Friday, August 26, 2016

three little words

Notice of Deficiency.

I am not certain there are three more disturbing words in English. Especially, when the IRS is providing the notice.

Yesterday, my friends in Nevada told me the IRS had sent me a certified letter. I knew it could not be good news.

Certified letters from the IRS usually do not contain notes of apology: "We sincerely regret we have been acting as bag man for the welfare-military-industrial and crony capitalist complex. Having seen the error of our ways, we are returning all of the money you have paid to the federal government since the day you started pulling weeds for the local bank branch in 1962. We wish you, as a free American, much joy in spending the money you earned and that we took from you."

Nope. It was a notice I had failed to properly report income from two sources in 2014. The IRS claimed I had received an additional unreported payment from a deferred income account and that my tax form did not reflect the total benefits I received from Social Security.

I did some quick research. The IRS is correct. For some reason, I slipped the deferred income into the wrong line on a form that did not add the amount into total income.

The Social Security entry was not initially my fault. I used the total I originally received from the federal government. Apparently, a corrected form arrived after I filed my income tax return. When it arrived, I did not look closely at it.When I retired in 2009, I seemed to be well-set for a pleasant post-employment life. Partly through my own ignorance, I did not take into account that I would have to pay income tax on my Social Security benefits at a marginal rate of 28%. That if I withdrew a large amount from my savings in any given year, it would radically increase the cost of my Medicare premium. And that when I withdrew amount from my deferred income account, I would pay income taxes on it at the same rate as when I was working.
The total due in additional taxes is almost $2,600 -- an amount I will gladly pay.

I searched through the packet for a website where I could acknowledge my stupidity and make an electronic payment. Certainly the IRS is modern enough to have a process like that.

I was wrong. The instructions make it perfectly clear that I must sign a paper waiver and mail it along with the deficiency -- as a paper check. And the time the packet takes to wend its way to The States, I will be incurring additional interest.

The most difficult task may be to find a check book for my account. Who writes checks these days?

Or was this is some sort of elaborate scam? We senior citizens are often preyed upon by the unethical.

Probably not. The address in Fresno is an IRS processing center. So, into a paper envelope it all shall go.

This week's Economist has an article about major protests concerning Chile's pension plan. Unlike most countries that have defined benefit pension plans, Chile decided it would provide its citizens with a defined benefits plan.

Each citizen was provided a savings accounts where the account owner could deposit up to 10% of his income. If the maximum amount (10% of income) was deposited, after 30 years a retiree could anticipate receiving 70% of his last income as a pension.

For those who fully participated, the returns have been outstanding. Instead of receiving 70%, full participants have actually received 77%.

So why the protests? Most account holders failed to make the maximum payments. Now, they are angry that some of their fellow citizens are receiving more in retirement than they are. And they want taxpayers to pony up for them. They also want to change the system to the type of defined benefit system that is currently putting financial strains on every western government.

It is a response we have seen around the world -- people wanting someone else to pay their benefits. This tax deficiency notice has made me wondering whether they are correct.

As I was growing up, I was told the wise and frugal person should forego immediate gratification to save up for the future. Particularly, retirement. So, I did. For 20 years, I went without one day of vacation. Instead, I invested the maximum amount of money I could in tax-deferred savings accounts and stripped my daily budget to the bone. I wasn't Bob Cratchit, but I was close.

Now, I am not certain I was the smart guy. Had I spent all of my income on my hedonistic desires, I could have had a lot of fun -- and my tax bill would be greatly reduced. I could then do what the protesters in Chile want -- expect the government to bail me out of my wrong choices.

It is thoughts like this that remind me why there are so many angry American voters. People who played by the rules and were told if they did, they could see a better tomorrow. They think someone lied to them. And they may be correct.

Of course, I still have the money I saved. A giant chunk of it is going to end up in the hands of the federal government, and there is very little I can do about it.

Well, I guess I could vote. And after today, I just may do that.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

mind the gap

Not the one in the London underground. The one that adorns many an Appalachian smile.

Me? I need no longer worry about that type of gap. My dental implant is complete.

