Archive for the ‘Life 2008’ Category

The Thinker

The years, they pass so quickly now

So I was wasting time in my hotel room this week and found the TV Land Channel. It was M*A*S*H night and they were playing shows from its first season, which by my recollection was 1972. I must have been watching one of the very first episodes because it was full of characters that would disappear within a few years including Major Burns, Trapper John and Colonel Blake. I knew it had to be first season because the show was pure comedy and had yet to take on a serious tone. In this episode Hawkeye and Trapper were spending inordinate time annoying and embarrassing Majors Burns and Houlihan.

It was great to see an old M*A*S*H episode. Like most families back then we were glued to our TV when M*A*S*H was on the air. The show lasted much longer than the actual Korean War, embarrassingly long, in fact. The actors that made it to the show’s end eleven years later by then looked really aged. Jamie Farr was 48 and Alan Alda was 47 when the last episode was filmed. But in 1972 they all looked fresh. Alan Alda, who I remember most recently playing Senator Arnold Vinick in the last two years of The West Wing, looked in The West Wing about as old as John McCain. There was a logical explanation for this. They are about the same age. (Alda is actually a year older and is 73.) Nearly forty years have passed since the first episode of M*A*S*H was aired. Alan Alda was actually 36 in 1972, but looked much younger. Alda though is one of the lucky ones. At least he is still alive. Larry Linville (Major Burns) died in 2000. McLean Stephenson (Colonel Blake) entered immortality in 1996. Harry Morgan, who was already pretty old when he played Colonel Potter, passed away in 2008 at the age of 93.

Age happens. Aging is fine when it happens to others, but not so fine when it happens to me. Because I, like most of the baby boom generation (and our remaining parents still with us) actually remember when M*A*S*H was on the air. Goodness, Richard Nixon was president when it first aired, and it did not go off the air until Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office. Likely, most Americans have little or no memory of M*A*S*H, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Laugh In, or the original Star Trek, or The Bob Newhart Show because they were not even alive or more interested in Saturday morning cartoons. Some small minority of them might watch an episode of M*A*S*H on TV Land but are unlikely to try to follow the series forty years later. It has about as much appeal to them as The Lawrence Welk Show did to me. What was with all those dancing ladies in high heels and champagne bubbles anyway?

I was fifteen when M*A*S*H first aired and I remember it like it was yesterday. Like most of us aging boomers, I am having a hard time grasping that nearly forty years have passed by since then. Where did all those years go? My recollection is pretty hazy, but I guess I must have been busy because they passed in a haze. Mentally, I am 18 or so but a glance in the mirror confirms that I am age 52 instead. Little incidents like this bring home how quickly life passes. I don’t look for them; I just stumble across these incidents periodically. When I do I get a feeling of vertigo. I want to look at myself in the mirror and pinch my face to verify I am still in this world. I mean, it’s practically 2010 already!

Another incident occurred at the hotel on Monday night. I found myself at the front desk talking with the hotel manager, a woman named Kelly. I did a double take when I saw her title because I figured she was a clerk. Gosh, she looked awfully young to be the manager of this large hotel. Before I could check myself I blurted it to her aloud. “I’m 26,” she said cheerfully, and then she went on to tell me that this is the fifth hotel she has worked at. She is 26 and running a suites hotel for one of the Marriott hotel chains. When I was 26 I was making my first acquaintance with a Wang 2200-T “calculator”. It would transform my life, leading me into a career in information technology. I sure was not up to the task of managing anything, particularly a hotel. Paying the rent was challenging enough.

Twenty six is exactly half my current age. I was 26 in 1983. This woman was born in 1983. In fact, she is just seven years older than my daughter, who may be attending community college and who is quite responsible but is someone who (in my mind at least) is maybe fourteen or so. Some part of my mind was also 26 while I was talking with this manager. Some part of me had not spent the last twenty something years married to my spouse and was checking her out. Then I realized: I am probably older than her father!

I wish there was a pill I could take that would tell my brain, “Well, you are basically an old coot now.” I need this wakeup call because my brain continues to disbelieve the facts. The body may be temporal but the mind likes to operate under the illusion that it is immortal. The incongruity can at times be wrenching. I saw my mother go through this process during her long decline. Mentally she was pretty sharp until a few months before she died. Her body could just not keep up with her mind.

Will I even be alive in another 26 years? According to insurance actuary tables, because I am a male I am more likely to be dead than alive at age 78. Most likely I will beat the odds, as both my parents lived into their 80s. My father is still amazingly spry at age 82. One thing is for sure: should I encounter another hotel manager age 26 when I am 78, I will not only be old enough to be her grandfather, but potentially even her great grandfather.

My oldest brother recently announced that their daughter was pregnant. She has several more months before she delivers her baby (she is 21) but when this blessed event occurs it will also mean that I will be a great-uncle. Doubtless in time other nieces and nephews will follow her as parents. My daughter says that she has no plans to get married and she finds the whole idea of having a baby ghastly, so I am unlikely to be a grandparent. Yet at 52 I am a virtual great uncle already. I am likely to have this title for others of Generation Z.

So perhaps this is why whenever I travel anywhere I am scouting for possible retirement communities. On Sunday my youngest brother, who I was visiting prior to enduring the business part of my trip, took me to Fort Collins, a city about an hour north of Denver. It is rated as one of the most livable retirement spots in the country (unless you don’t like snow). It hugs the Rocky Mountains and has a beautiful and expansive main street, plus it has all the advantages of a college town (Colorado State University is located there). While I am not sure living in the west agrees with me it is a place to consider. My wife and I also plan a trip to the Pacific Northwest in the next few years. Along with seeing places like Crater Lake and Mount St. Helens we will be watching the towns and cities we pass through, and wondering if any will call to us as a beacon for our retirement years.

Perhaps acting my age will work if I take active steps toward fogey-hood. I need to purchase striped shorts, Hawaiian shirts, golf shoes and white socks that go halfway to my knees. I need to check the prices for Polident and the cost of AARP membership. Age is calling me but I am proving amazingly tone deaf. It is telling me to accept that I am a rapidly aging American.

