Of Cattle and Colonoscopies

As farm animals go, cattle have it pretty good. Most of them roam free and forage in green pastures before they’re loaded in a trailer, paraded through a series of chutes and gates, and admitted to a feedlot to finish out their days.  If I had to be a farm animal in our modern food system, I’d rather be a beef cow than a broiler or hog. 

As Americans, most of us have it pretty good too. We live out our lives in freedom in a land of abundance before we get loaded in an ambulance, paraded through a series of elevators, hallways, and doors, and admitted to a hospital or healthcare facility to finish out our days. I don’t think I’ve ever commiserated so much with livestock as I have in the last few months during my brief encounters with our healthcare system. I’ve now experienced being funneled through hallways and into offices and operating rooms, all while being bombarded with waivers and forms and nonsensical medical verbiage. The whole process is both dizzyingly efficient and dazzlingly obtuse. Indeed, the only other system that comes close to rivaling both the industrial efficiency and purposeful obfuscation of our farm system is probably our healthcare system.

Indeed, I’m pretty used to various makes and models of manure, but the stench wafting off of hospital bills is pure bs. A few months ago, I had an endoscopy and colonoscopy done at a hospital outpatient center. I was promptly greeted at 5:30 A.M. with a friendly hello from the receptionist who then cheerily tells me that, according to their estimates of my insurance coverage, my portion to pay for the facility fee is only $730. It could be worse I think, so I pay it and go about my business of trying to contain my bowels. And that’s where they get you. You’ve already committed to drinking a gallon of laxative, so you’re going to pay up. The problem is they’re not going to pay you back for overcharging (turns out, my facility fee copay should have been $80–their estimate was merely off by 900%) unless you descend into the worse version of yourself, the frustrated version that finally snaps and yells at customer service reps on the phone. That is what it takes to claw back money from them, if you ever notice you’ve been overcharged in the first place. I bet most people just prepay the facility fee and never realize they’ve been overcharged because the whole billing and insurance process is so confusing and convoluted. 

The only reason I even noticed was because Thomas just happened to need a routine procedure done this week. When I checked out how much was left to meet our deductible, I realized that something was off between what my insurance company applied to my deductible and what I had paid for the procedure. This led to many hours trying to decipher invoices and claims and medical codes, hours of my life I’ll never get back, even if I ever get money back. After a heated conversation with the billing department on the phone, they finally agreed that they had innocently overcharged me and would promptly refund me. 

The problem is there is nothing innocent about this. In fact, Thomas’s procedure was at another outpatient center under the operation of the same hospital system, which is the only hospital system in this area. Again, we arrive at 5:30 A.M. and a receptionist promptly greets us. Within minutes of sitting down in the waiting room, a billing clerk whisks us away to an office to try to convince us to prepay our portion of the facility fee, which this time they say is $2800. Never did the clerk say that paying upfront is optional, at least until Natalie firmly refused to pay, stating we wouldn’t pay until they ran it through our insurance and billed us. At which point, the clerk told us that was perfectly okay and sent us on our way back to the waiting room, where I watched her reemerge several times to take other arriving patients back to her office, where undoubtedly she tried to extract prepayment. There is no doubt in my mind that this hospital system is systematically overcharging people and pocketing the money of the folks who don’t realize it. How they get away with it is beyond me. 

All this is to say, I’m really grateful for all the healthcare professionals who work in the hospitals and doctor offices, even if the system itself is broken. The doctors and nurses all seemed to try their best to provide personal and friendly care, though I’m sure they’re likely under quotas to see more patients and do more procedures, to run more cattle through the cattle chute.

And I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe there isn’t one. Just be aware that if you or your loved ones have a procedure scheduled, you aren’t required to pay upfront, even if they make it seem otherwise.  

Happy Allergy Season!