The saga began back in 2013 when my left rear upper molar became infected on a visit to Morelia. For almost a year, a persistent endodontist attempted to save it. But the root was cracked, and bacteria were flooding through like Chinese soldiers swarming over Korean hills.

There was nothing to be done, but to pull the tooth and hope the infection could be controlled. In February 2014, my new dentist (Omar) extracted it (the tooth-- the whole tooth -- and nothing but the tooth).

Because there was now a gap in the chorus line of my upper jaw, my dentist suggested a dental implant.  It was not simply for aesthetics. I have lost that battle long ago. But gaps tend to loosen other teeth. Without support they succumb easily.

So, I agreed. I finally started the process around Christmas last year. And it was truly a process. The bone in my upper jaw had receded enough that it would no longer accommodate an implant without a bone graft.

And that is where it all began. For three to four hours, I sat in the dental chair while Omar sliced and diced to slip a piece of cadaver bone onto the top of my jaw. He then drilled and chipped to make a home for the temporary post that would later be replaced by a permanent one.

When I returned to his office last month, the graft had taken, and I was now ready for a shiny new molar (the reverse tooth fairy). And this morning, in it went. That, of course, is it at the top of this essay.

To install it, Omar screwed the permanent post back in place. He then seated the new molar on the post, and screwed it in place.

Yes. Screwed. As if he were mounting a rear view mirror or a fender on a 1994 Toyota pickup.

You may remember the scene in Star Trek: Insurrection where F. Murray Abraham's character undergoes dental and cosmetic surgery in a losing battle to aging. That is about how I felt. At least, the dental part.

But I am now done. The gap is filled. And, other than a couple of followup appointments and being careful with what I eat for a month or two, I am back where I was in December 2013 -- except without the infection.

The total cost? $22,000 (Mx) for the bone graft and post; $12,000 (Mx) for the crown.  About $1,924 (US).

Omar wants to install a second implant where a molar was extracted long ago by the Air Force. But I am not certain I want to go through the process again. I am happy to have the tooth he installed.

If I ever return to my Appalachian roots, I will next need to lose a tooth was far more visibility.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

a better man for it

Keeping in touch with old friends has its rewards -- sometimes, very tangible ones.

I have known Al French for almost forty years. He was an assistant district attorney in Clackamas County when my law partner and I opened up shop in Oregon City. We had a few trials together, but not many.

Our common ground was politics and Coos County. He was raised in the big city of Coos Bay while I was chasing tadpoles in Powers.

Whether it was our joint interest in the Federalist Society or him introducing The American Spectator to me, we quickly became fellow debaters and, more often, political sympathizers.

It was a heady time with the elections of 1980 and 1984 -- along with property tax limitation initiatives that split our conservative consensus. When I ran for a seat in the Oregon legislature, he was there to assist.

So, it was no surprise when he offered to mail a Harding biography to me as part of my presidential biography project. It arrived the other day. Over $30 in U.S. postage. That is a true friend.

The book is Francis Russell's The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. When I started my project, I researched the internet for the best biography of each president. Russel's book appeared on almost everyone's list. But it was not available in a Kindle edition. Al solved that problem for me.

Re-learning how to read a hard-bound book is an interesting process. I have heard other people say the same thing. They seem to read more books -- and read them faster -- on an electronic reader.

I concur. I am only on page 52 of this 663 book, but I have the flavor of it. I am hooked.

Harding is still a teen at this point. His father has purchased a cornet for him, and he is playing in the town band.

Russel comments on the role politics and religion played in Marion, Ohio. Most of his neighbors were Democrats. Harding was a Republican. "A man was born one or the other, just as he was born a Baptist or a Presbyterian, and gave an emotional allegiance to his church and party without, however, letting either interfere with his practical life."

That description helps to explain what would otherwise have been an anomaly. Russel describes how the town band, managed by Harding, would give street concerts every Saturday night, as well as providing background music at the local roller link, and playing at political rallies of both parties.

That last item on the list struck a familiar chord. The year was 1966. Oregon had an open United States senate seat. The two favored candidates were Republican Mark Hatfield (then governor) and Democrat Bob Duncan (a congressman). But both of them had primary opposition.

Duncan had announced enthusiastic support for President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam. That drew opposition from an anti-war candidate: Howard Morgan.

