26 June 2007

Fire time

In May I wrote about a brief encounter:

“...when I asked a middle-aged local firefighter with a shaved head about the fire-danger situation in my county while we were both in line at the office supply store, he fixed me with a solemn gaze and said, ‘It’s bad. The fuels are as bone-dry right now as they normally get in July. It’s the worst it’s ever been.’ “

I knew that we were facing a potentially terrible summer fire season, but I hadn’t heard yet just how bad it was. In years past, I’ve always known well ahead of time, because as the editor of a paper in a small community surrounded by parched live oak forests, chaparral and vast, tinder-dry grassy hills, I was in frequent contact with the local fire chief. I’ve covered a lot of wildfires over the years. I’ve watched them burn on the hills a quarter-mile from the newspaper’s parking lot. I’ve melted the soles of my soles walking across the blackened, smoky earth in the aftermath of a hot grass fire, and I’ve seen rabbits darting ahead of the flames in air filled with choking soot, smoke and insects.

The Sierra snowpack was only 29 percent of normal when they measured it for the last time of the season on May 1. My two weeks of snowy glee in February were lovely, but not nearly enough rain or snow fell during the fall and winter months. Without the snowpack and the spring and early summer snowmelt, which soaks the earth and fills the streams, rivers and reservoirs, the Sierras dry up like a slice of white bread left out overnight.

Early yesterday morning I noticed that the light coming in the windows was oddly dim. I wondered if there were storm clouds gathering. I hadn’t heard about any rainy weather in the forecast (it very, very rarely rains in summertime here) but I was ready to be pleased about such a nice surprise, as long as the storm passed through without lightning which could start fires.

Anticipating a sky full of clouds and cool air, I went outside. But there were no clouds. It was already warm and the sky was milky blue, filled with was that strange, muted light.

Then I smelled smoke. Fire. It was smoke from a fire smothering the sun. I wondered where it was burning. I selfishly hoped it was far away.

A few hours later I finally got around to watching Al Gore’s stunning documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with Mr. Wren. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest that you take the time. I was already a believer, but the film convinced me that we absolutely must stop sending greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere – now -- if we hope for our children and their children to live in anything close to the beautiful world we enjoy today.

A few minutes after watching “An Incovenient Truth” I learned that there was, indeed, a fire burning in the region. It wasn’t too close, but it also wasn’t too far away. The Angora Fire, as it’s been dubbed, started Sunday afternoon just a few miles from South Lake Tahoe. Many neighborhoods in the little town of Meyers, just 46 miles up the highway from here, are now literally smoldering ruins. As I write this, approximately 253 structures, many of them homes, have been damaged or destroyed. Around 1,000 people have been evacuated. Ash floats like black sludge along the pristine shores of Lake Tahoe and the air is hazed thick with smoke.

No one has been injured or killed in the fire so far, and with luck, no one will be. But according to the spokesperson for the county sheriff’s department, fire personnel and sheriff’s deputies haven’t been able to get in to all the areas burned yet to check on people, so that good news could change.

The wildfire started on a ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake. The area is popular with hikers and runners, located at the edge of the magnificent, rugged Desolation Wilderness and only a few miles from Lake Tahoe itself. Fire investigators are fairly certain the blaze was human-started, though they don’t know if it was accidental or not. It flared up at first on Sunday at around 2:30 p.m. as a small brush fire, but was quickly out of control, whipped into a terrifying firestorm by winds gusting up to 35 mph and very low humidity.

I’ve hiked the area burned in the fire. I’ve eaten lunch from my backpack while sitting on a gray granite boulder next to the small, lovely Fallen Leaf Lake. I listened to the birds sing while the breeze rustled in the trees and trout broke the clear surface of the water, hunting midges. It’s a peaceful, beautiful and serene place.

Fire officials called the Angora fire a “crown fire” on Sunday, meaning that it was spreading across the crowns of trees, blown fast by the wind. Hot embers also flung the fire out along the ground, catching dry snags, deadfalls and vegetation. The roaring flames moved which such speed and the smoke became so dense that firefighting aircraft couldn’t attack the fire with any real success. And because the terrain is so steep, remote and harsh, firefighting personnel on foot and with heavy apparatus and ground breaking equipment could do little except try to control the perimeters of the wildfire and attempt to warn those living in its path and save what property they could.

On Monday, firefighting personnel and aircraft were able to battle the blaze with more success because the winds died down. By last night, they’d fought the fire to 40 percent containment, which is miraculous given the terrain and dry fuels. According to InciWeb, they hope to have the fire completely contained by Sunday, July 1.