Right now I mainly prefer to remain in my state of denial.

 
The Thinker

The physical

When you hit the big 5-0, your doctor will prod you into coming back annually for another physical. Now I know why. It is because no matter how healthy you think you are, by the time you are fifty something your doctor is bound to find something he doesn’t like.

If you are fifty something, be grateful if the doctor finds just one thing. I emerged from my annual physical last week with a long list of appointments and prescriptions. Of course, just the afternoon before I had been at the gym. I had gone through a routine of an hour of aerobics followed by pressing many weights. I do this three or four times a week. If it were biking season, I would get even more exercise. So what is with all these tests and prescriptions? I thought I inhabited the world of the very healthy.

What happened is I became a fifty-plus American. Things are bound to be less than optimal because, well, I am fifty-plus. Actually, I am 51. Maybe I could be healthier. Maybe if I had spent much of my life as a vegetarian my cholesterol would not be high. On the other hand, maybe it would not be high if I hadn’t eaten eggs for breakfast every day for a year. Supposedly high cholesterol should not be that big an issue if your HDL level is relatively low, which mine was, which was supposed to be the magic of eating eggs. My doctor still did not like the numbers. The solution was more exercise and less cholesterol. I could get more exercise but I felt like I got plenty already. Nor do I actually eat that much meat, and what I do eat is mostly boneless chicken. I now I eat eggs maybe once a week. So far, I have avoided statins but I have a feeling they are in my future.

While the doctor was using his stethoscope, he paused when he pressed it up to my left carotid artery. He wasn’t hearing the same thing on the right carotid artery. It could be a sign of cholesterol buildup in the left carotid artery. This is a bad place to have cholesterol build up, of course, since if the build up dislodged it would take a beeline into my brain and possibly cause a stroke. So now on my agenda for Thursday is a Carotid Echo Doppler exam.

These were just the start. The doctor also took an EKG and frowned when he showed me the result. It seems I have a case of Poor R-Wave Progression. This could be caused by lots of things including heart disease or it could be nothing. So Wednesday I have an appointment with a cardiologist. Me? The same guy who when he exercises routinely gets above 130 beats per minute and sustains it for thirty to sixty minutes?

Doctors are one of the few people who have permission to touch me in private spots. The doctor was manipulating one of my more private of private spots and I went “ouch”. You are not supposed to say ouch when he manipulates this part. He gave me a prescription for Cipro to cure a likely infection down there and sent me for an ultrasound. Thus, today I found someone else, a female this time, touching me in one of my private spots. Fortunately, they found nothing worse than an enlarged varicose vein.

Next, I confessed that sometimes I felt like I had trouble swallowing. This concerned me because my mother died of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and this is a classic PSP symptom. I was wondering if this might be an early symptom of PSP. My doctor had no idea what PSP was (he is only a family doctor, after all) but before I could argue he had written an order for me to see a neurologist. It turns out that virtually every neurologist in my county is affiliated with my wife’s employer, so I will see one of their experts next week. I hope that there is nothing to worry about there. There are worse ways to die, but watching my Mom go through it, I sure do not want to go through it too.

Then there was the longstanding problem of numbness in my right foot. It hadn’t completely gone away and recurred after lifting weights, which makes sense because that was when I applied a lot of pressure to my feet. I probably should not be lifting those kinds of weights. I did learn more than I wanted to know from my doctor about foot disorders, specifically that you could get the equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome in your feet. For me it is back to the shoe insert that my podiatrist gave me some years ago.

While he was examining my feet, I pointed out a small amount of toenail fungus. I mentioned I had tried many things and never gotten rid of it. One thing I had not tried was Lamisil, probably because it is so freaking expensive that insurance companies will not pay for it unless it is first confirmed by a test. I am waiting for the lab results. Ninety days later, I hope that I will be cured.

The nitrate levels in my urine were high. That wasn’t good but he will just monitor that for a while. As for Vitamin D, I need more: 1000 mg. a day. This is a hazard from being a cubicle dweller during the day. Maybe I also need to take walks outside during my lunch hour.

Physicals are doubtless beneficial because they help address issues when they are relatively small and can be rectified. Yet, I also find them unwelcome because they remind me that I am an aging American in my decline. Overall, I have enjoyed remarkable health, but age is catching up with me. This suggests that at my next physical, I will have more issues and maladies like these. They will be a recurring feature of the rest of my life. As if drooping skin, grey hair and age spots were not enough.

Thus far, I have gotten through the aging process by mostly denying it. I assumed that with a decent diet and plenty of exercise I could maintain something resembling youth virtually forever. Now it is clear that I must disabuse myself of my foolish notion. Perhaps when these medical issues feel routine rather than exceptional I will feel less irritable with my aging process.

All I know is that nature is telling me that Madison Avenue was wrong. There is no fountain of youth, not even for me. I too must grapple with my aging and my slow decline. I cannot change it; I can only accept it.

This time, my follow up is in three months.

 
The Thinker

My million-word blog

This is blog post number 892. In itself, this number is hardly significant. But it just so happens that with this post, Occam’s Razor will have reached a milestone that few individual blogs ever make. I will have written over a million blog words. That’s 1,000,000 words. That, dear readers, is a lot of words. The English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 560,000 words. If you were to put all my blog entries into a book, it would be nearly twice the size of that famous novel. If this blog were a book, it would amount to something like 3,500 pages. Thankfully, no trees were abused in the publication of this blog, although I have heard from one reader than he prints each blog post I make.

When I started blogging on December 13, 2002, my motivation was simply to jump in on the latest Internet fad. I soon realized that I felt I had worthwhile thoughts to share with the world. While there are many writers far better than me, I also knew I am a better writer than many. One constant that followed me during my professional life was a sincere appreciation expressed by my bosses and colleagues for my writing. Gosh, you really write well, was a common refrain that I heard. I took it as a complement and verification that I had a gift.

