How my Mom just helped me better understand Mr. Rogers

The challenges around Coronavirus are numerous, from economic to psychological. Those challenges are currently on the minds of probably every single person on Earth, in one way or another.

A friend recently asked me some questions about challenges which she got from an organization called Essential Partners. These questions got me thinking so much that I wanted to share my thoughts.

The questions:

  1. What is a challenge you’ve experienced in your life that led to you overcoming an obstacle?
  2. What strength, value, or part of you helped you overcome it?
  3. Where or from whom did you acquire that strength, value, or part of yourself?
  4. From whom, if anyone, did you find support?
  5. Did that moment or experience change who you are?  If so, how?

I’d love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments below!

Here are my responses:

1. What is a challenge you’ve experienced in your life that led to you overcoming an obstacle?

I feel I’ve been pretty blessed in life, and I have had few serious challenges.

Of course, everyone’s definition of a challenge is different.

One thing that led to a pretty big change in my life was my Mom’s cancer diagnosis.

My Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2011. I was crushed, and I felt helpless. I knew I wanted to help her and my Dad however I could. 

Thankfully, my job at the time was mostly computer-based, so I could do it from pretty much anywhere. My wonderful manager at the time allowed me to work from the hospital, a 4 hour drive away. I still came back to the office for at least part of the week, because I didn’t want to totally get out of touch with my job

One day while I was gone, I learned that my department at the company was dissolved. 

The team was reassigned to different departments, and I was told I was being sent to a team that sounded simply horrible. I had negative interest in doing what would be required for this project. Worse yet, switching teams likely meant I couldn’t work from the hospital or my parents’ home nearly as easily.

Some might see all this as a significant challenge, but at that point, it almost felt like a relief.

Why having a career upheaval didn’t seem like a major challenge to me

Even before my team was dissolved, I had been thinking of making a job change… although it seemed more like a far-off dream than something I could take action upon anytime soon.

I had always liked the idea of working for myself. My Mom and Dad empowered me to be able to work for myself ever since I was young; they made sure I had a computer to learn on, and that I had the time to develop the skills of understanding technology.

Some of that involved playing video games! But even those frequently resulted in me learning practical skills without even realizing it. I had to type for most of these games, and by the time I was 14 I could type nearly 100 words per minute. Eliminating the friction of getting my thoughts into a computer was a massive skill as I started building software and making websites in my pre-teen years. I kept developing those skills through my teenage years, through a Computer Engineering undergrad degree in college, and during my post-college years working as a Systems Engineer.

In 2011, I was pondering working as a contractor for others, or attempting to start a new company. But I was always a little fearful of what might happen if I failed.

In the face of my Mom’s sickness, what was truly worth fearing irreversibly changed.

Dying, something we humans have not been able to figure out a way to reverse, suddenly became about the only thing worth stressing about. Other things in my life became much less concerning.

Suddenly, even if self-employment didn’t work out, the prospect of that failure seemed much less overwhelming.

My fear of failure and rejection shrank.

The money I saved up over my six years of employment further reduced my fear.

So did being able to deeply trust friends and family to help me out if my career took a bad turn.

And having two co-founders for the new company who I trusted reduced the fear even more.

I was glad I followed my heart on being self-employed and spending more time with my Mom and Dad then, because the next nine months were the last months I got to spend with my Mom here on Earth. She died in June of 2012. I was so thankful to be able to spend more time with her thanks to changing my job.

Prior to the nightmare of my Mom getting cancer, quitting a job and attempting to start a new company, completely from scratch, was scary. But it sure got a lot less scary.

I’m happy to report that in 2020, I continue to get to grow that same company I helped create with my two-cofounders in 2011. We now have a team of smart, hard-working people whom I’m proud to work with. We help build tools for researchers and libraries… including researchers working on getting us out of the COVID-19 mess we find ourselves in today!

2. What strength, value, or part of you helped you overcome it?

The ability to embrace change, and adjust my expectations and behavior to a new reality, was key in all I mentioned above. 

But I didn’t necessarily recognize it at the time.

