Be like Bob

From looking around, there aren’t many people out there like Bob. Bob is probably 95 years old. Should I make it that long, I want to be like Bob. Bob knows how to live.

I live in a retirement community; in that you pretty much have to be age 55 or older to live here. So far everyone is, but I skew on the lower side of those living here. There are over forty units, all single family houses essentially, but technically we are a condominium. We hire people to mow the lawns and shovel snow in the winter. Our houses are on a hill with a lovely view of the valley and nearby mountains. We’re all doing pretty well as best I can tell, given our houses are pretty ornate and large, and we could afford them in the first place. Most of us are first owners. The first house was built in 2008 and the whole project was completed about a decade later.

We live in New England but curiously most of us are from elsewhere. Not Bob. Bob has lived in our little city all his life. At one time he was a mechanical engineer but for likely thirty years or so, Bob has been retired. He’s likely our oldest resident. He struck me as a pretty hearty New Englander type, at least until recently. His wife passed away last year. About that time, Bob also started using a walker. But he is still reasonably independent. He drives a car safely and gets what he needs. He’s pretty methodical in his habits. When I walk in the park across the street in the afternoon, I often run into Bob. He drives there and walks a half mile or so down the path with his walker. We smile and say a few words when we pass.

Once a month, the guys here on the hill of go out to dinner. I drove Bob to the last one and talked his ear off for a while. The local café we passed has been there as long as he can remember. The city hall hasn’t changed. He remembered being in seventh grade when World War II started, and the group think was the Polish cavalry could beat off the German tanks, at least for a while.

At dinner, Bob is sociable. He loves seafood, so almost invariably he will order some, usually clams or mussels. He has a ready wit and a ready smile. Yes, he seems impossibly old. His skin is full of sags and age spots. He’s half bald. He stoops when he walks. But strangely, Bob is happy. He enjoys every day, in spite of his slow decline.

I thought for sure that after his wife Eileen died he would be in a funk. And perhaps he was. I don’t see Bob every day. But there’s something about Bob that is irrepressible: an inner joy and happiness. It’s a quality that most of us lack, but at age 95+ Bob still has it. Bob shows every sign of being happy, whole and enjoying life.

I don’t expect to make it to his advanced age, but he’s hardly alone around here. There’s a lot of hardy New Englanders. Living away from the big cities and the frequently clean and cool northwesterly breezes probably helps. I’ve known more than a few people around here who have made it to age 100. It seems that they die of age. One morning they are found dead. In Bob’s case, when that happens I expect they will find him with a smile on his face.

As best I can tell, Bob is not religious. He doesn’t seem driven by anything. He just accepts life as it comes to him and tries to squeeze out the joy from each day as it comes. I don’t think he worries about whether he is saved or not. He just has this positive and infectious attitude. He’s an example of the old man I want to become. I want to be like Bob.

Since we’re mostly from elsewhere, most of us seniors on this hill tend to socialize mostly with each other. So there are periodic gatherings of the clan. There was one yesterday between two houses near the top of the hill. Some refreshments were available but mostly we sat around a big circle in lawn chairs and gabbed. These have been mostly outdoor gatherings since the pandemic. We mostly know each other by name, but there’s an occasional new face when a unit is resold to new owners. There’s a lot of musical chairs as people shift around to have conversations with others.

Bob was a bit late to the show, but he did show up, pushing his walker across the grass. Bob’s walker is one of the more advanced models. You can sit on it and it has a storage area under the seat. Someone put a spare lawn chair under Bob’s butt, so the walker became his table. He opened it. Out came a bottle of wine and a wine glass. While Bob chatted happily, he filled his glass, toasted his neighbors and slowly sipped the wine.

Bob seems to have learned the secrets to a good life, but more importantly has managed to practice it successfully. Take each day as it comes. Suck the nectar from it. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Make the most of your day. Be yourself. Be wholly imbibed in this thing called life. He doesn’t need to be saved.

I suspect when he dies, he’ll have few regrets. He lived a good life and managed to do what few of us can accomplish: thoroughly enjoy life and take it as it is, one day at a time.