I began writing for pleasure and to stroke my ego when my age could be measured in single digits. As you can imagine most of what I wrote back then was dreadful. A child of the baby boom generation, my writing was inspired by the space program, the science fiction of the era and the wonderfully deep fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien. With a battered Smith Corona electric typewriter that I purchased with the proceeds from my modest part time wages at the Winn Dixie, I tried hard to write something that might actually sell. Yet soon, like an airplane, I realized the end of the runway was dead ahead and I had to take flight. My flight was a journey into adulthood. In addition, I was discouraged by how inefficient writing was. A typewriter was better than nothing, but to write with quality, I had to revise it multiple times, which was enormously time consuming. After all that work, my magnum opus was still likely to be rejected by an editor.

Unfortunately, just as the tools to write efficiently arrived, my free time became nearly nonexistent. I worked full time and endured hellish commutes into Washington, D.C., arriving home exhausted and my energy sapped. Then there were the considerable duties of living to attend: being a good husband, maintaining a household and caring for our daughter. Blogging conveniently arrived at a time when I could finally eke out enough free time to write regularly. In addition, the web had evolved sufficiently so that web publishing was easy. All I needed was a computer with Microsoft Word (with spell check and the grammar features turned on), the ability to copy and paste into a text box, some MoveableType software (now WordPress) and web space. After a few months of blogging, I was hooked.

I am unlikely to earn anything beyond spare change from Google Adsense for my writing, but neither have I had to suffer through editors’ cruel rejections. I could publish myself and reach a much larger audience than I could as some obscure author. Had I managed to publish at all, I would likely have suffered the same fate that most authors suffer, and find my books quickly consigned to the discount rack. Multiply two hundred to three hundred page views a day over many years and that’s a lot of readers. It is in fact far more than I am ever likely to get if I wrote a book.

This blog soon evolved into a potpourri of essays. While each essay tries hard to be coherent about a particular topic, Occam’s Razor has no common theme. Categories and tags help with content organization, but each entry is simply about something that happens to be on my mind that day. As I have mentioned, aside from blogging allowing me to regularly scratch my itch to write, it has also proven to be excellent cognitive therapy. Like most human beings, I have my share of personal issues to sort through. Buddhists practice mindfulness. While blogging is not exactly mindfulness, writing in the form of an essay at least allows for introspection. It is useful for me because it helps me make sense of our complex world. Perhaps it helps you too. If it does, this makes me especially happy since that is my primary motivation for blogging.

Each post gets four reviews before I publish. I would double the number of edits that I make if I had more time. Four reviews seems to be my happy medium between wanting to publish something that will not embarrass me and squeezing in this time-consuming hobby during my nights and weekends. Since each post typically exceeds a thousand words, every post takes a considerable amount of my time. At best, a post consumes ninety minutes of effort. More typically, each post takes two to two and a half hours to write and edit.

This blog is unlikely to ever be popular. I draw 200-300 page views a day, which is something but keeps me a backwater blog. It is also true that certain posts are read repeatedly and others rarely are read. Not surprisingly, the few that I have written on the topics of pornography and sexuality tend to draw the most hits. According to Google Analytics, my top ten individual blog posts from January 1st through the end of October were:

I expect that a year from now this list will likely not have changed that much. I am not surprised that subjects on pornography or sexuality would elicit so much disproportionate interest. However, I feel flattered that The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason is regularly read, since I consider it one of my best (and longest) essays. (It was actually written in 1997.) By the way, this blog’s main page received 6,330 page views over this period, making it my third most visited web page, which is also encouraging.

I will keep blogging away. I am unlikely to ever hit 10,000,000 words, as the actuarial statistics are likely to have me planted six feet underground long before that happens. It took nearly six years to write a million words. At that rate, I would need 54 more years to reach 10,000,000 words. Since I am now 51, I would have to be alive at age 105 while still able to type and in reasonable health. Nor am I sure that this blog will survive another six years. Blogging may lose its luster or I may finally feel tapped out. As long as there are enough readers and I can find the time, I will endeavor to continue.

If I retire from blogging, I will find other things to write about. Most of us writers aspire to write a novel or two, and I would like to do it at some point. I do not think I could both blog and write a novel at the same time.

I will be back with an update when I hit blog post 1,000, also a significant number. At the rate I am going, it should appear sometime in the summer of 2009.

 
The Thinker

Belated cat blogging

It was two years ago this September 9th that we adopted a homeless and rather ordinary looking black and brown three year old tabby. After two years of living with us, Arthur is settling in well. For a cat, he is living the good life. He has a home of his own. We provide him with shelter, food, water and plenty of attention. Arthur even has his own cat door to our screened in deck. There he can while away a day sleeping on a table or watching the birds, squirrels and bunnies that traverse across our back yard.

Whatever trauma was inflicted on him as a young cat still lingers. While he loves his adopted humans very much, he is still not comfortable being picked up or cuddled. He remains profoundly skittish and paranoid. When I can get him on my lap, just a slight shift in position is enough to make him bolt off my lap. He still requires an escape route before going into any room. Having too many people at close range makes him nervous.

At the same time, he dotes on attention and petting. He is an easy cat to please. Scratch him on gently on his head, or under his chin, or pull lightly on his tail and he purrs contentedly and looks at you with adoring eyes. He loves being brushed so much that if he were not so ordinary looking he might win a pet competition. With continual coaxing, I can get him to jump on my lap. Occasionally, he is in such need of attention that he will jump on my lap on his own initiative. He is discovering that being on my lap can be enormous fun. Yet, he has to weigh his fun against his intense feelings of paranoia.

For a while he let us trim his nails but he must have figured out that it reduced his ability to defend himself, so now that is out of the question. This makes bearing a cat on my lap challenging. Even when I wear heavy jeans, I often feel the sharp prick of a claw on my leg. When I wear shorts, I can see the scars I bear for the honor of being loved by a cat.