My wonderful wife Diveena has helped me understand the value of that quality. I consider that a huge help during this challenging time in my life, and for any challenges in life. Perhaps challenges are simply changes we aren’t prepared for?

3. Where or from whom did you acquire that strength, value, or part of yourself?

A few sources:

  • My parents & how they raised me
  • My interest in experiencing variety, and my interest in traveling
    • Since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in traveling, and the variety of experiences and people that come with that
    • When traveling, you’re bound to have to adjust your plans to take into account new information you didn’t have before!
    • All of my formative travel experiences were thanks to my parents, who helped me explore many places, whether via long road trips or plane rides
  • Meeting people who handled major life changes
    • Especially friends who had voluntarily immigrated to a different country to start a new life
    • If you’ve never moved countries, imagine flying thousands of miles to a place where you know nobody, and from scratch must make new friends, get a new education, understand & embrace a new culture… that seems more difficult to me than sticking at home and starting a new company!

4. From whom, if anyone, did you find support?

My Mom and Dad have always encouraged me. Even in the midst of my Mom fighting cancer, my parents was encouraging.

My Grandma was there for us all, and was happy I could spend more time at home.

So many friends, including my roommate at the time, were also great sources of support. Splitting the living costs with someone – something that wasn’t extremely common where I lived at the time – helped this all be even more realistic and possible. Perhaps even more than the money savings, the time spent just visiting and talking during this challenging time helped me stay positive and feel semi-normal.

5. Did that moment or experience change who you are?  If so, how?

Absolutely.

This experience redefined to me what I consider a serious challenge.

Traffic is bad? Not a big deal.

My flight got delayed and I won’t make it to where I was going on time? That’s fine, this is just a different experience now, it’s not life or death.

And so on.

I can stay positive throughout life much more easily, because I have a little closer experience to something that is truly scary.

At the start of this writing, I said I haven’t had too many serious challenges. That’s because of this major shift in what I viewed as a serious challenge.

Another way that experience changed me was the things I learned while creating the new company.

The company I started is focused on helping researchers and librarians read research papers.  Even with a four year undergrad degree, I was pretty unfamiliar with that world; I was the tech guy of the company, whereas my two co-founders knew about the world of research and libraries.

As I learned more about that world, I’ve gotten much better insight into how much work is done every day trying to push humanity forward, improving the world at large. 

There are tens of thousands of researchers around the globe, spending decades of their lives laser-focused on important problems.

Researchers are fighting deadly viruses.

Researchers are figuring ways out of economic hardships.

Researchers are developing more efficient ways to move around the globe.

Researchers are also trying to solve a million other challenges we face.

Better understanding Mr. Rogers

Learning about the world of research has surprisingly helped me better understand a quote from one of my favorite people growing up, Mr. Rogers.  

Mr. Rogers is known for saying, “look for the helpers.”  

I’ve better understood, perhaps now during Coronavirus more than ever, that the helpers are indeed everywhere.  

Researchers, medical professionals, people restocking grocery store shelves… so many are helping in these challenging times. 

If you feel like you could be doing more to help, think about what you can do to help those helpers. Right now in this Coronavirus pandemic, a big part of helping is staying at home; future challenges will likely involve different ways to help.

Whatever the challenge might be, we can be positive, be flexible, and help everyone embrace the constant change in our world.

Happy 63rd Birthday to Mom, who fought for women’s representation and recognition

