Wednesday, August 8, 2007

This Is Not A Bill

Of all the paperwork I hate – and I find it all insufferable – I detest medical paperwork most of all. It arrives in that dreaded plain white envelope; inside a document with the legend prominently displayed: THIS IS NOT A BILL. After unfurling the treatise from its womb, I am confronted with a thicket of unintelligible jargon known as the “Explanation of Benefits.” It’s never terribly clear. Once I had some periodontal work done and it was classified as “osseous surgery.” Who knew? With that language it could have been the removal of an appendix – or some other vital, rather than vestigial, appendage. God forbid.

Other than the jargon, it’s filled with footnotes and disclaimers relating to who covered what and how much, whether the provider is a participating provider, how much of your deductible you’ve met and so on and on and on.

A 2004 news release issued by the Physicians for a National Health Program cited a study by Harvard Medical School and Public Citizen that found “health care bureaucracy [in 2003] cost the United States $399.4 billion.” (Emphasis added.) For paperwork? As the late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen supposedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, soon you’re talking real money.”

This isn’t an argument for any particular health care reform. That’s better debated in a much more comprehensive and knowledgeable arena than this blog. There are so many players in the debate, each with his scalpel to grind. I can only hope that whatever reform comes about makes a sizable incision in that $400 billion in bureaucracy costs.

The National Center for Policy Analysis reports on its website that “some three million clerks and managers are employed in the health-care industry – nearly four times the number of doctors now practicing.” Just handling the claims alone, the center says, costs $13 billion. Now those are some telling numbers – could it be part of the reason why there’s some 45 million+ uninsured Americans?

Maybe all that money is for handling those forms you seem to always be filling out – sometimes each and every time you visit the same doctor for the same condition. Maybe it’s all the reports doctors and other professionals have to fill out. Maybe it’s some other paperwork demon.

But surely those THIS IS NOT A BILL printouts are the chief culprit. Why do we need a separate one in most cases for each and every procedure – even those done on the same day? How about a monthly recap, something like a bank statement? Can you imagine a bank sending you a statement every time you wrote a check or made a deposit?

I’m seriously considering a small protest against this excess of paperwork that’s costing us so much time, money and trees. The next time my health insurance premium is due, I think I’ll send a small piece of paper with the invoice that says, “THIS IS NOT A CHECK.” It would save them a small amount of processing time.

I would think that my insurance company would not be amused by my creativity. But, hell, I’ll feel good – and isn’t that what health care is supposed to be all about?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Yes Sir; No, Ma’am

I had Paul the plumber in the other day replacing a sink and vanity in the downstairs bathroom. Paul’s been here before, so we know each other. He’s in his 40s; I’m 55.

Because this job was more involved than just fixing a toilet valve, he had to ask questions from time to time. Invariably, he began with “Sir? I need to ask you…”

After a few iterations of this, I kidded him, “Paul, do I really look that old that you have to keep calling me ‘Sir?’”

“It’s how I was raised…” and he started to say “sir” again, but then hesitated. “Me, too,” I said. “Mom and Dad always made sure we got that one right. None of this yeah and nah. It was always “Yes, Sir” and “No, Ma’am.” I don’t think that’s much in fashion these days.”

Too bad. To me, it’s a mark of respect for other people – particularly those in authority. It’s not kowtowing, fawning or pandering. It’s saying “I respect you.”

Maybe our techno culture doesn’t mesh well with Yes, Sir and No, Ma’am – too formal sounding. Employees are associates or team members and business casual or even less formal styles of attire dominate. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean we should respect other people any less.

I do several things not in fashion these days. I’m not looking for any accolades or honors. Because it’s the way I was raised, I don’t even think much about it.

I’ve always held doors open for other people – men as well as women. The reactions I get are interesting. People older than me seem genuinely surprised. I guess it doesn’t happen that much. The strangest reaction I get seems to be from some young women. They give me a look that seems to say, “Oh, so you don’t think I can open the door myself, you male chauvinist.” Lighten up!

It’s been said that our society has become coarser than ever before in spite of its technological advances. Everywhere from the boardroom to the playground to the halls of Congress, civility seems to have vanished. It’s just a lack of respect. Do I really believe that? Yes, sir, I do.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sign Up Today

Today I drove past a building under construction on the main street of my town’s business district. The crew was hard at work, building…what? I don’t know. There was no sign telling me who or what was coming to the neighborhood. Given the location, it must be a commercial structure, but beyond that, who would know?

Having spent more than 30 years in advertising and public relations, I always thought – and taught this as well – that a business should take advantage of every opportunity to distinguish itself from the competition. What better time to start than when a new building starts to rise… when people driving and walking by this hub of activity are naturally curious – and interested – about what’s coming to town. Yet I see so many new commercial buildings going up with no sign whatsoever.