Grand juror, part two

Back in July, I discussed what it was like being on a grand jury.

I’m still on one. Our term is three months. Two months are served, but we should be done at the end of the month. Then supposedly I get at least three years off from again being a juror.

Generally, we meet once a week. Sometimes we get a week off. Only once did we need to take a lunch break. Generally, they keep us going and we are released sometime after 1 PM. Sometimes it’s just one case we look at. We’ve had as many as three in one day.

Initially, the cases brought to us for indictment were mostly about drug trafficking. We got a couple more of these cases since then, but it’s run a full gamut of crimes. So far we haven’t refused to return an indictment. The prosecutors are always very well prepared and the evidence is overwhelming. There is also the low probable cause standard needed for an indictment. Given we only need twelve of 23 grand jurors to indict, it’s hard not to indict.

The newness of being on a grand jury though has worn off. I often leave the jury room feeling soiled. “What a piece of work is a man!”, Hamlet reflects in Shakespeare’s play, where most everyone dies. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!” From the perspective of a grand juror, I’m feeling pretty appalled by our species. Granted, we see society’s underbelly, but it’s a grimy and uncomfortable place to inhabit.

A few days ago we heard from a witness to sex trafficking. We haven’t issued any indictments on this case yet. It will take a few more visits from prosecutors. I know stuff that I really didn’t want to know. What makes it worse is you are privy to the names and sometimes addresses of those under investigation. This woman in her early 30s, fresh out of rehab, described in mind-numbing clinical detail her sexual encounters and the pimp that controlled her. From five to 8 times a day, she provided mostly blowjobs to clients at a house in my county. The john’s money was left on a table downstairs and discreetly picked up by the pimp. In return, he fed her drug habit and gave her shelter. He wouldn’t buy her clothes, shampoo or even tampons. The money was supposed to go toward paying the rent, but mostly it went to feed the pimp’s massive drug addictions. She was alternatingly crying and blowing her nose while matter-of-factly discussing the sexual services she provided. Blowjobs were apparently no big deal. But once she was taken to a hotel where she was anally raped against her will. That was the final straw. The pimp threw her out on the street, but she found a friend, went into rehab again and has been drug free for many months.

I was just appalled. I think everyone in the jury room wanted to say “I’m so sorry” to her and give her a hug. That wasn’t allowed, of course. We can ask questions but aren’t allowed to grieve with a witness and say we care.

We also indicted a man for murder. He’s indicted on four counts, one of them murder. Both were in their early twenties and both were unwisely put in a halfway house (actually, an apartment in a larger house) for young adults. I don’t understand why this agency would put two people of different genders in the same apartment. He was clearly disturbed but she was clearly doing well in the program, working at a local fast food restaurant and had a car.

The most disturbing part was watching nearly two hours of videotaped testimony taken at the local police department. For fifteen minutes we watched him play with his smartphone and carefully rearrange the contents of his wallet. Then the detective enters and starts asking questions. Over the course of nearly two hours his story evolves and changes. This rather normal looking overweight man toward the end of it just comes out an admits he murdered her. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it, but he is concerned about going to jail.

We also got to see voluminous pictures of the victim, the knife cuts she endured, and blood on the floor and refrigerator. I’m confident when he’s before a trial jury he will be convicted on all counts. Our state has no death penalty, but I’m awfully glad he’s unlikely to every taste free air again. Bail was denied, not that he had any money to pay it. He was picked up in his roommate’s car by the detective outside a fern bar where he enjoyed a free meal – he had a coupon apparently, and a couple of hundred dollars he stole from her.

There were also two indictments for rape. A local attractive young woman who worked at a local fitness studio met an old flame at a local bar. She didn’t like the vibes she was getting from him, so she left. Outside the club she gets to chatting with a stranger across the street who eventually offers her some weed. He offers to take her to his place, which she assumes is an apartment. Walking on a path through the woods she discovered his tent instead (he’s homeless) where he forces her to give him a blowjob and then sexually assaults her. This woman though at least had to good sense to report her rape and seek treatment. She seemed happy to testify against him to ensure this guy never rapes a woman again.

