Archive for April, 2010

The Thinker

Transitions, Part Two

There are many good aspects about having only one child. There are also certain aspects that are not ideal. For one, as an only child, your child has no older siblings to emulate. I was the fifth child so when my turn came for college I knew what to expect. I was both happy and scared at the thought of semi-independent living. As is often the case, I found college transformational, both academically and personally. College forced me to step outside my comfort zone. By the time I got my degree, although I had no job prospects, I knew I could hack this independent living thing.

Most of us baby boomers could not wait to leave Mom and Dad. If my daughter is a typical example, the situation is wholly reversed now. I went straight to a four-year college. She went to community college. Her choice kept her educational expenses low. There was no off campus housing that could compete with the comforts of home. Here the Internet and phones are free, and she can eat what she wants even at 4 a.m. If she leaves a mess in the sink, while her parents will complain she will blithely tune us out. She is largely tone deaf to our pleas, a habit acquired from twenty years of living with us, seventeen of which have been spent in her bedroom overlooking our front lawn.

Eventually though the community college experience has to end and if you want a bachelor’s degree, you have to go to a real college. This means a big life transition. She sporadically worked with counselors and got lots of conflicting advice on what courses she needed for her goal of being a high school English teacher. Over time, she narrowed her choices of college to one: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. It helped that they were not too picky. If you had an associate’s degree from a Virginia community college, you were pretty much guaranteed admission.

Deciding to go to VCU and actually engaging our daughter in checking out the campus were two different things entirely. Like many of her generation, she seemed content to drag her feet. She also likes to sleep days and stay up nights. I am frankly amazed that she has almost earned an associate’s degree at all, as most of her time seems to be spent playing World of Warcraft in the wee hours rather than studying. With minimal nagging, she did manage to apply to VCU online. Some weeks later, this caused her to receive an invitation to Transfer Student Day at VCU. She seemed to realize she had no more reason to drag her feet. So on Monday, we drove two hours south to Richmond.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by VCU, but the campus pleasantly surprised me. It sits on the edge of Richmond’s modest downtown. VCU is actually split into two campuses. Unless you are a medical student, you spend most of your time on the Monroe Park campus on the western side. The campus immediately made me wistful. It was the sort of university I wanted to go to but didn’t quite make it to. I went to the University of Central Florida, which at the time was primarily for older adults struggling to get a degree while working a full time job. It was a commuter’s university. VCU was in my mind a proper college campus where most students were full time, lived nearby, and either walked or biked to class.

It took a while to find a parking garage and we had to ask a few strangers to point us to the Student Commons. Traffic cops assisted the voluminous students (many of whom were bicyclists) across streets. Bikes were everywhere and seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation. The VCU students looked normal. This is in marked contrast to the many community college students I have taught over the last ten years, who often looked like zombies. The Student Commons was clearly the center of academic life on the campus. We acquired a map at an information booth and started scouting the neighborhood, which pulsed with an invigorating academic beat.

When your daughter is twenty, you cannot really tell her what to do, but you can nudge her a bit. Since she wanted to be an English teacher, I knew she would spend most of her time in the English Department. The idea of actually visiting to the English Department had never entered her brain. However, I took the time to study the VCU web site to find the one person on campus that would probably be the most use to her: the undergraduate advisor for the English Department. We actually found her at her desk across the street in the Hibbs buildings. She looked busy, but not too busy to spend fifteen minutes or so advising a new student. I wisely decided to leave the two of them alone, but I did hear snippets of their conversations out in the hall. I listened as my daughter somewhat unwittingly found herself increasingly engaged. She learned things no one else had told her, like she needed to transfer her advanced placement courses, and that she could get her master’s degree at VCU in just three years. I smiled to myself. Score! This is why God invented fathers.

Back at the Student Commons, we also found an off campus housing office. On campus housing is quite limited, so most students live off campus. But where to live? Neither of us had a clue. While I had passed Richmond many times on I-95, I had never really been in Richmond before. Where are the good neighborhoods? Which neighborhoods should be avoided? A young man with a large map of downtown Richmond patiently lead us through the various neighborhoods and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each neighborhood. How to find a roommate? My experience of using bulletin boards had morphed into online bulletin boards. He showed us the site, and gave us tips on registration.

The actual Transfer Day event was somewhat anticlimactic, as we had already gotten most of the information we needed. Nevertheless, we did speak to two other students working on getting their teaching credentials and learned from them a lot about academic life. Student life includes a lot of theater, which I knew would engage my daughter. Before leaving back for home though, we toured the various neighborhoods where students found housing to see if any spoke to her.

Richmond is a prettier city than I expected, full of old townhouses and Victorian houses, most of them very well maintained in spite of being mostly shared by transient VCU students. If it wasn’t for all the obnoxious statues to dead Civil War generals, most of whom were slaveholders, I might consider living in Richmond myself.

Since returning home my daughter has resumed staying up nights and playing World of Warcraft, but I also know she is thinking harder about her future. Before Monday, VCU and higher education was something of an abstraction. Now it is something she has experienced first hand. She now has to sift through a number of choices and deal with some difficult logistical issues, just like the rest of us adults. Slowly, and very reluctantly, she seems to be growing up at last.

The Thinker

Review: Dear Frankie (2004)

Is it ever okay to lie to a kid? Apparently, most parents are okay fibbing about things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Suppose the father beat his baby son so badly that he made him deaf for life? What’s a mother to do? That is Lizzie’s (Emily Mortimer) dilemma in Dear Frankie. In her case, she “solved” the issue by packing up her son and mother in the middle of the night and moving to Scotland. She then invented the lie that his father is a sailor constantly traveling on the HMR Accra. Her nine and a half year old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) frequently writes his absent “father”, which is actually his mother, who dutifully intercepts his letters at a post office box and replies as his “father”.

Lies though have a way of catching up with you, and fear of running into her ex-husband often has her moving from town to town. Her husband, or someone from her husband’s side of the family desperately wants to contact her, leaving classified ads in local papers. Lizzie’s chain smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggan) often acts as the vigilant family sentry. When the heat gets too visible, they move to a different town.

