Thursday, May 04, 2006

From the Archives: Incurable

I wrote the following story as humor therapy for my wife after we were rejected for health insurance. In 2003 I was let go by WJMK, and Bridget and I applied for private health insurance with Blue Cross/Blue Shield. They rejected us because my oldest son Tommy had gone to a psychologist for "educational support." The school had recommended to us that we get him help, because he had been identified as "highly gifted intellectually."

Apparently, insurance companies consider this kind of child as high risk--because even though we supplied Blue Cross with a letter from the psychologist saying "he has no mental disabilities of any kind--this was just for educational support"--they rejected him again because his condition wasn't considered "Curable." Once you're rejected by one insurance company, no one will touch you. That led Bridget to return to the workforce full-time so that we could get family insurance coverage.

As you might suspect, we found this incredibly irritating. I decided to use that rage and write a satire. That's the background and explanation for the following story....

By Rick Kaempfer

There was no doubt about the diagnosis. And there was no cure.

Sean Harrison’s little boy was going to have to live with his condition for the rest of his life….however long that may be. The 8-year old boy in the Spiderman pajamas was blissfully ignorant of his fate. Sean leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cheek.

“Good night, Peter,” he said.

“Good night, Dad. Can I read my ecology book in the morning?”

“We’ll talk about it when you wake up,” Sean replied.

“Awww, Dad,” Peter whined.

This was heartbreaking. Sean knew that it wouldn’t have come to this if he hadn’t lost his job. He had to get private insurance for his family, and that’s when he found out about his son Peter’s condition. The skilled underwriters and actuaries at the insurance company were the first to translate the “doctor-speak” in Peter’s medical records, and when they pointed it out to Sean, he felt like such a fool. The diagnosis was right there in black and white.

Peter Harrison has a pre-existing condition.
Peter Harrison is high risk.
Peter Harrison is a genius.

The insurance company had no choice to but reject Peter. The psychologist who tested his IQ had to admit that Peter was incurably gifted. This was a chronic condition. But insurance companies had never before encountered a man with the sort of interminable spirit that Peter’s father Sean Harrison possessed deep within himself. Incurable wasn’t in his dictionary. Sean Harrison was determined to cure his boy. After his wife left for work in the morning, Sean began enacting his plan.

“Up and at ‘em,” Sean said, opening the curtains in Peter’s room.

“Is it time for school already?” Peter asked.

“No school today, young man.”

“Is it Saturday?” he asked.

“No, you’ve gone to school for the last time,” Sean said. He was grinning from ear to ear.

“WHAT?” Peter screamed.

“Calm down, son,” Sean answered, patting the youngster on the head. “You’re nearly finished with second grade already. The rest is all repetition.”

“I don’t understand,” Peter said, scratching his head.

Sean could barely contain a smile. It was working already.

“Today we’re going to watch the Three Stooges all day long,” Sean said; a stack of videos in his hand.

“Can I read my ecology book after the Stooges?” Peter whined.

“I’ve taken all of the books out of the house,” Sean admitted. “From now on, it’s you and me and Mr. TV.”

“But Dad…”

“But nothing. Sit your butt down.”

The lilting tones of the song “Three Blind Mice” came over the speakers as Sean and Peter settled in on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a couple of frosty cold beers.

“Dad, can I have some milk?” Peter asked, ignoring the hilarity on the screen.

“Drink your beer and enjoy the show.”

“But Dad…”

“C’mon, that’s a frosty mug.”

“Dad, why is Moe poking Curly in the eye? That will scratch his retina.”

“It’s called comedy, son. Enjoy.”

“Dad, NO! Tell Curly not to eat that thermometer. Mercury is toxic!”

Sean shut off the TV. This was going to be much more difficult than he could have ever imagined. A lesser man would have quit and resigned himself to his fate. But “quit” and “resigned” were also not in Sean’s dictionary. After all, he had been legitimately laid off.

The door bell rang.

“Ah, your instructor is here, my boy.”

For the first time all day, Peter’s eyes lit up.


“I guess you could say that.”

There was something familiar about the imposing man who stood on the other side of the door. Peter was sure he had seen him somewhere before. He was big and strong; his neck the width of Peter’s shoulders. The tattoos on both of his gigantic bare arms were clearly visible. Peter was instinctively afraid of him.

“Where’s dis genius?” the squeaky voice asked.

“That’s him, right there,” Sean said.

“Dad, what’s going on?” Peter asked; his voice nearly as squeaky as the big man’s.

“This is Mr. Tyson,” Sean explained. “He’s going to teach you how to take a punch.”