The weather is supposed to remain calm and a little cooler today, which gives the nearly 2,000 firefighters who’ve come from all over the West to fight this one fire just one more day to put it out. Tomorrow the hot, blustery, powder-dry winds are expected to return.

I’m not worried that the spectacular, frightening Angora Fire will be a threat here at the Wren’s Nest. It’s too far away. As disastrously tragic as it’s been already in terms of property loss and human consequences – many people have lost everything – the wildfire has consumed less than 5 square miles of mountainous forest land.

So far.

What really concerns me is that my little town – and in fact, all of California -- is just as tinder-dry as South Lake Tahoe. After the driest winter since 1988, the whole state is already a matchbox, there are months of scorching hot summer days still ahead, and fire season doesn’t end until the autumn rains begin in late October.

If they do.

Our leaders here in the U.S. act as if global warming isn’t very serious. Well, it’s high time they wake up and smell the smoky air.

Note: The photo is of Fallen Leaf Lake, courtesy of George Wharton James, author of the Project Gutenberg e-book “Lake of the Sky”, which was first published in 1915. You can read it here.

19 June 2007

In need of soothing

OK, consider your Wren today:

I’m in the midst of a serious diet. I’ve lost about 20 pounds. I’m pleased but I can only say “about” because one day I weigh a few pounds more, the next day a pound or two less. There are many pounds still to go. I guess over a long, long time it will all even out and as long as another Cheeto never passes my lips, I will be a svelte wren once again.

With the help of nicotine patches I’ve stopped smoking after 32 years. I’m halfway through Week Three.

I’m going through menopause. Sometimes I’m very happy, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I want to bite through leather straps and then hide under the bed until everyone everywhere goes away. I have no idea how long this will last. I’ve heard it can take from two years to two decades. I’m hoping for the former.

My stupid, hinky, arthritic wrist hurts. Feels like someone stuck a picture nail in it. I’ve been doing too much lifting and pushing of heavy objects lately, mainly because without cigarettes, I’m unable to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. The Wren’s Nest is cleaner and neater than it has been in years. Its transformation has kept me from chewing my hands off.

Now, consider: Mr. Wren and I just purchased a tall entertainment center which looks like an antique wardrobe. We both love it – it’s beautiful. It was rather pricey; not the sort of thing we indulge in more than once an eon or so. Two strong fellows just delivered and placed it in our living room. We decided to go ahead and move the TV, VCR/DVD and DVR machines into their new home. That way, I can get all the other furniture back into place, which will help me be calm. And serene. We unhooked everything. Mr. Wren carried the VCR/DVD over to the box shelf built into the upper part of the “wardrobe.” It’s obvious that this box shelf is specifically for machines like this; they’ll be neatly perched above the television set.

To our ... surprise ...the VCR/DVD machine doesn’t fit. Nor does the DVR when we try it. Turns out both of those machines are exactly 17 inches wide. The two sections of the box shelf, which has a divider in the middle, are exactly 16 7/8 inches wide. One-eighth of an inch too small for the machines.

There are a couple of options available here. One is to call the store at which we purchased our beautiful new piece of furniture and have them take it back, then move all the other old furniture back into place and try to forget this conundrum as if it was nothing but a bad dream. The other, which is what Mr. Wren has decided he’ll do, is to “shave a little off both sides of the divider so the machines will fit.” I have no idea how he plans to do this, but just before I put myself in a safe place so I wouldn't injure him (this isn't his fault, after all), he was carrying scaffolding from the store room into the living room. Well, not scaffolding, exactly, but a huge ladder-thingy which can be used as scaffolding if one needs it for that purpose. He set it down in front of the tall entertainment center which looks like an antique wardrobe. Then he said that before he tackled the problem, he’d make himself a nice salad with plenty of cucumbers.

I’m furious that a furniture manufacturer would make an expensive piece of furniture with shelf spaces that are just slightly too small for standard-sized electronic machinery. Mr. Wren says that the manufacturers of the machinery don’t make everything to a standard size, so how can the furniture manufacturer know what size to make the spaces?

My opinion is that both the manufacturers of furniture and of electronic machinery must be men, or they'd communicate with each other about these things. However, if seems they don't. So here I am, trying to calm down. I want a box of sugar donuts. I want a carton of cigarettes, a good lighter and an ashtray. I want a gin and tonic, or at least a glass of wine, but they’re all off limits because of the damned diet. I would really enjoy a nice, big toke, if it was legal, and I’d love it if the hot flashes would stop this instant.

