Form-al Affair

You may be approaching the Medicare years. Or you may have already arrived. In either case, this tale should have personal and practical appeal. It may also give you a few smiles and chuckles.

Years ago, when I was in my teens, a diabolical fortune teller told me I would die when I was 64. As a result, I must have been the only person in the country who could hardly wait to be 65. I concentrated during that fateful 64th year answering the detailed forms arriving, almost daily, to qualify for Medicare. The final questionnaire had been quite a challenge. After pondering several of the questions, I decided to enlist the help of my husband, who had qualified for Medicare a few years earlier. I assumed he would be a whiz at filling in the proper boxes and giving the correct responses.

No such luck. They must have made some changes when they heard major reforms were on the way. In any case, he was always been better at spatial relations and I excelled in the verbal skills. We’re a tough team to stymie —- or so I thought. At the top of the first page, instructions printed in red gave the ground rules: “This information will be read by a computer. Please print as shown below. Stay within the boxes. Use capital letters only. Use black or blue ink.” Except for the initial disquieting thought that a machine would be reading my very personal information, the rest seemed clear and concise. Until I moved to the questions.

“On 03/01/96 will you be working as an employee or a self-employed person full-or part time?” That was really four questions in one…. and there were three boxes: Yes, No and Don’t Know. I checked the Yes box with a flourish and my pen went outside the box. Already I was in trouble. Will the computer void the rest of the form? Then I was asked my expected retirement date. Since I would be working part-time, did they mean full retirement or did part-time count? I realized the Don’t Know box that was below the Yes and No boxes for question number one really belonged with this question. Oops!

I forged ahead after putting the year 2000 or rather 00 since only two little boxes were available. Next, I encountered two questions about my employer and any group health insurance said employer provides. Since I was self-employed, I ignored these questions and all the related boxes. I left them blank and hoped the computer didn’t think I missed them. I had completed Part I and was beginning to feel very accomplished. Onward to Part II which appeared to be aimed at a particular cohort of the population. The first question, “Are you getting Black Lung benefits?” Whew! Nothing ordinary like lower back pain, hernia or carpal tunnel syndrome. This opening gambit was followed by questions that made more sense to most of us, dealing with medical services that could be related to on-the-job injuries.

Several more easy-fielder queries and I had arrived at Part III — “Information about your spouse.” At this point, I usually would hand my husband the form to complete. This time, I decided to master it all by myself. Again, the question about whether my spouse will be working full or part-time as of 03/01/96. Same two questions in one. Then the obvious, fill in his name in block letters in the little square boxes. Except that his legal name starts with capital B. Robert …. Another dilemma. There are 15 spaces for the first name and one for the middle initial. I became reckless and arbitrary. Take that, computer! Since I can’t fit his middle name into the one space available and the solitary B looks lonely in the 15 spaces, I printed B, skipped a space and printed Robert. I hoped the computer could figure this out. Probably, his first name would appear in all future mailings as Mr. Brobert…..

After completing all the questions, I signed the attached Part IV Certification sheet ( Privacy Act Statement) and mailed all this valuable and titillating information off. Then I realized what I had agreed to. In heavy black letters in Part IV, I had been duly warned, “Anyone who knowingly and willfully makes or causes to be made a false statement… for use in determining a right to payment under the Social Security Act is committing a crime punishable under federal law by fine, imprisonment or both.” If that computer in all its technological wisdom, decided that I had been less than candid in my answers and quite sloppy in filling in the boxes into the bargain, I could have been in big trouble with the Feds.

I am happy to report that did not happen. I received no follow-up letters in response to my completed questionnaire. After some weeks passed, I was notified that I qualified for Medicare benefits and received my magic identification number. Apparently, the Feds had other business on their agenda. Since then, I have been receiving my Medicare benefits when needed and my husband does not open his mail from them addressed to Mr. Brobert…. The clever computer must have figured out that he is Mr. B. Robert. How about that!

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“How’s Your Grass Growing?”

If you‘ve ever enjoyed the beauty of a green lawn in front of your house, this story will resonate with you. For twelve years, I had been doing battle with moles, voles and a legion of squirrels and chipmunks. Squirrels came with the tall oak trees in front of the house. I had accepted them, as well as the tiny striped chipmunks that added a lively touch to the suburban landscape. The moles and voles were another story —the enemies with their mounds of yellow-brown dirt placed strategically about the grass. They were the Darth Vaders of our lawn!