The boy in question, Frankie, may be deaf but is an excellent sight-reader and smarter than many hearing-students his age. His passion is geography, in part because he likes to track the progress of his father’s “ship”, the HMR Accra. The HMR Accra exists, and was chosen by Lizzie because she found it on a stamp, and Frankie is also an avid stamp collector. Shortly after moving to the Scottish seaside town of Greenock, the improbable happens. Through a classmate, Frankie learns that the real HMR Accra will soon pay a visit to Greenock. Will “father” and son connect at last? What excuse can Lizzie give now that Frankie would actually believe?

Desperate lies call for desperate measures. If Lizzie can find a substitute “father” from the HMR Accra to pretend to be her ex-husband, maybe the lie can last a lifetime. When an attempt proves futile, she confesses her dilemma to her friend Marie (Sharon Small), who employs her in her fish and chips shop. Marie finds a man willing to pretend to be his father Davey (Gerard Butler). Lizzie is looking for a man to be a father for a day, with no past or future.

The film is heartfelt but feels bleak and morose. Scotland has rarely looked drearier and uglier on film. Moreover, the characters are wholly plausible. The film has a feeling of grittiness and reality that is captured faithfully. Frankie is also something of a heartbreaker, desperately wanting to meet his father and be, for once, something like a normal boy. Lizzie is trying desperately to make her son happy and to protect him, which seems impossible.

Without giving too much away, when the substitute father shows up the film moves from dreariness to being interesting. Despite the original plan to spend just one day with the boy, this man finds himself drawn to be the father Frankie needs. Lizzie must work through her own feelings of shame to realize this stranger is really an ideal father to Frankie and a possible new love for herself. One problem is that this stranger really is a sailor on the HMS Accra and has to leave with his ship. Can their strange complex relationship be resolved before he leaves?

Find out by renting Dear Frankie. There are no special effects in this movie, just a well-acted and plausible story of the effects that shame and guilt can wreak on a family. Everyone seems destined to end up the victim, including Frankie’s real father who is dying in a nearby hospital and wants to reconnect with his son.

This is a hard film to watch at times, but worth your time and attention. 3.1 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

I, Juror

Having lived more than fifty years, you would think I would have been summoned for jury duty at least several times. Somehow, I never was. I had an inkling it was coming when in March I received an official piece of mail from the Clerk of the Circuit Court asking about my availability for jury duty. About three weeks later, the actual summons arrived requiring me to call or go online after 5 p.m. on April 13th to see if I was needed for jury duty on April 14th. I was not, however, in Fairfax County, Virginia potential jurors have a two-week summons, where you normally report only one day a week. A week later, I went back online to find out that I actually had to report at the courthouse this time.

I wonder how many jurors are like me: honestly interested in being a juror. It’s not that I wanted to stand in judgment of others or help mete out sentences. (In Virginia, juries decide the actual sentence.) It had more to do with seeing so many depictions of a courtroom on TV and never having had to be in a courtroom. This, no doubt, was due to my extremely clean lifestyle.

I was anticipating the experience to be somewhat underwhelming, but surprisingly it was not. One thing I did learn quickly is that while many jurors are summoned, not that many are seated on an actual jury. Both prosecutor and defense attorney look aggressively for reasons to excuse jurors.

After spending close to two hours reading newspapers and magazines with about a hundred other potential jurors in a large jury waiting room, my group of about two dozen was finally escorted to Court 4J. Clearly, my tax dollars had been well spent with this new courthouse. It was about as fancy as they get, and all the courtrooms looked shiny and new. Because I happened to be in the first dozen in the group, I was seated in the actual jury box while the rest sat where the public sits.

The case involved a young man who had been pulled over by Fairfax County detectives. He was alleged to be distributing marijuana because two dope bags were found. Moreover, a drug scale was also found between the passenger and driver’s seat. Possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is a felony in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The defendant was looking nervous, despite dressing in a dark suit and tie. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were dressed for success.

During the voir dire, all sorts of jurors were excused. One could not commit if the trial took a second day because she wasn’t sure she could find a babysitter, as her child was too young for daycare. Others openly expressed biases that precluded them from sitting on the case. Two potential jurors approached the bench to discuss their confidential circumstances with the judge and were excused. We were all asked if we had any opinions regarding drugs and marijuana that would disqualify us from rendering a fair verdict. It just so happened that I personally favor marijuana decriminalization. However, I saw no point in speaking up because I knew I would not let my opinion keep me from rendering a fair verdict. My opinion has always been that the law is the law, and no matter how stupid it may be sometimes, we are all required to abide by it. A number of other jurors were excused for no obvious reasons. Maybe they looked biased. For some reason I remained and other potential jurors quickly filled their spots.

I was anticipating the casework and presentation to be a bit sloppy, but I quickly grew to respect both the prosecutor and the defense attorney, both women. If I ever need a good defense attorney, I now know whom to ask for. The defense attorney was particularly insistent. Did we understand that the defendant was presumed innocent? Did we understand that the prosecutor had to prove these particular charges beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict the defendant of this felony charge?

Enter the prosecution witnesses: three Fairfax County police detectives who in early October 2009 apparently were shadowing this man as he left a Bally’s Gym off the Shirley Highway. Left unstated, but reading between the lines, was that the defendant knew he was being shadowed as he pulled into a parking lot, turned around and started heading back toward the Capital Beltway. He even dodged onto an off ramp then illegally dodged back into traffic. All the detectives testified they smelled unburned marijuana when approaching the vehicle. All detectives also noticed that as he was pulled over he leaned toward the passenger side. They noticed some part of the plastic bags sticking out of the glove compartment, opened the glove compartment, assessed it was marijuana and arrested the suspect. The scale was found later in a search of the car.

While the case looked straightforward, it was not. The defense attorney in her opening statement said there would be testimony from the family that the defendant’s younger brother had purchased the marijuana in D.C. Moreover, the defendant did not own the car; it belonged to his father. He also carried over $1000 in his wallet. There were lots of circumstantial evidence but no one could testify they actually saw the defendant put anything into the glove compartment. If he did seal the bags, it was done in a hurry, and the bags that were presented looked well sealed. The defendant had no drug paraphernalia on him, yet the detectives said there was a strong odor of marijuana when they approached the car.