It’s not just men that we indict. We indicted one woman for a couple of dozen cases of animal cruelty. She wasn’t torturing pets, but neglecting farm animals she had purchased and stored in someone’s barn. She basically didn’t have the money to feed them. Several cows and goats died, and many of the rest were sick and near death. We heard testimony from a state investigator. There’s enough of these cases where there is a whole team working just on animal cruelty cases.

I wish our species was noble in spirit and infinite in faculties. And I’m sure there are some fine examples out there. But there are many base and disgusting people out there for which the term “human being” is probably more than they deserve. Just calling them bestial is too good.

I’ll be glad when my term is up and I can go back to pretending we’re not as bad a species as all the evidence I’ve seen and the testimony I’ve heard clearly indicates.

Goodbye Marie

Not everyone can say they’ve buried three mothers.

Okay, technically I didn’t bury any of them except my real mom. As she was cremated, it meant handing a box of her ashes to a cemetery worker who put them underground. The second “mom” to go was my mother in law in 2012. That should have been the end of it, but in a surprise wedding in 2010 my eighty one year old father married Marie, and suddenly I had a stepmom.

Marie passed away recently at age 89. A year or two back she had a stroke. She was not quite the same since then. I did see her one last time last October. I had a feeling it would be my last visit. She was barely mobile and needed help several times a day to do basic stuff. The stroke made her hard to understand. Mostly she spent her days alone in a one bedroom apartment in Riderwood, a huge retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland.

She went quite quickly in the end. She fell, was diagnosed with a failing heart too old to bother to repair, and spent just two days in Riderwood’s version of a nursing home, the same place my mother died. She was having trouble eating breakfast, was suddenly uncommunicative and a couple of minutes later pronounced dead.

She lived pretty much as long as my father, who died at 89 and a few months in 2016. They had five years of marriage, four of them pretty good before my father’s pulmonary disease became apparent and eventually killed him. Generally stepmothers are quickly forgotten after your parent passes away. Thankfully, our family was the exception. All eight of us made a point to keep Marie in our lives, calling her and visiting her when we were in the D.C. area.

I felt especially blessed because I convinced her to come and visit us in our new Massachusetts digs. She arrived on the Amtrak along with my sister for a weeklong stay. Marie was a good egg, but the spicey kind. Like my dad, she was a dopily devoted Catholic. Unsurprisingly, she first ran into my widower Dad at church. Riderwood has a chapel and a priest comes by on Sundays to perform Mass. It took my father enrolling in a square dancing class at Riderwood for the relationship to bloom in earnest.

The whole having-a-stepmother thing threw me for a loop. I knew my father wasn’t happy as a widower. His five years as a bachelor were awkward and strange. I knew he was chasing a few women. Despite there being few widowers and plenty of widows there, few were interested in remarriage. But that’s how it had to be for my father. He was born to be married. It took time, perseverance and bit of stealth but he managed it.

He flew cross country to introduce Marie to his sister, all on the QT. I had no idea until we learned that he had been hospitalized in Los Angeles with the flu, apparently acquired at 40,000 feet. I remember actually reaming my dad out: how could he do this and not let us know? I guess it wasn’t technically my business, but as my sister and me were the only two local members of the family, we expected to know. But Dad wanted to do some courting his way.

Marie turned out to be a good match, and I believe a better match for him than my mother. Marie was all about family, but sharp and could have an acid tongue at times. No one could roll over her and she would be no one’s patsy. She was also quite conservative, which was very much unlike my dad. She raised ten kids of her own, and helped raise a number of grandchildren. She ended up at Riderwood after her husband died and quickly and happily enmeshed herself in its vast and complex social scene.

Hosting Marie for a week turned out to be easy and fun. We got to know her much better. I walked her around the local park, took her to the local art museum and we all went out for ice cream. Marie, we discovered, was incredibly competitive. Scrabble was her passion. We had a Scrabble board. Not a day went by when we did not play at least one game, and she won most of them.