“Come on, Mister,” the big man said. “I ain’t gonna hit that kid. He can’t be more than fifty pounds.”

“Forty three and 5/8ths,” Peter quickly corrected.

“If you don’t, he may never get medical insurance,” Sean begged.

“If I do, he’ll need medical insurance,” the big man answered.

“C’mon, Peter. Stick your chin out. It only hurts for a few seconds.”


“Kid, your old man is completely nuts,” the big man squeaked on his way out.

Sean ran after him. “Not incurably!” he screamed down the driveway.

Sean was mentally drained by the time he plopped down on the couch next to his frightened young son.

“Dad, what is going on?”

“Time for some rap music,” Sean exclaimed. He wasn’t going to give up without using his trump card.

“Then can I read my ecology book?”

“You mean after we bust some rhymes.”


“C’mon, Homey. You gotta schnizzle my grizzle.”

“Dad, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

The music started and Sean got Peter off the couch.

“Watch my fingers. See how the first two fingers stay together as I do this chopping
motion? That’s a classic rap move.”

“Dad, we live in the suburbs.”

“Want to listen to 50 cent or Snoop Dog?” Sean asked.

“What about Mozart?” his son countered. “Mom told me Mozart was composing concertos at my age. My piano teacher taught me the beginning of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

Sean walked over to the stereo and shut if off. He was ready to say uncle.

“Look, son, I’ve got some bad news for you.”

“We’re going to watch some reality TV?”

“No, not until tonight,” Sean said. “I’m afraid this is much worse than that.” Sean put his arm around his young boy. “You got a condition, Peter” he explained.

“You mean I have a condition,” Peter corrected.

Sean winced at the reminder of the problem before him. He patted Peter’s bony shoulder. This was so sad.

“Yes, you have a condition. You see, son, you are what the insurance business calls ‘incurable.’”

“In what way?” Peter asked.

“Peter, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A molecular biologist, why?”

Sean broke down. The insurance company was so right about this boy. This wasn’t going to be cured by a few punches from a former heavyweight champion of the world. This wasn’t going to be cured by the driving lessons he had booked with Nick Nolte. The tears came from somewhere deep within him. Peter rushed over to hug his weeping father.

“Dad, I’ll be OK.”

“No, you won’t,” Sean explained. “It’s incurable. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but we have no choice. We’re going to have to cut you loose, boy.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve done the math. A broken leg here, a few pairs of broken glasses there, an obvious need for braces, four years at MIT. You’re much too big of a risk. We’re going to have reject your application.”

“Dad,” Peter said. “I’m your son.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do, Dad,” Peter calmly explained. “Remember when mom said that there was no way that I could be your son because I was too smart—and she had those DNA tests taken?”

“Those were inconclusive.”

“The odds were something like one billion to one in favor,” Peter reminded him.

“OJ’s odds were like that too.”

“Dad, I look exactly like you.”

Sean slowly wiped the tears from the corner of each eye.

“We can’t get insurance for you,” Sean explained. “You’re eight years old and you may never get insurance again the rest of your life. We just thought you were smart. We didn’t know it was incurable.”

“Can’t you call other insurance companies?”

“Once you get rejected by one company, they all reject you.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Oh Peter. Sweet, sweet, Peter.”

“Dad, is it really so bad to be gifted? What do these insurance companies know?”

“Peter, these people are professionals. Do you need me to bring out the financial pages to show you how well the insurance company stocks are doing?”

“Maybe they have really smart people working for them,” Peter said.

“That’s right, son. And really smart people have decided that being incurably smart is dangerous. Who would know better than them?”

He looked at his frail incurable eight year old boy sitting beside him. And just when it looked like the situation was hopeless, a ray of light appeared.

“What if I decide not to go into molecular biology? What if I go into the insurance business instead?”

What indeed. And a child shall lead them.

For the other "From the Archives" posts, click here:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Half Empty: Nine Fine Restaurant Whines

They say that when you hit your 40s, your life is half over. We prefer to think of it as HALF EMPTY. Our age has finally caught up with our outlook on life. Remember, it is possible to turn that frown upside down...but you might pull a muscle.

By Rick Kaempfer & Dave Stern

You know those little moments that irk you, that get your blood pressure boiling for no good reason, that make you grit your teeth and pretend you aren’t incredibly irritated? You don’t say anything because it’s obvious that whatever is bothering you is your problem—not anyone else’s—and why should you bother other people with something that is probably just a pet peeve?

Ah, but there’s your mistake. A glass of fine whine goes with any dish. When you get a taste for it, stop by and visit one of us. Our whine cellars are particularly well-stocked.

