I gesture—“and nothing happens. You call”—another gesture—“and they take it away.” We exchange further pleasantries before parting.
     Though I believe what I tell him, I nevertheless later tell my family what happened to teach them the power of acting, following up, and trying again and again to get what you really want. Though it may not have been me, my efforts certainly couldn't have hurt. And it feels good to think that at least I tried.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Longterm Health Care Insurance (Bleah!)

     Who can afford it? We sure can't. We much prefer save for retirement and the kids' collage educations which we can't afford either. Yet there is hope for us at least for the latter two: we scrimp and save and something will be there when the time and need comes. The trouble with long-term health care insurance on the other hand is it's a gamble: it'll only pay if something horrible happens. To get near one hundred percent coverage, we'd need to fork over whopping mortgage-sized premiums (we can't even afford a house, which for us would be a far wiser investment if we could afford one), and to settle for middling coverage at more affordable though still expensive, flush-it-down-the-drain rates would simply delay the inevitable: the dreaded spend-down of accumulated personal assets before Medicaid kicks in. 
     For those unfamiliar with Medicaid, the U.S. federal and state governments program will cover personal long-term health care expenses after a qualified (sick, sick, sick) person in essence becomes broke (excluding house and car and other personal effects, depending on state). Thus a wonderful, hardworking mom or dad—diligent saver and fine citizen—who suddenly through no fault of his or her own takes ill resulting in permanent disability and longterm health care needs, has to spent down accumulated life savings before Medicaid will pay a penny. Henceforth, one hundred percent of costs will be covered.
     This spend down provision is so dreaded by my mom, she once said if faced with a personal long-term health care crisis, she'd just...and she looked skyward, shrugged, and gestured with matter-of-fact face and upturned hands, meaning she'd take her own life because to her it wouldn't be a life worth living—a quality of life issue—and the thought of having to hand all her life's loving, intentional hard earned savings meant to benefit her family to outrageously expensive health care providers in a matter of a few short years repulsed her beyond words.
     So to prevent that my parents have been recently transferring while they are still healthy substantial assets to my siblings and me, because any gifts made within five years of applying for Medicaid will result in a “claw back” provision that delays benefits approximately equivalent to the gift amount. So my parents are gambling that they won't get seriously ill within five years of making these gifts (my mom's main concern) and also that if they need that money (say if one of them becomes seriously ill or dies), that we'll do the right thing and provide them the necessary finances (my dad's main concern). I assured Dad I'd do my share (though it still makes him uncomfortable as it goes against his strong independence ethic).
     Decades ago my work required me to examine the finances of an elderly widow with over a million dollars in assets. In a little over a decade, her savings had been depleted by longterm health care expenses before Medicaid kicked in.
     I raise this because this has been a large dysfunctional ongoing problem in America's long-term health care system and I deem it shameful that it hasn't yet been resolved or even seriously addressed. Should middle class Americans have to go broke before they're helped? If so, why?
     One abhorrent option desperate spouses sometimes exercise is divorce. It's totally legal and Medicare will kick in after about fifty percent of former jointly owned property is spent down (versus one hundred percent). Most of these are paper-only divorces with couples still doing things as they had before—no need to separate or cut ties, but at what cost? Is marriage just a legal document that no one else has to know about? Or is it a sacred lifelong commitment?
     Another option rarely mentioned that I think I might be willing to explore is moving to a low cost locale, probably abroad. Such locales abound. And they provide equivalent palliative or nursing care at a puny fraction of the cost.
     Some people, I believe are far too fixed on where they feel they have to live to be happy. Being open to more world-wide possibilities would bring far more happiness to far more people. It's not so bad and scary out there as most people imagine because the world is becoming increasingly homogenized. Just look at the photos. Just read travel web sites and books. Just go to a few places. And meet some people. It all strikes me as familiar yet excitingly different. Does it really matter what language the health care provider speaks if everyone is comfortable and growing? It might be a lifelong dream fulfilled for some—spending their final years together in beautiful exotic countries and not having to worry endlessly about money.