We shuffled off to lunch with strict instructions not to discuss the case. It was an odd lunch because the defendant and his family were sitting two tables away and the three detectives were three tables away watching him. By two p.m., we were back in our jury room, waiting to be summoned back into court. We waited. And waited. Conversation became more difficult as we were running out of things to talk about. Nevertheless, we could read the tealeaves.

It became official around 2:30 when we finally got back into the courtroom. The defendant had pled guilty to a lesser charge. We were not told what he had pleaded guilty to, but simple possession of marijuana seemed likely. While I had not yet heard the defense witnesses, copping a plea seemed an obvious act for the defendant. In my mind, the prosecution had not proven intent to distribute marijuana beyond a reasonable doubt. Reading between the lines, this defendant seemed to have been tracked by detectives before and probably had other encounters with the law that we were not told about. I would not have been surprised if the defendant had actually been some low level distributor, but the evidence was just not there to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet he probably felt he might have gotten a hung jury and some other jury might convict him. There was probably enough evidence to convict him of possession of marijuana if that had been the charge. Intent to distribute was a stretch given the evidence.

We were thanked for our service and I was back in my office by 3:30. I know I won’t be summoned for at least three years by this circuit court. Most likely, this was my one and only chance to be a juror and yet I judged nothing, just listened impartially. However, the judge did thank us. A jury trial often leads to these last minute plea deals. The trial becomes the wedge that can move a case toward settlement.

My guess is that if summoned for jury duty your odds are at best one in three that you will actually decide a case. Off the bat, you have close to fifty percent odds that you will be excused for one reason or another. Our case was likely not atypical in that in the middle of it, prosecution and defense decided to agree to settle for lesser charges.

Still, it was an interesting day. Our judicial system does work and it was all handled with great professionalism. While courts and juries make their share of mistakes, it works quite well. I left feeling grateful for our judicial system and feeling confident that if I were brought up on criminal or civil charges, I too would get a fair trial.

The Thinker

Kindling in search of a spark

About a month ago, I expressed my alarm with certain members of The Tea Party movement. Since I wrote, my alarm has grown. The FBI conducted a well-publicized raid of the Hutaree Militia in southern Michigan toward the end of March, arresting nine members who seemed dangerously close to attempting armed insurrection.

In fact, militias are popping up all over the place. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports an increase of 363 new “patriot groups” in 2009, an increase of 244 percent from 2008. You can bet these patriot movements are more about locking and loading guns than planting flags in veterans’ cemeteries. Randy Brogdon, a candidate for governor of Oklahoma is calling for the formation of a state militia to presumably protect Oklahomans from some sort of unnatural act, like the U.S. Army occupying the state and instituting martial law. (News to Brogdon: the state already has an armed militia. It’s called The National Guard.)

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin seems to be endorsing the idea of some sort of theocratic, or at least Christian-Judea state, when she actually said:

Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers.

Ms. Palin clearly has not read her constitution, which explicitly separates church from state and specifically disallows any religious test as a condition of holding office. In fact, separation of church and state was a crucial aspect to our formation as a country, as centuries of witnessing what happened by merging church and state in Europe showed what a bad idea it was.

Just yesterday across the Potomac River, about 75 mostly white men brandishing semiautomatic weapons demonstrated their new right to bear arms in a national park. Who signed this bill into law? Why, the president of the United States. No, it was not the last conservative one, but the new liberal Democratic one named Barack Obama. Strangely, because they apparently inhabit a different world than the rest of us, they are convinced that Obama is trying to take away their right to bear arms. If words were bullets though, the words uttered at this rally would cause PTSD in any survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing who tuned in. Mike Vanderbough, leader of the “Three Percent” movement, had previously called upon followers to break the windows of thousands of Democratic Party offices in response to the passage of health care reform. He enlivened the group by smashing a brick on the stage at Fort Hunt Park. According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post:

“I was trying to get the attention of people who are pushing this country toward civil war, that they should stop before somebody gets hurt,” Vanderboegh said of his brick-throwing campaign. He then read the philosopher John Locke’s words that there comes a time when people are “absolved from any further obedience” to their government.

The armed citizenry cheered. “This is what the other side doesn’t understand!” Vanderboegh shouted. “We are done backing up! Done! Not one more inch!”

One thing is clear. Democrats will not be starting any new civil war. With these sorts of remarks, the Hutaree Militia example and the increase in so-called patriot movements it is clear that a small minority of Americans is dangerously close to open insurrection. The kindling seems to be stacked. All that is needed is a match. It won’t take much to set these groups off.

They have made it abundantly clear that they feel America is drifting toward socialism, but they seem to be slowly absolving themselves of the need to enact reform through our constitutional system of government. So-called patriot Sarah Palin seems to be encouraging them. When pressed she will doubtless say that she was meant to be taken metaphorically, but it is abundantly clear that some critical mass of these militia members are not playing with a full deck. What are they to think when Sarah Palin says, as she did on April 9th to Southern Republicans to not retreat, but reload. Armed insurrection must be okay, because Representative Michele Bachmann (MN) at a rally also attended by Sarah Palin referred to the federal government as a “gangster government”. I guess the 2008 elections must have been rigged or something but it’s clear if anyone is openly brandishing arms, it’s these “patriot groups” not the Obama Administration.

It sure sounds like many loose-hinged people are piling up reasons for the ends justifying their ready means. Those who do or have held public office, like Palin and Bachman, are being irresponsible and possibly seditious by alluding to unlawful means to change government. No one who calls him or herself a patriot would ever start an insurrection against their own constitutional government. A true patriot values our republican government, in good times and bad. They know that however extreme things might appear at any one time, natural forces will tend to counterbalance other forces in time. That’s why we have elections and three separate but equal branches of government. Republicans will doubtless pick up seats in elections this fall. The only question is how many. If political power is what you yearn for, then insurrection is the worst way to go about it. The vast majority of us are not wingnuts. We value our democracy and the rule of law. While Democrats gaining seats this fall seems unlikely, there is no surer way to make this a reality than by engaging in some serious armed insurrection. Nothing makes property values and portfolios drop faster than a civil war.