I do not know how it came about, but our band, from a suburban high school, was invited to play music at a Howard Morgan political rally in Portland. Most of the band members arrived by school bus. My parents took me because the rally was on Sunday and within blocks of our church.

To the best of my knowledge, no one ever questioned the use of taxpayer money for the school bus or the non-volunteer time of students on a Sunday. My mother has always been a staunch Republican. And my father was in the process that year of leaving the Democrat party. But I am not certain either of them questioned our participation in the event. Maybe it was just one of those things that seemed normal then -- and now seems like a political land mine.

I asked the band teacher if I could wear my Hatfield hat (a cardboard derivative of an Uncle Sam topper with "Hatfield" written across the front) and a Hatfield button. He told me that was what the First Amendment was all about.

It turned out to not be much of a protest. All of the Morgan people I talked with said they were going to vote for Hatfield if Duncan won the primary.

Well, he did, and a lot of Democrats did just that -- electing Hatfield in one of the tightest elections of the year.

I need to remember that the next time I witness someone having a meltdown over partisan labels. Maybe we just need to be a little more adult -- like the Marion band -- and not let the labels of church or party interfere with our practical life.

And, once again, Al -- thank you very much. You are a true pal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

social security admits error

Well, the American government once again is doing its best to prove that incompetence is not a monopoly of the Clinton and Trump campaigns.

Earlier this month (breach in the chinese wall), I brought you a bit of bizarre news from the Social Security Administration. The federal government has spent years in trying to wean Americans from using paper. Instead, we are to trust the government and banks with direct deposit checks (a process I have used since the 1970s) and we are to transact our business with the feds over the computer.

That system appeared to be working well. Citizens had easy access to their accounts and information. Unfortunately, Chinese and Russian hackers found the access even easier.

In a ham-fisted attempt to fix the weaknesses in its computer systems (defects the federal government has known since the Clinton administration), Social Security announced at the end of July that access to personal accounts will now require obtaining a code by text-enabled cell phones for each time a person wants to see his own information.

You all saw the weaknesses in that system when I wrote about it. The primary one is that a large portion of people on Social Security do not have text-enabled telephones. And, for many who do, the process of requesting a code and then using it, has baffled many American seniors.

To Social Security's credit, it has now called king's X. Hey, folks, we really did not mean it.

Well, that's my paraphrase. The official announcement is a bit less personal in its tone.

On July 30, 2016, we began requiring you to sign into your my Social Security account using a one-time code sent via text message. We implemented this new layer of security, known as “multifactor authentication,” in compliance with a Presidential executive order to improve the security of consumer financial transactions. SSA implemented the improvements aggressively because we have a fundamental responsibility to protect the public’s personal information. However, multifactor authentication inconvenienced or restricted access to some of our account holders. We’re listening to your concerns and are responding by temporarily rolling back this mandate. As before July 30, you can now access your secure account using only your username and password. We highly recommend the extra security text message option, but it is not required. We’re developing an alternative authentication option, besides text messaging, that we’ll begin implementing within the next six months. We strive to balance security and customer service options, and we want to ensure that our online services are both easy to use and secure. The my Social Security service has always featured a robust verification and authentication process, and it remains safe and secure. We regret any inconvenience you may have experienced.
Who writes like that? If I understand its thrust, the message goes like this.

"The president ordered us to improve our computer security. We were doing only what he told us to do, and we did it very well.

"Unfortunately, you, the people who we were attempting to help, are a bunch of whiny babies who still live in the 19th century. This is the age of Twitter, not of liveried footmen running around delivered perfumed notes. The fact that your eyes roll back in your head reacting to such terms as 'multifactor authentication' and 'consumer financial transactions' proves our point.

"Well, you have complained enough that we are now going to take our jolly good time in protecting your account information. For those few of you who understand how to use a cell phone, you can request a code. And you should.

"Of course, it will not matter because all of your non-connected fellow citizens will be sharing their information directly with Xi and Putin. Yours, too.

"Have a nice day."

But, it gets even better. When I tried to read the announcement on the Social Security web site, I was blocked with this message: "The owner of [Social Security] has configured their website improperly. To protect your information from being stolen, Firefox has not connected to this website."