I don’t fit under the bed anymore. Perhaps if I keep on like I am, I will before long, and when things like this happen, I can visit with the dust bunnies while Mr. Wren gets out his power tools.

I’m going to go make myself a soothing cup of green tea, which is supposed to be good for all sorts of things. Then I guess I’ll watch while he “shaves” an eighth of an inch off either side of that damned divider in the beautiful new antique-like wardrobe entertainment center. I’ll say Ohms and practice deep breathing. Wish me luck.

Update: I’m back here in my den. Joining the living room scaffolding is the fan, set on “high,” as Mr. Wren has broken a mighty sweat. I would offer to help him, but I know I’ll just be in his way. When he’s doing things with power tools, yardsticks, tape measures, electric drills/screwdrivers, hammers, nails, molly bolts, pencils and ohmigawd, the electric planer, I know I’ll be as useful to him as a bicycle is useful to a fish. In the meantime, I keep hearing long, irritated sighs from in there – no actual foul language yet. His cane has clattered to the floor several times. This scares the dog and makes me jumpy. Soon, I’ll sneak out and busy myself making us some dinner – salmon, fresh broccoli, more salad with lots of cukes. And tomatoes. I’ll feed my sweet wannabe carpenter and retreat. It’s probably the safest thing I can do for both of us.

05 June 2007

Rain for Wren’s garden

A thunderstorm came through overnight. I slept through it, so I don’t think it was a very loud one, but this morning I woke to beautiful, misty gray skies and a garden beaded with raindrops. The air is cool, clean and so, so fresh and ... green.

I wandered out in my bathrobe, slippers and bedhead and shot a few photos. What I wasn’t able to catch – they were way too fast for me – were a Bewick wren and her fledgling, perched on the rose arbor enjoying breakfast. I just love those little birds.

The first photo is the path between the hedgerow and the house on the north side. The second is a shot of the front garden at the Wren's Nest. The third is a detail of Mr. Wren's favorite clematis, which is growing wild up through the Japanese maple by the front door.

03 June 2007


New York City blogger Steve Gilliard, author and editor of the News Blog, died yesterday after a months-long, heart-related illness. He was just 41 years old.

In an early 2003 post at DailyKos he wrote:

"Iraq is a place where outcomes matter. In 1920, two years after WW I, a nationwide rebellion erupted, and when asked, they’re still mad at the British for invading and staying. In 1991, the minute Saddam looked on the ropes, the knives came out. Now, we’ve created a black hole of a power vacuum. There is no one close to running the country. The Army is gone, the Baathists dying by the bucketload, the various factions are waiting to claim their stake.

"Yet, I’m reading articles crowing about how well the war went. The problem is that deposing Saddam is like dumping the Czar in 1917. Just because you establish a democratic government, doesn’t mean Kerensky is going to stay in power. If you had said in 1916 that the US would be in Russia until 1920, fighting communists, you would have been deemed a madman.

"Just because Saddam was an evil bastard, doesn’t mean his methods were ineffective. He kept control of a country with millions of guns and two active factions not dedicated to the territorial integrity of the country. He killed a lot of people to remain in power. The US does not have this option. The war alone has ruined the credibility of the US in the Arab World. Saddam’s methods are not available.

"The US war against Saddam may soon be over, but that may only be the start of the Iraq war. There are millions of guns, rockets and mortars, billions of rounds of ammo, scattered across the country. No one knows who controls them or what they have planned. The Shia want control of their destiny, as do the Kurds, and the Sunnis may not be happy to lose power."

Gilliard was a man who understood the ways of the world and human behavior. He was a history buff. A chef. A sage. But more than any of those things, he was a fine writer possessed of simple, informed common sense -- and he wasn't afraid to say exactly what he thought. The world could use more good people like him. With his passing, America has lost a great American.

May his spirit join the cosmic starstuff and his memory -- and lucid, no-nonsense words -- remain as bright as the dazzling shooting star he was.

American gulf

There is a huge gulf in America, a Grand Canyon of division. Americans have split into two tribes, each living on their own side of the chasm. We shout across it to (or at) each other, but it's hard to hear with the wind and distance between us. We misunderstand each other and become angry, or even give up trying to communicate altogether.