I suppose there are advantages to living in a desert. For one, allergy season is probably pretty short. Without vegetation carpeting the landscape, the human immune system must have little to overreact to. Here, in the borderlands between the subtropic and temperate climes, my white blood cells are currently waging war against any trace of pollen trying to invade my pores and orifices. My body’s attempt to expel the invaders has mostly expelled lots of bodily fluids through my runny nose, watery eyes, and rapid-fire sneezes. 

dessert sand dune
The only way to escape allergies

Still, I’m trying to find the silver lining in the pollen cloud–maybe there are advantages to having allergies, evolutionary speaking? For one, if I ever get lost in the middle of the night in a hayfield, I’d be more likely to survive since search and rescue would easily locate me because they’ll hear me sneezing from a mile away. Two, bad allergies provide a legitimate excuse for skipping events with in-laws without incurring the full-force of a spouse’s wrath. Yep, even for a trophy husband like me, my wife doesn’t mind if I miss a family function when I’m under the influence of allergies and can’t speak coherently without sneezing and sniffling. 

The biggest advantage, however, to allergy season is that sales of our honey go through the roof. I feel a little bit guilty on this count. I’m not sure there is much truth to the theory that local honey actually helps with allergies. Case-in-point, as someone who ingests an inordinate amount of honey from my own farm, my allergies have only minimally improved, progressing from wretched to merely miserable. 

That said, I know many good upstanding people who swear that local honey helps their allergies. According to my allergist, I’m mostly allergic to pollen from the grass family, and supposedly bees don’t pollinate grass species because they’re wind pollinated, so maybe I’m not the best case study (that said, I see a lot of bees pollinating my sweet corn, which is definitely a member of the grass family). 

Sometimes I wonder how my ancestors from bygone days survived allergies without the use of Allegra and Zyrtec and Benadryl. If I lived back then, the month of May would have eventually taken me out, with my headstone memorializing the exact date in May that I finally lost my battle with hay fever. 

Anyway, here’s hoping you survive allergy season this year!

Breakfast with Bees

Once in a moment of inspiration, I decided to buy 32 apple trees. Talk about making work for yourself. Now, every winter, the trees need pruning to ensure a bountiful apple harvest for the gluttonous woodland creatures. Between the racoons, opossums, and deer, we probably salvage half a peck of apples for ourselves, enough for Natalie to make a delicious homemade apple crisp each year to remind me of the foolishness of my moment of inspiration.

“This better taste good,” she says, “how much did you spend on those apple trees again?”

I will be glad when the apple orchard turns seven years old; according to the IRS, I can then discard the receipts and all physical evidence of that moment of inspiration. Thereafter, I can plead amnesia when my wife asks me silly questions about costs. 

The problem with apple trees is that they grow, which means the chore of pruning becomes substantially more labor and time-consuming each year, yet the actual return on investment usually remains the same–nothing. Some years it’s woodland creatures. Other years it’s late freezes or early springs. Unfortunately, some of our apple trees had already started blooming this year when winter finally decided to return this week. Not a pretty site. What was a beautiful apple tree white with blooms now looks like it decided to paint its petals black in goth attire. Thus, the woodland creatures might have to go on a diet this year. 

And the weather is not only rough on blooms but the creatures that pollinate them. I got a call on Tuesday from a local farmer who said he had a big swarm of bees on a post in his shed. “Are you sure they’re honeybees,” I said, “cause it’s too cold for bees to be swarming?”  Turns out he wasn’t kidding. Sure enough, there was a big swarm of bees on a post in his shed. Only problem was they swarmed on the Monday before the cold front blew through, then spent all night huddled and shivering on the post as temps got below freezing. By the time he called me on Tuesday, they seemed half dead and the ones that were alive were just barely moving. 

Sometimes with cold bees, dead is “not quite dead yet.” They may look dead, but if you can get them back in a warm area they will miraculously buzz back to life. I brushed the bees off the post into a closed-up nuc box, took them home and put the box over a vent in our dining room. The next morning, I was eating breakfast with the sound of bees roaring. They were up and at ‘em early, ready to escape their nuc box and forage because it was 72 degrees in our house. Because the weather was calling for another night of below freezing temps, I kept them inside on Wednesday night and then put them in the bee yard today since it has warmed back up.  I put a frame of eggs in there just in case the queen wasn’t among one of the resurrected bees.  

So far, they seem to be flying and doing good–just no thanks to the weather!

The New Trash Kingpin?