Photo of the printed book titled Glueckstal Lutheran Church, written by Linda Becker Happy (a few days belated!) Birthday to my Mom, who would be 63 this year. “Women didn’t count” – three words that drove my Mom to action. Her father told her that in 1995, in his good-humored, insightful, smile-curling way of delivering a line, a technique my Mom also cultivated over the years.
“Women didn’t count” was not my Grandpa’s personal opinion. Far from it, especially considering the strength – both physically and mentally – of his wife. Grandpa was, instead, pointing out how this was a fact of life in the late 1800s and early 1900s… at least for certain subjects. Tombstones were one part of life where it held. Rather than, say, “Mr. Joe Smith & Mrs. Beverly Smith”, some tombstones would simply say, “Mr. & Mrs. Joe Smith.” Why? “Women didn’t count.” She wrote about the chat with her Dad, and many more stories, in her book about Glueckstal Lutheran Church. I’m very proud she completed it. After lots of effort researching records, sleuthing family connections, conducting interviews, and writing, my Mom accomplished her goal of ensuring the women’s names and contributions of the early days of the Glueckstal Lutheran Church in North Dakota were remembered. I’m so glad my Mom wanted to ensure people were recognized for their efforts, even when the standard of the past was not so equitable. Happy Birthday Mom, I love you ❤️

The sky is a dark purple tonight

The purple Yoda died today.

I felt like collecting my thoughts about him, since my opinion of him changed a lot over the years.

I remember when I first heard about him that I thought he was weird.  He was far from normal, both in looks and the sound of his music. This was roughly six-year-old Karl reacting this way to his songs or music videos back in 1989 or 1990, and even though I know I liked weird when it came to Gonzo of the Muppet Babies, I hadn’t cultured much appreciation for Prince yet.

But I knew his music.  Not just that his songs were catchy, but they had a distinctive sound.  They were unlike everything else on the radio.  His voice was very recognizable, but also the sound itself was different; I wasn’t savvy enough to pick up on what was different, but just think about his huge hit Purple Rain.

Purple Rain has no bass line.

What kind of pop song has no bass line?  A Prince pop song, that’s what.  And it’s amazing and unique.

I kept listening throughout my childhood whenever he would come on VH1. We rarely had MTV, and when we did, Mom didn’t really want me watching since that had more risqué content.  Funny that VH1 showed Prince, though, with such, um, entendre-titled songs as Cream, Get Off, and even Little Red Corvette… not exactly family-friendly material on VH1, either!

I definitely remember the video for Kiss, complete with Prince’s amazing disgust face (which he brought back years later for his Black Sweat video). I remember thinking this was a scandalous song simply because it was talking about how he really wanted to kiss this girl… and that was it.  Whoa!

Prince was scandalous to my grade-school ears and sensibilities.  That makes me wonder; aren’t we all extremely intrigued at stuff we are told is controversial?

And don’t we eventually calm down about controversial stuff as we get older, thinking we’re either too old for it, or that there’s something inherently bad or negative – either for us or younger people – about controversial stuff?

Whether it’s Elvis, Prince, Madonna, Eminem, or Miley Cyrus, older people turn up their noses at it, and younger people embrace it precisely because of the direction of all those old people’s noses.

Then I got a little older

When I was roughly 13 years old, after playing a piano recital I had been working on memorizing and playing well for months, I came home after it in the night and saw a special on Prince. It was while he was “the artist formerly known as,” but it was talking about his prolific and talent-filled accomplishments.  Watching that quick hour or two of television – probably in the lead-up to a new album release of his – I realized he was an incredible talent.  The sheer number of instruments he could play well, and that he not only composed but likely performed all of the music on all of his early albums, was mind-boggling to me.

I instantly respected the hell out of the guy with the symbol for a name.

Prince struggled while we watched

Over the years, I saw his struggles with ownership of what he makes, dealing with bosses (his music labels), his love life, his sensitivity about his appearance (try to find videos or photos of him where the tall women he had onstage tower over his short frame… they’re hard to find), his transformation from someone best known for his dirty mind to someone who openly celebrated a fairly conservative religion as a Jehovah’s Witness (he even went knocking door-to-door!), and eventually pretty much having all things forgiven as went on to some pretty major mainstream success, playing at the Super Bowl in the rain.

Most of us don’t get to play the Super Bowl, but hopefully many of us get to work up to big events in our life that we’re very proud of at all ages of our life. Perhaps the Super Bowl was almost like Prince’s retirement, or at least a way of the world saying, “Hey, you’re all right, and you’ve earned the country’s respect.”  The same idea that comes at anyone’s retirement party… even if the retiree was a little weird to work with at times.

