Sunday, September 15, 2013

Test Your Wildlife Management Skills

Here at Rancho Santa Clara, located almost in the very middle of Mexico (pronounced meh-HEE-ko by the locals, just so you know), keeping the local fauna at bay is a year-round challenge, particularly during the rainy season when many species sneak into our living space probably because they don't want to get wet any more than we do. It's been raining or at least drizzling for the past several days and we've had more than the usual number of critter intrusions, a situation I want to use to test your wildlife control skills. Consider this a teachable moment.

1. You open the lid of your gas grill and inside you find a gray mouse placidly nursing three or four babies. What do you do?

  • a. Grab the spatula from the wrought iron grilling tool set you got for Christmas and beat the entire mouse family into a pulp, while cursing loudly. Make sure to thoroughly clean the grilling surfaces afterward with a garden hose. 
  • b. Turn on the grill to 350 degrees for grilled mice, medium rare. 
  • c. Gently open the grill lid, take a picture of this adorable scene of maternal love, apologize profusely to Momma Mouse for the intrusion, and leave a couple of lettuce leaves to tide her over until she can go out to fetch her own groceries. 
  • d. Take a cue from our maid who shrieks at the sight of mice and refuses to sweep the terrace for the following three weeks. 
Grilled mice: Who can resist?
2.  A medium size bird has sneaked into your living room and is desperately trying to escape.
  • a. Wait until the bird has crashed into every window and knocked itself senseless. Deposit the little feathered friend in the nearest trash can. 
  • b. Grab a shotgun and go for it.
  • c. If you don't get it at first, reload.
  • d. Let one of your cats handle this avian crisis.
  • e. Get on a stepladder and with a broom swing wildly and uselessly at the intruder like a complete moron. Keep going until you are either exhausted or fall off the ladder.
3.  You spot a medium-size green frog on the kitchen floor (or in the bathtub or the toilet). 
  • a. Knock her out with a cotton ball soaked with tequila and proceed to relive your high school science class by cutting her open with an Exacto knife. Try to recall the layout of a frog's internal organs.
  • b. Hack off her legs and add them to your dinner salad to see if they really taste like chicken.
  • c. Tell Stew there's a frog in the house. 
4. You step into the shower stall and you find a spider, a couple of inches long, ambling by. 
  • a. Throw the shower floor mat over it. 
  • b. Aim the shower head at it to see what a drowning spider looks like. 
  • c. Find an index card or something like it and gently coax the spider out of the shower stall and hope it's gone by the time you're finished showering. 
  • d. The same as choice "c", except you call one of the dogs and see if they'll eat it. 
Correct answers, maybe: 

The following answers have not been vetted or approved by the Humane Society, the National Wildlife Federation or anyone who knows anything about animals, wild or otherwise. The answers just reflect what Stew and I do in these situations, based on experience and marshmallow-soft hearts when it comes to critters. 

1. The mouse family: "c" is the only logical choice. I mean, are we the only ones who think gray mice are cute, what with those large black eyes that look like marbles, the round ears sticking up and the twitching whiskers? And baby mice? Let's not go there. Granted, large rats, eight inches and longer, like the one we found dead on the garage floor last week, can test our definition of "cute." That's why we let one of our dogs take care of that problem.
2. Birds are a particularly tough challenge because they fly and tend to poop on you when panicked. So yesterday we just let Fifo catch the bird, and then we grabbed Fifo and gently took the panting bird out of his mouth without roughing one feather. The bird was out of the house, Fifo's self-esteem was puffed up and we didn't get bird poop on our heads.

3. Frogs are a constant aggravation and don't think for a second you can just flush the problem down the toilet. These are Olympic-caliber swimmers who'll be staring at you pleadingly next time you lift the lid. The only solution is to let Stew do his usual Tupperware and index card magic trick: Carefully position a Tupperware bowl on the visiting frog and then slide the index card under it. Take the whole package outside, being careful not to drop the frog. You don't want it to get a concussion.

4. For some reason our master bathroom is like Greyhound station for insects travelling nowhere. While you sit you can look down and watch a conga line of spiders, ants, moths, crickets, water bugs and beetles going around your feet. It beats reading some old magazine. Sometimes the bugs stick around, other times they disappear. Call it one of Nature's Great Mysteries. They don't bother us, so we don't bother them. 

I end with some late-breaking news. Stew peeked under the cover of the gas grill and the entire mouse family has decamped without a good-bye or even eating the pieces of lettuce I'd left for the mother.

Damn ungrateful varmints. 