Once I visited her at Riderwood when my brother Tom was visiting. Tom is also extremely competitive. Watching the two of them play Scrabble was like watching a Jeopardy! championship. The air was thick with tension. The rest of us felt outclassed.

Marie also had a ton of energy, which only slowed a bit in retirement. She was social in ways my father was not. My father was good at glad handing and remembering names, but forgot details. Marie remembered details and the small stuff too, like calling friends just to say hello or sending cards on special occasions.

So I drove to Maryland to attend her funeral. Only three of us on my side of the family eventually made it. Two more wanted to but the logistics got too complicated. Suddenly twelve years later I was amidst her extended family again. I could greet most by name as I had met most of them many times over the years.

We commiserated with them at her wake and sat in the second row at her funeral mass. Afterward, we attended her reception. We helped move some property of my dad’s from her apartment. There were handshakes and hugs with her family, but we all implicitly knew it’s unlikely that we would see each other again. She will eventually be cremated and her remains placed next to her first husband’s in upstate New York.

I grew to love Marie, which is why I made the long drive to be at her funeral. I cried a bit during it, even as it seemed familiar as the soloist and songs sounded likely the same as at my mom and dad’s funerals. She lived a long life and largely on her terms. Life threw a lot at her but she seemed to handle it all with determination, faith and gusto. Adversity seemed to only make her stronger.

Only one relative from my parents’ generation now remain: an aunt who just turned ninety. We visited her some years back. So Marie’s death feels like pretty much the end of a chapter in life. In a way though it was a good kind of grief to experience. I’m a better person for not only having a stepmother in my life, but for having Marie in particular in my life.

What should be done with my corpse?

I’m remembering an old B.C. comic strip:

B.C.: What was I before I was what I was, and what will I be when I’m not?

Peter: You were what you were before you are what you are, and you will be what you ain’t.

That makes sense, sort of. It doesn’t explain anything, but it’s comforting somehow. As a friend of mine who has already met his maker put it: it doesn’t make much sense to worry about what happens after death if you are completely unconcerned about what you were (or weren’t) before you were conceived. It’s all completely logical, but most of us don’t want to die; the idea of death terrifies most of us.

I may be the odd exception in that the older I get the less I think and care about death. It can’t be avoided. It’s going to happen. And the way the world has been going lately, when the time comes it may be that I will be glad. In any event, when its pressing problems aren’t on my mind, I realize that I am blessed being retired and in reasonably good health. This is the time to enjoy life if I can. Like most of you, most of my life was pretty harried and stressful. I found pockets of enjoyment but a lot of it was just hard and a grind.

Of course I’ve done all my homework. There’s a will, there’s a power of attorney and a medical directive should I not be able to make my own decisions. There are estates set up to keep whoever gets our money from having the state take most of it. But there is one decision about death I haven’t quite decided on: what do I want done with my corpse?

It’s trendy to be cremated. In the United States, it’s now preferred to being put in a coffin and buried in a cemetery, perhaps because it’s much cheaper. Both my parents went this way. Their cremains can be found at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland. My Dad was born in Washington, D.C., which is probably fifteen miles away, so it’s sort of logical that his cremains are there. My Mom was born in Michigan but there was no room in the family cemetery, so hers are next to Dad’s.

My wife has been clear: she wants her body to be cremated. She doesn’t want her cremains to be in a cemetery. Of all the places she’s lived, when likes where she is living now (western Massachusetts) best. She would be happy if her cremains were scattered in a local forest somewhere. So if she predeceases me, if I am faithful to her wishes, my corpse or what’s left of it won’t reside next to hers.

My mother-in-law was also cremated, but her ashes were divided into thirds. She had two kids. One third went to her new husband who didn’t really love her that much and died six months after she did. One third went to her son. One third of her is on our mantlepiece next to a picture of her. There are other cremains there too, including two cats.