I guess I see in Prince a character that transformed before my very eyes as I got older.  Kind of like how many people listen to Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone over the years and realize new things about it as they age, I kept listening to Prince’s music and learned new things about him and his music.  Not only did I pick up on all the saucy bits, but I realized how many human faults this extraordinary musician had.

If you ever think you can’t be special because you have faults, just remember all the faults and challenges even a world-renowned musician like Prince had.  And like another great musician we lost this year, we have it a little easier than Prince, because we get to listen to Prince’s music for inspiration.

Should health care be profitable?

In the USA, health care results in massive profits.

Should it?

According to this Washington Post article, health care in the USA is “very much something people make money out of. There isn’t too much embarrassment about that [in the USA] compared to Europe and elsewhere.”

Profits have enabled us to look past the embarrassment of benefitting from others’ suffering.

This attitude pervades not only the health care establishment, but the military-industrial complex… but today let’s focus on the world of health care.

Non-Profit and For-Profit can coexist peacefully

I want income for health care companies. I want enough to make sure they are there when me and my loved ones need them. Every company, whether a non-profit or profit, needs income. And the people providing the extremely worthwhile service of healing people, and easing people’s pain, should be paid well.

And maybe some health care companies should have some profits. Look at the world of higher education: there are profit and non-profit institutions. Putting aside the questionableness of profit-based colleges (some of which are owned by the Washington Post!), they are legal and they serve… some kind of role.

So let’s say we allow for-profit health care providers, just like we allow for-profit educational institutions.

*shudder*

That means they will be profitable. But the ability to screw people over is so… there. Especially when we consider our existing for-profit health care system.

Profitable… but obscenely profitable?

A fantastic recent Time article by Steven Brill mentions how, on the bill of sale from a hospital stay, a single Tylenol pill cost $1.50… even though we can buy 100 of them for $1.49 on Amazon.com.

And the Washington Post article showed an MRI costs about 4X more in the US than in France.

Why are hospitals charging so much?

Well, think about what you do for a living.

What if your customers did not know how much they should expect to pay? And what if you got paid the majority of the time, no matter what you charged? And say you did not need to even tell people how much your product costs until after the person has already purchased the product?

America’s Stockholm Syndrome to health care costs

One of the first phrases you learn as a tourist traveling in a non-English-speaking country is, “How much does that cost?”

Italian: Quonto costa?

Arabic: beh-KEM-deh?

German: Wieviel kostet das?

When you ask this question in the native language of a country, you will get a smile from the local salesperson. You have taken the time to learn a little bit of the local language, after all.

But say the same question – in English! – after you step inside a hospital in the USA, and prepare for gnashing of teeth.

The sentence “how much will that cost?” is unheard of in US hospitals.

I asked it recently when, after getting pretty routine blood work done, was told I should get an ultrasound, too.

An ultrasound… for symptoms that sure just seemed like a nasty cold or flu? I was confused, and with my high-deductible health care plan (maybe $2500 deductible over a year?), I didn’t really feel like paying loads of cash for something whose root cause could probably be unveiled by lower-tech methods… especially since I knew not all the possible blood tests had been run yet.

So as I stood in the hospital, still sleepy, early on a Saturday morning, I asked the question I’ve asked on three different continents to shopkeepers (always with positive results): “How much does this cost?”

The looks I got from the administrative assistants in the radiology department were a mix of:

  • shock (“Who asks that? Seriously??”)
  • fear (“Wait… can he pay? Will he just leave without paying??”)
  • disbelief (“Why in the world would he want to know the price? The doctor wants this test for him, why would he care what it costs? You need to get this done!”)

If the question “How much does this cost?” is not applicable to an entire industry, I give a HUGE tip of my hat to the marketers behind that industry: they have somehow made taboo the mere IDEA of ASKING to see a price list! To merely ask the most basic of questions of my captors is not culturally allowed.

Even though I can afford anything in a McDonald’s, I still like knowing how much the cheeseburger is compared to the chicken sandwich.