Then, one morning, I opened the front door and discovered small yellow, red and orange flags along with vivid neon stripes painted across the lawn! This multi-color parade wrapped around the corner through the ivy and finished with a flourish at the driveway. Just the decorative accents I had always wanted! More ominous was the realization that these markings connoted something very sinister for the future. The words, “Hand Dig Only” jumped out from each plastic pendant. Our visitors had been the local electric, telephone and gas companies. Each had left a strong warning: “CAUTION Buried Electric Lines or Telephone Facilities or Gas Lines” Then “Questions?” and a telephone number.

Of course, I called one of the numbers. And so the saga began. First, I chose the Electric Company. “Questions: 1(800) 272-1000. A recording told me to wait and I did while listening to music that was not too unpleasant for early in the morning. Then, a voice answered and I was encouraged. Progress. But my heart leapt too quickly. She told me that she could not answer my questions as to what the little pennants and neon stripes meant on my lawn. She would connect me with customer service. “Fine,” said I.

Customer service turned out to be a recording— the flags and lines were for my information and protection when “excavation was going on in the area.” That comment raised my apprehension level many notches higher. There was no excavation within a half mile at present. Where and when was the excavation to occur, I wondered. On our lawn with its road map of lines and flags?

I waited until 9:00 to call again, hoping that I would reach a different person with a more detailed response. The woman who answered told me that number was not the Electric Company after all. It was New Jersey One Call. She said she had no information as to what the lines and arrows and flags meant. Great! By then, I needed another cup of camomile tea to recover my equilibrium.

An hour later, I found a white card with bold red lettering hanging from our front door knob. “Construction Notice (a dreaded term!) from KLINE Construction Company. The notice told me that KLINE had “contracted with your local utility to upgrade the underground (help!) portion of its systems. Our upgrade construction crews will be working in your area for the next several weeks…The effort may include excavation in the utility easement (right-of-way) on your property. (Worst fears confirmed!) Please be assured that all excavated areas will be effectively restored in a timely manner.” The repeated use of “excavation” gave me the willies. “Upgrade” and “restored” didn’t help.

The entire explanation was an attempt to reassure me that my seeded, sodded, fertilized, limed, de-grubbed, aerated, thatched, re-seeded, sprinkled ad infinitum lawn was going to look good as new. Do I have tell you that I was not reassured. To tell the truth, all the attention this lawn had received for the past years would pay for a trip to Italy. No matter. There was a principle involved here. I hated the sight of those lurid stripes across the front of our property. As well as their matching plastic flags. How dare they just move along with their paint brushes without even ringing the door bell!

Next, I called KLINE Construction. A most cordial man put me on hold, returned and said he would look up our address on his computer. When he came back, he had no record of our property. That answer did not inspire confidence. He tried again and this time, not only did he find our address, but he gave me the best of all news. “The work will not be done on the Linwood side of Burroughs Avenue. It will be done on the Northfield side.” Now, I guess I should have been altruistic and concerned about my neighbors’ grass across the street. They had built their home several years before and put down a new lawn. But, I must admit my feeling was one of great relief. Our lawn had been nurtured and coddled for over a decade.

I didn’t ask him why the flags and neon lines were all over our lawn. I was afraid to pursue the subject. I sensed that discretion was the better part of valor. I did ask if I could take down the flags. He advised against doing that and I was so relieved that I decided to follow his advice. I trusted that there was some logic in their system even if I didn’t understand it. About a week later, the big yellow earth-movers and other assorted machines lumbered down Burroughs Avenue. I watched as excavating took place across the street in Northfield. Then, I carefully removed every flag from our lawn. We had to wait for the grass to grow tall enough to cut the neon stripes from our sight forever!

Fiftieth High School Reunion

I had never returned to a college or high school reunion. Call it the Thomas Wolfe you-can‘t-go-home-again syndrome. I preferred to keep the past safe, intact and neatly encased in a nostalgic cardboard box where it belonged. Then, in early September, 1997, an intriguing voice spoke to me from our telephone answering machine: “If this is Joyce Sloan Anderson from Eastside High School in Paterson, please call me. We’re having a fiftieth reunion, and you’ve been on the ‘lost’ list until today.”