It doesn’t take much. How about a sign that says, “Future Home of Fenwick & Jones, Attorneys At Law” or “Coming Soon – Main Line Lunch” or “Opening in December: Nature’s Best Health Foods?” Satisfy that consumer curiosity that’s been piqued by the construction and nourish that initial impression with your regular marketing as opening draws near. Don’t even wait for the foundation to be poured – let people know right after the first shovel of ground’s been turned. Get creative – make the sign a countdown clock or put a line in reminding people about a charity – Heart Walk, United Way, or the local volunteer fire company. Sure, once the building is finished, you’ll have a permanent sign; but by then you’ll just be part of the surrounding commercial landscape. Stand out now.

This doesn’t just apply to for-profit businesses; the new home for a food bank or community youth center also should get a head start on spreading the word.

I know: many localities have sign ordinances and there’s already a lot of sign clutter. Most of those ordinances apply to permanent signs, and if you’re creative enough, you won’t be adding to the clutter. It’s not like your immediate neighbors don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve already been through the planning commission, the zoning board and the town council, unless you just decided to start building with the hope that none of them would notice.

What you do see a lot at new construction is a sign trumpeting the bank that provided the money: “Another Project Financed by First National Bank of Somewhere.” It’s nice advertising for the bank, but what good does it do the new business owner?

So what’s being built on the main street in my town’s business district? It could be anything from a house of worship to a house of ill repute. I don’t know. Sign Up Today, guys!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

True Colors

I will never be mistaken for an Appalachian Trail “thru-hiker,” but I do like to have the right kind of equipment for my short jaunts in nearby state parks and conservancies. The other day I decided I needed a new waist pack (You can tell I’m not that much of a hiker or it would be a backpack.).

I located a Marmot Excursion pack in a Dick’s Sporting Goods Store. It’s a nice pack, hopefully worth the $40 it cost. In addition to it being highly functional, I thought it looked sharp – a nice dark blue with contrasting light blue highlights. Or so I thought. Looking at the tag, I saw the true colors in Marmot’s eyes were “Tempest” and “Stellar.”

“Maybe,” I thought, “that what makes this pack so special – and lets Marmot get away with charging more for it than if they said it was dark blue and light blue.” After all, a company named after a rodent has to enhance its products somehow. (Actually, they’re a company with a top-notch reputation).

A whole lot of folks are getting into exotic-sounding colors…blue, green or red are just too pedestrian. You need to justify that price tag. Some of the colors of items in the J Jill catalog that my wife buys from are: stone, dark mineral, shale, beach grass and bay leaf. It sounds like they’re running a quarry or lawn and garden store. Somehow, I don’t see a dress in “Stone” as having sleek lines. But an equal number of the colors are foods: Honeydew, Chocolate, Nutmeg, Latte, Cinnamon and Oatmeal. Would you like to buy an oatmeal top or skirt, dear? Is that the color or the material? Is it edible?

Other clothing and furnishings companies seem to be serving up the same menu: at LL Bean, you can get a Double L® Polo in Butter or Chili if you’re a guy; for the ladies, you can choose the polo in Spearmint. At Lands End, women can buy a scoop neck tank top in Persimmon. At Maryland Square, the shoe catalog, some of the models come in: Tootsie Roll, Coffee Bean, and Cream Soda. They also feature items in these fine colors: “Luggage,” “Tuscany” and “Tobacco.” It turns out “Luggage” is a shade of tan – my wife’s luggage is blue, so I guess it’s not universal.

The car companies are into adult beverages: you can get a new Ford Taurus in “Merlot,” a Chevrolet Trailblazer in “Bordeaux” or a Lexus SC in “Chardonnay Pearl.” Now there’s a dangerous mix – cars and alcohol.

What’s with all the food and drink references? I can only guess they’re trying to make customers hungry – and thirsty – for their products.

P.S. Back to hiking – if you’d like to read a book about one person’s hiking adventures – funny and serious – try Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Did Anyone Tell The Animals?

We recently had a one-day government shutdown in my home state of Pennsylvania – due to our bloated state legislature and the governor being unable to agree on a budget prior to the new fiscal year.

It wasn’t a complete shutdown; those services deemed essential for “health and safety” – like the State Police – continued operating. But other things were closed. I remember reading a news release from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) which solemnly stated, “All state parks and state forests will be closed.” What I wondered was, “Did anyone tell the animals their homes would be shuttered?”

Ever wanting to do my part, I tried my best to inform the wildlife my sister and I encountered on a hike in Lackawanna State Park the weekend before the shutdown. We couldn’t catch the attention of a soaring bald eagle – we didn’t look enough like prey, I guess. The three deer we encountered scurried away before we could get close enough to relay the news. A series of large spider webs were unoccupied; we would have left a note, but we didn’t have anything to write on. Finally, we got close enough to a red salamander, but the creature mutely professed indifference to our warning. I wonder if DCNR had the same results.