For instance, we have nine fine whines to get you started. All of these are served in restaurants.

1. Musicians at Mexican Restaurants
The only thing more unsettling than a man strumming a guitar five inches from your face while you’re trying to eat a burrito is a man standing five inches from your face singing a song in a language you don’t understand while you’re trying to eat a burrito. We don’t need the atmosphere, we need the burrito.

2. Smiley Faces
The actual smiley face logo is irritating enough, but when it’s drawn on a check by a waitress? Hey, Cindi, Jenni and Brittani (they all end in “i” don’t they?), stop wasting your time drawing smiley faces and get us our patty melts. And listen, the dot above an “i” is even called a dot. You can’t draw a face on a dot.

3. Steaks
A steak is made of beef. Period. When you start calling something a tofu-steak, you’ve officially crossed the line.

4. Egg Rolls
To all the Thai Restaurants that call spring rolls, “egg rolls;” here’s the drill: ”Egg Rolls” are big, tasty, and deep-fried, while “Spring Rolls” well um…suck.

5. Restaurant Restrooms
Look, we understand you’re trying to be delicate here, but there’s not a person in the world that rests in this room—especially in public. Can’t we call this room what it really is, or will that upset the civility of our nation? Also, we know that you’re an ethnic restaurant and therefore think it’s cute to label these doors in the language of the food you’re serving, but consider this: If we’re desperate enough to actually use public toilets, we may not have the few extra moments it takes to figure out which room is for us. Try these words out: “Men” and “Women.” Got it, Monsieur?

6. The Table Closest to the Smoking Section
If one table is in the smoking section, the table right next to it can’t be in the non-smoking section. You might not realize this, but smoke has a tendency to move in the air—and sometimes it moves even more than a foot or two. We’re trying to inhale our schnitzels not your tar.

7. Small, Medium, Large
Those are the only acceptable sizes. This isn’t just a grievance against the biggest and most obvious violator of this rule; Starbucks. Go to a Burger King sometime and ask for a small drink. Their smallest size is medium. Listen, pal—if it’s your smallest size, then it’s called small.

8. Fast Food is called that for a reason
Special orders may not upset the restaurants, but they reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally upset the people in line behind you. We’re not going to a fast food restaurant because of the high quality food; we’re going because we want something fast. It’s the most important word in the phrase “Fast Food.” When you order something off the menu that they have to make special, you’re no longer eating fast food. You’re eating slow food. But more importantly, you're making us eat slow food...and that makes us cranky.

9. Dress Codes
Does it really upset the gentleman at another table that we’re wearing sneakers under our damn table where he can’t even see them? Are we getting silverware tonight, or will we be eating this dinner with our shirt collars? We don’t know if you realize this, but something like 80% of all restaurants fail. If there are empty tables and you don’t let us in because we’re wearing the wrong shoes or shirt, we wish you the total and absolute failure you deserve.


See what we mean? A little “whine” can really relax you after a long day of work or play. Try it yourself. Send in some of yours by clicking “comments” below.

We’ll post some of yours in a future column.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Suburban Man: Househusband

By Rick Kaempfer

People often ask me what it’s like to be a househusband. I suspect the only difference between a housewife and a househusband is the clothing. Instead of greeting my breadwinner in my nicest dress and pearls, I greet her wearing a tuxedo or an Italian suit and pearl cuff-links. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same.

Like a typical housewife, I clean up the children and rehearse with them how they must behave when the queen returns to her castle.

“How do we greet her?” I test.

“Welcome Home, Mom,” my oldest says.

“It’s Mother,” I remind him politely and firmly. “Let’s show her the proper respect. I will also accept ‘Ma’am.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Johnny, your tie is a little askew,” I say. “Please hold your hands out so I can see your fingernails. You know how much Mother appreciates it when her little men are well groomed and hygienic.”

“Father?” little Sean asks.

“Yes, son,” I say.

“May I tell Mother about my day at school today?” he asks.

“Only after she finishes speaking,” I explain. “Remember, Mother has been working very hard to pay for the food we’ll eat after she gets her fill.”

“Yes sir,” he said.

“Now I’m going to finish cooking dinner,” I say. “Who is on pillow duty tonight?”

“I am, Father,” Tommy says. “And tonight I promise to wait until she takes off her shoes before placing it beneath her feet.”

“Very good. And who is fixing Mother’s cosmopolitan tonight?”

“I am, Father,” Johnny says. “And tonight I promise to go a little easier on the cranberry juice.”