With the caller’s name and phone number, I then searched for my yearbook to look for her picture before I returned the call. There was her face at eighteen, swimming up through the decades, head of the cap-and-gown committee and still apparently active in keeping the class spirit alive. In a senior class of more than two hundred students, we hadn’t known everyone, but I remembered her. I called her right away. After our initial exchanges, she told me, “We’ve been working on this for a year and a half. You were missing along with many other women whose married names we didn’t have and some of the men too.”
I then asked, “How did you find me?”
“Well, someone knew a friend of your sister. We called the friend and he gave us her married name. Then, we called your sister, and that did it.”
“ And who was the someone,” said I.

Her answer identified my high school boyfriend, the closest to a “steady” in those days. We had dated on and off throughout our four years at Eastside; the final event being a disastrous fight at the senior prom. I remember spending half the night in the Ladies Room of the Crown Court Hotel in New York City. The Ladies Room was where we went in those years to be consoled by our girlfriends when things went wrong at a dance. Looking back fifty years, it all seemed too hilarious! I decided to go to the reunion, and the next morning I called back my former classmate again.
“Is there going to be a booklet? With write-ups about each person?”
“Yes, Joyce. But it went to press last week. Sorry.”
“Am I going to be the only one there who won’t be in the booklet?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Well,” I said. “How about my writing up a summary. I’ll make copies and stuff the booklets before the others arrive.”
“Fine. I’ll send you the questionnaire we all answered as a guide.”

The reunion was set for Sunday evening, October 5, 1997 — only a month away in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. I planned to arrive with my cooperative if somewhat skeptical husband in tow. He had never attended any of his reunions either. It would be a first for both of us.

While I awaited the questionnaire in the mail, I knew I certainly wasn’t going to be the only one without an interesting past. A five-decade cipher! I had been the editor of the yearbook and had to live up to that title. The first question was, “What have you been doing since l947?” My mind usually goes blank when people ask me what I did last summer or last weekend. Now, I had only four lines to summarize my entire adult life. I was tempted to start with the Nobel Prize in Literature but thought better of that and played it straight. Highlights: Married with three children… appropriate names… College professor… subjects taught. Writing articles and Op Eds. For New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. Just filled up the four lines.

The major decision looming ahead was what to wear. I usually opt for a classic outfit and was considering my Brooks Brothers black and white checked blazer over a black cashmere sweater and slacks, The trio of my daughter, sister and hairdresser unanimously turned thumbs down on that idea. In fact, they were vehemently opposed. Daughter, “You want to look smashing!” Sister, “They already know you’re smart.” (Valedictorian). Hairdresser, “You’ll look like a college professor.” Of course, that was accurate, but the facts were beside the point. I then came up with an outfit that met total enthusiastic approval from my three fashion consultants. I would wear my elegant Chinese-red ultra suede suit ( Hong Kong splurge) with a grey silk blouse and gold bordered Mabe pearl earrings. I was ready to make a grand entrance.

The list of other attendees arrived and I was happy to see the names of my closest friends during my four school years. I called Adele in Arizona and we caught up on five decades of living. She had moved away and we had been completely out of touch. I called my erstwhile boyfriend and surprised him by saying, “It is I…(pause)… Thanks for finding me.” when he answered his phone. We caught up on our basic life history. I was looking forward to seeing him, Adele and my other former school mates and friends. I was ready.

The day after the reunion, I realized that Thomas Wolfe was wrong after all. I had one of the best times of my life. The classmates were warm and embracing. My ex-boy friend and Adele and I sat at the same round table and enjoyed recalling old stories. Neither he nor Adele had brought their spouses so my husband enjoyed his role as the resident spouse. He and I danced of course and I also danced with my frequent high school partner. Neither of us could remember why we had the big fight at the prom. It was too long ago and quite unimportant.

My fiftieth reunion turned out to be a life-affirming experience for me, as well as an emotional high. With the l940’s music playing in the background, the years fell away; and for one lovely night, I felt like eighteen again.

“Let The People Vote!”

The lead editorial in The New York Times on June 5, 2015 sounded the alarm once more to arouse Americans to the dangerous suppression of their voting rights. We are now in the pre -2016 presidential election months. An increasing number of Republican candidates are entering the race every day; Hillary Clinton is the favorite for the Democratic nomination. Will voters be waiting for hours in long lines as they did in 2012? What is the status of Photo ID laws, fewer early voting days and other means of voter suppression in the states? Finally, why is the United States ranked 20th out of 21 established democracies around the globe in voter participation?

