What’s a Chelate?

August 28, 2009

A few days ago, I got an email from my cousin Julie, whom I barely know, about our Aunt Henriette. Henriette is the aunt who wanted to be an opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera. She married Morton, who told her he could coach her to be a successful opera singer. Henriette worked as a waitress to support Morton. As far as I know, Morton never did a day’s work in his life. The rest of my family despised Morton as a smarmy, anti-Semitic free loader, so Henriette has been rather isolated from the rest of her family. (It was eccentric of Morton to marry a woman from a Jewish family.)

Unlike many of my family members, I am not very musical. I heard Henriette practicing her opera singing. She did not sound very talented to me, but what do I know? For that matter, the Metropolitan never hired her, so perhaps they were as clueless as I.

After she gave up on her dream of being an opera singer, Henriette had a baby, Carl, and left Morton for a while. Eventually, they reconciled. When Carl became an adult he fled as far as he could, leaving New York City and hiding out with a girl friend in Oregon.


As I was the first child born in my generation, Henriette imprinted on me as a nephew she can depend on, especially for help with her computer. She called me from New York City and asked me to help solve her computer problems after her son Carl, who is actually better with computers than I am, refused to speak with her any more on the topic of computers. Henriette refused to believe that I could not diagnose and “fix” her computer over the phone. After I realized her computer was a hopeless mess, I bought her a new computer. Using reproductions of fine art works she pulled from the Internet, and the expensive ink jet printer I also bought her, Henriette put together calendars and advertised them on the Internet, hoping to make a lot of money.

Henriette and Morton had been living on money from my cousin Joanna, who learned to speak Chinese fluently in Taiwan and became a millionaire as co-founder of the baby furniture company Graco. After Joanna died of breast cancer, Joanna’s mother, my Aunt Naomi, Henriette’s sister, funneled money to her. When Naomi became ill and crippled in Australia, the money flow ceased.

My family is a great believer in “alternative health care.” My grandfather, Harry, was a dentist in Chicago who became a great follower of Dr. Kellogg of the cereal family. Dr. Kellogg believed in 1) never having sex and 2) solving all medical problems by giving people “colonics.” Colonics, in plain language, are enemas. Alternative health nuts believe that crap gets stuck in a person’s colon and needs to be flushed. Most medical authorities believe this theory is crap. I got a few colonics as a child, but mostly my parents believed that avoiding white sugar and eating organically grown vegetables was the key to avoiding disease. I think there is some merit to these policies, and my wife and I mostly eat food we grow ourselves or buy from farmer’s markets, but for medical care we mostly visit conventional physicians.

Although Grandfather Harry followed Dr. Kellog’s practices in terms of colonics, he was by all reports a horny old goat who sired four children on my monstrously narcissistic Grandmother, Agnes. As far as I know, Harry never cheated on Agnes, though I wouldn’t have blamed him.

Henriette and Naomi were big followers of alternative medical care. Naomi’s husband, Donald, grew up in a California high desert ranching family, became an electrical engineer, and then a chiropractor and professor of chiropractic “science.”. Their other daughter, Valerie, sister of millionaire Joanna, became a chiropractor also and now lives in Spain. After Naomi died, Donald had a heart attack. Valerie brought him to Canada for medical care.

Julie, my cousin, told me that Henriette, now in her eighties, is not doing that well. For one thing, her New York City apartment is full of bedbugs. This sounds like a bad joke, but it’s a real mess. The exterminators have fumigated her apartment twice. They threw her bed out into the trash. She is now sleeping on the floor.

Julie is a grade school teacher in upstate New York. Henriette, now lonely and poor, takes the bus up to visit Julie. Julie took Henriette to an “alternative” eye doctor who told her she has cataracts. However, it is not considered safe for Henriette to have cataract surgery at present (see below).

Henriette has been working at a senior center teaching computer classes to make some money. As I have spent hours on the phone trying to help her through her computer problems, I am somewhat mirthed at the idea of her teaching other senior citizens how to use computers.

 Her legs are swelling and getting varicose veins, and her heart has problems, with her arteries clogging.

As a big fan of alternative health care, Henriette has become fixated on “chelates” therapy, a therapy which sounds like quackery to me, that is supposed to remove blockages to arteries by natural means.

