Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Happy Fathers Day to me

This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.

So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.

A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.

Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.

I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.

Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.

I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.

Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.

Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.

This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.

 
The Thinker

Stuck in Merrill Lynch beneficiary hell

It sure is nice to inherit some money. Good luck in collecting it, at least at Merrill Lynch.

My father passed away in February 1. Some weeks afterward our stepmother told us we were beneficiaries to some of his accounts. It turned out to be a fair amount of money, considering there are eight of us, roughly $80,000 each. My sister spent a few weeks on the phone with M/L going in circles. Frustrated, she asked me to be the family’s liaison. She still has a job. I am retired.

Sure. Whatever. I’m used to playing the good brother role and I did have the time. And boy it sure takes time if you mean going around in pointless circles. They are clearly loath to let go of Dad’s accounts. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how they could make it any harder to claim money that is rightfully ours.

Over more than thirty years my father had a relationship with “Lee” at M/L, who apparently owns a brokerage under the M/L umbrella. Over the decades a lot of things have happened in this industry. For M/L, already a huge and impersonal company, it meant being acquired by the world’s largest and most uncaring bank: Bank of America. This is something I learned later on. Had I known, I would have taken it as an omen of what was to come.

It sounded pretty straightforward. Dad had about 28% of the funds he wanted to bequeath us in a simple account, a “Cash Management Account” to use the M/L term. The rest were in Roth accounts, which were tax advantaged. So you would think it would be pretty simple: sell any mutual funds in these accounts, divide the totals by eight and cut each of us a check for that amount.

Ha ha! Of course not! The first set of excuses I got when I made my initial queries was, “It’s tax season, we’ll talk to you after April 15.” They were so busy in the M/L office that they can’t be bothered to help us with this, at least not while they have clients that want to give them money rather than take it away. To say the least Molly, the lady I spoke with, was curt. Feeling a bit ticked off a few days later I dialed Lee.

Lee was all sunshine and light, expressed condolences and said this wasn’t that big of a deal. He’d have Molly send me the forms we needed. One ripple was that since the Roth funds were tax advantaged, we might want to set up inherited Roth IRA accounts. Or we could take the money as cash. In any event it’s an inheritance. No taxes to worry about.

So many of us dutifully decided to set up inherited Roth IRAs, a puzzling process to learn about and hard to set up as you need a death certificate. As for that Cash Management Account of Dad’s, my sister sent me the forms she had. They required notarization. It took some time since there are eight of us but we all found notaries. They sent the forms to me. I double checked them and mailed them in as a batch. Given their importance I sent them certified mail so they couldn’t claim they got lost in the mailroom.

A couple of weeks later after hearing nothing I inquired about them. Molly looked at the forms and said, oh, these aren’t the right ones! I pointed her to emails we had gotten saying they were the right ones. Oh, but that’s a Merrill Edge form (a subsidiary of BankAmerica.) They don’t accept that form because they are Merrill Lynch, not Merrill Edge. Somehow I managed to not raise my voice because it was no small matter of time and expense by eight of us to get all these forms signed, notarized and sent in. Okay, I said, what form do we send in then?

Well, there is no form, Molly replied. You write a letter listing the shares you are entitled to, get it notarized and send it in. Do you have a sample? Oh no, we don’t do that. You have to do it. How do we know it will be correct when we send it in? Well, underwriting will tell us if it’s okay. Oh boy, eight of us, all doing individual letters, with numerous back and forth letters, no guidance, until maybe we crank out one they would accept. And no one will get anything until all eight of us do it correctly. So this isn’t going to work. Well, it’s how we do things. After another chat with Lee he agreed as a “special exception” to give us a sample letter with an attached spreadsheet that listed shares and cash we were each entitled to. I guess they expect their clients to hire CPAs to do these things.

Some weeks passed during which Molly went on vacation. Eventually after dodging calls for a few days I got her on the phone. I learned they could not cash out the funds in the Cash Management Account. My father had requested an “equal division”. In their minds it meant we all had to get proportional shares of the mutual funds in the account. They couldn’t just mail us a check. We needed each to have a broker that would take these funds.

