Writer, Humorist,
Stunt Double



HMOphobia by John Shields | June 30, 2004

Let’s call the company Nottaburning Priority Healthcare. 

Win, Place, or Showroom: Ford's out of the Running by John Shields | February 20, 2005

C&C Ford on Route 611 in Horsham, PA has a large, billowing sign draped above the entrance to its showroom: HOME OF SMARTY JONES! – as though that’s going to make me slam on the brakes, pull in, and buy a Taurus.

Wal-Martihuacan and Other Signs of the Apocalypse by John Shields | October 29, 2004

Teotihuacan.  “The place where the gods were created.”

Long Distance Runaround by John Shields | April 21, 2007

It occurred to me last week that, for the past, oh, six years, I’ve been paying for long distance service that I don’t use.

Ballbuster, Is More Like It by John Shields | June 1, 2005

Back in the day, which wasn’t so long ago, we used to rent our movies from a neighborhood store called Maple Glen Video. 




Let’s call the company Nottaburning Priority Healthcare.  They’ve been the provider of my costly and necessary anti-rejection medicine, cyclosporine, for the past six years.  Before then, I got my medicine through our local pharmacist, who routinely notified me that “John, US Healthcare hasn’t paid us in six months for your cyclosporine.  Can you give them a call?”  And I would do my exercise in redundancy and remind the HMO that, no, this isn’t an injectible, it’s covered under my medical plan.  And we’d go back and forth, and, finally, all would be well for another six months.

Then one day, US Healthcare announced that, from thereon, I’d be obtaining my medicine through a capitated HMO pharmacy called Nottaburning Priority Healthcare.

Cutting the umbilical cord that had tied me to my pharmacy for all those years was an adjustment for me, but after a few months I began to think, “Hey, this isn’t so bad after all.”

A driver delivered the medicine to my door each month, and the only effort I had to make was to sign for it and tell my doctor’s office every few months to call in a refill.  How the HMO was saving money having a driver come to my house was beyond me, but was I complaining?

This arrangement obtained for five years, until my nephrologist finally made the bold move of writing me a prescription good for a year.

Now, in the HMO world, a move like that raises immediate red flags, because HMOs practice their own variation of just-in-time healthcare and don’t want to hear about a year’s worth of anything.

The next month, my medicine did not arrive.  Instead, I received notification that it was not covered and would cost me $700 for a month’s supply.

Twenty years of managing my own care (that’s why they call it “managed care”) had steeled me for combat, girded me for battle, tempered me for . . . the telephone.

“I’m a transplant recipient.  I have to take my medicine every day.  You can’t just not deliver my medicine.”

They parried with their favorite weapon: They put me on hold.

Then they “looked it up.”

I’d faced these assaults many times.  With a warrior’s patience, I simply waited.

“We’ve checked our records, Mr. Shields, and we’ve straightened it all out.  It won’t happen again.”


The next month, it happened again. 

This time, I outflanked Alice and Sharonda, my previous month’s clerical foes, and aimed straight for the supervisor, who turned out to be an Indian fellow named Sri.

Did Sri think it was in Nottaburning’s financial best interest to explain to a jury how they caused the organ rejection and death of one of their patients by failing to deliver his medicine to him on time?

Now I had Sri’s rapt attention.  “Mr Shields, this will not happen again.”  He FedExed my prescription to me.

The next month, no delivery.  I called Sri, who, to make sure this wouldn’t happen again, had given me not only his direct line but also the direct line of the pharmacist who handled my prescription.  Sri apologized profusely and confided to me that three individuals had been fired over this.

That made me feel bad and kind of powerful at the same time.  I told him I hoped Alice wasn’t one of the ones let go.  I liked Alice.

Later that day, around dinnertime, my doorbell rang.  Standing at the bottom step holding a big package was a short, slightly built young man.  It was Sri himself.  He had driven from Wilmington, Delaware to Horsham, Pennsylvania after work to ensure that I received my medicine. 

You read that correctly.

I was impressed.  I put in a good word for Sri with his supervisor and an ambivalent pitch for the three fired workers.

 Now, my cyclosporine arrives monthly like clockwork in a big FedEx box that must cost $20-$30 to deliver.  Someone from Sri’s department calls me a day or two ahead of time to tell me when they’ll be shipping.  It still makes no economic sense to me.  Aren’t HMOs about cutting costs?   But what do I know?  All I do know is, I’m in the penthouse, baby, and why?  Because (to paraphrase Randy Newman’s Toy Story theme song) “You’ve got a friend in Sri.”