Henriette’s computer is sealed in a plastic bag because of the fumigation, so I have been sending her printed letters, pictures of my family and garden, and calling her on the phone. So far, Henriette, who is very conscientious, has been sending me about $30 a month to repay me for the computer I bought her. She has paid me a little over half. In my last letter, I said not to send me any more money. My wife and I have decided to forgive the rest of the money Henriette still owes us, though we are not going to send her any more money.

I allowed a week for the last letter to reach Henriette. I will call Henriette today. If she wants me to send her money for her chelates therapy, I will tell Henriette that as I would not spend money on chelates therapy for myself or my wife, I will not spend money on it for her, aside from freeing up the $30 a month she was sending me as repayment.

I am not looking forward to this conversation, because Henriette seems to be of the opinion that chelates therapy can keep her alive for a while, so she may be concluding I am helping pronounce a death sentence on her. Well, we all will die eventually, and we all have to make difficult decisions about what to do to keep ourselves alive and healthy as long as we can.

My wife, who is fairly healthy at the moment, said to me, “If I knew I had only a little while to live, I would try to be as comfortable as possible and occupy myself with activities I enjoy as much as I could, and not try to engage in extreme measures in a desperate attempt to stay alive.” That sounds sensible to me.


When I met my father’s sister Aunt Henriette again (after many years of not seeing her or communicating with her) at our two family reunions arranged by Aunt Naomi and Uncle-in-law Donald with money provided by my poor doomed cousin Joana who had gone to Taiwan to learn Chinese and had become a millionaire as co-owner (with her Taiwanese husband Kenny) of the baby furniture/stroller company Graco, I discovered that Henriette had

  • gone back to New York City with her baby son Carl and reconciled with her husband Morton whom nobody else in my family could stand (though at the one time I met Morton in person I had gotten along with him well enough though I could see that longer time in his presence would have wearied me rapidly)
  • given up her dream of being an opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera
  • received a computer paid for by Uncle Donald and started to teach herself how to use it
  • her son Carl had grown up into an unhappy and alienated nerdy-geeky young adult (much like my youngest brother J)
  • come to the conclusion (after learning that I teach computer classes for a living) that I understand everything there is to understand about computers and can solve any computer problem there is (over the phone, like your own personal technical support line, except much better than ones in India)

Besides her love of opera, Henriette has a love of fine art. I suspect she spent many hours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other fine museums of New York City.

Henriette began to use her computer to explore the Internet. As with most people who teach themselves to use a computer and the Internet, she learned just enough to be dangerous.

Soon I began to receive telephone calls from Henriette. Although Henriette and Morton did not have much money, they had enough money to get a cable connection that allowed her to surf the Internet and to make unlimited phone calls. As Henriette had worked as a waitress and Morton had not worked much (if at all), I wasn’t sure what they lived on. My guess (with some supporting evidence) is that after Joana died tragically of breast cancer, her parents, Donald and Naomi, inherited some money, and they in turn provided some financial support to Henriette and Morton.

Henriette began to download reproductions of fine paintings from web sites and using a program called Microsoft Publisher began to assemble calendars. Publisher is a perfect program for the person who knows just enough about computers to be dangerous as it multiplies their ability to get themselves into confusion and trouble by a thousand-fold. It is like taking a child with a chemistry set and saying, Here is a little kit to help you learn to do fun things with plastic explosives.

I began to get phone calls from Henriette. “Random, this is your Aunt Henriette. I am having a little trouble with my computer… I am trying to create this calendar, but …”

Sometimes, she had a question or problem to which I knew the answer. This encouraged her belief that I knew all answers to all computer problems and could solve them with a few words over the phone.

Sometimes, I did not know the answer. Sometimes I knew answers, but could not communicate them over the phone to her. For example, she created Publisher files that were hundreds of Megabytes in size and then tried to email them to friends all over the world.

This inspired conversations about attachments and uploads to ftp sites and whispered comments by my wife to stop banging my head against the wall as she didn’t want the wall damaged any more.

On another occasion she told me, “I turned on my computer but it didn’t come one.” She then waited expectantly for my answer telling her which switch to push to make the computer come on.

On this occasion, the wall was so damaged my wife and I had a new house built in the woods and fled to it, but we attached a phone to the new wall. How dumb can I get?