After much back and forth I learned that dividing these shares by eight of us meant there were fractional shares left over. Fractional shares could not be passed to us and would have to be sold. We all had to get whole shares. I figured they would want us to send notarized letters saying it was okay to do sell these fractional shares. Surprisingly they let me as my family’s spokesman authorize it. Of course, they could have volunteered this information weeks earlier, but did not. You have to persistently dig for it and if you ask the right question they will give you the right answer. They won’t volunteer anything. God forbid they give you a document that explains the whole process with a simple checklist to follow.

They suggested we all set up Merrill Edge Cash Management Accounts to make it easier to get the money. Of course this also has the advantage of keeping the money inside the Bank of America Empire. So I tasked my siblings to set these up. By this time of course they were spitting nails. The last thing they wanted was some sort of Merrill anything account. But it looked like it could save months or years of runaround, so I requested they each set one up anyhow. They had a contact in their office that was sometimes available who could set these up. Some siblings gave up in frustration when calls to this lady were not returned and called their local office or set one up online.

Molly said that their system wouldn’t show them our Merrill Edge account numbers unless their office set them up. I assumed she was going to complete the draft letters and put in the exact numbers of shares and our account numbers. When I asked, she said I was supposed to do it. Naturally this was news to me. I now have all these forms done and will mail them out to my siblings, who must get this second set notarized. Except only the letter must be notarized. The attached spreadsheet just has to be signed and dated.

I’m betting that when these all arrive at M/L they’ll find a reason to kick them back and we’ll have to start all over.

Then there are my Dad’s two Roth funds. Here to speed things up we were encouraged to cash them all in. My siblings were fine with this. I had researched the funds in these accounts and they were underperforming funds. Granted my father was chasing stability instead of market trends, but of the five funds I looked at three were real laggards compared with the S&P 500 index and all came with more than 1% annual management fees. Jeebus! Well, at least if we cashed them in we could hardly do worse than how they managed these funds!

But they wouldn’t sell the Roth funds this until each of us called them personally and okayed it. That took some time. To “speed up” the process I was told to send drafts of the Roth withdrawal forms I got from my siblings so they could flag errors. I sent them electronically on May 20. There they sit, still waiting to be reviewed. Molly says their staff of four is down to 2 and she is so busy but she hopes to do it next week. Doubtless they will find errors that will have to be tediously corrected. But if I get them all corrected then I can send in this batch of forms and in theory there should be no issues so they can disburse the funds. I’m fully expecting I’ll send them in and they’ll find a reason to kick them back, something they haven’t explained before. We’ll see but it depends on poor overworked Molly actually deigning to review our forms.

In short, it’s a messed up and confusing process. In fact, it’s not a process at all. It seems they make it up as they go along. It seems likely that they are paid based on the assets in their accounts and they don’t want to lose them. Only with persistence, firmness and summoning your inner Donald Trump can you collect and I suspect we are nowhere close to getting our shares. They won’t volunteer anything. Meanwhile siblings who could use the money so it can grow for their retirement can’t get it. Not that M/L cares at all.

I have no idea if this sort of hassle is typical in the industry, but I can say to avoid M/L at all costs. If you have beneficiaries for accounts, ask to see their process for distributing funds and make it known to the beneficiaries. Make sure the process is straightforward. My Dad didn’t do this. The inheritance was a complete surprise. But being a beneficiary doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually get the money.

I am expecting before this is over we’ll be filing a lawsuit. It will probably go into the bottom of a long queue of similar lawsuits all from angry people like me simply trying to collect money intended for them.

 
The Thinker

It’s not easy being large

People tend to look up to us taller people, both literally and sometimes figuratively. With two otherwise equal candidates in an election, the taller is much more likely to win. Being tall has certain advantages. Seeing the full screen in a theater is rarely a problem. It’s easier for men to find a mate when you are tall and your pickings tend to be better. It sounds sexist but it’s generally true that women prefer tall men. Reputedly, the air is better at my altitude too. I often wonder if I miss much of the world’s flatulence.

At six foot and two inches (188 cm) I’m not always the tallest in the room. Statistically, I’m at taller than 94.5 percent of American men, with the average man at 5 feet and 9 inches (175 cm). This does have some effects on everyday life. Take shoes, for instance. I take a size 14 on one foot and a 14.5 on the other. Most of my life I wore size 13 because I couldn’t find a size 14, which was probably a mistake given the many foot problems I had over the years.