And yet both tribes are members of the same culture and the same country. Both worry about health care and the care of their elderly; both eat fast food and groan at their waistlines; both have beloved family members risking their lives and dying violently – side by side with the "other" tribe – in Iraq and Afghanistan. All that separates and keeps us from talking respectfully to each other about the serious matters facing us equally is that deep, whistling political gulf that divides us.

That gulf, I believe, is television.

When I first got cable television in 1981, it consisted of movies on HBO. Showtime followed quickly, then Nickelodeon. It was nice to be able to watch a movie I hadn't had the time or the money to see at the cinema, or enjoy old episodes of Andy Griffith I hadn't seen since I was a kid. But cable didn't play any role in the way I perceived what was going on in the world or in my own country. I still watched the network news, when I watched at all (even back then, I didn't have a lot of interest in television). More often, if I wanted news I read the local paper or one of the week-old news magazines laying around the break room at work.

By the time I moved to Germany with my new Air Force husband and my small daughter in 1986, cable TV had added a number of channels, but I hadn't been watching it. As a single mother, I didn't have the money to spend on the extra expense each month, and there was little justification for it, anyway. I still didn't watch much TV. I liked to watch Miami Vice and Moonlighting. I watched the weather reports. That pretty much covered it. Even then, television news was changing enough that I found it frustrating. The reports didn't capture much detail. There was a lot of silly stuff, which I found a waste of time. So I still got the vast majority of my news from print.

In Germany, I watched Armed Forces Network, which carried its own, military-focus news and CNN. I still didn't watch television much – there were a few programs on AFN's limited broadcast I enjoyed, like Northern Exposure, which tickled my funny bone with its quirky whimsicality and subtle political message. For six years, I read the vast majority of my American news in Stars & Stripes or, with relief, from one of the international newspapers available at the newsstands for a hefty three or four Deutschmarks. I still read Time and Newsweek for more in-depth coverage.

When we returned to the United States in 1992, my own country had become as foreign to me, in many ways, as Germany had been when I first arrived there. Things at home didn't look a lot different, except for the stunning amount of suburban growth and traffic. People still spoke my language, but there were subtle changes. The grocery store seemed like Disneyland, lacking only expensive rides. I wandered behind my basket, mesmerized by the endless variety, colors and loud Muzak interrupted by sales announcements. And I remember one friend telling me on the phone about his new 4-Runner. I had no idea what a 4-Runner was, and when I asked, he told me proudly, "it's an SUV." I was just as befuddled. I felt like an alien. He finally had to explain that it was like a big, cushy station wagon built on a truck chassis, except it was a 4X4.

OhhhKayyyy. Embarrassed because I didn't know what a mysterious 4X4 was, either, I changed the subject. "So how are your kids?" I asked. "They're playing on soccer leagues," he said.

Soccer? In America? Whoa.

But it was television (and radio, I would find) that had changed the most. Now it was hard to even tune in network TV without a cable connection, and cable itself had changed utterly. Instead of just HBO and Showtime, there were literally hundreds of channels to choose from. Some of it I enjoyed – Animal Planet, the History Channel and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I'd missed entirely when I was out of the country) come immediately to mind. But most of it was just noise. It seemed like, more than ever, TV was mostly commercials, one after the other, all of them loud and most of them incredibly annoying.

Worse, to me, was the overall, mannerless ugliness that had entered the public discourse, both on television and in day to day life. On TV, politicians and journalists shouted at each other. Journalists spouted their personal opinions on programs purporting to be news, which violated my (admittedly Pollyannaish) perception of American journalism as unbiased and apolitical. CNN, which I'd watched a few times a week in Germany, had undergone a transformation following its singular, stunning coverage of the Gulf War. It was serious breaking news as dramatic theater.

Characters on TV shows shocked me with gratuitous insults and bad language. I was – and am – no prude, but it disturbed me, more so because I was seeing the same mindless, disrespectful rudeness in my community when I went to the store or attended events. I'd never thought I'd be upset by sex and violence on television, but it there it was, every evening on prime time – and its gratuitousness did shock and upset me. I had two young adolescents, my daughter and step-daughter, at home. I worried about how such unreality would affect them. I found it repulsive.

So the TV stayed off most of the time. I clung to getting my news in print, where I could understand the nuances TV news left out in favor of 10-second sound bites and flashy camerawork and graphics. Newspapers and magazines still offered details and analysis, though I noticed more and more that it all came with either a subtle slant and, as time went on, barely concealed political bias. Even in print, it was hard to get the "whole story" unless I read a number of different news vehicles. There just wasn't enough time.