In a momentous occasion, Natalie and I cleaned out the barn. This was the first barn clean out since Thomas was born, which meant the barn had accumulated two years worth of detritus. Alas, if only I could accumulate wealth as fast as I could accumulate junk, then I could afford to keep my junk by building another barn to store it in. But the dream of another barn is silly daydreaming. In fact, I was given an ultimatum to either channel my inner Marie Kondo, or else my wife was going to spark her own joy by banishing me to our barn until it was cleaned out. 

We took four pickup truck loads of trash to the dump. To be honest, I’m not sure my nerves could have taken any more trips to the dump that day. Usually, there is only one old man guarding access to the compactor, but on the one day we decide to clean out the barn, they just happened to have two old men trash inspectors on duty, each sitting in a lawn chair, each poking at stuff in the compactor with long poles, and each hitting the big red compactor button every so often–yep, definitely a two man job. 

I have learned from experience that old men trash inspectors don’t play. They can make your life a living hell, mainly by declaring your load to be demolition materials, which means you then have to journey thirty minutes to landfill and pay five dollars to dispose of your trash. And whatever you do, don’t dare try to sneak a paint can into the extractor by hiding it in a trash bag. Old men trash inspectors can smell a paint can from a mile away. 

Our county recently imposed a new ordinance that requires everybody who lives in the county to put a green sticker on the upper left corner of their windshield. In my opinion, this green sticker is more important than my social security number. The green sticker signifies that I’m a genuine county resident, and thus I have the right to dispose of my junk in the county’s trash facilities. Apparently, outsiders from South Carolina had been smuggling their trash across the state line and thus clogging up our compactors with their rubbish. 

If I ever decide to turn to a life of crime, I think I will start by counterfeiting green stickers to sell to South Carolinians. From what I can surmise, there is too much competition already in drugs and guns, but I bet the cartels haven’t thought about all the money they could make from interstate rubbish smuggling. I would say that farming could be my front for laundering all my green sticker proceeds, but I doubt that would work given my track record. In fact, nobody in their right mind would ever believe that I could run a highly profitable farm.

Man’s Endless Battle Against Mud

May the odds be ever in your favor–that’s what I think whenever we have to load cows. There are two types of cows in a cattle chute: passive-aggressive cows (a.k.a immovable cows) and aggressive cows (a.k.a. cows that snort and kick). I can’t blame them. I’d be mad too if an annoying creature was pushing me down a muddy hallway into a strange dark trailer. Cows aren’t the brightest animals in the barnyard, but they aren’t stupid either. If I was in a similar situation and a smaller animal, like a squirrel, was pushing on my hindquarters and yelling gibberish at me, I’d kick the fire out of it too. 

The problem is cows don’t respect gentle pleas for mutual cooperation, which is unfortunate for introverts. We, introverts, need a good five minutes just to warm our vocal cords up enough to let out a respectable, “Hey cow, move cow!” By that time, first impressions have already been made, and the cows have identified us as a pushover. In fact, statistically speaking there are more extroverts currently in America because way back in the Wild West days introverts were more likely to get pushed over and trampled by cows, drastically reducing their ability to mosey into a town and attract mates with their best Clint Eastwood impression. 

Sometimes my wife asks me why we need so much farm junk, and the short answer is, “mud.” When your trailer with four cows on it gets stuck after managing to make it two whole feet from the corral, you need a tractor to pull the truck and trailer out. And when your tractor bottoms out trying to pull the truck and trailer out, you need another tractor to pull out the first tractor and truck and trailer. 

Same goes for boots. Farmers have to have multiple pairs of boots to extricate footwear from mud holes. This time of year, cows have a considerable advantage because they don’t have to wear rubber boots in the mud. Boots are notoriously slow to biodegrade, as evidenced by the fact that ancient boots have been located, without their partner boot, in archaeological sites, meaning long ago an ancient farmer was likely hopping around on one foot trying not to get his ancient sock dirty. Whether he fell over and took a breather to wallow in the self-pity of a good mud hole, we may never know–but we do know he left a boot for perpetuity, a sign of man’s endless battle against mud.