More recently I find myself at a disadvantage finding an acceptable computer chair. I’ve been scouring Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in search of a chair that will work for me. My height is a big problem, as the chair has to be elevated high enough so that my feet don’t cross when I sit on it. The chair needs to help me avoid sciatica not to mention the acute problem of the moment: pain in my wrists, arms and pinkies.

No, it’s not carpal tunnel syndrome, but close: strain of the extensor capri uluaris. As for the pinky finger on the right hand, that’s due to “weakness on the extensor tendon” according to Gail, an occupational therapist who came to my house to help me figure out my problem. I am a victim because I am a tall male with big hands who works with a mouse and keyboard a good part of my day using equipment designed for people at the 50 percentile. In addition, my desk is wrong. My keyboard is wrong too. And my mouse is wrong. The only thing that’s right is my monitor: it’s at the right elevation and angle. One thing is clear: being in the 95 percentile, it’s going to be costly to fix.

Take my mouse. It’s designed for the average hand, which mine is not. Donald Trump defensively claims that his hands are not short but anyhow they certainly are beautiful. While he brags about the size of his genitals if there is such a thing as hand envy, he surely would envy mine, which mirror my long feet and toes.

My large hand with Magic Mouse

My large hand with Magic Mouse

My hands are so large that most computer mice won’t work well with them. This was not obvious when I bought my latest iMac a few years ago, which came with the nifty Apple Magic Mouse. It was my therapist Gail who pointed it out: it may be sleek and sexy looking, but Apple utterly failed to make an ergonomic mouse. It has at best half an inch of elevation, which means the palm of my hand cannot rest on it, so I must engage wrist muscles and all finger tendons just to use it. That’s causing the “weakness on the extensor tendon” and is inflaming my wrist joint as well.

Moreover, it’s not wide enough. With long fingers my hand width is also wide. To use the pinky finger and the one next to it I have to scrunch them up unnaturally close together. In short, while Apple tends to get an A in designing sexy products, they got an F designing an ergonomic mouse. My solution is actually a number of solutions. There are a few mice designed for larger hands, like this one that costs $109 plus shipping. I’m also encouraged to change devices during the day. I am currently using this Logitech trackball mouse, which is still not quite big enough. My pinky falls off the side and hits the surface, irritating it. I also have a standalone Apple track pad, but I have to be careful there too, particularly to use a light touch. From all that use of my Magic Mouse, my pinky wants to push itself off to the side when I use mouse or keyboard, which inflames the joint with the hand. To cope, I’m trying putting some tape around the two fingers.

But I am also being told to move the mouse from the elbow. This means (as I’ve already discovered) that armrests on my chairs are bad, so I need a chair that doesn’t have them or one that can get out of the way. My Apple keyboard is not ergonomic either. I’m accustomed to its chicklet keys now but the keys are probably too close together due to my large hands and it might be better to use a keyboard that requires less force by the fingers. All this plus I’d do better with a split keyboard because regular keyboards force the wrists to move unnaturally toward the outside. I can’t use the Microsoft natural keyboard, because it won’t work with an Apple computer. There are some that can be ordered (example), but they are not cheap.

With my tall back I need good lumbar support, but it has to reach higher than most lumbar supports, so I need something that is adjustable. That’s the problem with my current chair, but there is also no upper back support so my back muscles tend to get tense, causing me to pinch my shoulder blades and lean forward. I could use a chair with a headrest as well. I’ve learned from my years with sciatica that the seat has to be flat and ideally padded with memory foam. It took a professional massage and three visits with a chiropractor to stop my back from hurting. I’m getting physical therapy for the arms and hands as well.

Then there is my desk. It’s too low. Because my legs are long, I need something an inch higher, but just as important I need more space for my legs. I have 28 inches and need 36. Right now my knees touch the bottom of the keyboard tray and, oh yeah, the keyboard tray needs to come out further too.

My future chair?

My future chair?

So I’m working through this piece by piece, concentrating on the chair and mouse for now. For the mouse I am trying the Magic Mouse Fixed, a $12 block of silicone that should allow the seat of my hand to rest on the mouse. It probably won’t solve the problem because the Magic Mouse is simply not wide enough. I found a used office chair in Springfield that might work. Even used they want $450, but they have a five day “try before you buy” program.

