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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trump's Executive Order On Refugees

Anyone who knows me well and/or has been following my blog probably has an inkling about how upset I am about Trump's executive order banning the admission of all refugees to the US for 120 days and banning the entry of any citizen of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or Iran for 90 days.  This move is both discriminatory and downright mean-spirited.  Can you imagine having fled your homeland, having spent years in limbo, finally having the chance to settle somewhere, and then having that yanked away from you at the last minute?  Even the circumstances that are less extreme are painful to contemplate.  As an American who has both studied and worked abroad, I can only imagine how disruptive it would have been to my life if one of my host countries had suddenly decided not to let any more Americans in when I was on the cusp of moving there.

If we're serious as a nation about keeping people safe and saving lives, we have some pretty obvious places to start that don't involve discrimination based on national origin:  deaths from car accidents (more than 32,000 in 2013), firearm deaths (over 33,000 in 2014), and opioid overdoses (over 33,000 in 2015).

The idea of discriminating based on nationality is ridiculous to begin with.  People are people the world over.  I have traveled quite a bit and have met wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) people everywhere I have gone.  But I could say the same thing for people in the United States.  In fact, I distinctly remember some very notorious homegrown terrorists who were not Muslim:  the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Eric Rudolph all come to mind.  Can you imagine if American-born white men had come under additional scrutiny because all three of those domestic terrorists were all white men?  Or if we had just declared a moratorium on people having children since our society had raised all three of them?

To be clear, I am against having any sort of list that discriminates against certain nationalities.  But I could also poke plenty of holes in the list of seven countries that has been chosen.  If we are interested in looking at past terrorist performance on US soil by nationality, let's consider the 9/11 attacks.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  Notice that Saudi Arabia is not on the list of seven countries.  Again, I don't want to discriminate against the Saudis, either, but I find this fact interesting.

Here's another interesting hole:  I think Americans are most worried about ISIS and al-Qaida when they worry about foreign terrorism.  Both of those terrorist groups are Sunni, while Iran, a member of the list of seven, is predominantly Shiite.  I would be interested to know why it made the list, aside from general feelings some people have that it is a "problem" nation.

Nicholas Kristof has wonderful column today in which he discusses previous instances of fear-mongering against different groups of people in the US and his father's experience coming to the US.  It is useful to remember that we are a nation of immigrants and that at some point in the past, someone took a chance and allowed our families in. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Back To School At My Age? The Very Idea!

I'm an introvert, so I need a lot of time on my own to recharge from life.  As a result, I'm very protective of my free time, and generally wary of long term commitments that will get in the way of my doing whatever I happen to feel like.

So in a way, it seems crazy that--on top of working full time--I applied for a program, signed up for a fall semester class, and then signed up for two spring semester classes.  I must be a glutton for punishment.

The seed was planted when I was offered my current job and I learned that I would be eligible for tuition remission at the University of Maryland.  At the time, I thought this would just be a benefit on paper because there was no way I was going to stress myself out attending classes on top of working.

But then I started to hear that some of my colleagues were doing just that.  And I started to think that maybe I should give it a try.  I'd been thinking for some time that I'd like to expand my career options, but the timing never seemed right.  And I started to think that the time when you're able to take classes for free may be about as good of timing as any.

So I started taking hearing and speech classes in the fall.  I signed up for one class as a trial run.  The classes I want to take are being offered as a package in the evenings, specifically for the benefit of old grouches with jobs during the day non-traditional students.  The good thing about evening classes is that I don't have to rearrange my work day or risk missing important meetings.  The bad part is pretty predictable:  At the end of a day of work, I just want to go home.

It was hard to get into the right frame of mind in the fall.  At first, every Tuesday evening when class met, I asked myself what I was doing and why I was creating extra work for myself.  Then I started to wonder why I couldn't just learn the material on my own and then take some sort of placement test, as is common with math and foreign language classes.

Gradually, my attitude started to improve.  I realized that even though I probably could have learned the material on my own, taking a class gave me the structure I needed to stay motivated when I was busy with other things.  It also occurred to me that many of my classmates also had jobs, but unlike me, had to work farther from the university and without the benefit of free tuition. 