“Very good. That means little Sean will be picking up the clutter around the house before she comes home. Get to work, Son. Remember to leave Mother’s newspaper and pipe near the Lazy Boy.”

“Yes, Father,” he says.

That’s when I do what every typical housewife does. I put the finishing touches on the gourmet meal, and allow myself fifteen minutes to take off the apron, freshen up, put on just a dab of cologne on each side of my neck, and practice speaking quietly and respectfully so I won’t disturb her. When I hear the garage door open, I put the biggest smile on my face, and open the door to greet her with a kiss on the cheek.

“Smells wonderful in here,” she says.

“Oh it’s nothing,” I say, “Just a little recipe I found in Good Housekeeping.”

“You look great,” she says.

“Oh this old thing?” I say. “I picked it up on sale at Marshall’s.”

She usually pinches me, bringing out my most comforting smile. I pretend to protest her fresh advance—but my smile lets her know I love it. That’s when the ‘seen but not heard’ children come in to greet their mother with glistening toothy smiles.

“Your cosmopolitan, Mother,” Johnny says, handing her a drink. “Welcome home.”

”Please take off your shoes, Mother,” Tommy says, holding a pillow. “You look like you’ve had a very long day.”

“Yes I have,” she says.

Hearing that, I give the boys the ‘zip-it’ sign, and they quietly go to their instruments to begin the sonata. Tonight they have chosen to play Mozart while Mother eats. It looks she’s not in the mood to speak to us tonight, but that’s her prerogative as the breadwinner. We’ll all have time to speak to her over the weekend, perhaps at brunch after church.


Like I said, it’s really no different than any other house. That’s pretty much our typical day.

And if Bridget tells you otherwise, she’s a liar.

If you missed a previous Suburban Man column, click here:

Sunday, April 30, 2006

SHORE MAGAZINE ARTICLE: Returning Home to Heidelberg

Shore Magazine asked me to write a piece about returning home after being away a long time. For me, that place is Heidelberg, Germany...My home in the 1970s.

Returning Home: Heidelberg, Germany
By Rick Kaempfer

(From the May 2006 issue)

When my family left Heidelberg in 1980 to move to the United States, I was seventeen years old. It was nearly two decades before I returned, and I must admit I had mixed emotions as my train arrived at the Heidelberg Bahnhof. For a town that is 800 years old, some huge changes had taken place since I last visited.

For one thing, it’s not even in the same country anymore. It’s not West Germany; it’s just plain old Germany. Another important difference was that Deutsche Marks were being phased out in favor of a brand new currency, the Euro. Most importantly, my American friends didn’t live there anymore. They were dispersed all over the globe; many of them now starting fourth and fifth-generation military families of their own.

Nevertheless, when I stepped off that train, at precisely the correct arrival time (German precision), I felt something strange. The German language, which had lain dormant in my brain since my father passed away in 1989, suddenly resurfaced. After putting my suitcases in a train station locker, I also lost control of my feet. Before I knew it, they walked me to the end of the Hauptstrasse, the main walking section in the heart of Old Heidelberg.

From the town square I could see the Heidelberg Castle, the symbol of the town, and the site of my high school prom. I stood there and waited for the emotions to overwhelm me. As great as it was to see that 16th century fortress again, I felt no more than a slight tingle in my heart. The physical surroundings had remained the same, but without my friends and family to share it with, something was missing.

I decided to go around the corner to a sidewalk café my buddies and I used to frequent. When I saw the familiar face of the same old proprietor manning the bar, everything slowly started to change. I took a seat at our old table, and suddenly my buddies were there too. The familiar schnitzel smell wafted from the kitchen, and suddenly my family was there too. A thought occurred to me, and I picked up the menu and flipped to the beer page. When I saw my Dad’s favorite beer on the menu, I knew what I had to do.

“Ein Stuttgarter Hofbrau, bitte,” I said.

“Natuerlich,” said the proprietor.

There was something comforting in seeing a familiar face in this familiar place. Plus, the jukebox inside the café was playing “Ich Hab Mein Herz in Heidelberg Verloren” (“I lost my heart in Heidelberg”), a song I hadn’t heard in years. In the back of my mind I knew I would be hearing that song in every Heidelberg shop and restaurant, but I still wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop it provided. When my Stuttgarter Hofbrau arrived, I lifted the glass and looked up at the bright blue Heidelberg sky.

“Prosit, Dad,” I said. “We’re home.”

This is just one of my three pieces in this month's SHORE MAGAZINE. I'm really proud of this magazine. You should get a copy of it if you can--it's available in the tri-state area (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois). If you want to check out the on-line edition of the magazine, go here: