Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Johnny Mixed Hardwood Seed

I love trees. I've probably planted somewhere in the order of several thousand of them in my career thus far thanks in large part to helping my parents plant them on odd parcels of land in their holdings. When I bought my first house, I didn't consider my ability to plant trees before we had an accepted offer and suffered for many years because that house had electrical wires running along two of the property lines and a road for a third. With only a quarter acre of land and a huge mature maple and pin oak trees, there just wasn't much for options. I planted a sour cherry tree and that was it.

Our next house I made sure to consider if I could plant trees before we made an offer and ended up with a house that sits on a couple acres of land. Up until a half dozen years before we had bought it, most of it had been timber but a previous occupant had pushed out most of the undergrowth on top of the knobs leaving behind only the mature trees. The problem with this was that they were mature and nearing the end of their life cycle. I've had to remove nearly 40 of them during the five years we have lived here and there are probably a dozen more that are in various stages of decline that I will have to remove in the next five years.

However, I'm thrilled because it has allowed me to plant some more diverse trees than just the oaks, maples and black cherries that I have. I took advantage of the arbor day society to get a dozen trees sent to me along with four old fashioned lilac bushes like those that we used to have on the old farm. I grew those twigs in pots on my deck for six months and then planted them in the fall and I had thought all but one had survived over the course of the two years they've been in the ground. One down in the ditch had been eaten by a rabbit or some such creature and had been missing a couple years. The remaining trees finally grew a little bit last summer and this year have been really making progress. Even the lilacs which have looked like twigs with a few leaves for two years have now started growing upwards and to my delight this spring, multiplying!

Despite several trees being of the colorful flowering variety, my wife has wanted some more color among them and somewhere found a couple of pretty pathetic looking red Japanese maples that she bought. I would much rather plant native trees but a happy wife is a happy life so this morning I got them planted. It isn't as simple as just digging a hole and sticking them in here in deer-thick-as-thieves country. I planted them, fertilized them, mulched them, pounded steel fence posts around them and caged them in with heavy gauge chicken wire to keep the deer at bay until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, this means that our house is surrounded by nearly twenty trees fenced in individual cages. Kind of like a maximum security prison for trees!

When I started planting those two Japanese maples, I only had three fence posts but thought I would go down and rob the posts and wire of the tree that I planted two years ago that got eaten off. However when I got down to the bottom of the ditch between our two knobs where I planted it, I found that it had grown up from the stump and was starting to look pretty healthy. So I ended up making another trip to the hardware store for a few more fence posts to finish the job. Now I have two Japanese immigrants added to my collection of prisoners. If only I wasn't red/green colorblind to see them turn colors this fall. (Teaser Alert: More about this last sentence in a future post.)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Slightly Broken

For those following this ongoing story, my mom had another MRI last week and I'm happy to report there are no changes. It isn't classified as remission, nor will it ever be, but it isn't growing and I'll take that any day of the week. My mom has been under tremendous stress these past couple weeks with spring planting season in full swing and knowing her life might be turned completely upside down the next MRI. I think this stress causes issues in the damaged parts of her brain and as a result, I see my mom as slightly broken.

It took me a long time to fully understand. When the brain cancer was first diagnosed and subsequently removed, it was described as being done in a way to minimal disturb nearby healthy living brain tissue. This leads you to believe that nothing inside will really be affected. But in reality, that tumor invaded and killed healthy cells well before it was detected and removed. The removal was in affect, removing past healthy brain tissue that is now dead along with some still healthy tissue as they removed as much of the tumor as they could.

After surgery and radiation, I still saw my old mom I have always known. I still see that mom the majority of the time. But as time goes by, I start seeing what was broken. Some sort of filter was removed that allows my mom to be much more aggressive than normal at times. Sometimes it also manifests as delayed decision making. Yet other times it leads to some confusion. I'm not positive since I don't see these manifest every time I'm around or even all that often, but I suspect they happen when she is feeling stressed. Something about her brain dealing with stress is causing her to do or not do things that she normally would.

Even before this diagnosis, my brother and I have been subtly suggesting that our parents should retire and enjoy life while the farming empire they have built continues to support them. After the diagnosis, we stepped it up a notch encouraging them and helping them to understand that if they cash rent out their land, they will have more money to support themselves than they will know what to do with. My dad is already under Medicare and my mom will be eligible in two and a half years so medical bills shouldn't be the issue. They have slowed down some, hiring out some of the spraying, fertilizing and even some of the fall harvest. But it isn't enough to prevent stress. My brother has been up helping with the spring planting for the last couple weeks and finally my parents have admitted that they probably shouldn't have even attempted farming this year and that they do think full retirement is going to happen after the fall harvest. My brother and I are thrilled.

I'm hoping that without the stress, my mom will live a healthier remainder of her life and perhaps even make a serious attempt at crossing off some items on her bucket list at a more rapid pace. I think it will do my dad a world of good as well. They have worked hard for this day and my father will hopefully be the first in a long line of "Abbey's" to retire and not just work until he dies. But first there is still slightly more than half of spring planting season left and another harvest to get through this fall. I plan on enjoying it since it might be my last.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Obamacare vs. Trumpcare

A highly political title for this post and I promise I will tread lightly so not to offend people who are sensitive on this topic. But please read on.

When my mother-in-law was in the process of moving to our country to live with us, we were shopping for health insurance to cover her while visiting. It was expensive but readily available at dozens of insurance companies that did business in our state. However, at the same time, Obamacare was passed which I felt was a good thing for us personally but that it wasn't going to solve the problem of high healthcare costs. So instead of buying insurance privately, which wasn't allowed anymore in her case, we were forced to go through Obamacare which I again stress, was a good thing for us personally. We had problems along with millions of others during the initial rollout but that was to be expected and eventually we got to select between over a dozen plans. My mother-in-law was fully insured for a little over $400/month, about half what we were going to have to pay had Obamacare not been passed. Because we were footing the bill and she was working, there were no government subsidies and we had to pay every penny. I wasn't surprised.

The following year the number of insurance plans to choose from decreased from a dozen to about six and the premiums went up to $600/month. Year number three the premiums went up to $800/month and we only had a single plan to choose the only company that sold insurance for our county. The state still had two other insurers but they each only covered certain regions. This year is year four and the premiums are now over $1000+/month and there is only one insurer for the entire state (the other two quit after last year) and the remaining insurer has announced that they probably won't be offering health insurance next year. The local news says that there won't be a single health insurer in our state next year to provide health insurance for those privately buying it. We will be in an "insurance blackout." I have yet found an answer to what an insurance blackout is or what it will mean to my mother-in-law this fall when it is time to re-enroll her into an insurance plan.

On a daily basis I'm inundated with stories of people whose lives have been saved by Obamacare. I rarely hear stories of people being priced out of the market and haven't heard a single story about what happens when all the insurance companies stop selling insurance because they can't afford to follow the rules of Obamacare.

Now they are designing Trumpcare.

The first go around sounded like a disaster waiting to happen and I for one was extremely glad it didn't get support enough to pass. Anything this broken, and yes Obamacare is broken, can't be fixed overnight. It takes lots of careful though and analysis and frankly, I don't think either political party is capable of either of those things these days. Lately with the passage of a bill in the house and as I write this, 13 men working on a bill in the senate, I'm not hopeful. None of the proposed legislation that I have seen specifically addresses the issue of insurance companies refusing to sell insurance privately because it isn't profitable, and yes I think they need to earn a profit just like any other business. The only glimmer of light that I can see is that any plan that replaces or fixes Obamacare will change the business model enough insurance companies will once again be able to sell insurance and make some sort of profit while those of us buying can afford it. Still nobody has attempted to fix the initial problem.

The initial problem was the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. Obamacare didn't address it, only shift who pays for it. Trumpcare hasn't addressed it that I've seen, only shift the burden of who pays for it back closer to the way it was before Obamacare.