Now, that hardly instills in me the type of confidence that the bureaublather announcement was targeting. And it puts paid to that reassuring tag line: "
The my Social Security service has always featured a robust verification and authentication process, and it remains safe and secure."

I am not surprised at the rollback. This is almost exactly what happened with the initial electronic registration for Obamacare. The program was put together to amaze computer programmers, and forgot that citizens would be using it.

The good news is that those of us who live in Mexico will now be able to deal with Social Security electronically as if the text-message requirement had never reared its head.

That is, until another new requirement rolls out. And it will.

Monday, August 22, 2016

what's the buzz?

"The heat and the bugs -- in that order."

I was having lunch with an acquaintance who had moved from Melaque before I came down in 2009. He was explaining why he had moved up into the mountains half way to Guadalajara.

He knew how uncomfortable summer heat and humidity could be; he had spent most of his life living in one of those midwestern states that begin and end with a vowel. But knowledge is not always a coping skill. He moved away from that weather, and had no desire to spend his retirement years reliving the title of Jorge Amado’s third novel.*

We didn't talk much about the bugs. But my eight years of living here has proven him correct. We have heat and bugs -- year round. The presence of the ocean offsets that for me. Not for him.

I thought of that conversation this past week. When I walk Barco in the morning, I wear my track suit to fend off the flying midges (what northerners call no-see-ums, and what my neighbors call jejenes). If I don't, the bites of those almost invisible flies will leave my legs looking like two yards of Swiss dot.

The midges have never been a problem at my house. I do get the occasional mosquito at night while I am standing in the pool reading. But I have not seen too many of them -- before last week.

Because we were not heading to the sports park last Monday, I decided to forego my track suit. That was a mistake.

I was convinced I had walked into a re-enactment of the fourth plague of Egypt. There were mosquitoes everywhere -- including on me. At one point, I counted eleven of them on my legs. That was far more than I ever experienced living directly on the laguna in Villa Obreg

Most were marsh mosquitoes -- those pesky runts that remind me of no-see-ums on steroids. But not all. A large portion were Aedes aegypti. I call it the Egyptian mosquito -- simply because I cannot remeber the latin name.

Aedes aegypti is incredibly easy to identify. Just look for those white knees.
They are a nasty piece of work. Not only do they leave large welts behind after their blood feeding, they also carry the virus for some serious diseases. Dengue. Chikungunya. Zika. Yellow Fever.

Yellow fever is not a problem in our area. Nor is Zika -- yet, even though it seems to be working its way up from southern Mexico. Dengue and chikungunya we have aplenty.

For four days, the plague raged. All day long. Most mosquitoes prowl primarily at dawn or dusk -- like the vampires they are. Not these guys. They were willing to fill up on plasma just like a 7-11. 24/7. And they did.

Then, they were gone. Thanks to the marvels of chemistry.

Within two days of the onset, the local spray truck came through the neighborhood. I do not know what cocktail is used for the insecticide, but it works.

The day after he passed through, my courtyard was filled with the carcasses of bees, dragonflies, moths, cockroaches, scorpions, butterflies, beetles, and assorted other insects. Most of my neighbors throw open their doors and windows when the truck passes through to take advantage of the vector control.

Inevitably, the only survivors are the mosquitoes. Or so I thought, until I worked it over in my mind. The spray undoubtedly kills the adult mosquitoes. But, their life cycle is so short, another generation metamorphoses into adults
from their watery nurseries as soon as the truck departs.

But the driver, knowing the wily ways of the mosquito, was back in two days to wipe out that lot.

This week, the mosquitoes were gone. At least, around my house. They still hang out in the sports park. The moisture and grass of the fútbol field are a perfect hangout for them. Plus, the spray truck never reaches them.

Some people cannot deal with the flying midges and the (understandable) fear of
Aedes aegypti. The insects are a nuisance. Sometimes, a frightening nuisance -- especially if Yellow Fever takes another turn on the world stage as it is doing in Africa.

Fortunately, there are self-defense mechanisms. Mine is Off! When I remember to use it. I am one of those people who dislikes the feel of lotions. Hand creams. Sun screen. Massage lotions. (Well. massages in general.) Insect repellent. They are not my natural thing. But they are effective.