I'd learned a great deal about propaganda and slanting information during my years in Germany, when I worked for Army public affairs as a writer and editor. I didn't like that part of the job, but I understood the reasoning behind it, even if I didn't agree. The military is not a democracy. But now, in civilian life, I was beginning to see the American gulf I referred to in the first graf of this post – and that it was widening and deepening daily.

I discovered over the next several years that expressing personal opinions with others about certain touchy subjects – like abortion, racism, feminism religion or politics in general – was becoming much more difficult. There was seldom any real give or take, or even amiable agreements to disagree and respect the other's opinion. The country was becoming increasingly polarized. I saw it in my own home town frequently. I saw it in my own family. By this time I'd found my political feet and identified much more closely with Democrats than Republicans. I'd already voted for Bill Clinton twice.

But I never approached those touchy subjects at work, even though I was a journalist myself now. I wrote feature stories about interesting people and places. Occasionally, I'd write localized breaking news, like the time a small plane crashed on Highway 50. (The pilot and his passenger miraculously walked away from their crushed plane.) I edited a weekly real estate section, and wrote and edited special sections that focused more on advertising than anything vaguely approaching news. A good portion of my time was spent on graphics and pagination, and whatever time I had left over on tediously keyboarding local announcements and events for publication, which most reporters and editors don't do themselves. I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades in the newsroom. There were parts of it I didn't care for much, but in general, I loved the job.

My fellow reporters, like any other group of people, had their own political and personal opinions on the push-button issues. But we didn't discuss them in the newsroom, unless they jived with those of the paper's editor and publisher, both of whom were quite conservative. The paper reflected the conservative voting populace of the county, which held the majority then and still does, in its Op-Ed and letters pages. But among the reporters, personal opinions stayed personal and didn't enter hard new stories unless they were about local politics in the first place. In those, I often saw a subtle slant toward the Republican point of view. While it seemed inevitable, it bothered me. But it happened rarely enough that I could ignore it.

Time passed and television wielded greater and greater influence on our society, our community and all of us, the people. I remember my disgust over the wall-to-wall, breathless, circus-like coverage of the OJ Simpson trial. I was slack-jawed when our paper's editor, who hadn't ever allowed a TV in the newsroom before, actually rolled the TV out of the far-away conference room (where it had gathered dust for years) into the newsroom the day the Simpson verdict was announced. All other work stopped while we watched the fuzzy broadcast, tuned in with rabbit ears. The next day marked the first time, in my own memory, that the paper reported "national news" – "OJ Not Guilty" – in 72 pt. type on the front page above the fold. It was written, of course, based on notes from the television broadcast. The editor even pried the company wallet open and bought a syndicated NYT pool photo to go with the story.

Today, a little over a decade (and a dubious presidential election, the Sept. 11 attacks, the amorphous and idiotic "war on terror," the lies that launched us into the Iraq war, the entrance of torture into American foreign policy, the illegal wiretapping by the government of its own people and the suspension of habeas corpus) later, television totally dominates American public discourse. The "news" programs on cable and the networks are little more than partisan, yelling, messy attention-grabbers, with bits of hard news tossed in for a few minutes here and there. Opinionating, even between simple news readers – not pundits, not seasoned journalists with world experience under their belts – is the norm. They really have become simply "talking heads." And they don't really inform us of much of anything. It's all spun. And spun. Fear rules. Those with opposing opinions are portrayed as losers or worse, as traitors to their own country. The entertainment programming is so disjointed and shrieking, so filled with ugliness, rudeness, sexual innuendo and depraved, calculated violence that I simply cannot sit still for it. And it makes me despair for America.

I still don't watch television. I tried again recently when we got digital cable. I thought it would be a good way to pass the time early in the morning while I walked on the treadmill in the living room. I could get informed, burn calories and rebuild flabby muscles all at the same time, I thought. And although I only tuned in the news programming, I discovered that it bored me. Worse, it just made me angry, which isn't nice at 6:30 in the morning. Where was the news? The actual news? Where was the balance? Where was reasoned discourse? It simply wasn't there. What was there were endless, raucous, mind-numbing commercials and, when a talking head did appear, mindless, partisan jabber. So now I'm trying to watch movies on DVD I haven't seen yet.