Arthur has every comfort a cat could want but does not know what luxury means. We bought him a nice clean kitty bed that he has never slept in. We have a cat condo used by our previous feline residents, but he has never ventured into it. His favorite place to sleep is in the basement on a couch, where he has ample warning of people coming and going.

In the morning, I typically find him in our TV room looking out through our blinds at the street. Occasionally he will greet me at the bedroom door in the morning, but since our daughter is a night owl, he tends to need his morning rest. Mostly in the morning, he is looking lethargically out the window. He may well be in a hypnotized state.

His cat door is actually inset into a window in our kitchen. It is hard to get in or outside of without something to rest on, so we have turned a kitchen chair into a cat stool. On the other side of the window is a table we use sporadically when we feel the desire to eat outside he uses as a platform. He makes a dozen trips a day or more outside. The sound of the cat door opening and shutting has become very familiar.

Arthur is a simple cat. He is neither particularly stupid nor brilliant. We have purchased various cat toys for his amusement. For the most part, they are ignored. It is likely that his kittenhood was too traumatic to have learned how to play. All he wants is positive attention at the times of his choosing. He seems to lack most common feline curiosity, although to my surprise I recently saw him looking at me from the other side of the bathroom door. Previous felines in our household delighted in hiding in closets or under furniture. They also enjoyed getting vertical. Arthur likes to always be in plain site and generally avoids sitting on furniture. In that sense, he is a remarkably respectful cat.

He does have one serious deficiency. Perhaps the litter boxes at the shelter were not changed as often as he would like. Despite having two litter boxes cleaned twice a week, he has been known to periodically urinate on the carpet, much to our consternation. He always picks the same spot. When this happens, out comes our oversized bottle of cat urine odor remover, although it never seems to quite do the trick. Worse were the occasions when he would pee down our air ducts. Then his odor would stink up the whole house. There were times that the smell was overwhelming. We have had our ducts professionally cleaned, covered one register completely and put a special vent over the other. His favorite spot on the rug for peeing is now covered with a rubber bath mat. Soon we expect to replace the carpet with a wood floor, which will make future episodes like this easier to deal with. (Yes, he has been to the vet on this issue. One incident showed he had a bladder infection. All other times he has been clean.)

He is learning to beg. Generally we avoid giving him table scraps, but I do keep a container of kitty treats on the kitchen table, and give him a few when he shows up. Fortunately, none of it seems to be going to his hips. Arthur has always been a big boned cat, but never a fat cat.

His least favorite thing is going to the veterinarian. This is to be expected, but with his advanced avoidance skills, it can range from difficult to impossible to get him into a cage. Unfortunately, Arthur has needed to see the vet on various occasions. Most recently, he had to suffer the indignity of having three rotted teeth extracted, which gives him the appearance of Bucky Katt. Now his face looks a bit offset.

His favorite activity is receiving lavish belly rubs from me. I give them to him when I am under the covers in bed shortly before retiring. He can get quite upset if I do not make the time for his belly rub. He knows exposing his tummy could be dangerous, so it must be exquisitely pleasurable to override his innate cautious sense.

I hope for the day when he is completely over his skittishness and I can hold him in my arms and cuddle him like I did with my late, lamented cat Sprite. Perhaps that day will come, but I am increasingly dubious that it will. Arthur is an affectionate kitty, but he has to get affection on his own terms.

Perhaps in another two years, if I post about him again he will be recovered from that early trauma. Perhaps I will be able to cuddle him in my arms someday without risk of being seriously scratched. Stay tuned.

 
The Thinker

The measured notes of a remarkable man

Sometimes you do not realize how much someone means to you until they are gone. I find it surprising though when I am touched by the death of someone I knew mostly tangentially. Wilson Nichols Jr., the former music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia that I attend, passed away into the great unknown on August 20th at the age of 61.

Wilson died in North Carolina from the complications of progressive diabetes. He struggled with diabetes during the entire time I knew him. I first ran into Wilson around 1997 when I started attending this church regularly. Most likely you have not been to a Unitarian Universalist Church. The one I attend is probably similar to most and is full of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly liberal and mostly older people. At the time, Wilson was likely around my age: in his early fifties. He wore large Coke-bottle glasses. I later learned that diabetes contributed to his glaucoma, which explained the glasses.

Wilson was not a particularly handsome man, although such attributes are always in the eye of the beholder. Yet, he was a hit with many of the parishioners. There was often a queue of people before and after services wanting to hug the guy. He was generous with his hugs as he was with his voice. As you might expect, music was his passion. Over the years, I have seen other music directors and accompanists at church, but none exuded his passion for music. It just leached out of him. He managed to make a living with his part time gig as the church music director and by giving music lessons to neighbors. He earned a Master of Arts degree in music, and led a number of chorales.

Originally, he led a chorale in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In his later years, he ran his own chorale, aptly named the Wilson Nichols Chorale. We parishioners were blessed to hear concerts twice a year at the church. Most of the membership attended even though the events were not official church functions. Membership in the chorale was by invitation only and Wilson was particular about whom he let on the chorale. My daughter Rosie, who sung in the church choir for a few years, was eventually invited to be in his chorale. It was during this time that I got to know Wilson on a more than superficial basis.

I suspected he was gay for years, in spite of the line of women queued to give him hugs, or maybe because of it. I never pry nor ask about such things, but during one service, he openly admitted his sexual orientation. I was still working through my own squeamishness with gays at the time. I thank Wilson for helping me sort through my own feelings. Logically I did not believe that gays should be discriminated against. Emotionally I had to work through my issues of interacting with gays. Some gays I have known enjoy teasing us straights. That might explain why I felt uncomfortable. With Wilson though, his force of personality was so large that his sexual orientation soon become moot. Since meeting and knowing Wilson, I never felt uncomfortable about a person’s sexual orientation again.