But in addition to getting my kudos, an industry that gets out of that question needs to be treated differently than other industries.

Health care: A unique industry

Health care is unlike any other industry. So we should be dealing with it differently, especially if our country is paying much more than other countries for the same service.

How much more? That’s a problem right there – hospitals don’t know. The ladies behind the counter that Saturday morning, after staring at me trying to parse my foreign question, and quickly paging through a thick 3-ring binder in a cupboard, said they truly do not know. And had no way for me to find out until Monday.

So before we can determine what’s a good price and what’s not, we better see and compare what everybody is charging.

The Affordable Care Act – known as Obamacare to both haters and supporters alike (what better way to steal your adversary’s thunder than to embrace the denigrating word they call you – classic grade school trickery use on both sides!) – has a provision in section 2718(e):

Each hospital operating within the United States shall for each year establish (and update) and make public (in accordance with guidelines developed by the Secretary) a list of the hospital’s standard charges for items and services provided by the hospital

Source: govtrack.us

After a quick call to my senator’s office (on a Friday afternoon, no less!), I was informed that the format for these reports are not determined yet, nor are the reports’ specifics yet scheduled to be discussed by the oversight committee. Also, this ACA provision doesn’t kick in until 2014.

But thankfully, by 2014, we will at least have a little more transparency on how much different hospitals are charging.

I am going to do my best to have some influence over what goes into these reports.

I want the output to come out as nicely-formatted tabular data that I can easily process in a spreadsheet or a user-friendly website. Think of the nice websites that could pop up to help us understand how much different items cost, comparing one hospital to another… we deserve this comparison shopping opportunity in the health care world. And it will make more jobs!

I also want hospitals to have to report down to the smallest items, things like how much a single Tylenol costs, or an alcohol wipe. Too much detail? No. This is reasonable because, well, after decades of not asking how much these things cost, we have arrived at an industry that is charging us 100X markup.

And since health care is different than every other industry, I argue huge markup is not just personally unacceptable, but should be criminal. The government sets limits on how much loan companies – even the shady payday loan companies – can charge. Why don’t we limit the markup on incredibly important, essential health care related items?

A restaurant marks up liquor by a lot – I can buy a reasonably delicious bottle of wine for $10, but a single glass will often cost $9 at a restaurant. But this is a luxury that is easy to turn down.

Can I turn down that ultrasound? Not necessarily… but at least tell me how much it will cost!

When everything costs the same, everything is worth the same

What if health insurance’s pricing model applied to other things we buy, such as… food?

My cousin Adam Emter made a great comparison:

Just think if other aspects of our lives were paid for by some other entity, requiring very little outlay from us. My employer starts purchasing all of my family’s food, and only requires a $20/month co-pay. You think I’m going to still clip coupons, shop for good deals, buy items based on the nutritional and economical value, or control my calorie intake? Hell no – I’m eating steak 5 nights a week…

It’s no wonder that pricing has gone out of whack – we feel it when the price of milk, or the price of gas, goes up. The vast majority of us never directly feel when health care prices go up.

The health care industry is addicted to its own personal all-you-can-eat buffet of money, provided to them by health insurance companies (which, interestingly enough, don’t have too much markup).

When a person (and corporations are people, right, Supreme Court?) is caught abusing a substance, and his friends want to help him straighten out his life, friends need to know everything about his life, so they can see where to make adjustments to this person’s life decisions to help him back onto the road to well-being. The health care industry is that friend who needs an intervention, and ACA section 2718(e) is hopefully the tool that lets us see all his income and expenses to see how in the world he got so much money to begin with.

Ask “How much?” next time you’re at the clinic

We need to start educating ourselves on how overpriced our health care is. Let’s stop allowing a hospital to charge us $1.50 for a single pill that costs less than $0.02.

And let’s start that process by asking how much things cost.

By asking, we make the health care employees realize that at least one patient seems to care what these things cost… and this person wants to know *before* it’s done.

By asking, we make health care employees think about it a little more, and therefore the price may stick in their head a little more.

Ask how much. It’s a step we can all do.