©2005 John Shields



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Win, Place or Showroom: Ford’s out of the Running

C&C Ford on Route 611 in Horsham, PA has a large, billowing sign draped above the entrance to its showroom: HOME OF SMARTY JONES! – as though that’s going to make me slam on the brakes, pull in, and buy a Taurus.

A Mustang, maybe.

What do they think?  That people driving by are going to mistake an auto dealership for a horse farm?  (“Maybe Smarty’s out there behind that row of Explorers, kids!”)  Or that everyone knows that Smarty Jones’s owners, the Chapmans, also own C&C Ford?

Hey, it’s a white sheet with blue letters on it.  If it sells one used Escort, it’s more than recovered its cost.  And it’s a cheaper form of advertising than getting Smarty himself to do testimonials. (“I haven’t seen horsepower like this since Birdstone passed me on the last furlong at Belmont!”)

I bought a Windstar SEL, Ford’s flagship minivan, from C&C, and it went through three transmissions, so I get a little sensitive whenever someone mentions Ford and C&C in the same breath. 

What’s that you say?  Oh, that was me?

Then, while I have Ford in my crosshairs, what’s with this name change from Windstar to Freestar?  Who’s the six-figure genius responsible for that “improvement?”  I know what escorts and mustangs and tauruses are.  Hookers and horses and bulls, oh my!  But what’s a Freestar?  I didn’t even know what a Windstar was, and wasn’t that at least one reason why people didn’t buy them?  So you’d think ...

Then again, who knew what a “Camry” was?  But at least that was a computer-generated name arrived at after a fair amount of linguistic data crunching.  Probably some focus-group action, too.  I’m gonna go out on a limb here, but I don’t think Freestar was computer generated.  And if the Ford marketing execs ran it by a focus group before signing off on it, then one or both of those groups was up too late the night before tooling around in their escorts.

Bad enough, Freestar.  But Ford also offers a small SUV, and do you know what they call it?  Freestyle.

The dictionary is a vast resource of interesting words.  And if none suits our tastes, we can generate new and pleasing words electronically, as “Passat” or “Miata” demonstrate.

To what end, then, Freestar and Freestyle?  Confusion as a marketing tactic? 

I will give Freestyle this, though: It’s a word I know.

I smell a serious identity crisis going on at Ford.  Escorts have become Focuses; then there are the Escapes, which sound like Escorts but aren’t; and the Excursions and Expeditions and Explorers.  Maybe they should call them “Excapes.”  Lots of people do.  So there’s this E thing going on with their SUVs.  Except for the Freestyle.  That’s their F-word.

And now there’s the “Five Hundred,” Ford’s new, mid-sized sedan.  Another F-word.  I feel as if I’m trying to crack some automotive version of the Da Vinci Code.  Ford must know that naming car models after numbers is old school, but spelling out the number: Now that’s cutting edge.  The employee who came up with that novel idea must’ve been a closet copyeditor.

Based on my experience, they should be naming their models the Laurel, the Hardy, the Abbott, and the Costello.

If you want my advice, stick to their F-150 pickup.  It has the letter F plus a cardinal number that’s not prime, so it must be good. 

And you heard it here first: In 2006, Ford will be giving an old favorite an image makeover.  Introducing ... the Funderbird.


©2005 John Shields



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Wal-Martihuacan and Other Signs of the Apocalypse

Teotihuacan.  “The place where the gods were created.” Built in the first century BC by the Toltecs. Burned and destroyed in the seventh century.  Reused by the Aztecs in the 13th century. Amortized by Sam Walton in the 21st century.


Yes, Wal-Mart is opening a new store near the site of Mexico’s 2000-year-old Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and this is upsetting some people (“refrying their beans,” as the Mayans used to put it).

But why?

When the pyramids were built, did anyone object to encroachment by developers? No. The 200-foot-tall Pyramid of the Sun was a stimulus to the local economy, providing new, albeit short-lived, jobs for sacrificial virgins while creating a slew of ancillary occupations such as altar scrubbers, sacrifice disposal crews, and most importantly, high priests.

A key to the pyramid’s success was its ability to buy the virgins in volume, and that economy of scale allowed an aggressive pricing policy that made it harder for the mom-and-pop pyramids to compete, forcing many of them to close their steps.

Inspired by the success of the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon opened as a members-only wholesale outlet called “Quetzalcoatl’s Club,” which enjoyed similar success.