President Obama is not a moron, and he realizes these so called patriots are a real threat. He is trying to reduce the threat in two ways. First, he has the FBI working closely with state and local law enforcement officials to figure out which of these groups are truly dangerous by defanging them before they cause loss of life. With so many groups, it is probably impossible to keep up with all of them. Second, he is keeping a low profile and not publicly talking about the obvious threat of domestic terrorism. Perhaps with a bit of luck none of these sparks will catch on this very dry kindling.

The sad reality is that the socialism these groups see is largely a figment of their fevered imaginations, and shows how out of touch they are with reality. Obama has not tightened gun laws. He has loosened them. Health care reform is not socialism, unless doing the same thing nationally that states like Massachusetts did is socialism. If so, Mitt Romney is a socialist. Requiring people to purchase health insurance is no more socialist than the vast majority of states requiring people who drive to buy auto insurance. If anything, health insurance reform enhances personal responsibility. It means that people have to take responsibility for the cost of their health, rather than foisting it off on the rest of us who are insured. It costs each of us insured about $1200 a year to pay in additional premiums to cover these irresponsible people. Why would any of these rugged individuals object to making people carry their own freight?

The truth is that if John McCain had won the presidency, proposed these same things, and enacted these same laws, the opposition would have been largely muted because these laws are actually quite mainstream and look very close to what Republicans were calling for back in the 1990s. What is the difference? Well, Obama is clearly a Democrat and McCain in a Republican. Most of us are not fooled, even if these wingnuts cannot admit it to themselves. The real issue is that Obama is a black man with power. That is the animus driving these people. If something ignites this kindling, it will be the flame of racism, which, sadly, is not yet extinguished in our country.

The Thinker

Mind games with myself

It was just over three weeks ago that I was hospitalized and here I was in a hospital again. The emergency room had changed. Last time it was Fair Oaks Hospital, this time it was the smaller E. R. at the Reston Hospital Center. At least this time I did not black out and break my nose. This time I was in physical therapy when I felt dizzy and asked to be laid flat. Donna, my physical therapist immediately started taking my blood pressure and felt my clammy skin. Within a few minutes, she had called the paramedics. Within half an hour I was in the Reston Hospital Center’s Emergency Room, my vitals being constantly monitored, the compulsory bag of saline already dripping through a tube into my arm.

This time though I was getting oxygen right away. My number was 85 when it should be close to a 100. My blood pressure trended toward the lower side. I could stand up briefly for some X-rays but most of the time I wanted to be horizontal on a gurney. I kept wanting things to improve, but it seemed no matter how much pure oxygen I was breathing my oxygen levels only rose modestly and my blood pressure stayed low.

Earlier that morning I met my cardiologist. She detected an abnormal heart rhythm that hadn’t been there three months earlier. She took my blood pressure lying down, sitting and standing. She ordered a Doppler ultrasound of my carotid arteries. And she sent me home with a heart monitor and a journal where I had to describe my minute-by-minute activities for twenty-four hours.

Why I felt dizzy while in physical therapy is something of a mystery, but it may have had something to do with simply explaining to Donna what had happened earlier that day with the cardiologist. It was weird to be there doing stretches with probes all over my chest and box hanging off my belt. In any event, some mental wire tripped in my brain and told my heart to slow down when it needed to speed up and that triggered the dizziness.

Yesterday’s afternoon and evening events had a surreal feeling to them. I was being ferried in an ambulance and trying to talk through an oxygen mask with a helpful female EMT. Most surreal of all was lying on my back in an emergency room again constantly moving between lucidness and feelings of being faint.

My wife eventually showed up, having first checked for me at the Fair Oaks Emergency Room. “Breathe deep,” she is telling me and I try. Bring in the full rush of pure oxygen and exhale but it seems to be of limited use in elevating my oxygen levels and pushing up by blood pressure. By now three weeks ago, I was nearly back to normal. Today I was still wondering if I would just pass out. If so, would I go into cardiac arrest? Would I simply die there in the Emergency Room? It seemed unlikely but holding on to consciousness seemed a challenging willful act. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t panic.

I learned a few things from the experience. At some point, worrying about what is going on becomes impossible. You have more immediate things to do, like stay in the present, breathe in, and breathe out. When I lapsed into moments where my oxygen levels hovered close to normal then I could worry about things. Was I skipping heartbeats? It rather seemed that way but in actuality, every third beat was not so much skipped as double-repeated. Had I developed heart disease? Was there some sort of medicine they could give me to make me feel normal? Curiously, no one wanted to administer any medicine. My cardiologist instead wanted to finish the complete twenty-four hour test, which left me lying there with oxygen gently hissing up my nostrils, mostly feeling lightheaded and more than a little helpless.

Hospitals, like the Army, runs on its own time. Hours pass in E.R. More hours pass in a staging area where for an hour or so I feel better and I eat a Wendy’s Grilled Chicken sandwich that my wife had fetched for me. Finally sometime after nine o’clock I am wheeled upstairs to a private room where many people of color are looking into my eyes, adjusting saline drips, carting me downstairs for a CT scan of my chest, and helping me to the bathroom.

A hospital night passes uncomfortably. I asked them to come in as infrequently as possible so I could sleep. One might was well ask the tide not to come in. A battery monitoring my vitals fails and must be replaced. Despite measuring my blood pressure and oxygen levels constantly via telemetry, every few hours they feel the need to wake me and take these reading manually. I awkwardly try to sit on the bed and pee into a urinal bottle. This alarms them and they rush in because my heart rate spikes to 140. Sleep is sporadic and fleeting. In the morning, I still feel weak and dizzy perhaps in part due to lack of sleep. My bag of saline is nearly empty. A walk down the hall with a nurse has me feeling wobbly-kneed.

Back in my room, I sit in a chair and try to breathe without the aid of oxygen. I still feel weak and lightheaded, but I really want to go home today. Suddenly, the cardiologist on call arrives. He has good news, of a sort. Your abnormal heartbeat is actually not dangerous and is not related to your symptoms. I do not have heart disease. Basically, I am fine. I was just having vasovagal symptoms again. My brain was telling my heart to slow down when it should not. The good news is that most episodes can be controlled through awareness and proactive strategies. My salt level is low. Eat more salt. Drink a lot more fluids. If you feel faint, get horizontal quickly. Ask for water. Train yourself not to panic. It will pass. If episodes recur frequently enough, a beta-blocker might help.