I think it odd that with the criteria for deciding what parts of state government would remain open being “health and safety,” the state liquor stores (ask me about those another time), the state lottery and the five slots casinos remained open. (The latter took a court order to accomplish.) Here’s how I look at it: the shutdown occurred on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year – with excessive heat warnings issued. For many people – particularly in urban areas – the only relief from the dangerous heat would be a nearby state park pool, beach or forest. But they were closed. What happened to “health and safety?” I suppose they could take comfort that the lottery was still in full operation. Oh, and one other thing: the state Revenue Department was shut down. Now there’s progress.

The Great Pennsylvania Government (Partial) Shutdown of 2007 is history, and like the Federal government shutdown in late 1995, the cause was the same: a sandbox fight between two children who haven’t yet learned how to play nicely together yet. What a state! What a country!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Forward-Looking Statements?

If you’ve ever invested in the stock market, you’ve come across the term “forward-looking statements.” I saw the term again as a disclaimer in a recent company news release. The explanation of these statements was nearly as long as the news release itself.

Here’s an excerpt: forward-looking statements include “terminology such as "subject to," "believes," "anticipates," "plans," "expects," "intends," "estimates," "may," "will," "should," "can," the negatives thereof, variations thereon, similar expressions, or discussions of strategy. All forward-looking statements are based upon management's current expectations and various assumptions, but they are inherently uncertain, and the Company may not realize its expectations and the underlying assumptions may not prove correct.”

This guidance, courtesy of regulations issued by the federal Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), seeks to warn potential investors that anything can – and often does – happen in the stock market. It’s a laudable goal, but like everything else a government agency gets its hands on, it becomes a thicket of twisted phrases and legalisms that obscure rather than clarify the message. Investment-related documents are filled with pages of verbal jungles and swamps that make bleary the eyes and stupefy the mind. In the end, the exact opposite of the SEC intent occurs. Investors are less informed because they don’t read the warnings.

Can we simplify things? Let’s try. If a company says a new product line “should” significantly increase revenue, that means it may happen – or it might not. Or to use “the negative thereof,” if a company says a product recall “should not” materially affect its current earnings, don’t be surprised when those earning nosedive as the recall expands. If an investor is not literate enough to understand that “should” doesn’t mean “will,” he shouldn’t be in the market. In other words, there are no guarantees. Caveat emptor. Use a dictionary. What could be simpler? Forward-looking statements won’t prevent backward-looking regrets.

Disclaimer: The foregoing discussion is posted in the earnest hope that the folks at the SEC have a sense of humor.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Listen to the Music

I’m not gifted at making music – that talent went to my brother and sister. But I love listening. Being a child of the 50s and 60s and an adult of the 70s and 80s, I have wide-ranging tastes. Mixing groups and genres to get custom playlists on my computer always produces some shall we say fascinating results – everything from doo-wop to hard rock, classical to folk, Motown to pop – no bubble gum music allowed!

Who else would mix Santana with Peter, Paul & Mary? Or maybe Journey & Jim Croce? Harry Chapin & Rachmaninoff? Led Zeppelin & Gordon Lightfoot? It makes for some interesting transfers to my MP3 player. (Unlike most of the civilized world, I don’t have an I-pod. I have a 30 gig Philips – I call it a P-pod.) Those artists are all on the playlist that’s rattling my headphones while I’m writing this epistle.

I haven’t heard much music over the last decade that has moved me. Being a part-time college instructor, I hear a lot of new music on campus that interests my students, but I haven’t connected with much of it. I always tell my students at the start of the semester that I try to stay current about various cultural tastes, including music – although I admit to them I don’t know Ludacris from Limp Bizkit and can’t tell techno from trance without consulting Wikipedia. Once when we were discussing file sharing downloads, I brought in a Led Zeppelin LP – yes, a vinyl one. I handed it to the nearest student and said, “This was our idea of file-sharing.” Times have changed.

I can’t say I haven’t tried to appreciate contemporary music, although I find much of it dark. With so much percussion, there’s not much melody to focus on. I understand that hip-hop expresses a great deal of anger and frustration, but I think Marvin Gaye did the same thing about 35 years ago with “What’s Going On” – and with haunting vocals and rich, full music. Even hip-hop artists acknowledge that.

I keep trying. I told my students I’d bought an Evanescence CD – that really stunned them, but it’s good stuff. Recently, while in my favorite Quizno’s, I heard something on the sound system and asked the young man at the counter (whom I talk to mostly about sports), “That sounds interesting. What is it?” “Panic! At the Disco,” he announced. I should have quit while I was ahead, but I boldly ventured, “And who’s the band?” Of course, as I was summarily corrected, Panic! At the Disco is the band. I can’t remember the song title.

Maybe that’s what makes it hard for me to follow contemporary music. With bands like Audioslave, 311, Dido, Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy and Rage Against the Machine, no wonder I can’t tell the bands from the songs without help. I’d like to say it was different once upon a time, but then who can forget Strawberry Alarm Clock, Procol Harum and Creedence Clearwater Revival?

Listen…isn’t that Badfinger playing?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gone Fishin’

My late father was a fisherman. For years, his favorite pastime was to take rod and reel to streams and lakes near and far from where my parents lived. Although he most often went with a “fishin’ buddy” – a friend, neighbor, brother or brother-in-law – fishing for him was primarily a solitary enterprise. It was him, the rod, the line, the bait – and ultimately, if he were lucky, the catch. It was his way of getting away from it all, relaxing, challenging himself, being close to nature. I think a lot of fisherman of his age – those of the Greatest Generation – felt the same way about the sport.

Last week, I was doing a little hiking in the state park near my house. Since I was just snow trekking and picture-taking, I was in some of the park’s open fields adjacent to the lake, a spot usually populated by a coterie of picnickers, dog walkers, kids playing ball. Being early March, there was no one in the fields. The picnic tables were mute, acting as snow-covered, four-legged guardians of the stillness. The trees also stood silent, their leafless limbs wagging in the wind. It was peaceful.

As I approached the shoreline, I got a better look at some of the folks fishing out on the lake ice. My father went ice fishing when he was younger; it was even more solitary than fishing at other times of the year, he told me. I heard one of the fisherman talking – rather loudly, in fact. At first, I thought he was calling to a nearby buddy, but then I realized: he’s sitting there talking on a cell phone! I guess he had to raise his voice to compete with the wind.

I wasn’t close enough to hear what he was saying; I don’t think he was calling for help or anything serious. Maybe he was just telling his wife when he’d be home. Then again, maybe he was just talking about nothing.

I’ve seen cell phones being used in some unusual places – including public bathrooms – but that was the first time I’d seen one being used by an ice fisherman. I had to smile, thinking about what my father might say – probably that the guy wouldn’t catch anything because his damn babbling scared the fish away. Is no place still sacred?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

We're History - NOT

This week, I watched “The Dark Ages” on the History Channel. I love history – almost any era, but with a particular fondness for ancient Rome, Biblical events, the American Revolution and World War II.

Young people don’t seem to care about history, or in many cases, have the slightest bit of historical knowledge. Maybe that’s because in today’s world of instant technology and fleeting impressions, anything older than one day is perceived as of no consequence. They don’t see how what happened in the past affects them. Or is it the way it’s taught – or not taught – in schools? If it’s taught as just a bunch of dates and places to remember with no connection to today, it’s no wonder students don’t care to learn.

Recently in one of my Public Relations classes, I tried to make a point about how certain events are life-defining for different generations – events that forever changed their way of thinking or behaving. For the Greatest Generation of my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. For their Baby Boomer offspring, there was a choice: the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the turbulent 60’s, Kent State. For this generation, it has to be 9-11.

My students are a bright group, and of course they understood how 9-11 changed their existence. But I could tell that they had no clue as to how Pearl Harbor changed their grandparents’ lives or how the 60s shaped my world – because they didn’t know what those events were. I’m finding that every historical reference I make, I have to explain – and that’s not just to college students.

The historian David McCullough spoke a few months ago at our local Cultural Center and he naturally bemoaned the lack of historical knowledge and the sorry state of history education. Listening to him, you could hear and feel his passion and joy for history. That’s what it takes with any subject – passion and joy. If teachers are creative and let students explore history by “becoming” a historical figure through role-playing, re-creations and the like, those lessons will be remembered. History, after all, is people – knowing how an ordinary person in ancient Rome lived brings that history to life.

History teaches us more about today than yesterday. Here’s hoping we don’t lose that teaching.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

A Few Words About My Words

I call this blog “My Quill Pen” because I’m an old fashioned writer. What does that mean? Writing should be clear, concise and compelling, but above all, it should be correct. Writing correctly seems quaint today; email, IM and blogs make communication instantaneous. Do we sacrifice quality in the bargain?

I’m not much for acronyms and emoticons, but I’m even less for run-on sentences, subjects and verbs that don’t agree, misspellings, improper usages and the like. It’s scandalous that in the 21st Century, we have business executives, lawyers, teachers and community leaders whose writings can’t match those of Civil War soldiers’ letters home for clarity, vigor and thoughtfulness.

I hope my scratchings live up to my ideals.