Sadly, over time, Wilson’s condition became more acute. His eyesight degraded to the point where he could no longer read music. He was hospitalized a number of times because of his worsening diabetes. He could still play the piano effortlessly. He had one of these minds that could hear a work of piano music and could often be able to play it afterward. He eventually sold his townhouse and moved to his native North Carolina where his brother and sister in law apparently took care of him in his decline.

For the most part me and my fellow parishioners are a musically inept bunch. I never learned to read music. Thank goodness for Wilson. With his enormous singing voice, he could overpower the rest of us, giving any hymn a resonance the rest of the congregation could not quite create. Wilson though was in his glory, not at weekly services when he sang boisterously while sitting at the piano, but at his twice-yearly chorale concerts. They were big deals. He hired a few instrumentalists. The chorale itself was buttoned down in black; men were expected to wear tuxedos. After the chorale progressed in, he strutted into the sanctuary to a thunderous applause. Then he would solemnly set himself down at the piano, for he was about to produce art. From there, he would both play the piano while somehow simultaneously directing the singers and instrumentalists. For me, the holiday concert was my big musical event of the year. A few soloists had voices that were a bit shrill, but overall he amassed quite a collection of free local vocal talent. His selections were a mixture of the usual and the eclectic. Sadly, our church sanctuary was never constructed for great acoustics. His concerts deserved a somewhat better venue than they received.

Now that he is gone from this world, what I miss and admired most about Wilson was his passion. It is harder to find passionate people today, as we are so wrapped up in our toys and stock portfolios. To Wilson, music was like a snort of cocaine. Music, in all its forms and flavors, kept him feeling enchanted.

A few years ago shortly before he retired to North Carolina, the Wilson Nichols Chorale gave one last concert, sadly not in our church where his presence was too awkward. Instead, we attended the concert at a small Episcopalian church in McLean. The concert was given to a greatly diminished audience.

Afterwards there was the usual reception. It was clear that by this point Wilson’s eyesight was mostly gone, so I made a point of telling him who I was. My daughter, who sang under his direction for many years, was also with me. He gave my daughter one of his world famous hugs and told her to visit him in North Carolina. Thinking I likely would not see him again, I told Wilson in a very heartfelt manner just what a joy it was to know him and to hear his music over the years.

Today at service during our Joys and Sorrows, I lit a candle in his memory and said some nice words about Wilson. It seems like most of the congregation had moved on years ago. Nevertheless, I could still hear his booming voice in the rafters. Wilson filled our small church with so much musical energy and passion. We were blessed to have him as our music director for so many years, and I was blessed to know him. In retrospect, my only regret is that I did not take the time to know this remarkable man even better.

Wilson’s spirit is out there and I for one feel it every time I attend services. I just wish I could get one more of his big hugs.

 
The Thinker

Give a little love and simplify your life

My Dad has simplified his life to fit into a two-bedroom apartment. At age 81 and a widower this all for the best. Even so, his two-bedroom apartment is more than he needs. The spare bedroom is great for guests, but he does not get many of them. Since my mother passed away three years ago, he has been reducing his life even more. Her clothes were donated shortly after she died. Her plants proved too burdensome for him to care for, so they are gone. Also gone are any sign of holiday decorations, except for the smattering of Christmas cards that he places in a basket.

I hope long before I turn 81, assuming I make it to that ripe age, I have simplified my life too. My wife and I make periodic attempts. When they succeed, they amount to de-cluttering us to where we were a few years ago.

There is a burden to possessions, but its burden was not clear to me until this weekend. I helped my friend Renee sort through the property that her mother had left. Renee’s mother died unexpectedly last month at age 68. Both Renee and her mother could be forgiven for thinking that her mother would live longer than she did. I am sure though that if Renee’s mother had any inkling that she would not have survived to age seventy, she would have dramatically simplified her life. For in dying unexpectedly she left Renee with both a staggering amount of grief and a staggering amount of possessions. I did not realize just how much stuff this was until this weekend when a host of her friends and I went through the arduous process of helping her try to sort it all out.

Somehow, in spite of her grief, she and her son James managed to have a memorial service for her mother in South Carolina, empty her condominium and move her possessions to two storage units at a new ezStorage in nearby Reston, Virginia, all within the space of less than two weeks. We spent today simply trying to inventory their contents in order to identify any damaged items. There were close to ten of us going at it all afternoon, and we only made a modest dent in the pile. Her mother apparently was not afraid of living large, and seemed to have plenty of money. Her career took her to over eighty countries. Seemingly, in each, she found some exquisite piece of furniture or artwork to send home. I never met her mother, but clearly, she was no K-Mart shopper. I was just stunned by both the volume and the quality of her furnishings. She had a vase that was made in 600 A.D. She kept exquisite hardwood furniture handed down for generations that looked nearly new. Her art collection included dozens of truly stunning paintings from all over the world.

Nor was she afraid of the 21st century. She had a large high definition television, computers and all sorts of electronic gizmos. She also had many books. She also owned lots of other amazing stuff I cannot mention because my mind could not embrace its vastness. Her mother’s belongings filled up one of their biggest storage units, floor to ceiling, packed tight, as well as a smaller unit that was similarly packed so tightly it was hard to imagine where they could add a deck of cards.

No wonder Renee looked frazzled. It is not easy being the only surviving child when your last parent dies. The challenge becomes particularly large when your parent is also well moneyed and likes to buy things. Simply sorting through all of her stuff will take years. There are literally thousands of items, all of which need to be categorized and appraised. Most of it will end up sold at an estate sale. Once the estate sale is complete, Renee will never have to worry about money in her retirement.

Also left behind: a year old purebred Rag Doll feline, a sort of final living link to her mother. The cat is now living in Renee’s house, which is also full of birds. The cat needs a new home but the birds need to be protected from the cat’s predatory instincts. For now, the cat lives in her bedroom while she tries to find it a home. She would prefer to give it to someone she knows, so she can check up on it from time to time.