Maybe he is right. I ask the nurse for a jug of water and keep drinking glass after glass. I do start to feel better at last. I take a walk down the corridor and feel okay, but a little lightheaded. Finally, I am discharged.

Was my hospitalization necessary? It is hard to say. My physical therapist did what she thought was prudent, and I cannot say I could have made a better judgment. I did ask to lie down. I did not know I was sodium deficient and at the time, I did not feel dehydrated.

Still, the episode was undeniably scary and in retrospect probably closest I have come to meeting my maker prematurely. There were times in the E.R. when I felt certain I would lose consciousness but at least my wife was around. What if she had not been there? The E.R. people seemed to have more important patients than me. A baby two-doors down cried with a piercing sound that left no ambiguity about how he felt. My wife reported a man in another room who is passed out. He appears to be dying.

Later today after being discharged, I drove my car home from the physical therapists where it had sat overnight. I still felt a need to breathe somewhat deeply. I got it home okay but some part of me wondered if I might feel faint on the way home. I also wonder if I can convince the limbic portion of my brain to stop sending false signals to my heart. A crisis eases. Yet, an ambiguity hangs over my life now that was not there before along with feeling my mortality more sharply than ever. I wonder if my life will ever be the same again.

The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

When pressed for inspiration for a topic but lacking any, it helps to keep a queue of movie reviews. Here are two more for your consideration.

Greenfingers (2000)

It’s hard to believe, but a movie can make Clive Owen look not particularly attractive. Owen, who recently played opposite Julia Roberts in the less than stellar movie Duplicity (2009) also had the lead role in Greenfingers back in 2000. In Duplicity, Clive Owen is all super handsome and buff. Here he plays the prisoner Colin Briggs who while a teenager and in a fit of berserk rage accidentally killed his own brother. Of course, he was sent into the British penal system where he endured a hard life in a dreary gray prison, a prison he expected to die in. Since his violent episodes did not recur, Briggs showed the promise of full rehabilitation. Very unexpectedly, he finds himself transferred to HMP Leyhill, an experimental prison without walls in the English countryside. Ironically, at first he prefers the old prison. He had gotten used to it.

Now he has to get used to his roommate Fergus (David Kelly), a serene old man who very late in life has found peace within his soul. At first, Fergus’s happiness freaks Briggs out. Briggs is not in the “prison” long before he discovers that Fergus is not only old, he is slowly dying because he often spends weeks in the infirmary. That often leaves Briggs alone and staring at Fergus’s houseplant, which after a while he starts guiltily watering. The progressive governor at Leyhill (Warren Clarke) notices him taking care of the plant and decides he’s been cleaning toilets long enough. Briggs has a new task for him: to create and plant a prison garden. He is given some guides to gardening written by the British gardening maven Georgina Woodhouse (played by Helen Mirren). Briggs and a half dozen of his very burly and virile fellow prisoners halfheartedly begin their garden, with Fergus helping when he can.

It is hard to imagine a more unlikely group of gardeners. As you might suspect, against all odds Briggs develops a genius for gardening, in the process also absorbing every book Georgina Woodhouse ever wrote, who he sees as a role model. The garden eventually comes to the attention of Woodhouses’s daughter Primrose (Natasha Little). Her exposure to Briggs oddly leads to love and to meeting the famous Georgina Woodhouse. The prisoners’ brilliance in the prison garden leads to more exposure and finally to an exhibition at Great Britain’s premier garden exposition.

This movie is based on a true story. Greenfingers is a sincere and understated movie. Owen seems a bit miscast in the role, at least compared with much of his other work, including likely his best part ever in the amazing Children of Men. It is a strange and sweet movie of a set of wholly improbable events that slowly result in Brigg’s spiritual resurrection. If you like heartwarming movies, Greenfingers will fit the bill. While better than most movies, its gentle structure will not let it soar that high. 3.0 on my four-point scale.

Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton is rapidly becoming one of my favorite directors. Where there is a Burton directing, you know the odds are good that Johnny Depp will be one of the stars. The two go back two decades now to Depp’s breakout role with Burton in Edward Scissorhands. Since Helena Bonham Carter did such a fabulous job with both Burton and Depp in Sweeney Todd, she was also invited back. Alice though cannot possibly soar as high as the delightfully gruesome and brilliant Sweeney Todd. Still, both Depp and Carter give Alice in Wonderland their best, Depp playing the weird but harmless Mad Hatter and Carter playing the impulsive and largely empty-headed Red Queen. Playing Alice is Mia Wasikowska, who is very well cast for the part. In spite of Depp and Carter’s fine acting, I actually enjoyed Wasikowska’s more, who with Burton’s fine directing nails the young adult Alice to near perfection.

The title of the movie is really a misnomer, since this is actually really Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. In this telling, Alice is navigating her way into adulthood. She is expected to marry a foppish British Lord and live an ordinary upper crust life. Of course, her experiences in Wonderland serve to inform her that she cannot live that sort of life. She will have to break the mold and live a more adventurous one, one like her late father, who was a daring adventurer and entrepreneur.

I hope I didn’t give away too much but most likely you are already familiar with Alice and Through the Looking Glass. Like most movies these days, Burton depends on a lot of CGI and it is all woven together with live action so seamlessly that it is very well visualized, as you would expect. There is a lot to like about this version of Alice. There are really no off performances, but few that soar. I particularly liked Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with both parts performed by Matt Lucas. The ending was particularly well done, with Alice called to battle the Red Witch’s champion, the Jabberwocky. You know that Alice is going to win this battle somehow. Yet, it is hard not to shed a tear for her anyhow when she finally triumphs and applaud for her when she ends up back on Terra Firma and takes command of her life from her mother and host of relatives. Alice gets to grow up and Wonderland is her unlikely catalyst.

I have yet to see a bad Tim Burton movie, although I have not seen all he has done. Still, while no masterpiece, it is fun and engaging, at least to those of us who are only casually acquainted with Carroll’s books. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

The downside of sobriety

So I am having lunch with my new friend Valerie at a local Red, Hot and Blue. We are enjoying the food and enjoying getting to know each other a little better. Our relationship so far has consisted of my patiently building a website for her business. We started to trade brief synopses of our lives. As two white Anglo Saxons as well as Unitarian Universalists, we discovered that we had a fair amount in common. We are both married and with children, although in her case there is also a grandchild. I’m still involved in a long process getting my twenty year old daughter out the door.