Unlike my acquaintance, neither the heat nor the bugs are going to drive me away from what drew me here in the first place -- the beautiful ocean that daily reminds me there are more adventures just over that horizon.

I think I'll stay a few more years.

* -- Sweat, in case you were wondering.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


My blogger buddy Kim loves big cities.

The fact that he has decided to settle in Mexico City makes a lot of sense for him. His blood runs urban.

Not mine. It would stretch the point to call myself a country lad. After all, I love visiting big cities, but, when it comes to choosing a place to live, my preference runs, as the song says, "land spreadin' out so far and wide."

I played with the idea of living in Puerto Vallarta until I realized it had all of the drawbacks of an urban area without any of the cultural amenities. So, I headed south until I ran into Melaque and Barra de Navidad.

Farm living may not be the life for me, but I am a lot closer than I was in Salem. After all, I never would have had two goats greeting me each morning if I still lived in the house on Summer Street. We even had a resident pig for a couple of days until it was invited to be the guest of honor at a big family get-together.

And then there are the chickens. Everywhere.

My neighbors have a rather off-hand approach to raising fowl. A couple of chickens are brought home to be turned lose to fend and forage for themselves. Where there were two chickens, there will soon be a flock of yellow fluff ball chicks. Those who survive will keep the cycle going until there are, as I said, chickens everywhere.

It is the "those who survive" that amazes me. The chickens have no pens or coops. They are truly free range. Wandering through vacant lots and neighbors' lots in search of anything that a chicken might find edible.

The survival rate is low. Anyone who has ever watched a line of ducklings follow her mother on a snapping turtle pond knows what I am talking about. They soon become characters in an Agatha Christie mystery. One duckling will disappear. Then another. Often a forlorn mother duck is left to paddle solo around the pond.

Chicken is on the menu for a lot of local predators. Feral cats. Raccoons. Coatimundi.

But the top hunter is Barco's dog pal Güera. A few months ago, the three of us were out on a walk together. The chickens, for good reason, are wary of four-legged creatures. But they were more intent on breakfast than running away.

That was a mistake. I have seen Güera walk right past the chickens without paying them any notice. This time, she ran at them. They scattered. That must have triggered her basic instinct. She was off after a teenage bird while the rest of the flock clucked and fled.

Güera disappeared around a corner. I called her to stop. But she was gone. I was not too bothered because the chickens appeared to know what they were doing to survive.

Güera knew better. She soon caught up to us with the now-limp chicken in her mouth. Since then, I have seen her dispatch at least a half dozen birds. Barco is impressed.

Up north, Güera would be a dead dog. Dogs who mess with livestock are just minutes from having a bullet between their eyes.

Here? The putative owner of the chickens and Güera's owner seem to accept it as the cycle of life in Mexico. After all, the chicken guy does nothing to raise the birds. I am certain he takes advantage of the eggs and the occasional fryer -- even though I haven't seen him do either.

For me, they are simply part of life and death here on my ever-greener acres.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

golden arches on the beach

The lot has sat empty since I moved to Mexico.

Well, not exactly empty. It has occasionally been used as a parking lot for one of the beach hotels. But the gates' stare toward the street was blank as Botticelli's Aphrodite.

No more. The gate is down and workmen are sweating away in our August heat. Something new is going to be wedged between Rooster's restaurant and the new Kiosko in San Patricio.

I did a little spadework of my own. A lot of property owners are a bit cagey about their building projects. Why? I don't know. But, they are.

My first working hypothesis was that Kiosko's primary convenience store competitor, Oxxo, was building a store cheek to jowl with the Kiosko that popped up last year. But the building footprint did not look right.

Almost anything else could go on that lot. The most obvious candidate would be a couple stories of apartments with retail space below. If I had extra pesos, that would be my bet.

But an acquaintance, who has lived in Barra de Navidad for a couple of decades and sports Mexican citizenship, has a far more novel idea. He had heard about a year ago that McDonald's was going to build a franchise in Melaque -- and this could be it.

I chuckled. That is how rumors get started.

And so is this.