I do not expect to meet my maker at age 68 like Renee’s mother, but I do hope that by age 68 I will have gotten rid of most of my junk. Since that is only 17 years away, I had better start soon. We have walls full of books that we will never read again. We have dozens of cans of paint we will never reopen. I have warranties going back to the Reagan administration. We have three bikes, only one of which is ever used. We have three DVD players, all in perfectly good condition. We have seven computers but only three people actually living in the house.

All these possessions should feel liberating but increasingly they feel like a ball and chain, making my life overly crowded and confusing. Judging from my neighbors, my life is relatively de-cluttered. At least my garage actually has a car in it. Many of my neighbors leave their cars in their driveways and use their garage for storage.

Ideally I would leave this life about the way I entered it: naked and without a possession to my name. That seems unlikely, but what I can do is give my daughter (who like my friend Renee will someday be sifting through my effects) more time to grieve for my parting, and less time having to deal with my possessions. I think my father understands this, and I now realize that by simplifying his life, he is actually showing us great love.

Thanks, Dad.

 
The Thinker

Asleep at the wheel

Based on reading news reports yesterday, it seems the SUV’s days may be numbered. Yesterday, General Motors announced plans to close four truck and SUV plants by 2010 as a result of shrinking sales for these vehicles. Ford Motor Company has also cut production of trucks and SUVs. Sales of large and midsize sports utility vehicles are down 30 percent compared with the May 2007. To try to get rid of them, Ford is offering substantial discounts. Good luck with that. With gas prices in my neighborhood now at $4.019 per gallon and with the summer driving season just starting, buying a SUV or any vehicle with low miles per gallon looks very stupid.

Despite their popularity, the SUV epitomizes America at its worst. SUVs were always expensive. Double the cost of gasoline and it is like adding an extra hundred dollars a month or more to your car payment. Unless your SUV is paid for, this either makes your SUV unaffordable or moves it into the luxury category. Moreover, the more you drive an SUV the more unaffordable it becomes. Even the automobile manufacturers’ attempt to put lipstick on a pig by making hybrid SUVs has not worked. GMC has sold only 1,100 of its Chevy Tahoe hybrids. That’s 1,100 total nationwide.

Unsurprisingly, fuel-efficient small cars are now hot. Fuel-efficient hybrid cars are even hotter. The Washington Post reports that owners of the Toyota Prius compete against each other to prove they are the more fuel-efficient driver. Also rising in popularity is mass transportation. Overall ridership was up 3% in the first quarter of the year compared with a year ago. In Baltimore, light rail usage is up 17 percent in a year. The Metrorail system here in Washington D.C. is running more and more eight-car trains, and most rush hour trains are still standing room only. While only 5% of Americans use mass transit regularly, you can bet many more wish it were an option and would use it if available. They have just unwisely chosen to live in an area that is not accessible to mass transit. More businesses and governments are allowing employees to work four 10-hour days so they can save on fuel costs.

General Motors seems to have figured out that gas prices will not return to nostalgic gas guzzling levels again. In one of the least surprising news stories of recent months, Rick Wagoner, the current GM chairman and chief executive said, “We at GM don’t think this is a spike or temporary shift; we believe that it is, by and large, permanent.” Which is why it is closing plants and laying off employees. GM has shrunk to half the size it was in its heyday and will now shrink even further. Thousands of American workers are among victims of their unenlightened leadership. Our friends in the North American Free Trade Agreement are also feeling GM’s pains. A plant in Canada and another in Mexico are among those that GM plans to close.

While GM’s sales plunged 28 percent and Ford’s dropped 16% compared to a year ago, some automakers are sitting pretty. Honda Motors, which has engineered fuel efficiency into its cars for more than two decades, reports its auto sales rose 18% in May. Both our cars are Hondas. I have been driving a fuel efficient 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid for three and a half years and routinely average 37 to 40 miles per gallon. We will likely add a third Honda to our family shortly. Our daughter needs a car for college, which begins in August. While we looked at used cars, we found we could purchase a fuel efficient Honda Fit for the same price as a used car that is three or four years old.

America’s love affair with the automobile is destined to downsize in the 21st century, but it will not go away entirely. Clearly, we are now in the transition phase where we have to live within our means in an increasingly expensive world. Unlike the oil shocks of the 1970s, this one is not going to go away. It may moderate from time to time. When even General Motors acknowledges the long-term trend is real, you know the gig is up.

American automobile manufacturers should have learned from the oil shocks of the 1970s. Instead, they chose complacency. Why reduce shareholder profits by making long-term investments in fuel-efficient vehicles? Instead, executives can get big bonuses for short-term profits. Inertia pays because America’s brand of capitalism rewards short-term profit makers. The formula works of course until market forces change the dynamic. Then stockholders get the shaft for their obsession with short term profits. Auto manufacturers like GM are caught flat-footed. This is a company that is so unenlightened that it killed its own experimental electric car, the EV1.

Honda Motors is laughing all the way to the bank. Americans will still need cars, but they will need reliable fuel-efficient cars. The company showed the long-term vision that positioned them well for any change in market dynamics, which will translate into greater market share and greater profits. GM and Ford were largely asleep at the wheel, belatedly reacting to market forces rather than positioning their companies to profit from them. As a result GM and Ford are shrinking.

GM plans to either radically change or sell its Hummer brand. Once the world’s largest automobile company, it now looks in real danger of going out of business. It may join a long list of failed automobile manufacturers.

If I were a GM stockholder, I would be working to fire its whole management team. It needs new leadership with a clue on how to anticipate market dynamics. This way stockholders always win. It needs a consistent long-term vision. More likely though GM will suffer the fate of companies like Bear Stearns, and be sold off in pieces for chump change to some much smarter companies. If that happens, let us hope it is Honda Motors.

 
The Thinker

My meatless Mondays

A few weeks ago, I preached about the virtues of vegetarianism. I did so hypocritically, because I am not a vegetarian. I have been getting the vegetarian gospel from many sides lately. My friend Wendy likes to say she belongs to the Church of Vegetarianism. She points me to sites like Grist to encourage me to become one and educate me about environmental choices. I also have a sister who is a vegetarian of a quarter century standing. My new sister in law is also doing the vegetarian / all organic food thing. It is a very Boulder, Colorado-ish thing to do.