Val, a seeming model of decorum, at least confessed to having let her hair down a few times growing up. In the early 70s, like many of her classmates, she had smoked some weed and did other naughty things. I went back and frantically examined my childhood, and adolescence looking for similar naughty things I had done. I couldn’t turn up anything other that would qualify as more than a minor venial sin.

It’s not that I am without sin, because like most sinners I have done my share of it, but I could rarely find anything egregious to confess to the priest. There were times I was forced to go to confession when I made sins up. What priest would believe me if I said I hadn’t sinned since my last confession? I was blessed/cursed with two freakishly sober and responsible parents. They didn’t smoke. They didn’t drink, except perhaps a sip of wine at a wedding or at communion. Neither had ever been drunk, although my mother had brothers who were drunks. That is in part why she married a teetotaler. Moreover, I had little in the way of older siblings willing to be bad examples. I had one older brother who developed a taste for European beers and for a brief time smoked cigars in college. That changed of course when he met his wife and reverted to a more natural clean and sober style. He did so with such a zeal that he made my father look like a sinner. Vice was just not part of our upbringing. The neighbors did not help either. They did most of their sinning indoors, rather than in the streets.

When my turn came to grow up, I too stayed unnaturally unsoiled. To this day, I have never put a cigarette to my mouth, lit or unlit. I do drink alcohol, but only a few times a year, occasionally to the point where I feel slightly lightheaded, but never to the point of public drunkenness. I occasionally smelled pot in the hallways at school and saw students take furtive tokes. Yet, I never felt the desire to join them; in fact, I felt something like disgust watching their behavior. While I never embraced puritanical behavior, even in the days before AIDS I felt little desire to jump into bed with any woman on the first date, no matter how attractive she was. It was not like I saw any virtue in chastity. It helped I suppose that I inherited my parents’ natural shyness, so I was not particularly inclined to make the first move.

So here I was this afternoon, age fifty plus, in many ways unsullied by vice, being clean and sober (not to mention proper) with my new friend Val enjoying a meal at a Red, Hot and Blue and wondering whether I had missed something. It is likely I will never know. I did suggest to Val that perhaps it was not too late and she should take me to a bar or tavern and get me stinking drunk and silly. Perhaps once in my life I should get in a bar fight, or puke out my guts into a filthy restroom toilet, or engage in some weird indiscretion I would later regret.

I am not sure I could. Because the downside of all that righteous living and sobriety is you are afraid to take many chances. Most people who gamble lose and often lose big. Sometimes they win big, and revel in their momentary wealth. In any event, whether they win, lose or both, they seem to be living a broader life than the one I lead. Instead, I live a risk-averse life, usually moving toward an area that I perceive to be safer. Six years ago, this need for safety caused me to switch jobs from one in downtown D.C. to a much safer location a few miles from home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. With my window looking down on the National Mall (where I daily watched freight laden trains running in and out of the city), it did not take much for my imagination to conjure up a vision of some terrorist stuffing a boxcar with explosives, and taking me out, much like Timothy McVeigh took out over a hundred people in Oklahoma City in the mid 1990s. Better to find another job.

“Be prepared,” is the Boy Scout motto. That was also my father’s motto (an ex Boy Scout himself). It seems to have worked well for my father, who is in remarkable health at age 83. Yet, is there any point to making it to 83 if you spend much of your life simply trying to optimize your survival and comfort, rather than grasping life by its reigns? Is it better to have a shorter life lived well than a long live lived in a pedestrian fashion? How many others have an earthquake and sewer backup rider on their home insurance policy and umbrella insurance just in case someone wants to file a lawsuit against them?

Since alcohol no longer agrees with my wife, I am hoping my new friend Val will finally be the one to corrupt me. I have no idea where the local bars are, but I suspect she can find out. Perhaps she could introduce me to a drink that is both tasty and likely to have me quickly lying on the floor. Perhaps under the influence I could let my mouth get the better of me by trading political opinions with the Republican by my elbow. Perhaps I would wake up in the morning hung over, hurting and regretful, but knowing for some small period, I had walked outside the bounds of my self-imposed safety zone.

I hope Val will hurry up. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t seem to be able to do it by myself.

The Thinker

Two quick movie reviews

Food, Inc. (2008)

Food, Inc. is actually a documentary that will tell you probably far more than you want to know about where our food comes from today. How food is grown today bears little resemblance to how our grandparents grew their food. In case you were not aware, the family farm is virtually gone and our food is grown by large cooperatives. Unlike a century ago, most of it here in the United States is corn. As we learn, corn is like money in that it is completely fungible. It can and is manufactured into almost anything you can imagine, including batteries. In addition, because our Congress can’t say no to farmers, we subsidize corn, which means it is surreally cheap. Yes, our tax dollars are going so we can eat food that will kill us at incredibly cheap prices.

So rather than have our cattle do what they did for generations and eat meadow grass, we confine them to feeding lots, fatten them up with endless supplies of cheap corn and slaughter them prematurely. The situation is hardly any better for our poultry, the vast majority of which also eat corn, live in stuffy Gulag-like chicken houses and never see the sun.

Because our meat comes from animals that are not eating what they should, and they live in close quarters, and because we give them plenty of antibiotics, there are lots of unhealthy and unintended consequences. If like me you knew most of this, Food, Inc. is still worth seeing because, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. What you learn about the Monsanto Corporation may also disturb you. The evidence of all the unhealthy processed food we are eating is all around us and for many Americans, it is also on their waists.

Ignore this documentary at your peril. If you know you need to eat more whole and organic foods, this movie will give you the motivation you need. It should scare the hell out of all reasonable people and have you driving past the plentiful roadside temptations designed to fatten you up for premature death and heart disease. I’d like to say this documentary is timely, but really, it was needed a couple decades back. Make a note of April 21st because if you haven’t seen it, and even if you have, it will be broadcast on PBS in celebration of Earth Day.