I think that we are going to have to accept that we can't insure everybody exactly the same because we all are different and have different needs. I for example, don't need pregnancy coverage but would probably elect to have prostate coverage. Some of us are going to have to pay more than others because some of us have different health needs than others. I would fully expect my mom with brain cancer would have to pay more for insurance than a recent college graduate track star. It makes sense. To force both to pay the same only insures that the track star is paying for something they will never need for years to come and that my mom will probably get substandard care because she makes insurance companies lose money. The one idea for reducing the initial problem of skyrocketing healthcare by eliminating borders and thus forcing insurance companies to compete on a national scale doesn't ever seem to gain traction.

I'm extremely frustrated right now because I'm caught in the middle. One side won't admit their plan is broken and the other side is trying to replace it with something that has less thought put in it than your typical elementary science project. My Facebook newsfeed is full of posts that are nothing more than fear mongering (on both sides) and have little truth if any in them. I just wish we could all be honest with ourselves for awhile, put party pride aside and have a real discussion on how we can fix healthcare which has been broken for my entire lifetime and only made worse as the years have gone by.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The BIG Project

I haven't had lots of projects to share on this blog for some time mostly because we've been floating around the idea of the BIG project. Back when we were looking to move, we had a list of requirements for our next house but had a very hard time finding them. With one young child and another on the way, we needed three bedrooms on the main floor. So many houses these days have a master bedroom on one floor and the rest of the bedrooms on the other. Coming from a house with a large kitchen, we also wanted our next house to have a large kitchen. We also had a budget. Those three criteria were pretty much all we had but turned out to be impossible to find. We ended up settling on this house which had three bedrooms on the same floor and met our budget but had a small kitchen.

The kitchen is reasonable unless you live in a family where both people like to cook and make things from scratch. The space isn't too bad but by the time we have all the gadgets we use weekly distributed on the counters, there isn't enough counter space to actually do preparations. Our kitchen is also weird that the entrance by the main door is blocked whenever someone has the refrigerator door open and the other entrance closer to the garage is blocked every time the oven door is open. So if you have two people cooking, there is a good chance that one is waiting on the other to either get through with the oven or the refrigerator before you can enter or exit the kitchen. We also have a breakfast nook right next to our kitchen that never gets used other than as a mudroom when you come in through the garage area.

We've talked about fixing these deficiencies but several things have always held us up. When we bought this house, it was right at the bottom of the last recession and the housing market in our area has been on life support. Finally after nearly a decade, it is has gotten off life support and has been moved from intensive care into a private suite. Maybe in a few years it might get sent home but seeing that we live in rural Iowa where the population has been in constant decline for the last century, I'm not holding my breath.

We've always had other things to fix which we have felt were a bigger priority than the kitchen. We've fixed up the exterior of our house turning it from the worst looking house on the street to one of the best, albeit still the smallest. This included new siding, new concrete driveway, new sidewalk, new paint and lots of landscaping. Inside, I have gone through all the bedrooms, basement and communal living spaces and remodeled them with the exception of the kitchen, the hall bathroom and the flooring. The hall bathroom although a bit dated is still functional and with two kids that use that as their main bathroom, will probably wait until they are older or perhaps gone from the house. The floors I'm waiting on doing all at once since we want to do hardwood flooring throughout the house. That leaves the kitchen.

I used to have access to some of the most sophisticated software for drawing up floorplans through my last job. But as time has gone by, software has changed and I no longer "work" for a living, I don't have any working software to use. So last year I bought some cheap software for home design online and played around with it for while laying out my ideas. The problem I ran into is that I found in order to make a kitchen that is functional for our lives, it would involve some major structural issues that I don't think I'm qualified to solve. I will go more into that at a future time but for now, we decided we needed someone more qualified to help us solve those issues so we hired an architect.