I’ll try to let you know in the months ahead whether all these changes will actually work. I’m being told there is no silver bullet, but I can improve things a lot. Meanwhile, I’ve got to stop and do some more of these ulnar nerve glides that the physical therapist wants me to do twice a day.

 
The Thinker

A shameless plug

After working with a couple of agents and being told her book was very good, just not marketable (because homosexuality is normalized) my daughter decided to self publish her fantasy novel Godspeaker. So please consider getting your own copy. It’s available for the Kindle ($4.99) or as a paperback ($12.99) from Amazon, but it’s also available on createspace as a paperbound book, also at $12.99. She makes a little more in royalties if you buy it from createspace.

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

If you like my writing, you will like her writing better. Frankly, she’s a better writer than either my wife or I and we both are reasonably talented writers. It’s actually quite humbling for me to realize I helped sire this force of creativity. It’s not for homophobes. If you look at the preview on Amazon, you will find that she dedicated it to my wife and I.

The novel is obviously an enormous investment in time and creativity. It’s been improved in part because two agents have reviewed it and requested changes. It’s also an investment of fortune, as she had a professional cover done and bought an ISBN. It will also be available as an audiobook soon.

Tessa Crowley is obviously not her real name, just her pseudonym. You can follow Tessa on her tumblr or check out her website.

 
The Thinker

Brave new carless world

Her graduation gift (if the over $100,000 we spent on her college education wasn’t enough of a gift) was the title to her car. It was a 2005 Toyota Prius, with about 110,000 miles on it. She had the mis/good fortune to have its battery go out on it a few days after delivery. It was good because these hybrid batteries cost about $3000 or more, so it was covered by the warranty.

So why is she giving up her car? It’s paid for and thanks to us she doesn’t have student loans to pay. It’s not like our daughter is convenient to mass transportation. She lives in the far-flung Washington D.C. suburbs, Manassas Park to be exact, known for its traffic, miles of tacky strip malls and its poor public transportation. What drove her to give up driving was a check engine light. A mechanic said it would be about a thousand dollars to repair it as well as replace some tires, as the old ones wouldn’t pass inspection. The Prius is about the most reliable car available. Despite its age for some modest repairs she could ride it another 100,000 miles.

The problem was she was hardly ever using it. She works from home doing closed captioning for television, mostly at night when most of us are asleep. Her life is a studio apartment on the third floor and a black cat. With her free time she mostly writes. Extremely introverted by nature she had no place she really needed to go to.

So she ran the numbers. It turned out that for her it was much cheaper to go carless. She has stopped paying hundreds of dollars a year for insurance, not to mention all the costs associated with maintenance. No more personal property taxes to pay. No more registration fees and license fees. No federal and state gasoline taxes either. To the extent she needs to get around she will now use feet, her new bike and Uber.

Mostly she will be using Uber. So it costs her $15 or $20 each way to take the cat to the vet, or herself to the doctor. It’s still much cheaper than owning a car. A bus is not out of the question, but it involves walking about a mile to the main drag and putting up with all sorts of inconvenient transfers. She’s not poor, just a bit monetarily challenged. So Uber it is, and sometimes the Schwinn bike when the weather cooperates. For food, she has Safeway deliver it and creates an order online. It usually costs $10, but she can save money by having deliveries during the off hours.

I think my daughter maybe something of a trendsetter. Of course lots of young people are giving up their cars, but they tend to live in more connected neighborhoods, not way out near the edge of the frontier where she is living. If she wants to see a movie, she may be able to bike to it if she dares take her bike down the strip and under I-66 to the Cineplex. She is tight with a couple of longstanding girlfriends and usually goes with them. Most likely one of them will pickup and deliver. Or she can stream something online.

It’s quite a self-contained life, and I can empathize. I lived without a car for a few years in my early 20s (she is 26) and did not enjoy it. I couldn’t afford a new or used car and I could not afford to keep the old one going. Once a week I took the county bus to Rockville, Maryland for groceries at the Giant and lugged them home. They had to fit in two bags. It worked but it was not pleasant. Of course in those days there was no Internet and virtually no one worked from home. If you did, a car was essential to your business. You had to go meet people to make a living. I biked to work most days, took the bus if I could make it work with my schedule or simply walked toting an umbrella. I lived cheap but I didn’t like it. It made certain things that most people take for granted, like dating women, pretty much impossible.