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Right between the eyes with drug prices

Following cataract surgery there's a lengthy list of prescription eye drops you have to use that will gradually help clear up your vision but whose cost might leave you cross-eyed. There's the Vigamox, Prednisolone and the Fluorometholone but the whopper is Nevanac eye drops, 1.0 ml solution, manufactured by Alcon Laboratories, Inc. of Fort Worth.

The price of Nevanac at a Walgreens in San Antonio, Texas was $445.99. That is the actual cost of the drops, not some imaginary sticker price.

That's no typo, either: Four hundred forty-five dollars and ninety-nine cents, for a three-milliliter dispenser a little bit smaller than my thumb, for a twenty-two-day supply. After Stew's cataract surgery, the doctor prescribed two additional refills, so the total cost for Nevanac alone—just one of six different eye drops he was told to use—comes to $1,337.97. Stew's Medicare Part D drug insurance covers about half the cost of Nevanac, so his total out-of-pocket comes to approximately $668.98.

Authentic tears from the Virgin couldn't cost this much. 
Now it gets interesting. When Stew went to get a refill for Nevanac at Costco in Queretaro, Mexico, where no prescription is required, the cost was $301.00 Mexican pesos—or $24.08 U.S. dollars—for a five milliliter bottle, compared to a three milliliter bottle in San Antonio.

If you figure it on a per-unit basis, a milliliter of Nevanac in the U.S. sells for $148.66 dollars while in Mexico it goes for $4.81 dollars. That is for the identical medication, manufactured by Alcon in the U.S., except for the larger bottle and the fact that here it's sold through a Mexican distributor.

In other words, Nevanac, one of a number of medications you must take after cataract surgery, costs nearly 3,100 percent more in the U.S. than in Mexico.

If you figure that Alcon still makes a profit on the Nevanac sold in Mexico, the price difference is staggering. Half the markup is paid by Part D Medicare Supplemental Insurance, which costs about $18 a month, and the other half by the patient, in this case a guy named Stew. If Stew did not have that supplemental coverage he would have to pay the entire cost for this and any other prescription drugs.

One likely explanation for this price discrepancy is that Mexico—like most countries in the world—imposes strict price controls on drugs, whereas in the U.S. the Medicare system has been explicitly prohibited from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. In effect, prescription drug prices are whatever the pharmaceutical companies say they are and that's it. This sweetest of all sweetheart deals was part of the Medicare drug benefit law devised by the Bush Administration and approved by Congress in 2003, and which went into effect in 2006.

The result is that, for example, the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor cost $124 a month in the U.S. and only $6 in New Zealand. And on and on, from Celebrex to Cymbalta and most other prescription drugs.

Oddly, not all U.S.-made prescription drugs are cheaper in Mexico. From our personal experience, the over-the-counter prices of Ambien, Lipitor and Cymbalta are almost exactly the same in Mexico as in the U.S.

The price differential for Nevanac, however, has to be one for the record books, no matter how you look at it, particularly through cataract-free eyes.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Small-time crooks

He's a slight but genuinely Mexican man, so our gardener Félix is not prone to bouts of crying, blubbering, trembling or fear-stricken stammering—least of all in public—yet that is what he was doing when he came into my office ten days ago.

"Alfredo, they are going to kill my family!" he said without any preambles.

"Who, what, why?" I said, shocked by the message as well as his helpless appearance.

Amid sobs he said that while we were away in the morning he had received a phone call demanding five-thousand pesos (about four-hundred dollars) otherwise someone would come by his house and kill his family, presumably his wife and two kids and perhaps also his parents and siblings who live next door.

I almost joined Félix in his panic until I paused and thought: Wait, even for Mexico this scenario is pretty far-fetched.

If someone were going to extort money, they'd pick a businessman or lawyer not a gardener from Sosnavar living in a one-room house. How did the would-be extortionists get his cellular phone number? How would they know where Félix lived?

Toll-free placebo: Call us and we'll do nothing
I tried to calm him down but that only prompted more outlandish details. The callers had identified themselves as the Zetas, a dreaded gang of narcotrafficking killers, who claimed someone using Félix' phone had tipped off the military authorities in Guanajuato as to their whereabouts, leading to the loss of a large cache of weapons.

As far as I know, I said, the Zetas are nowhere near Guanajuato and only operate in remote areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Besides, Félix said he hadn't called anyone about any weapons. If you met Félix you'd realize he doesn't quite fit the profile of a daring government informant lurking by a lamppost wearing sunglasses and a fedora.

The only thing I could think of was to call 066, the Mexican equivalent of 911 and report the extortion attempt, but immediately realized that would hardly calm Félix' nerves because on numerous occasions he had expressed his undiluted contempt for the police whom he claims do nothing but shake down people. He may have a point there.