Since I’ll be dead and my daughter will likely be alive, perhaps mine could rest above her fireplace, should she have one. There they will likely get as much attention as we give my mother-in-law’s cremains: we wholly ignore them. In truth, my wife didn’t like her mother much if at all, and had all sorts of resentment on how she was raised. In some ways, I think she was relieved by her death: no more nagging from her about her weight. If only she had trimmed down, took up smoking and died from it, as her mom did, maybe she would have risen in her esteem.

Logically I understand that once dead I won’t get resurrected. Emotionally though like many I don’t particularly like the idea that there won’t be some pile of composing DNA that someone could say was me if they examined the DNA. Once cremated, your DNA is gone. So if some ancestor needed to get a sample of my DNA, they would be out of luck.

I could have a DNA test done before I die. Hopefully the results could be put in an electronic repository somewhere. Given how we are overpopulating the planet, I think it’s unlikely such a repository would still be available in a hundred years. Also, since my daughter is not planning to have any children, she’s likely be the only one who’d ever want to look at the record. She loves me very much but frankly I don’t see much likelihood that she will want to do this; she doesn’t care about genetics or genealogy in general.

My siblings are too scattered around the country to organize something like a private cemetery. One of my sisters suggested it, but no one expressed interest in taking her up on it. She hopes to buy some land in upstate New York and use some of it as a cemetery. If she builds one, should I want my corpse to be retained somewhere, it’s as good a place as any to have it planted.

Unlike my wife, I have no place that I feel I’m “from”. The closest probably is Endwell, New York where I spent my formative years. But I can think of only a handful of people I knew from the time I lived there that still reside there, and only one I can call a friend. No one I know would bother to visit my remains there. Also, Endwell has only one cemetery I know of, Riverhurst Cemetery. It may be full by the time I pass on.

Both my parents were cremated either the day they died, or they day afterward. To me, that seems too soon. I’m betting that although technically dead some part of me will still be alive. Perhaps it takes hours or days for the brain to run out of oxygen and some thought remains. Perhaps the nerves still work and some part of my brain will feel the cremation. I suggested to my daughter that if she has me cremated to have my body sit in a morgue for a week first. I want to be dead-dead, not just dead.

My daughter is puzzling through her own preferences. The most ecological way to go is to have your body interred naturally: placed in a sheet perhaps and buried in a forest. Cremation is quick, but it’s polluting. Her other choice is to donate it for medical research. Let some premed student get some use out of it.

I’m still up in the air on it. If they still have cruise ships after I’m gone, perhaps she can dump my cremains into the sea from the promenade deck, then sip a Mai-Tai in my memory from a lounge chair on the pool deck. It may be that being at sea was where I really felt most at home. It’s an awesome place to visit. Its vastness is a lot like the universe in general, which we will always be part of.

A lesson in caregiving

Three years ago, my wife had her right knee replaced. A couple of weeks ago, she had the other knee replaced. She was in a lot of chronic pain before the surgery. Now that she’s recovering, she’s in a more chronic pain, but it’s the kind that results from having a joint of metal and plastic melded to her femur and tibia.

This also means for a couple of weeks now I’ve been largely her sole caregiver; hence I’ve had a hard time finding the time to post. There’s lots of physical therapy she is supposed to do three times a day but often can’t manage. At least initially this meant that I did a lot of her joint movement for her. It also means sticking pillows under her knees and elevating her legs on an incline. Also there’s lots of icepacks to wrap around the new joint, blankets to drape over her and pillows to adjust.

There’s lots of other stuff to do for her too: shoes to put on her and tediously getting her pants on. I make all the meals and clean up afterward too. I have a myriad of other chores that she would normally do, including laundry and feeding our cats twice a day. I help her shower, dry off, put her underwear on and push in chairs so that she can get seated properly to eat. There’s a water bottle she persistently wants full of ice. And if I find some spare minutes, there will likely lots of ad-hoc calls for more aid.

I can usually work in a walk if she is stable, elevated and has an ice pack on the joint. I also use this time to dash to various stores so we don’t starve. Being her sole caregiver, I can’t be too careful. I use an N95 mask whenever I am in public indoor spaces.