The last question is the place to begin sorting out answers. The United States is one of the few countries that requires citizens to register to vote. In most democracies, the government is pro-active to make sure all eligible voters are on the electoral rolls. They have installed a form of automatic and permanent registration for citizens who reach voting age. Voila! When one turns eighteen, if that is the required age, one is automatically registered to vote. The census is used to create the voting lists in France, Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. They also use direct mailings and door-to-door drives to create lists. Recent census figures in the United States reveal that 30 percent of eligible voters -about 50 million people –are not registered to vote.

The official election day in the United States is just one day, the first Tuesday in November. Congress originally scheduled federal elections on Tuesday because it worked best for farmers and Sabbath observers. That’s the tradition that has lasted into the 21st century. Does this decision formed in an agrarian society make sense in our complex industrialized nation? What adjustments have already been made to give citizens more opportunity to vote? And what changes would increase citizen participation at the polls? What have been the opposing forces for increasing versus suppressing participation?

During the 2008 presidential election, 32 states had installed early voting or absentee voting, resulting in a record number of votes cast. Nationwide, the estimate was that one third of all registered voters had cast their ballots before Election Day, November 4. The southern and western states, California, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, were ahead of the northeastern states in offering early voting. Oregon had mail-in ballots only. Certain states that instituted election day registration saw close to ten percent higher registration. Motor voter registration increased participation in those states where offices served as a place to register. The length of the ballot also affected participation. Certain states like California which may have pages of referenda and initiatives may turn voters off when they receive their sample ballots in the mail.

Same day registration and early voting with more days to choose from increases participation. Less time constraints on workers would be an important improvement for all Americans. Changing the election day from Tuesday to the weekend would eliminate job conflicts for millions of voters. Historically in state legislatures, the Democratic party has been in favor of expanding voter registration opportunities while the Republican party has backed the growth of voter ID laws to stop alleged voter fraud at the polls. In 2005, Indiana passed the country’s strictest law, requiring that the voter ID meet four criteria to be acceptable– a driver’s license, a passport, a state issued ID or some other government issued photo ID. The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Indiana Democratic Party in the courts, It was eventually declared “constitutional” by the Supreme Court despite the fact that there had never been a case of voter impersonation fraud proven in Indiana.

In May, 2015, Democrats filed lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin, presidential battleground states, against voter identification requirements and restrictions like time limits on early voting. They are launching a nationwide legal battle l7 months before the presidential election in November 2016. Other target states include Georgia, Nevada and Virginia. A similar law suit was begun last year in North Carolina. Almost all of the states involved have growing African-American and Hispanic populations whose rights Democrats say could be harmed by voting rights restrictions. Hillary Clinton spoke on June 4, 2015 at Texas Southern University in Houston, a historically black college where she focused on voting rights as a broad civil rights issue. In a strong and powerful speech , she called for universal and automatic voter registration for all American citizens when they reached eighteen years of age. Oregon came closest in March when it passed a law automatically registering eligible citizens with a drivers license. Since then fourteen states have enacted similar proposals to put the responsibility of registration on the government rather than on individuals.

Hillary Clinton called for at least 20 days of early voting nationwide, including evenings and weekends. Fourteen states still do not offer early voting, and crucial swing states like Ohio and Florida have cut back the days and hours. She singled out laws in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin which voting rights groups say limit participation especially among minorities, the poor and younger voters who usually vote for Democrats. She also called for an increase in on-line voter registration and restated her position that nearly six million former felons should have their voting rights restored. She condemned the Supreme Court’s striking down the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act which opened the way for states to pass the photo ID laws and other restrictive regulations. She called on Congress to re-enact parts of the law.

Hillary Clinton also criticized her potential Republican rivals, Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida whose states have enacted voter suppression laws. According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, there are fourteen states with new restrictive voter laws in place for the first time in a national race. The lawsuits being filed are on behalf of citizens who say they have been, or could be disenfranchised. At the end of her speech, Hillary Clinton called upon Republicans “ at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud.” She deplored voter suppression as “a sweeping effort to dis-empower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other.” Her succinct closing line was, “We should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.”

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Remember Kindergarten? You Wouldn’t Recognize It Anymore?