21 (2008)

What were you doing at age 21? Most likely, you weren’t looking for $300,000 to pay your way through Harvard Medical School. Ben (Jim Sturgess) is 21, completing his bachelor’s degree at MIT, happens to be both brilliant and mathematically gifted, yet still cannot get his scholarship into Harvard Medical School. Fortunately (or unfortunately) one of his professors, Professor Rosa (Kevin Spacey) recognizes his mathematical brilliance. Rosa quickly includes Ben in a private little club consisting of mathematically gifted students who develop amazing skills counting cards. Working as a team, they spend their weekends in Las Vegas playing blackjack using legal means, but which entails certain bodily risks if the loss prevention folks at the casinos figure out what you are up to. Rosa is a former card shark himself who stays in the game via the proxy of his students.

For a gifted but shy student like Ben, this peculiar weekend gig has some great bonuses beyond the surreal quantities of cash he quickly earns. This is because the cool kids he hangs out with include Jill (Kate Bosworth), the hottest (and one of the smartest) women on the MIT campus. Ben’s feelings for Jill begin with a hormone rush, which quickly turns into a serious crush, but he suspects he is too nerdy to become her lover. One might say the odds turn in his favor. As long as they can strictly obey their rules in the casino, it looks like easy money for having a natural talent at basic math. Plus those limos and shopping sprees at upscale stores on The Strip are fun too.

Naturally, their luck will run out as they begin to get sloppy and start earning money. Ben’s friends back at MIT begin to feel estranged and wonder where he is on weekends. Living a dual life takes a toll on Ben, but after a while, he enjoys being a card shark far more than being a student. However, face recognition technology is catching up with their surreptitious behavior. Staying ahead of the casino security teams gets chancier with each visit.

21 is far more engaging than it would appear to be, even though we have a pretty good idea on how it will play out. Having been to Las Vegas a few times myself, it almost makes me wistful for the place again. Like Vegas, 21 is quite an entertaining movie. Moreover, it is hard not to feel the suspense as these young adults navigate through the weird world of big money Las Vegas. Along the way, Ben and his team members learn some major life lessons, but at least learn them early. 3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Thinker

The Agony of the Feet, Part Three

(Read Part One and Part Two first, if you missed them.)

It’s been exactly five years since I first wrote about the agony of my feet. In the intervening years, I have certainly been probed, tested and even sliced open by plenty of doctors. I even underwent three surgeries last year hoping they would alleviate the chronic inflammation in my feet. My foot problem is not gone, but at least the agony has morphed into the occasional annoyance. For me, this is great progress.

I have learned a lot along the way, and not all of it is flattering to our medical establishment. My primary care physician was of little help. He never studied foot problems in any detail but was glad to refer me to specialists. The podiatrist said the pain and numbness, mostly in my right foot, could be a number of things. Initially he started with steroid shots injected into certain spots in my foot. They seemed to help a bit, but the symptoms recurred later with worse pain. I pointed him to my varicose veins, predominant in my right leg, and wondered if that could be the problem. The conservative approach seemed to be to remove some veins on the theory that blood was pooling in my feet and this was adding to the pressure there, thus causing the pain. One vein was cauterized last May. I spent weeks wearing compression stockings, which due to all the leg compression made the pain worse. Later last summer I had the more egregious surface veins on my right leg removed and spent more weeks in compression stockings. The surgeries did little to reduce the pain, but I must say my legs look great.

The podiatrist also sent me to a neurologist, who confirmed tarsal tunnel syndrome in my right foot and well as various neuropathies elsewhere. This eventually resulted in the tarsal tunnel surgery I had in January. If you have tarsal tunnel, this should mean that a nerve is compressed in your ankle, right? It seemed a reasonable assumption. However, after surgery and three weeks staying at home, at best I had only a little relief. I knew the surgery did not have a great success record, and sometimes it took months for symptoms to moderate, but I could think of nothing else to do. There was no one specialist to go to who could put it altogether. Each specialist saw my problem in relation to their specialized training only.

I did notice that the back of my thighs also felt irritated. Could the problem not be in my feet, but further up in my sciatic nerve? Could I be compressing nerves elsewhere and feeling the result acutely in my feet? After a follow up with the surgeon, I asked and received a referral for physical therapy to chase possible sciatica. Perhaps through the right kind of exercise elsewhere better results would trickle down to my feet. It seemed a wild idea, but it was worth a try. I had few other options.

It took only a few sessions with Donna and Rebecca (the physical therapists who worked on me) to realize this is where I should have started, not where I ended. Most likely, all the other surgery could have been avoided, along with thousands of dollars in medical costs. Granted, physical therapy is not a lot of fun and takes a lot of time. However, the proof is in the pudding. My symptoms are 50-70% improved compared to when I started physical therapy a month or so ago.

I had no idea that our nerves are sheathed inside tubes, and with the right stretching your nerves will slide inside these tubes. These exercises forced my nerves to move from their favorite spots, where they may have been stuck and thus more likely to feel compressed and inflamed. Good physical therapists (and both Donna and Rebecca are excellent) will note connections. It seems I have bad posture. It was nothing I gave much though to before. Of course, everything in your body is connected, so stressing and stretching nerves the wrong way (such as via slouching, leaning back in chairs, hunching over my desk or not sitting in an ergonomic position) were all contributing toward the major problem manifested in my feet.

Now I spend about an hour a day stretching my muscles. I do pinformis stretches. I do hamstring stretches. I do supine nerve glides and horizontal braces. I do leg marches. I use a tennis ball to massage my plantar fascia (the bottoms of my feet). I do calf stretches and pointing ankle-strengthening exercises. I do other exercises too numerous to mention here, all of which take a lot of time and are boring as hell but which seem to alleviate symptoms quite well. I am in good hands with Donna and Rebecca, literally, because they are often massaging my feet, legs and surgical scares with cream and very firm strokes. They are also big believers in ultrasound, which they use liberally on my surgical scar. Through repeated therapy, I went from having the tightest legs and ankles they had seen in six month to relaxed calves and feet like normal people.