We met with the architect a few weeks ago and kicked off the project. He will be designing things and giving us a set of plans which I can then use to hire out some of the work and do the rest myself. I doubt we will be able to get started this year but our hope is to have enough of the work done that we can perhaps start early next year. I'm excited, scared and sometimes not even sure I believe yet that the time has come for this last BIG project. Only the future will tell.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Bad boy, bad boy, what you goin' do when they come for you?

When you are moving and looking for houses, there are many things to consider. Is the house in good shape, is the neighborhood nice, and even if it is in a good school district. However, one that slipped my attention is where my kids would get onto the school bus. As we would later find out, it was at the street corner a hundred yards down our street where it intersects a more heavily trafficked (though still sparse compared to many) street. The other street is one of two roads leading to the entrance of a community college. Even this wouldn't have caused me to worry had I thought about it but as it turned out, the bus stops on the opposite side of the street and about 50 yards ahead is a blind hill blocking the view of oncoming traffic of seeing the bus and kids crossing the street to get on the bus. The speed limit was only 25 mph (now 35 mph, see below) and still plenty of room left at that speed to see the bus, react and slow down. However, cars regularly go zipping by at 50 mph and that makes things much tighter in terms of reaction times and stopping distances.

So over the years I have walked with my daughter every day out to the bus stop and have taught her to not only wait for the bus driver to signal her it is clear, but to listen for oncoming traffic. If she hears a car comes, she waits until it crests the hill and gets stopped. For the first couple years, we would have three or four cars a year drive by the stopped schoolbus with its stop arm extended and my daughter and I standing feet away. I tried taking a picture with my cellphone but by the time I got it out, got the app open and it focused, the car was too far for the phone to make out the license plate. I eventually got to the point where if a car seemed like it was going to run the stop sign on the bus, I would whip out my phone and point it at them. This always got them to hit the brakes hard, that is until today.

I've complained to the school bus company (independent contractor hired by the school) trying to get them to switch the route so my daughter can be picked up on our street which has very little traffic at all but haven't gotten any results. Last year our city purchased a "speed car" which takes photos of speeding cars and mails the owners tickets. I volunteered for the car to be parked right in my yard looking up at the blind hill where cars are regularly going 25 mph over the posted speed limit and causing some of this problem. The officer was sympathetic to the situation but for reasons he never would explain, he wouldn't park it there. I got the sense that they wanted to avoid the perception of a "speed trap" with the public. Instead they parked it on the other side of the hill where people can see it a half mile away and slow down while passing it and get back up to speed by the time they crest the hill. In the process of talking with the officer in a followup call, he noted that the speed limit at our intersection going west is 35 mph and going east only 25 mph and that he would correct that. That turned out to make both east and west speed limits 35 mph which has just increased the speed of the traffic.

So this morning the bus stopped and put out it's stop arm with lights on it and across the front of the bus and my daughter and I were standing eight feet away on the opposite side of the street. We both heard the sound of tires moving across the pavement at a high speed and looked up to the blind hill. A black pickup truck crested and although slowing down wasn't slowing down to the point where I thought he was going to stop. I whipped out my cellphone and pointed it at him and still he kept coming. Fortunately, cellphone technologies have changed. Now even with a lock screen, I can swipe up and get the camera app. Despite working fast, my first photo just barely caught the truck on the way past the bus but clearly showed the stop arm out and the lights on. Unfortunately the license was too blurry to read with certainty. However, I had the presence of mind to click a second picture as the truck sped off that clearly got the truck, make, model and license plate along with just the tail portion of the school bus. Thank god for modern technology with auto focus.

I have called the proper authorities giving them all the pertinent information along with the photos and the driver will be receiving a $400+ fine according to the police for their hurry to save one single minute that it takes for my daughter to get on the school bus. I really hope they learn their lesson.

However, all this has got me to thinking that perhaps it would just be easier if I had some sort of rig that held a Go-Pro camera that took continuous video in the direction I was facing. I don't know if they focus fast or well enough to work in this situation or not but since it would be on all the time, it might get them well before they reach the school bus and perhaps a longer time afterwards while getting the necessary proof in between those times.