Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Birthday Milestones

Tomorrow is May 1st. It's my birthday month. I will be 55 on May 25th. Wow.

I figure this is a big one. Browsing through a magazine in the waiting room of my primary care doctor, I came across an advertisement for a retirement village that carried the tagline "Life Begins At 55." All right! I'm almost there. Rebirth awaits.

So I started working on my birthday wishlist earlier than usual figuring since this is a big one my presents should reflect that. But when I informed my sister-in-law, she responded in an e-mail, "Wendy said that '55' isn't considered a big one. Just old ;-) "

Ohhhhhh, et tu, Wendy? Stabbed in the back by the missus. Hea, the local Bob Evans restaurant recognizes 55 as a milestone. They have a couple special pages in their menu devoted to those of us (well, soon to be me) 55 and over.

Speaking of milestone birthdays, I took the family up to Bay City last Saturday night for my nephew's 30th birthday. He sometimes comments here on my blog as does his father, "The Enforcer."

My nephew is big on big parties, having long turned his garage into a kind of neighborhood pub, complete with a name--Mahoney's, and even a framed collage of the "bartenders of the month." I saw The Enforcer's picture there.

A big party it was, with catered Mexican food even. One of his gifts was a glass boot that held, I believe, two liters of beer. That's a lot. It was filled and passed around amongst the raucous party-goers which numbered in the dozens. I hear these parties can get plenty wild, though I suspect not really so until oldsters like myself leave.

Oh the stories you hear afterwards. My sister wrote to me later, "Did you know that our mother gave this guy a huge hug when he walked in when we were leaving? ...I asked her who that was and she said "Mason". (Mason has been my nephew's friend for many years) Somebody else immediately says Mason's behind the bar...the guy mom hugged was the neighbor."

Well, at least the neighbor was apparently coming to join the party. He wasn't coming to complain about the noise. He didn't mind the hug either.

Just before I left I remember seeing that my nephew had stripped off his shirt and was sandwiched between two young ladies, neither of whom was his wife, dancing together in the middle of the garage.

I can tell you one thing. If we go to Bob Evans for my birthday so I can get the special menu, the shirt stays on.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stimulus Me Now

Where's my economic stimulus? I need it now. Actually, it's not so much for me. It's for all those people I pay money to. They all heard of this windfall I'm getting from the government.

Our latest dentist bill went up by about $20 a visit, even though we have insurance. This is what we pay after insurance. Last trip to the dog groomer cost Doogie $5 more. Oh, and Doogie's appetite has grown more finicky lately, requiring us to buy more expensive dog food. Maybe Doogie heard we're getting that economic stimulus too.

Our local grocery store certainly has heard. Bread is becoming a luxury item. Now when my doctor says I need to eat more fruits and vegetables in my diet I can tell him, "I can't afford to."

The oil companies definitely know we're getting this stimulus. The price of gas shot up to a uniform $3.65 and nine tenths a gallon throughout the Ann Arbor area this morning. It's almost as if a memo goes out overnight informing all the gas stations in the area what to charge the next day.

Sometimes you might find a pariah who is charging 20 or 30 cents less a gallon than his "competitors." That doesn't last long. Soon he falls into line, as if to say to his fellow gas sellers, "Sorry, I forgot to check my e-mail this morning."

Our mortgage company wants a chunk of my stimulus money, saying this month that their most recent estimate of our escrow shows we're a few hundred dollars short. That means our property taxes have gone up quite a bit despite the fact that our home value has DEcreased. Something to do with the Headlee Amendment in Michigan that was supposed to help protect us from unreasonable property tax hikes. Don't ask me to explain.

The mortgage company itself also wants a couple bucks more each month just to pay the mortgage bill. Something about increased bank fees. Again, don't ask me.

It's enough to make you want to escape to the movies. Except that the price of a video rental has gone up to $5 in our neighborhood. It was $3 not too long ago. That's why I discuss here Canadian-made documentaries about dying, like I did last week, but not the hottest new DVD releases.

Even the price of draft beer has gone up a quarter at our favorite watering hole this year. The cost of hops and barley has skyrocketed of late, I hear. So it costs more to drink your troubles away too.

Yet, there is one staple item whose cost has remain constant throughout. Three cheers for the hot 'n ready pizza. When the price of pizza starts rising, you know we're really in trouble as a nation.

But I have a word of advice for our country's leaders. Next time you want to give me an economic stimulus check, let's just keep it between you and me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Death's Door

When I was in high school, my buddy Bob confided to me that he had figured out a way to cheat death. A big movie buff as well as someone concerned about his "eternal dirt nap", Bob had determined after watching numerous westerns that those mortally wounded seemed to be able to ward off the end long enough to say their last words to those gathered around.

It was as if their sheer clenched-teeth determination made the difference between life and death, Bob thought. So all Bob had to do was fight off dying for however long it took, just like they did in those westerns. Eventually, like a fever, death would relent and Bob could continue living as before.

Of course, the Hollywood-style of the ultimate fade-to-black is nothing like real life. Er, real death rather. While surfing the far realms of my digital TV channel line-up, I came across the movie, “Dying at Grace.” This Canadian-made documentary follows the final weeks, days, hours and minutes in the lives of five terminally ill patients in the palliative care ward at Grace Health Centre in Toronto. And records their deaths.

Most suffered from some form of advanced cancer. Though all accepted their fate, a few continued to cling to the hope of at least a few better days. One woman talked about moving out of the hospital into her own apartment if her latest bout of chemotherapy brought about a remission. It didn’t. Instead it sent her into a downward spiral that brought her to death’s doorway just as quickly as the other terminally ill patients featured in the movie.