I no longer read Time or Newsweek. Both have become little more than partisan rags. Time's glowing, adoring feature stories, first about George W. Bush, then about Ann Coulter, cured me of that. I dropped my subscription. I read The Week now. Its stories are presented in snippets, but at least they're relevant snippets from all sides of the issue being discussed. I surf the Internet, reading the online versions of the big national papers, and some international ones. But more and more often, I read news-related blogs for the truth, analysis, opinion, angles both left and right, and nuance I crave. I don't feel I can trust the big papers to tell the story fairly anymore. At least here in the blogosphere, the American people are using virtual bullhorns and trying, desperately, to build gossamer bridges across the yawning, windy gulf that television cracked open between us as Americans – and which also separates us more and more from the rest of the world.

Tip o' the hat to Steve Benin of The Carpetbagger Report for his thought-provoking Sunday Morning Discussion post.

01 June 2007

Health care blues...

'Twas a nice day yesterday in the mountains. It was warm and breezy. A bright, sunny day. Mr. Wren needed to go down the mountain to the VA Medical Center and pick up a prescription they'd neglected to mail. As I'm still unemployed and without health insurance, I went with him so I could turn in an application for medical care through the VA, myself. And it seemed like a good day to put the top down on the old Celica, hit the road and cultivate the windblown look.

We made the long drive, getting off the freeway as soon as we could so we could enjoy the country roads. All around were miles and miles of yellow-grass hills, dotted with rocky outcroppings like bones jutting out of the earth and huge, spreading oak trees, cattle, blue sky and the occasional meadowlark or red-winged blackbird song slipping by on the wind.

When we arrived at the medical center in the busy Sacramento suburbs, Mr. Wren ambled over to the pharmacy to wait on his prescription and I found my way to the VA Medical Eligibility office to turn in my paperwork.

Now, I'm not sick. But I do have rheumatoid arthritis, and a couple of years back, had to have surgery on my right wrist to remove panus in the joint that was building up and which eventually, would have seriously impaired that wrist and hand. The surgery was successful and I healed without issues. But the doc warned me that the condition could recur. I'd thought the RA was in remission – I've not had serious pain from it for quite a few years now (knock on wood). But he told me that even though I wasn't having pain, the RA was still there, doing its slow, ugly work. Thus, the panus buildup and the need for surgical intervention. He also told me that the panus could recur in that joint –or in another. No way to know, really.

It's the luck of the draw. I left his office feeling confident that I'd be fine, but if the stuff came back, there would be a solution. I had medical insurance.

But recently, I've begun having pain in that same wrist. It zings me when I turn it just so or if I try to use that hand to lift something heavy. I catch myself favoring it without thinking. Sometimes it aches and swells. When it does, I take ibuprofen, light incense to whichever god is listening, and hope it will go away. So far, that's worked.

But I'm a wee bit concerned, I'll admit. The panus appeared quickly and without pain or warning, last time. And now I don't have medical insurance. Since the job hunt is not going swimmingly, I decided to apply for medical benefits through the Veterans Adminstration. As an honorably discharged vet, this was something I was promised – that my country would provide me with medical care through the VA if I was in financial need.

I never expected the care to be free. I'm not a disabled vet. So I figured I'd have a premium and a co-pay – but in the affordable range. I saw falling back on the VA as a stopgap measure, something to hold me until I find a job that comes with reasonable health insurance.

Well, my wrist and I are just going to have to tough it out. My application was turned down in minutes. Why? Because in 2003, the "cap" eligibility incomes for vets applying for VA medical benefits were lowered drastically. To my great surprise, I make too much money.

Or rather, I did. They use the previous year's gross income for their eligibility caps. In 2006, during the 11 months I worked, I made more than the new cap for my category of veteran, which is roughly $28,000.

This is ... well, ironic. Small-town journalists, even editors, will never see the inside of a brand-spanking-new Mercedes sportster on their salaries. Mr. Wren and I drive cars that were new back when Bush 1 and Bill Clinton was President. When I was laid off last November, my salary had finally, after 9 years and some months, grown to the point that I was making just enough to pay the bills, buy the groceries and have a little left over each month for a book or two from Amazon.

But it wasn't a heck of a lot more than that $28,000 cap.

The woman behind the counter in the eligibility office was kind and sympathetic. She told me to come back next January and try again. Since my income now consists only of unemployment insurance checks, if I don't find work I'll easily come in under the cap.

So I guess in the meantime, I'll just keep on being careful of that wrist, treat it gently, take ibuprofen, use icepacks and a wrist brace when it bothers me, and hope. And hope. And hope ... that I stay healthy and my wrist doesn't blow up before I can find another job and get health insurance again.

It sort of put a damper on the nice day, you know?