It seems unlikely to me that after fifty years of eating meat generally at least once a day that I could give it up forever. However, as an experiment I have been having Meatless Mondays. It is not much but if all Americans went meatless one day a week, we would cut our meat consumption by one seventh. Assuming a stable population, that would mean fewer feedlots and fewer animals consuming our nation’s grains. By redirecting these grains from animals and biofuel plants, more grains would be available for human consumption. This would be good news for much of the Third World. The high price of grains, driven by our need to direct so much of it to animals and biofuels, is putting basic carbohydrates out of reach for the poorest, meaning millions are malnourished who were not a few years ago. Some are starving to death because they cannot afford something as basic as a bag of rice. In addition, with fewer livestock there would be less animal waste, fewer pollutants and fewer greenhouse gases. It would be no panacea to global warming, but this strategy in conjunction with many other efforts could perhaps change the current global warming dynamic.

To my friend Wendy, the primary reason she is a vegetarian is because she believes that slaughtering any animal is inhumane. There is no way of knowing how an animal feels about being dismembered, although I suspect it is something far more abstract to them than it is to us with our large prefrontal cortexes. It strikes me as reasonable to assume that animals above a certain brain size probably have some idea of what is going on when they before they are slaughtered. If we must eat meat, then animals should be killed in a way that minimizes animal trauma and suffering. Most cattle are killed by having a bolt shot through their brain. This supposedly rapidly leads to the animal’s death, or at least allows it to be dismembered without being aware that it is happening. I suspect if I paid a visit to a slaughterhouse then I would suddenly find the wherewithal to become a vegetarian. If we were serious about global warming, we would send meat-eating students on slaughterhouse tours so they could see how it is done. Like most Americans, I prefer to have my animals killed far away where I cannot hear them complain.

Not eating meat with breakfast is not a problem for me since I typically do not eat meat with breakfast anyhow. Lunch is more challenging. I am used to a sandwich or some soup where meat is one of the ingredients. One can always have a salad with lunch. I know salads are very healthy but no matter how much I dress them up, they are never interesting to eat so I want to add something more substantial, which I equate with dense food. One can claim to be a vegetarian and have an egg or tuna salad sandwich with lunch. It seems like cheating somehow. Eggs come from chickens, which produce them by eating grain. Calorie for calorie, feeding a chicken is better for the environment than feeding a cow, but an egg salad sandwich defeats my modest goal of making more grain available for human consumption. I should really avoid any dairy or egg products on meatless Mondays. Eating tuna also feels like I am cheating. Logically there is virtually no connection between harvesting seafood and solving global warming and hunger, providing species are not over-harvested. If you are a sea creature, there is no humane way to die. Unless you are a very large creature like a whale, you are likely to die by being gorily dismembered by some other sea creature. Thus far, I have avoided both egg and tuna salad sandwiches on my meatless Mondays. More typically, a cheese sandwich with some lettuce and tomatoes suffices and feels filling. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates intent. If I feel like being bad, a slice of cheese pizza is another easy substitute.

For me, the only challenge comes at dinner. This is when my desire for consuming meat becomes almost Pavlovian. The first couple of weeks I found that I had to exercise mind over matter, because my body told me to eat meat. Meat substitutes help. If you buy the right veggie burgers, you will not feel denied. However, one can quickly get tired of veggie burgers. I am not much of a burger fan in general. It is rare that I consume more than one burger a month.

Most meat substitutes tend to be rather poor imitations of the real thing. They rarely come close to either the taste of meat or its texture, nor do they usually have meat’s heft and density. Perhaps if you eat them religiously your taste buds adapt. I suspect for most vegetarians meat substitutes are transitionary products. At some point, you do not want them anymore.

Other dinner meat substitutes are more prosaic. Peanut butter and grill cheese sandwiches qualify, with a peanut butter sandwich being the better substitute. After three weeks, going without meat one day a week no longer seems particularly difficult. I may well choose to try two meatless days a week soon, and see if that is as simple. All I have to do is be mindful not to eat meat that day. Nor do I feel the compunction to eat more meat on the other six days to make up for the day without meat.

My solitary actions do feel rather pointless. I am just one of 300 million Americans. Perhaps by blogging about it I can help start a trend. Less than 3% of Americans are vegetarians. I cannot claim to be one, but I have found cutting back on meat was simple and relatively painless. Going through this exercise once a week serves another important purpose: it keeps me mindful of my values. If like me you are concerned that your meat eating habit is indirectly causing people elsewhere to starve, you should not hesitate to try my approach of going without meat just one day a week. I suspect that you will find as I did that soon for that day you will not miss the meat at all.

 
The Thinker

Not oil’s well at the pump

You would think that we are enduring enough agony by paying record high gasoline prices. According to the Associated Press, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline is now $3.365 a gallon. That tracks correctly with gas prices here in Northern Virginia. Recently it cost me more than $40 to fill the 12 gallon tank of my fuel efficient Honda Civic Hybrid. Ouch!

Apparently, all those press reports about oil companies making record profits does not mean that oil companies are beyond inventing new ways to make us feel even more screwed. To help their bottom line, most gas stations offer a convenience store that tends to excel at providing convenient fattening and sugary foods. Some gas stations will still change your oil or fix your car, but they are becoming fewer and further between. Finding a gas station that has a compressed air pump for your tires is also getting problematical. Those stations that have them generally want you to insert quarters into their machine for the privilege. Thus far, gas stations have not figured out a way to charge you for wiping down your own windshields, but I suspect that is coming.

No matter, gas stations have found a new way to make money that is far more annoying than anything they have done so far, which says a lot. It started with many stations making you listen to audio advertising while you pump. As long as you are at the pump, they figured you had to learn about all the great things they were offering. Now it is not enough to assault you with audio advertising. Now you get your own commercial spouting TV right at the pump!