I also pull on long, stretchy rubber bands, mainly to improve my posture by strengthening my back muscles. I also sit on big bouncy balls and place a ball between my legs while I lift my calves. I also learned how to properly get in and out of bed. Apparently, the way I had been doing it for the first 53 years was wrong. You have to roll in a certain way and drop your feet toward the floor while pushing yourself up with your hands. There are many secrets these masters know about how not to stretch my sciatic nerve.

A good ergonomic chair is also helpful for us desk dwellers, but sitting properly in any chair is also important. Sitting up straight still does not come naturally to me. However, I discovered that making sure my feet, knees and waist form right angles when I sit could relieve many symptoms. One thing I was doing wrong was sitting too high in my chair. This obtuse angle simply put extra pressure on the bottom of my thighs, aggravating the sciatica.

It all seems to come natural to physical therapists that as a class seem to be skinny, beautiful, have great skin and, naturally, great posture. They eat right too. No processed foods (it seems) for these specimens of great human health. They’ve got it all figured out, and they practice what they preach.

Are my foot problems solved? Not yet, but thanks to my excellent physical therapists, I am seeing great changes in a chronic problem that has dogged me for more than five years. Perhaps next time you have any muscular or nerve related problems, you should seek out a good physical therapist first. It may be all you need.

The Thinker

Chinese drywall: a case in point for why we need government

Does anyone like paying taxes? I doubt it. I don’t. Who would not want to give less of their hard earned money to the government? While like most Americans I don’t like paying taxes, I also understand that civilization (like freedom) is not free. So while I don’t like paying taxes, and know a lot of our tax money is wasted (something that should be addressed, of course), I prefer this to the alternative: anarchy.

During the recent snowstorms here in the Northeast, at one point I ended up with twenty-nine inches of snow on the roof of my deck. From my bedroom, I heard my deck’s support timbers creaking from time to time. I watched its roof warily and wondered if it was going to collapse under the weight of all that white stuff. Trying to shovel if off was not really an alternative, as there was no way to get a ladder into my backyard to even attempt it.

After I thought about it for a while, I recalled back to 1999 when we had the deck rebuilt and covered for the first time. I remembered how cranky the builders were when the county building inspector came over to check their work. Some of his requests seemed silly, like adding outdoor spotlights so people could come up the stairs safely in the dark. Others, it turned out, were spot on. One roof support beam every eighteen inches or so was not up to code, he told them. Double them. They grudgingly agreed, not like they had a choice. Likely because my county has competent building inspectors and modern building codes, the roof on my deck weathered a record snowfall.

I was thinking about this roof the other day when I read this article. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) ruled that thousands of homes constructed with defective Chinese drywall must have the defective drywall gutted and replaced. In additional, the entire house’s electrical wires, fire alarms, gas pipes and even the circuit breakers must be replaced as well. The defective drywall has been linked to the corrosion of electrical wires and metal pipes, which mean that affected homeowners now also have to worry their house could catch on fire. Then there are the possible health effects including high levels of formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide that may be responsible for numerous reported cases of nose, throat and lung irritation registered by people living in these houses. Most of these houses are relatively new and include many houses that were reconstructed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Imagine you are a homeowner with this problem. Think of the cost of gutting the entire inside of your house and rebuilding it. Think your insurance is going to cover it? My guess is, probably not. You might have some sort of home warranty that came with the house, and you might be able to use it to file a claim. Most likely, you will try to sue to recover the damages, probably by joining a class-action lawsuit. Meanwhile, you will probably cross your fingers that your house will not burn down or that you are not sent to the emergency room suffering from lung inflammation. Now that the government in finally on the case, CSPC chairman Inez Tenenbaum will be flying to China to seek redress from its government. Let’s hope the Chinese do the honorable thing.

We software engineers know that it can cost up to one hundred times as much to fix a problem after a system is delivered as it would be to get the requirement correct the first time. What software engineers know is true of most project-oriented endeavors, like building bridges or constructing houses. Clearly, had this Chinese drywall been known to have been defective it would never have been installed in U.S. homes. Maybe homeowners might have paid a little more for safe American-made drywall, but any homeowner now affected by bad drywall would certainly agree that they would rather have rather paid a little more than to have deal with the huge hassle, expense and health hazard before them.

The CPSC, like many ordinary federal agencies over the last few decades, has had reduced funding. Even the Obama Administration has given the CPSC short shrift, asking for $107 million for the agency in FY10. Congress to its credit realized this was niggardly, and partially because of another scandal (lead in toys produced in China), the CPSC’s budget for FY10 was increased to $136 million. It’s a hopeful trend, but as Consumer Reports has pointed out, the CPSC has been woefully under-funded for years. It appeared that the Bush Administration was trying to strangle it. Not surprisingly, with only 401 full time employees proposed for the agency in FY08, setting up and enforcing standards for safe drywall was on no one’s agenda.

Is government wasteful? Certainly, and there are many places where you can document huge waste and fraud, such as in fraudulent Medicare billing by many health care providers. Does that mean that government cannot provide useful and cost effective services? Absolutely not. I have no idea how much it might cost for the CPSC to create and enforce drywall standards. Let’s say it’s a million dollars a year. Even if it were ten times that much, our slightly higher taxes would more than pay for themselves in the assurance that our home are safer. The state cannot take on this responsibility. Inspecting cargo for compliance with our laws is a federal responsibility.

Perhaps in the Republican mindset, each homeowner would have their drywall independently tested by a private laboratory before having it installed or simply take their chances that they did not install defective drywall. In the real world, this is silly. This is why we have governments, because it makes no sense for every homeowner to do something like this when it can be done once by a government agency at the cost of chipping in a couple extra pennies a year in taxes. Moreover, that’s all it is. Even with a $136 million dollar budget, split among three hundred million Americans, we buy the safety we get from the CPSC for about forty-five cents per person per year. I know I would have no problem paying five dollars a year, or more, to have a lot more assurance that the products I purchase are safe. Nor would most Americans, if the argument were framed this way.

You get the government you are willing to pay for. If you are so insistent in restraining the size and cost of government, even if it means you or I may die because the government is not inspecting foreign drywall, then frankly, I think you are letting ideology override common sense. Perhaps it is time to move to Angola, where you are unencumbered by taxes. As for me, this is why I pay taxes. I am happy to pay whatever taxes are needed to ensure our products are safe. It’s crazy that so many Americans are even disputing this!


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