Spring semester started yesterday, and I had my first class this evening.  I am sorry to see the end of winter break.  Even after I went back to work after the holidays, I was enjoying having evenings free of classes, studying, and homework.  On the other hand, taking classes makes me feel like I'm making progress in life--after all, once you get credit for a class, it's like a box checked off.  On the way to checking off those two boxes this semester, though, I'm sure I will be taking a lot of deep breaths and reminding myself often of why it's a good idea to do this.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Health Insurance Story

Having a health insurance story is sort of a US thing.  I think most other countries' health care systems are more streamlined, with longer histories of providing universal, or at least near-universal, coverage.  I remember talking about this issue with some European colleagues when we were in Kazakhstan.  They knew enough about US domestic policy to know that there were problems and controversies in our health care system, but they had never fully considered the ramifications of being a US citizen without health insurance.

Every American has a health insurance story of some kind.  Some people's stories are blessedly straightforward and uneventful.  It is very possible, for instance, to be covered by a parent's health insurance until you graduate from college, get a job with great benefits when you graduate, and stay at that job until you retire.  Other people's stories are straightforward for sadder reasons, as it is also possible to have a job that does not offer benefits of any kind and to simultaneously make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to buy a private insurance plan.  With all the talk recently of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obamacare"), I had been thinking of writing about my own health insurance saga for a long time.  Today, when I saw in the Washington Post that 18 million people will lose their health insurance in the first year if the ACA is repealed without a replacement, I decided it was time to start writing.  Here are the major milestones of my health insurance saga so far as a US citizen:

  • Ages 0-18: Covered by the health insurance my dad got through his employer!  Not every child is this lucky, so this was very good fortune right off the bat.
  • College:  Still covered by my dad's health insurance!
  • Graduate school:  And still covered by my dad's health insurance!  Currently, under the ACA, children can stay on their parents' health insurance plans until the age of 26.  Previously, rules varied.  In my case, I was allowed to remain on his plan until one of the following things happened;  (1) I turned 26, (2) I got married, or (3) I finished or left school.  As it turns out, I did all three things within less than a year, but turning 26 was what happened first.  If I had needed to, I could have purchased health insurance through my university, but it would have taken a significant chunk out of my carefully-budgeted grad school stipend.
  • First job out of graduate school:  I moved to Madison, WI right after successfully defending my MA thesis.  I didn't technically graduate until December of that year, so had some time to frantically look for work before turning 26 that October.  Hard as I tried, it took some time for me to find a job at all, and once I did, it did not offer any benefits.  My parents generously offered to cover private insurance premiums for me until I could get insurance by some other means.  I applied for coverage with a plan that was highly rated in Consumer Reports.  They ultimately covered me, but not before one of their representatives called me to ask follow-up questions from my health questionnaire.  Also, although I was not planning to become pregnant at that time, I was taken aback to notice that this plan provided no benefits for prenatal care or delivery unless you purchased a maternity rider.  Given the high number of unintended pregnancies in the US, this seemed like a disaster from the standpoint of healthy mothers and babies.  It also seemed like a slap in the face for people to potentially pay for this additional coverage and then not end up being able to use it.
  • Marriage:  Covered by Scott's health insurance plan!  His plan was from his university, and it covered us through the remainder of our time in Wisconsin and during a research fellowship Scott had in Israel after that.  
  • First job with benefits:  Shortly after our return to the US from Israel, I got my first job that offered benefits.  I had a number of plans to choose from, and ultimately picked the PPO with the lowest premiums.  I had a longstanding suspicion of HMO's after working in a pharmacy for a few summers during college and seeing some of our customers struggle with their HMO's rejecting medicines of different kinds, so I decided a PPO would be better.  I chose the one with the lowest premiums because I figured Scott and I were young and healthy.
  • Sickness strikes:  Three or so years into the job mentioned above, I started to develop odd symptoms.  I had trouble swallowing.  Then I had body aches all the time.  Then I was always exhausted, no matter how much sleep I got.  Finally, my heart started racing at random times.  When your heart does something unexpected, it brings on a lot of tests.  I had multiple EKG's, a CT scan, and an echocardiogram.  I had to wear an event monitor (basically like a portable EKG that you can use to record what your heart is doing when you feel it doing something out of the ordinary) for a couple of weeks.  I had a multitude of blood tests, and when those started to provide clues, a thyroid ultrasound.  All these tests are expensive, so it was lucky that I had good health insurance.  It was also lucky that I had adequate sick leave and didn't end up losing my job due to the time I had to take off.
         In the end, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease.  This was a better diagnosis than some of          things doctors were considering, but it put me squarely in the dreaded pre-existing conditions
         camp.  No amount of participating in triathlons, eating goji berries, or meditating at sunrise
         will make this disease go away.  Prior to the full implementation of the ACA, private insurance
         plans could have denied me coverage because of this disease.
  • A plunge into the unknown:  A couple years after my diagnosis, I left my job.  This was in part to help Scott pursue a career opportunity, and in part because I had become increasingly unhappy at work.  After leaving that job, I was able to pursue teaching, a new line of work for me.  My new job did not provide me with benefits, but I was able to get health insurance under Scott's plan.  Neither of our jobs at that time were "stable," but I had the courage to leave my previous job and try something new in part because, due to the ACA's prohibition on discriminating on the basis of preexisting conditions, I knew I would be able to get private health insurance if I had to.
  • Kazakhstan:  Our next jobs took us to Kazakhstan, where we were promised free global health insurance.  Unfortunately, in our employer's world view, the US was mostly excluded from this globe; our health insurance would cover only the first 28 days of any visit to the US and only for emergency care.  We knew some of our visits would last longer than 28 days, and I needed somewhat routine care anyway, so we needed to supplement this coverage somehow.  We consulted with an expert, who told us that in NC (where we based ourselves during our time abroad), we couldn't sign up for ACA insurance unless we were physically present in the state for at least 6 months out of the year.  We opted for COBRA coverage from Scott's previous employer.  This was very expensive, and would only last for a maximum of 18 months, but for our peace of mind, we were lucky to have the option.
  • Almost signed up for ACA insurance:  When we returned from Kazakhstan, our 18 months of COBRA coverage was drawing to a close.  We were in a race to either find a job with benefits for at least one of us, or sign up for ACA insurance.  We consulted with the same expert who, upon learning that we were getting job interviews, advised us to wait as long as we could.  Losing our insurance would have been a qualifying event to allow us to sign up outside the open period, so it made sense to wait until closer to the end of our COBRA coverage to see if either of us got a job.
  • A new job with benefits:  One of those interviews panned out for me!  We were slated to lose our COBRA coverage on March 1; I started working on February 29.
Certain parts of my story--most notably moving to Kazakhstan--might be somewhat unusual.  But other parts aren't.  Anyone could have trouble finding a job with benefits, especially when they are young and lacking in job experience.  Also, anyone, no matter how well they take care of themselves, could end up sick or injured and developing a "pre-existing condition."  In some cases these sicknesses and injuries lead to people losing jobs, and therefore losing employer-provided health insurance.  In other cases, they may prevent people from working in the first place.  For that matter, anyone could be laid-off and lose their employer-provided health insurance that way.

I've had advantages that not everybody has had.  I have educated, employed parents who kept me continuously covered on their health insurance until I turned 26.  I have a graduate degree, which opens up opportunities to certain jobs that provide benefits.  Scott and I have been married for ten and a half years, and we have added one another to our employer-provided health insurance during that time.  In spite of that, I spent several months on a private health insurance plan before getting married, and we almost signed up for ACA insurance in 2016 before I started working at my current job.

There has been a lot of talk recently about repealing the ACA.  There has been talk about replacing it, too, though I have yet to see a concrete plan for how that will happen.  Trump has promised how wonderful the replacement will be.  I hope he is right, not just for the sake of the 18 million people who stand to lose their health insurance right away, but also for the sake of everyone who might need it in the future.  Anyone can experience bad luck, and I hope that people who do can at least have health insurance.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Using Two Large Focal Beads In One Necklace

Sometimes interesting beads sit in my collection for a long time before I figure out the perfect way to use them.  I was given the pair of red patterned African trade beads that you can see in the necklace picture many years ago.  I liked them, but I had no idea how to use them.  They are large and somewhat heavy, which means that if you string them on the wrong part of the necklace, they will make the whole thing hang funny.  They are long, and the ends are not tapered.  This means that smaller beads may be visually swallowed up next to them.  Their holes are very large, which means that smaller beads may be literally swallowed up by them.  So they posed some challenges.  I had originally thought of making two separate chokers out of them, and maybe giving one as a gift.  But I thought that would be too easy and predictable; plus, my selfish nature took over, and I wanted both of the beads for myself.

I ultimately decided the beads would hang best in the front of center of any necklace.  That pointed to a double strand necklace with one bead on each strand, rather than, say, a long single strand necklace with a bead on each side.  I decided I wanted to incorporate bead weaving, but wanted the strength and security of beading wire.  So I stitched four seed bead tubes (herringbone stitch, if anyone is interested).  The two "top" tubes are shorter than the two "bottom" tubes; that is what creates the curve in the necklace.  On each side of the necklace, I partially stitched together the long and short tubes.  That is a detail that isn't very obvious in the picture, but I think it helps to maintain the necklace's curve.