This is not a problem for my daughter. She’s not interested in dating anyone, let alone getting serious and married. She says she is asexual, so she simply doesn’t feel attracted to anyone, at least not in a way that might lead to conjugal pleasures. There’s no place she is dying to go, at least at the spur of the moment. If she needs things, she buys it online and has it delivered. (Unsurprisingly, she has Amazon Prime.) She has discerned that we live in a service economy, which means you can get pretty much any service delivered these days. The exceptions are doctor and vet visits (and a few vets do make house calls) and hair stylists.

That’s where Uber comes in. She says Uber is better and much cheaper than a taxi, but it is effectively a taxi. Her smartphone tells her when the driver will arrive, so she doesn’t have to waste time waiting around. She pays in advance over the Internet. She knows of course that those Uber drivers probably aren’t making much money. Uber won’t treat them as employees. They are individual contractors, which mean they pay the freight for maintaining their cars, not her.

I’m waiting for her to tell me it was all a big mistake but I don’t think she’ll give me the satisfaction. It all works for her. It probably won’t work for those who still have to go to an office everyday, but that’s their problem, not hers. All this plus she got a nice chunk of change for selling her graduation gift. Meanwhile her parents still have two cars in the garage, even though being retired we use our own cars much less often. Apparently we are Luddites. We just don’t get the 21st century.

I wish her luck in her brave new carless world.

 
The Thinker

Time in a bottle

I fell in love all over again last week. Curiously I fell in love with my daughter, who I already love. My daughter is 26. Instead, I fell back in love with my daughter, ages 10 months, one, two and a half, four, five and ten. This was because those old dusty VHS tapes of her have finally been transferred to DVD. For the first time in more than twenty years in some cases I am seeing them again.

Our VCR died a decade or so back and we felt no compelling reason to replace it, despite a stack of videotapes. Most of the videotapes were movies or TV shows, hence junk. A few of them though recorded precious memories of life with our young daughter. I never felt rich enough back then to buy a camcorder but I did rent one from time to time. I first gave it a try when our daughter Rose was ten months, resulting in the cute little snippet of her crawling around the floor of our kitchen on a Saturday morning (below).

We have tons of scrapbooks documenting lots of her milestones, most very minor. A picture turns out to be a poor substitute for a video, which like Dorothy in Oz has the magical power to transport you back in time. For those families that record everything I doubt these recordings hold much allure. Given the slim few hours I have of our daughter from those years, and seeing it again so many years later it is hard not to be transfixed.

I don’t look much different. I was younger and not quite as wide and perhaps with a bit more hair. My enchantment comes not from seeing myself, or our old neighborhood or even snippets of my parents, now both deceased. It’s mostly from being transfixed by just how inexpressibly cute our daughter was back then.

Parents generally form a love bond with their child. It’s hard not to given how much time and attention children require and how focused they are on you, as you are literally their path to survival. Over time we forget the bad stuff: the temper tantrums, the constant ear infections, getting in trouble in school, etc. Blissfully, only the good stuff remains. As children our kids are naturally innocent and if raised right they are trusting too. Watching these videos again though I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being a father. This was perhaps in part because I was stretched rather thin with a full time job and many other responsibilities. But certain rituals were sacrosanct, such as bath time and reading to my daughter before bedtime.

The intimacy of our connection was special but ultimately fleeting. At story time she would snuggle up close next to me on the couch. I’d wrap my arm around her and hold a book in the other arm. She would help turn the pages. Tucking her into bed followed. We’d watch her almost coo like a dove as she snuggled up to her stuffed dog and generally fall happily asleep. These sorts of routine moments got sporadically captured on video.

Rose was always an interesting child but for me she was most adorable at age four, with her big doe-like eyes, her utter transparency and her relentless curiosity about how the world works. She could believe in Santa Claus with complete innocence, take delight in trick or treating, get enrapt in a book or a toy and liked to impress her parents. In the videos I can see things like her throwing kisses to us while at a ballet recital or singing off-key at her kindergarten graduation.