With the decline of Teotihuacan, the pyramids were abandoned, leading to the phenomenon of big-box blight that plagues our own communities even today. Nature, however, had its own solution to the unsightliness caused by the abandoned buildings: It grew a jungle over them.

The new 30-foot-tall Wal-Mart, (or, as it’s called by the Teotihuacanadians, “casa lineas interminables”) holds the promise of restoring Teotihuacan to its former glory and providing the same economic stimulus to the region as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon once did centuries ago. Its earthtone exterior will combine with its bold, rectangular lines to produce a structure barely ... er, squarely ... in harmony with the ancient edifices.

The theme for Wal-Mart’s Mexican ad campaign is “There’s something new under the Sun!” The company chose that one because, as a senior advertising executive put it, “It’s original.”

A second indicator that the Apocalypse may be approaching is a nascent phenomenon that might best be described as “going into the closet.”

A recent newspaper article talked about the 2,000 closet organizing companies in the country and the $2 billion that Americans spent remodeling their closets last year.  One homebuilding company has a floor plan that comes with “a closet that’s the length of a three-car garage, plus an additional walk-in closet.”  Customers are spending thousands of dollars to put such things in their closets as furniture-grade cherry cabinets, crown molding, and center islands.

And why?

Because their closets are a mess.

My favorite essayist, E.B. White, had this to say about our accumulation of clutter, or, as he called it, the “tides of acquisition:” “A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. ... Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.”

Rather than purge the mess, people are remodeling their closets to hold the mess in a more organized fashion.

Making them look like dens, however, is another story.  I say get rid of the mess and spend the closet money on a Mexican vacation to Teotihuacan, where, by the looks of things, the “tides of acquisition” are about to make land.


© 2004 John Shields

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Long Distance Runaround

It occurred to me last week that, for the past, oh, six years, I’ve been paying for long distance service that I don’t use. Emailing meets most of my long distance communication needs, and of course there’s IM and text messaging, neither of which I’ve ever used, but only because my kids do. Hey, teenagers don’t have the market cornered on irrationality.

But this isn’t intended as a review of the current communication modalities. I only mention these to illustrate how redundant traditional long distance service has become.

For me, the real nail in the coffin was when my son Nick went off to the University of Pittsburgh and was able to keep our Philadelphia area code on his cell phone.

Long distance? What long distance?

Why I didn’t act years ago to correct what amounted to a non-deductible charitable contribution to my phone company is beyond me. All I know is, corporations have their finger on the pulse of modern life. They know we’re overwhelmed and they profit off that. Is it really in Verizon’s interest to point out to me that the long distance service they’re counting on me to retain out of loyalty to Ma Bell is senseless for me to have? 

I read on the bill that $12.95 of the total “Freedom Essentials” package price of $44.99 (that’s me) is associated with long distance services. It got me thinking I could exercise my freedom and save myself some money by dropping them.

Turns out my math and Verizon’s weren’t quite the same. I was envisioning a reduction to about $32. They said $38.95.


Still, discontinuing the service would lower my bill about $6 a month, or a worthwhile 13%, so I did.

A few days ago, my new, post-long distance bill arrived. It’s now the “Regional Package,” and its price is not the $38.95 Verizon quoted me. It’s $42.95.

“How came that $12.95 didn’t get dumped when I dumped the long distance?” I asked no one in particular, which was enough to prompt me to ask someone in particular.

That someone was “Mrs. Thorn,” a Verizon phone representative.

(I should inject here that I don’t believe that the names these people give us are their real names. When someone who sounds as if he’s selling betel nuts in a Delhi open-air market tells me his name is “Todd” I get a little skeptical. I’m sorry.

“Mrs Thorn” could be “Mrs. North” could be “Mrs. Rhotn” – it doesn’t matter. What matters is the service you get from them, which, like their names, can be prickly, cold, and downright bad.)

But at least hers was a last name. If you have to call Best Buy, those reps won’t tell you their last name if their employee discount depended on it. Don’t get me started on Best Buy. (Get me started!)

Anyway, Mrs. Thorn couldn’t understand why I had an issue. “After all, Mr. Shields, you’re saving two dollars from your previous plan. That’s what you want, right? To save money. And we want to help you save money, Mr. Shields. That’s what we’re here for.”

“But, Mrs. Thorn, I was quoted a price of $38 and now I’m being charged $43. I expected a little more savings than two dollars.”

That’s when I read her the bit about $12.95 of the total package price being associated with long distance services.