Since I still correspond via e-mail with Bob, I had to give him a brief synopsis of the movie. In fact, death in real life is nothing like it’s portrayed in the movies, I explained. At least, in westerns. Death could be more like what you might see in a horror movie, I told him. And I told him why. While Bob knows now that he can't cheat death, he still becomes a bit anxious on the subject of death and dying.

Here’s how Bob responded:

“Damn, just when I thought this post couldn't get any worse you go totally morbid on me. No thanks on the movie; I've never wondered what death actually looked like. Of course, you probably have the Definitive DVD Collection of Faces of Death too. Damn Christopher Coffin, this is getting creepy. Sharing (medical issues) is one thing but I fail to see the audience value in watching people pass. Just Ghoulish, Dave Kevorkian, just ghoulish. BTW, some people like mystery. You should have included a spoiler alert with this post. I know some people like to read the end of a book first but most of us would prefer not to have the ending spoiled! And you a budding O. Henry should have known most readers like the strange, unexpected twists at the end.”

Sorry Bob. I'll be more careful with my movie critiques in the future.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Fair Weather, Fair Play

Finally, temperatures are in the 60s here in Ann Arbor. Crocuses blooming, tulips emerging, but the newscaster from the local Fox channel said it best: “Spring is officially here. There was a riot at Michigan State University.”

Those crazy, violent Spartans. Police in full riot gear fired tear gas, concussion grenades and arrested about 50 people including a couple dozen Spartan students early Sunday morning when “Cedar Fest”, an MSU spring-time ritual of drinking and debauchery, was resurrected in a big way.

My son Scott, a student there, was not involved but he e-mailed me about it. Scott sees the violence from the other side now as he supervises a maintenance crew at one of the dormitories. A week ago, when Memphis was mightily trouncing Michigan State in the NCAA basketball tournament, the call came over the radio that someone had just tossed a chair through the eighth story study lounge window. (Hea, if you’re a Spartan, you’ve got to learn to handle heartbreak.)

Now as a prominent Michigan Wolverine booster, I hear deriding comments from my Spartan counterparts often, even here in Ann Arbor, a place described by an observer recently as “the pocket of sanity in the Midwest”. I usually take it all in stride. For example, my supervisor, a misguided MSU booster who sits in the cubicle across from me, pinned a raft of newspaper clippings to the outside wall of his cubicle last October. These clippings all report on the same unfortunate one-in-a-million loss my beloved Wolverines suffered to a Division 2 school on the gridiron last fall.

Even though it’s now ancient history, the clippings remain, taunting me every time I get up and walk by. But I don’t touch them. It’s my supervisor’s cube, his tackboard, his property, his space.

But when the Detroit News front page banner headline screamed about MSU’s riot--ha!--now was my chance at a little tit for tat. After my boss left for the day, I prominently pinned up the article on my tackboard which faces him. Heh, heh.

So when I came in the next day, I expected some comment from the boss man. Instead I was in for a shock. My article was gone . . . replaced by an Ann Arbor News article about the “Hash Bash,” an innocent little pot-smoking gathering at the U of Michigan that coincidentally also took place this past weekend.

FOUL!! FOWELLLL!!! He can’t ravage my personal space like that, can he? I have a right to free expression at my work, right? This violates my Constitutional rights. I watch Judge Judy; I think I’m on pretty firm legal ground here. “You can’t do that,” as Judge Judy often says in her TV court.

I think I’ll sue. Not sure whether to just take him to small claims court or since it’s a Constitutional issue to go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court. Maybe I’ll just take him before Judge Judy since her rulings appear to be final regardless of the court or jurisdiction.

Lousy Spartans. They never play fair.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Spring Into Taxes

I saw this sign at a landscaping service and tree farm near Ann Arbor this past week:

Dear Winter:
Give it up. It’s Over.
Love, Us.

Says it for me. We’re still sub-freezing here in Michigan. I had to scrape icy windshields again this morning for the umpteenth time. We need more signs of spring--flower buds punching through the permafrost or something like that.

We have been experiencing one rite of spring in our household: tax time. Ughhh. Big Dave’s Tax Preparation Service has been in high gear. I did our taxes, both my sons, and gave some timely advice to my sister-in-law ("no, you can’t claim that deduction; see line 4 of paragraph 6 on page 22.")

I don’t get paid for my service. It’s free. So my elder son found out that you get what you paid for. His Michigan state return seemed stalled. We all had our refunds and he was still waiting impatiently for his hundred-plus bucks. He found a way to check on-line to see where it was at. The state equivalent of the IRS gave him the equivalent line of "your check is in the mail."

Then abruptly he received a different message. He should expect his money in September. The computer couldn’t compute his return. Oh, oh. Wendy and I pored over the copies we made of Greg’s taxes and, sure enough, we put a total on Line 31 when it should have gone on Line 32 . . . a mistake easy enough to see and correct, unless you’re the government. So we just whisked out an amended return on a wing and a prayer.

Greg also did his girlfriend’s taxes. He complained when his figures showed that she would have to pay in over a hundred dollars to the state. So I said Big Dave’s Tax Preparation Service would take a look at them. I found one deduction he missed and filled out a separate form for another deduction I believed she could take. That one’s a bit iffy. She certainly qualifies, but I’m not sure I would survive an audit based on the documentation. I should say I don’t know that SHE would survive an audit. Big Dave’s Tax Preparation Service doesn’t do audits. I’ll wait in the car.