The operator dismissed my claims and said extortion calls are rampant and don't mean anything. "Next time just hang up and don't worry about it," she said.

"Well, aren't you going to do anything?" I asked.

"No," she said.

So I put Félix on the phone so maybe he could get a rise out of the emergency operator. He retold the entire story, with more graphic details, pregnant pauses, and Mexican slang and sobs, but the operator remained impressed.

Next idea from Félix was to go into hiding for two weeks with his family until the assassination threat passed.

"You can do anything you want but I'm not going to pay for this crazy horseshit, either by giving you time off or lending you the extortion money, so you'd better calm down and think about this because it doesn't make any sense," I said.

By now the only thing I could think of was to take his phone to the phone company to have the chip and the phone number changed, which cost me about ten dollars.

The uniformed mopes at the phone company were as unimpressed with the situation as the emergency operator. "Those calls are rampant and the only thing to do is hang up," one of them said.

But Félix remained in a panic and ran home to take his family to an undisclosed location where they remained for several days, though he continued to come to work.

Since then I've talked to several people who confirmed just what the emergency operator and the phone company folk had said. In fact many of these extortion calls have been traced to jails, where prisoners apparently sit in their cells, dialing numbers in sequence—as in 109-3123, -3124, -3125, etc.—until some sucker takes the bait and deposits the money in a bank account.

By now questions, obvious ones, are probably buzzing in your head. Why doesn't the government trace the phone numbers that appear on the cell phones of the prospective victims? If the calls mostly come from jails, why do they allow the prisoners to have cell phones? Couldn't the government track down the owners of the bank accounts to which the money is going?

Ah, I'm sure many latter-day Perry Masons out there can come up with other investigative leads that could put an end to these scams.

But so far the only action the state government seems to have taken is to put up billboards with special toll-free numbers to report extortion attempts, staffed with operators ready to counsel callers to just settle down.

"It happens all the time, don't worry about it and just hang up."

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wedding bells and all that jazz

Same-sex relationships typically begin with a bump in the night and until recently never were allowed to rise above the furtive, the unmentionable, not something you'd bring up in church or at a Thanksgiving dinner, or expect to find celebrated in the local newspaper's social page.

That mum if not explicit disapproval weighed on the relationships regardless how long the couples were together: Stew and I have been together forty-one years; Don and Richard, forty-two; David and Myron, thirty-seven; Perry and Greg for forty-three; Charles and Robert lived together over fifty years until Robert's death after a long illness did them apart a few years ago. Indeed, you start to believe marriage didn't matter or didn't apply to people like you anyway.

After so many years of oppression, and there's really no better word, reaction among gay couples we know to the prospect of being able to get legally married has ranged from glee by some who rushed to the nearest marriage bureau, to stammering disbelief and indecision. For the latter, it's as if they'd been faithfully mailing their entries for thirty or forty years and finally the sonovabitch from Publishers Clearing House shows up at their front door and they don't know what to say or do.

Stew and I pretended that getting married was not an urgent or even emotional issue. It would be nice but we could wait for Illinois to approve marriage equality, which seems likely within the next year.

Or not. Stew, pretty much on his own, methodically began putting together a wedding trip to a state that allows same-sex weddings and settled on Massachusetts, to some extent because he's never been to New England. There are hotel, car and flight reservations, a specific locality in which to get a marriage license, a minister to officiate and a jeweler to sell you wedding rings.

Yesterday, Stew unveiled the results of his labors. We'll fly to Boston and drive to Provincetown on Monday, September 23 to apply for the license, and get married on Saturday, September 28 at 11 a.m., at the First Parish Church of Stowe and Acton, a Unitarian congregation just outside of Boston. Rev. Thomas Rosiello will officiate. Jan Dee Jewelers, a small gay-owned shop in Chicago, where we'll stop on the way to Boston, will have our wedding bands ready for us.  The only detail pending is finding a fourth person to take a picture of the event.

This morning when I made the announcement at the church we attend tears rolled down my face and I could hardly get the words out. After dismissing it for months as an abstract technicality, a mere piece of paper, the reality and significance of marriage—of having our relationship, for so long hidden or dismissed by others as illegitimate or unimportant—actually recognized by a third party and being able to celebrate it publicly, finally came to me.

I am, unexpectedly, really happy and excited about getting married.

But there's yet one more detail pending that Stew mentioned over lunch. We need to put together a guest list and pick a place for a wedding reception to which we can invite all our friends, gay or straight; men and women; married, single and undecideds. Finally out in the open, under the beautiful San Miguel skies.

Amazing.

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