If in the afterlife I find that time is like a camcorder I would like to go back and replay those events. I’d want to feel again the softness of her baby hair when I kissed her goodnight, the urgent intensity when she held my finger while noshing on her evening bottle and her squeals of delight when we finished reading a book together. I’d like just one more time to read her Dr. Seuss.

Those events were instrumental in the woman she has become. Writing forms the center of her life today and she is working to get professionally published. Now she has an active community of followers interested in her fan fiction. Meanwhile she lives independently with her cat and does closed captioning for TV, generally at hours when everyone else is asleep.

These memories are precious but for me they do answer the question of why are we here. We are here to enjoy life as best we can, improving it for future generations if possible. We are basically here to love and connect and one of the strongest connections is the love between parent and child.

On February 1, my father passed away. He went rather gently as these things go. He knew his time was short. I imagine as he lied in his hospital bed he too rifled through memories of many episodes like this in his own mind until death gently took him. When my time comes I hope to do the same: to succumb to eternity nestled in the memories of the loving connections I was fortunate to have through life. This is what makes life worth living. All the rest is ultimately meaningless.

 
The Thinker

Time zone madness and sanity

The Washington Post recently published an article on a proposal by an economist and professor of physics and astronomy to create a single time zone for the entire planet. Those of us who travel regularly know that time zones are a hassle because adjusting sleep cycles is rarely easy. Their plan is to use UTC (basically, Greenwich Mean Time) as the planet’s time zone.

Putting the planet on a single time zone wouldn’t solve this particular problem unless we decided to ignore our circadian rhythm, i.e. rising around sunrise and going to sleep in the dark. I would imagine the Japanese and Chinese would be pissed as they would arise around sunset and go to sleep around sunrise. However, China already sees an advantage in having a single time zone. The whole country is on one time zone, basically +12 UTC. Perhaps this helps bind them together as a nation but for those in the far eastern or western parts of the country it must seem weird. It’s particularly weird when you move from eastern China into far eastern Russia. You jump two time zones to the east! China is about the size of the United States, so it would be like everyone in the United States being on Central Time.

I don’t think a law can easily break our circadian rhythms, which is why so many of us groan when entering daylight savings time. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural, at least in early March. But it’s less unnatural if you are lower in latitude and you happen to live close to a longitudinal meridian evenly divisible by 15. For those of us on the edge of a time zone, life seems to either start too early or end too late.

I certainly noticed it last year when we moved to Massachusetts, so much so that I blogged about it. Spain is considering changing its time zone to something more natural; it has been on central European time since World War Two. Spaniards get nearly an hour less sleep because of their unnatural time zone and unsurprisingly tend to be late to bed, at least by their clocks. Siestas are a way of compensating for their unnatural time zone.

Airlines already use UTC for flight schedules. This makes a lot of sense since pilots are frequently changing time zones. Of course they do take into account the sleeping habits of the people they are moving, which is why more flights happen during the daytime than at night. Laws vary so widely across the world (North Korea recently decided to change their time zone by half an hour) that some sort of time uniformity sounds desirable. As a practical matter geography often gets in the way, with Indiana being a case in point, as it is split between eastern and central time. No system is perfect.

Living in Massachusetts the time really feels “off”. I’m not alone, which is why there is a proposal to put New England on Atlantic Time, or -4 UTC instead of Eastern Time (-5 UTC). States can set their own time zones. However, here in New England it doesn’t make much sense for each state to go it alone, as our states tend to be small. It only makes sense if everyone adopts it. Rhode Island state Rep. Blake Filippi has proposed a bill to do just this, but only if Massachusetts also adopts it. He’s hoping it would coax the other New England states to go along.

My suspicion is that if Massachusetts embraced it, the other states here in New England would too. The possible exception would be Connecticut and that’s because it has so many commuters going into New York City everyday. As “off” as the time feels here in Massachusetts where the sun rises as early as 5:12 AM where I live and sets as early as 4:17 PM, it’s even worse the further east and north you go. To take an extreme example, the sunrise in Lubec, Maine starts as early as 4:41 AM and sets as early as 3:47 PM.