Was my frustration coming through?  It must have been. She dug into her figurative bag of Verizon tricks and pulled out a one-time credit of five dollars.

Mrs. Thorn: “Will that make you feel better, Mr. Shields?”


She asked me to hold while she checked into something. It must have been the Four Seasons, for the amount of time it took her. When she finally got back on the line, it was to tell me that Verizon has a “Regional Unlimited” plan for $38 with exactly the same features as the $42.95 “Regional Package” I’d “selected.”

“Would you like me to switch you into that plan?”

“Are you telling me, Mrs. Thorn, that you have two plans with identical features, but one costs five dollars less than the other?”

She assured me that was so.

 “I’ll take the one that costs less,” I told her.

She agreed that was a good idea. I hope Verizon didn’t hear her.

How could I continue calling someone this sincere “Mrs. Thorn?” I would change her phone name to “Sarah,” in case she ever went to work for Best Buy.

“Have I provided you with outstanding service today, Mr. Shields?”

But by then I was a long distance away.


©2007 John ShieldS

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Ballbuster, Is More Like It

(Author’s note: Since this piece first appeared, Blockbuster’s automated phone message has gotten easier to understand. That’s about it.)

Back in the day, which wasn’t so long ago, we used to rent our movies from a neighborhood store called Maple Glen Video.  It was adjacent to the pharmacy, and both stores benefited from that.  The staff at MGV was knowledgeable and passionate about movies and the arts in general.  If you were late returning a film, they’d cut you a break by either charging you less or punching extra holes in your free-movie card for every day you were late.

It was a pleasure giving them our business.

Then, one day, came the announcement that Blockbuster Video would be opening a store nearby and, like that, MGV went out of business.

I resented Blockbuster for a long time after that, but I wasn’t about to stop renting movies, so when the new store opened, I swallowed my pride and became a member.

Any goodwill I might have been willing to grant them disappeared the minute I was charged my first late fee. 

“Whadya mean it had to be back before noon?”

Of course, if you have kids, now you’re really talking late fees.

“How long’s this Madden 2000 football game been in your bedroom, Nick!?”

“Uh, since 2000?”


This is what it’s like to be at the mercy of a monopoly.

Then one day, a friend told me about Netflix.  One monthly fee.  Rent up to six movies a month.  NO LATE FEES. 

I tried it and liked it – initially.  If six months passed before I found Star Wars: Attack of the Clones under the sofa and mailed it back in their prepaid mailer, so what?  There was still NO LATE FEE.  The problem with Netflix was that you had to watch movies at the rate of about 4-5 a month to justify your monthly fee.  After the initial flurry, though, it’s like what happens when you join a gym.  Utilization wanes until, eventually, mailing a check each month is the extent of your active participation.

Netflix must’ve done some damage to Blockbuster’s bottom line, though, because, as most of us know, Blockbuster stopped charging late fees this year.  THE END OF LATE FEES, the signs on their store windows said.  It was enough to lure me back into the fold.

In my book, THE END is unequivocal.  But the first time we returned a movie a week late (after finding it between the driver and passenger seats), the clerk told us that our credit card had been charged the sale price of the movie less the original rental fee.

Technically, I suppose, that’s not a late fee.  It’s an INVOLUNTARY PURCHASE!

But not to worry.  When you return the movie, that charge is credited to your Blockbuster account.  Since you now have what you might think is a credit – though it’s actually an advance payment – this entices you to rent more movies while simultaneously increasing your monthly credit card bill. 

However, even though there are (cough) no more late fees, you must pay a restocking fee, as if the clerk has to do more work returning that one to the shelf than he does for the one you return on time.

For a good laugh, go to the “Read Our FAQs On The End Of Late Fees” link on the Blockbuster web site.  Among other rationalizations, you’ll read how the restocking fee is necessary because Blockbuster incurs costs “when we have to convert rental product to a sale.” 

And why must they do that?  Because we slacked by bringing the movie back la ... lat ... after they would’ve liked us to.

Blockbuster must be taking some heat on this.  I can’t imagine why.  One of the FAQs addresses “the agreement Blockbuster has recently made to enhance the End Of Late Fees program.”

Enhance.  I love it.  Try “be truthful about.”

Now there’s a new sign in the window of my local Blockbuster: WELCOME TO LIFE AFTER LATE FEES.  That could mean anything – and, given their equivocating ways, that’s probably just how their legal and marketing departments want it.


©2005 John Shields


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Bucks County, PA
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