In some schools these days, kindergarten ends with a graduation complete with mortar boards and tassels balanced on small heads. As one who attended this tiny-tot ceremony some years ago in Chesterbrook, PA, my bemused skepticism was rapidly transformed into awe. During the program, each of the children stood up, came front and center and read a story he or she had written. Did you get that? Read! Written! (Well — OK — printed.) Every one of them only five years old. I was floored.

When I went to school in the old days, kindergarten was the first time away from our mothers for most of us. Today, the majority of kindergartners have already experienced one or more years of preschool. They have moved beyond the first steps of learning in a social setting. Sharing their toys, lining up for activities, taking turns, paying attention to the teacher are old hat for these kids.. So, what’s left for them to do in kindergarten? Plenty, I found out. What used to be standard first grade fare has been pushed back to the starting line. The children’s stories at the graduation ranged from “My trip to the Phillies game” to “Why I like pizza” to “My grandma.” Now that’s a child after my own heart. Contrary to common lore that television had robbed us of our time and desire to read, these children were already launched on a lifetime romance with the written word.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This provocative statement can have many interpretations, but for our kindergartners the best meaning is the most direct. The sooner they learn to read and write, the sooner they start their love affair with language and books. And their world will have no limits.

Oh, before we left the graduation, each child also received a certificate for the number of library books read that year. The awards were given out in ascending order, and as the suspense mounted, the numbers rose from single digits to the grand prize winner. The tiniest girl in the class had read 34 books. Was this class and this teacher an exception? Perhaps. But, further digging revealed that the curriculum for public schools today may indeed start some degree of reading, printing and math before first grade. The Atlantic City schools and several surrounding suburban communities teach the basic three Rs in kindergarten. This is not necessarily true throughout the country where individual school districts determine curriculum.

There are nay-sayers who believe that an important stage of childhood is being lost in this rush to formal learning. They argue that socialization skills may be more important to the 5 year old than formal cognitive skills. They stress the value of reading readiness before actually tackling the books. However, in this era of the two-paycheck family and the single parent family, the years of preschool have become the prime setting for learning to live with other children. To respect their needs and rights of others as well as one’s own. And to interact positively while working on joint projects. Play is serious business in preschool as in adult life later on. Three and four year olds learn the rules and how to cope with success and failure. Some, of course, learn these valuable lessons better than others.

Kindergarten today builds on the preschool foundation. Socialization skills continue to be developed throughout all the elementary grades. But the emphasis has moved to introducing formal learning one year earlier. Five-year-olds, who have been watching television since infancy and using computers before they are two years old, appear to be ready to join the educational big leagues earlier than their parents and grandparents. Many two and three year olds learn the alphabet from their hand-held iPads. Have you noticed in restaurants that they sit quietly at family dinners engrossed in games until the food arrives? They may not be part of conversation with the adults, but everyone appears to be enjoying their night out. Let’s hope the kids spend time sharing with their parents and relatives in other settings.

It is important to realize that every American child does not go to preschool. There are millions of 3 and 4 year olds at home with their mothers. “Let the Kids Learn Through Play” ran in the New York Times Review on May l7, 2015. Letters in response included one from Vivian Gussin Paley who was a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher for forty years. She wrote, “More than 60 years have passed since my generation of teachers was introduced to the idea that play is the work of children. During my 40 years as a teacher, the legitimacy of make-believe as a learning tool held fast. It is the way children learn best, inventing their characters and plots, discovering ever more mature language, logic and social awareness.” She continued, “Suddenly, the curriculum imposed upon our children has changed; classroom areas with dolls and blocks are being closed down in favor of more workbooks and tables. Four and five year olds are being asked to act like first and second graders.” In conclusion, she writes, “The genius of play, at its most innovative and dramatic stage, is being skipped over in favor of programmed lessons meant for older students. How sad for our children.”

Will we eventually see a rise in learning levels and test scores in later grades? Will there be a positive lasting effect into high school and will it help cut the dropout rate? Objective measures and statistical analyses can certainly be used to answer those important questions. There have been conflicting conclusions about the lasting results of Head Start over the years. However, there is complete agreement that the earlier children are exposed to books in their home, the better to develop their skills. Kindergarten teachers in many schools now have assumed the role of bedtime reading by parents from favorite books And this interested observer can report that one class of five-year-old kindergarten graduates were ready and rarin’ to go into the world of words and books. Could there be a better destination?