Once I had done all of the seed bead work, I strung everything on beading wire.  I string some small seed beads inside both the African trade beads and the beaded tubes to help keep them centered on the wire.  The blue beads I strung right next to the African trade beads are large enough that they don't disappear into either the African trade beads or the beaded tubes.

Overall, I'm very pleased with how it turned out.  The one thing I'm not as happy about is the clasp.  I couldn't find any two-strand clasps with an appropriately rustic look, and decided my best option in terms of appearance was a toggle clasp.  Two-strand toggle clasps are horribly fiddly when you try to clasp them (I had originally thought it was just this necklace, but I made another, very different necklace with a two-strand toggle clasp recently, and it's nearly as bad).  So if I ever use that type of clasp again, I'm going to be very careful that everything near the bar portion of the clasp is tiny and/or flexible so that it can pass through the toggle as easily as possible.

I'm happy when beads I've had for a while finally find a home.  After recently organizing my collection, I concluded that quite a few beads need happy homes.  With luck, I'll find time to make that happen more often.  I got stuck in a busy rut in the fall and felt too overwhelmed to start anything.  I'm cranky when I don't have a project to work on, though, so I hope my recent reorganization will make it easier for me to find the things I want and start projects I can work on for at least a few minutes a day.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: Something In My Purse Was Useful!

Laila experiences triumph in the form of an unguarded water glass on the table.

In a time of unusually high uncertainty and political tension, we could all use something positive to think about.  So, I thought I'd write about a minor triumph I had the other day!  If I find myself experiencing little triumphs with any frequency, maybe I can make them a regular feature of my blog.   Anyway, here goes...

Sometimes the drive from North Carolina to Maryland seems to call for junk food, especially of the sugary variety.  Our recent drive back after the holidays was no exception.  We stopped at a rest area, decided that Reese's Pieces looked like the best option, and bought a pack.  But then when we got back in the car, it would. Not. Open.

I was bemoaning our lack of implements of destruction in the car when Scott mentioned that if I could find his work ID in the glove compartment, it might have a pin attached to the back.  Then I remembered that I had safety pins in my purse!

On a certain level, I think I've always been concerned that I would experience a great catastrophe with nothing but my purse at my disposal.  In addition to the safety pins I carry in case of wardrobe malfunction, I have ibuprofen, band-aids, and even a few of my thyroid pills.  Why?  I don't know.  Every time I travel, I probably check my bags at least five times to be sure I have my thyroid medication, so it's somewhat unlikely that I'd end up away from home without it.  Needless to say, most of the time, the crapola useful stuff in my purse does nothing for me but help develop my shoulder muscles from lugging it around.  I'm not sure I have ever actually needed safety pins in all the time I have carried them around.

This time was different, though!  I took one of my safety pins and used it to poke a perforated line along one side of the Reese's Pieces package.  From there, I am happy to report, we were able to open the package and get our sugar fix.

It truly is the little things in life...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Holiday 2016 Pictures

Happy 2017 to all!  In spite of all the various reasons to feel pessimistic, I hope the year turns out better than many of us think.  In the meantime, here is a quick recap of some holiday highlights.

We spent Christmas (and much of Hanukkah) in NC.  Hanukkah started on Christmas Eve this year, and my mom and I collaborated on a batch of latkes for dinner.  Below is a picture of our Christmas tree.  We are a multi-colored light and eclectic collection of ornament type of family.

After Christmas, we made a family trip to the NC coast.  Fall and winter are my favorite times to go there.  Rather than tanning, I turn a tomato-like shade of red in the sun.  So I prefer to go during a time of year when the sun isn't as strong and I can be comfortably covered up.  It is also less crowded when it isn't hot.

After returning from NC, we went to see the tree at the Capitol.  I am always fascinated by the scale of the ornaments on such a large tree.  Also, nothing says "festive" quite as well as a potato sack!

The fact that I feel well enough to blog on New Year's morning probably gives a clue that my activities last night did not involve getting wasted and puking in a cab on the way home.  Scott and I had a meal of appetizers at home and hung out with Laila.  Much less expensive than many of the other options, and we're both in a position to have a productive day.

Hope everyone's festivities were what the wished for!