Sunoco, curse them, is the latest oil company to install these obnoxious devices at the pump. Naturally, there is no off button that you can press to escape these advertisements. Nor is there any way to adjust the volume. It is at near ear splitting volume. Moreover, since pretty much all of us have to get gas regularly, we become involuntary captives of this advertising.

Sadly, Sunoco is everywhere in my neighborhood, which means if I want to patronize a different chain I really have to go out of my way. I am going to go out of my way anyhow, because of this latest egregious indignity. It is also needless noise pollution. You can hear these talking pumps hundreds of feet away.

Sunoco seems to be partnering with ESPN. In between long advertisements, you get brief sports updates and something reputing to be the local weather. I guess this is how they justify their assault. All I know is that I cringe. I move as far away from the pump as possible while my car fills up. Yet even if I had my MP3 player in my ears, I could not begin to tune out the noise from these pumps. You are essentially captive.

Perhaps to add a few more nickels to their profits they will adjust the pumps to pump gas more slowly. This way instead of two to three minutes of listening to advertising, it could be extended to five minutes. This will be good for their bottom line. Perhaps in an effort to escape the noise we will be driven inside to their convenience store. I hope they sell 80db earplugs.

Alas, gas stations are hardly the only offenders. I remarked before about mobile advertising, which I still think should be outlawed. I have mentioned movie theaters that are putting advertising in restroom stalls and in front of urinals. Even my local BJ’s Wholesale Club has decided I need to hear commercials while I shop. Along with the piped in music we now get about 30% commercials. It is enough to make me join Costco.

Certain things in life, like shopping, eating and going to the bathroom are unavoidable. Where these unavoidable activities intersect with profit, wise companies should be going the extra mile to make us want to shop there, not drive us away. Going to these places should to the largest extent possible be pleasant, not aggravating. This should not be rocket science. I have to wonder what sort of public relation morons thought up these latest ideas. It is as if they want their customers to loathe their products.

I’d say they are doing a great job. Oil companies though have no place to go but up in the public’s opinion. Given this sad fact of life, I have to wonder why oil companies want us to have an even more aggravating experience at the pump then they already provide.

 
The Thinker

The sinful lure of dark chocolate

Surely, chocolate is the work of the devil, since a taste so divine is too good for us mortal and sinful human beings. I can go a day without chocolate, but I do not like to. I figure as long as I am abstaining from so many of life’s other vices, such as whoring, drunkenness, gluttony, smoking, snorting cocaine and voting Republican I am entitled to one modest little sin: chocolate. Were I a good Catholic I would feel obliged to report my sinful behavior to my priest because frankly, there is not much else to report. I would have to hope that penance did not consist of a week of chocolate withdrawal. All I can say is that for this lapsed Catholic of more than thirty years, all the Pope has to do is require priests to distribute chocolate communion wafers and I’d go back to Mother Church in a heartbeat. I’d be humming “Nearer my God to Thee” on my way to the communion rail.

A sinful delight, Dark chocolate M&Ms

Chocolate, like most things American, has become cheapened and bastardized. I came to this realization this week here in Denver. A few times a week to satisfy my chocolate craving, I have been discreetly dropping in on the snack bar where I work. There I engaged in my sinful 240-calorie habit: a bag of Dark Chocolate M&Ms. This week though because I am on business travel I have not been able to satisfy my Dark Chocolate M&Ms Addiction. None of the vending machines carried it. So yesterday, I thought I would try those old fashioned M&Ms. You know, the ones so loaded with sugar the chocolate is almost ancillary.

What a mistake! Regular M&Ms, once my ideal way to satisfy a sudden chocolate craving, became nearly inedible. Had it really this sweet all along? How could I have ever eaten this stuff? Dark Chocolate M&Ms indicated to me that I had been selling myself short all these years. The Dark Chocolate M&Ms at eight five cents were the exact same price and size as the regular M&Ms. However, the dark chocolate M&Ms were 1000% tastier.

People on the continent have understood for centuries that dark chocolate is the real chocolate. The overly sweetened stuff served to us in our candy bars is more sugar than it is chocolate. In short, it is inferior. For years, I ate the sweetened applesauces. Then one day I tried the unsweetened version and discovered that I could actually taste the apples. I never went back.

That is the way it now must be with chocolate. Chocolate is too rich an experience to cheapen it by loading it with excessive sweeteners. The real prize is the chocolate flavor itself. Admittedly, real unadulterated chocolate such as used in baking is inedible to most of us. However, by sweetening chocolate just a bit, so it is semi-sweetened, you can appreciate chocolate without having to deal with its bitter natural taste.

Allegedly, dark chocolate is something of a health food. Like any candy, it should be consumed in extreme moderation. Nevertheless, I feel better knowing that consumed in moderation it may have a few health benefits. It can lower blood pressure. Since I do not have a blood pressure problem, this is probably not a reason to consume it. Yet it can also be an antioxidant, providing it was manufactured without milk. What is dark chocolate’s secret? It is something called cocoa phenols, which is a compound known to lower blood pressure.

As best as I can tell, Dark Chocolate M&Ms do not have any dairy products mixed with them. However, even if it had no health benefits, it does not matter. It is by far the best brand of M&Ms on the market. It is inspiring me to try a host of other dark chocolates, both foreign and domestic. With less sugar in it than regular M&Ms, it is also less likely that I will feel the need to consume more chocolate.

Whatever. I predict that within a few years Dark Chocolate M&Ms will overtake regular M&Ms in overall sales. America will discover that it prefers the chocolate to the sweeteners and the added milk.

It is amazing how much more endurable my life has become because I indulge in a few small bags of Dark Chocolate M&Ms over the course of a week. I have discovered I can endure a lot of crap in my life for the compensation of the taste of this ambrosia. Lord, I am not worthy to receive this elixir, but if you cut down all our chocolate trees, I’ll come after your head.

 

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