This is not a big deal in more extreme northern latitudes, but New England is simply not as far north as most of Europe. We are roughly at the latitude of Northern Spain. Being on Eastern Time is purely a political decision. Going to Atlantic Time for us pushed way north and east on the U.S. eastern seaboard would make a lot of sense and would feel more natural. We’d get later sunsets in the summer and more daylight in the winter when it is greatly needed.

So here’s hoping. Maybe I’ll write my state legislators. Winter is dark and dreary enough around here. There’s no point in making it more so. So I say let’s skip the idea of a worldwide time zone and make tweaks to the time zone maps we already use to make them fairer to actual human beings. As for us in New England, we have already suffered enough. Put us on Atlantic Time!

 
The Thinker

Footloose

Way back in 2005 when I was still relatively new to my job I wrote about what it meant to be a professional based on what I saw within my own team. They really wowed me. So many people claim to be professionals but in my estimation so few are. So when I see it, it makes an impact. I am happy to report I have found a new member of this slim group: our humble local pedorthist.

You are probably saying, “pedor…what?” That’s what I said too when a local podiatrist gave me a prescription to see Mark, the local pedorthist. A pedorthist is a specialist in modifying footwear so that people like me can wear shoes with little or no pain. Mark has been a godsend and simply would not quit on my case until every last foot pain was gone and I was completely satisfied.

If you are a professional like Mark it helps to have enthusiasm for your work. Pedorthics does not sound like something that would be that stimulating but for Mark it’s a passion. It causes him to work past his scheduled hours most days. Evenings he will often be found in the back of his shop grinding, extending and shaping orthotics (fancy inserts that go into your shoes) until your walking becomes natural and pain free again. Monday he is supposedly off but this is when he does most of the hard work in the back: shaping and tweaking orthotics and shoes that he can’t get to the rest of the week.

Admittedly it was hard to get an appointment to see him. I waited more than a month and endured considerable pain and discomfort during that period. What I didn’t understand was why my orthotics weren’t working for me. A podiatrist I saw back in Virginia had gotten me a new set and of course there is quite a protocol for getting good shapes of your feet so the orthotic would fit. Still, it wasn’t enough. The metatarsal lift I needed wasn’t nearly enough, causing pain to radiate down my toes, mostly on my right foot. I had given up running (too much pressure on the feet) but persevered at walking several miles a day, often with some discomfort despite my orthotics.

Once I finally got in to see Mark, things quickly improved. First I found him both passionate and personal, characteristics I’ve never seen in so-called professionals like physicians. He spent a lot of time listening to me, pressing my feet and looking at my shoes. Then he started fine-tuning my orthotics.

The result was better but not anywhere near being a pain free experience. So after using them a few weeks I went back to see him again (no charge). He listened to my feedback and a few days later I had a version two set of orthotics to try on.

These were much better but not quite perfect. It took me months of experimenting to figure it out. I got a new set of shoes and since they were narrower they were a better fit. But something wasn’t right. So I got a set of walking shoes. These had something the other shoes hadn’t: cushion. That was the clue: I needed both the shape and the softness. So three months later I went to see Mark again.

That’s when version three was created that finally solved my problem. This success inspired me to get a pair of sandals, which I preferred to wear in the warmer month due to my naturally sweaty feet. He let me look through catalogs to find the right one: closed-toed were what I wanted, but soft. We found the pair and after they arrived he made these innersoles match the orthotics I used in my other shoes. All this was done for the price of a new pair of shoes ($159) plus one fitting fee ($43).

It was a bargain, but I also got something I did not expect: to spend some time with a really interesting man who opened up a lot on his life, treated me with respect and great concern and who reiterated over and over again to let him know if there were any issues. He refused to stop until I was satisfied. It took five months, but I have escaped my foot purgatory.

Mark embodies the myth that seems to elude most of us: he made a successful and meaningful life for himself. He owns his own small business, he give his customers complete satisfaction, he is not owned by a Wall Street conglomerate and he takes immense pride and joy in his work. Through knowledge, tenacity, close listening and feedback he makes dozens of us foot sufferers happy every week.

I think he is lucky: lucky to have a passion for his job, lucky to carve a niche for himself in our local market where it’s hard to find a job that pays decently and one that provides a service of immense value. If you haven’t suffered from chronically painful feet consider yourself lucky. I was the luckiest one. He brought me relief that more than ten years of podiatrists could not quite solve.

Now I feel like I can live life fully again. I am grateful and more than a little wowed by Mark. If you have foot problems, look for a local pedorthist. They are harder to find than podiatrists, but probably of more value. If you can find a pedorthist like Mark you will be in good hands (and feet) indeed.

 
The Thinker

Spellbound

Who likes a good challenge? Who also likes to associate a good challenge with masochism? If you like to solve crossword puzzles it seems that to prove that you are “good” you need to be a bit of a masochist. Or a cheat. Or both.

I’m not a great crossword puzzle player, which is likely due to not having much time or inclination for doing them. The key to successful retirement I’ve been told is to stay active, both physically and mentally. On the latter I am trying to stay mentally agile by doing the daily crossword puzzle in our local newspaper. This usually occurs over lunch when I get to that part of our paper.

It means exercising parts of my brain that don’t like to be exercised. So naturally Monday crosswords are best, i.e. easiest to do. I can usually finish it myself but if there are a few incomplete, I leave them to my wife who is a much better crossword player than I am. This is because while her body is declining too quickly as far as she is concerned, mentally she is sharp as a tack. She’s always been that way and it’s one of the reasons I married her. I like someone with an informed opinion and she rarely disappoints.

These puzzles are easier earlier in the week because that’s how they write them. By the weekend crossword though you want to spit nails. Not even a Jeopardy! champion is going to solve it without cheating. The clues become obscure if not downright misleading. The authors go out of their way to write long answer questions stacked on top of each other and write super obscure clues for the short answer words. I figure they must use special crossword puzzle software to sift through millions of possibilities. That is not enough of course because once you create the answers the idea becomes to obfuscate the questions so much that you will go on wild goose chases.

So you do what everyone else is doing: you cheat and turn to Dr. Google, or to Siri or to your favorite search engines. And invariably there are people out there that solved them before you and leave the answers for you. I’m doubting that a person solved these. I think it’s a computer, which may have provided a host of possible answers for human analysis. Just type in the question in the puzzle and it will pop right up but usually you have to scroll down a page for the answer. This is based I think on the theory that the hints they provide might allow you to solve it without scrolling down to the answer. But of course you won’t bother and you’ll scroll down then scribble it in with your trusty #2 pencil.

As the week progresses you realize that the only way to solve these puzzles is to find authoritative questions that cannot be wrong. Unfortunately, they tend to write fewer of these as the week goes along, but you have to work with what you got. That’s where the challenge/masochism starts because you have to use a correct answer to build the answers that join these words. And the clues will be obfuscated. At times it feels like playing charades because so many clues end in a question mark, which means the answer is really a huge stretch, which means it’s tangentially related at best or the answer is some sort of pun.

So at some point you ask yourself why you bother, and by Friday that’s how I usually react to the crossword puzzle: I won’t even bother, or I might pick at solving a clue or two then abandon it. Perhaps I’m a mental midget but I’m not a masochist. There is satisfaction in solving a puzzle that is fair. On Friday and Saturday they are not trying to be fair; they are trying to be obscure and deceiving. In short, they are being mean and it’s up to you to play along. It’s like going to Las Vegas and thinking you are going to win at slots. You know that the puzzle is rigged against you. It has become an exercise for the puzzle author to see how many he can defeat and frustrate. I am sure there are some geniuses out there so gifted in crosswords they can solve these without using the Internet or consulting a bunch of reference books, but in some cases you must consult a reference book because the answer is so obscure even a learned professor in the topic probably can’t recall the correct answer.

So here’s a call to puzzle authors to write fair crossword puzzles. It doesn’t have to be easy but it should not lead you down erroneous paths either. There is an implicit contract between the author and the player. At some point the puzzle reveals much more about who the author is as a person than the player trying to solve it. And it’s not flattering.

So puzzle on this, puzzle-masters. We enjoy a good puzzle but we don’t like being misled and we don’t think it’s fair to throw in answers that require scholarship to answer. A great puzzle is not based on how complex it is, but on how well it stimulates the far recesses of your brain based on accurate clues.

Don’t make me take up Sudoku.

 
The Thinker

Eulogy for my father

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

 

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