If I were 25 it probably would be less of a deal. But I am 65. Three years ago I went through the same thing. While it was a lot of hassle then I don’t recall it affecting me as much. Her first day home was particularly exhausting. My back hurt badly and I felt run ragged since I’d been hopping for almost fourteen hours. Part of it is that there seemed more to do and there was more pain this time. But it’s also that on some level I must be declining a bit.

The pandemic didn’t help. Through it all I’ve managed to get plenty of aerobic exercise (walking four miles or so a day) but no weight training as I don’t own any weights. I let my YMCA membership lapse and it’s still lapsed as I’m still leery of catching covid-19 there, which I’ve somehow still avoided.

So this post is probably a bit whiny as we are thankfully retired. It’s good to have the time to take care of her, but it’s really a job for younger people. Thank goodness she’s partnered. Otherwise she’d be weeks in a nursing home.

In spite of the hassle of taking care of her, it’s done with love. But it’s also a reeducation in real life and the reality of hard work. I’m astonished by how much work is involved and there’s lots of things she can do by herself. I’m trying to imagine taking care of her if she had Alzheimer’s, for example. There are lots of caregivers doing work like this, and I’m guessing that this work multiplied by at least three.

And yet caregivers, when they are employed, make astonishingly poor wages. They are in chronic high demand but that’s not enough to provide them with a true living wage. The work is tiring, tiresome, demanding, often ad-hoc and frequently frustrating. It can be so persistent and exhausting that it’s unclear if you could get a caregiver regardless of the wages paid.

My wife is improving but there are good days and bad. She can do more things for herself. She manages her medication, and she has quite a list that needs coordinating. I’m not sure I could keep track of them all or administer them properly. Yesterday she had a major complication. Her knee improved but her calf was swollen and hot to the touch. The physical therapist had her get an ultrasound at our local hospital. They found a blood clot behind her knee and she’s now on a blood thinner. Hopefully it will improve. She’s close to moving from her walker to a cane, which would be a big improvement.

So many of us sneer at people who are caregivers. It’s like they’re only good enough to be a caregiver. My reality is that it’s one of the hardest jobs you will ever have. Caregivers deserve a living wage, not to mention our admiration and courage. If you don’t believe me, there’s a good chance you will find out one of these days. It’s not for the faint of heart.

It turns out that I was a pretty good father

My daughter is 32 now but at least she now remembers Father’s Day. She remembers Mother’s Day now too, perhaps because it’s on her Google Calendar by default. For years she ignored these Hallmark holidays (as my wife calls them). I didn’t give her a hard time about it. It’s nice though that after all these years she’s picked up the habit.

She usually sends me a note on Discord on Father’s Day because that’s what her generation does. They don’t enrich Hallmark. They just send a chat message asynchronously. Discord is convenient. For me, its main purpose is to let me know she’s alive. I look for the little green dot next to her name in the app. Discord goes with her everywhere so it’s the easiest way to get a hold of her. Use the telephone? So 20th century!

And that’s fine by me. When she first went to college, there was no Discord and she didn’t even have a phone so there was no way to really know if she was alive. It drove me crazy, even though she was 20 at the time. (She went to two years of community college.) After a week of not hearing from her I called her roommate. That’s how I found out she hadn’t been mugged in some back alley in Richmond, Virginia, where she went to school. She seemed a little miffed, like I didn’t trust her. Okay, I confess to having some boundary issues. It’s always hard to let go. I had been steering her life for two decades.

Now she’s hardly ever offline. I’d have to look up her cellphone number because we never call it. And I’ve stopped worrying if she’s dead or alive. We chat formally once a month on Discord in a video call, and informally during the month. She may be 32, but she still relies on me for ad hoc advice. She’s thinking of a big career move, basically taking a job similar to what she does now in Portland, Maine. (She’s lives in the DC suburbs.) She got dueling job offers from two counties. I helpfully examined the proposals and placed my analysis in a spreadsheet. It made sense to me. A spreadsheet made it easy to compare offers. She appreciated my help but found my using a spreadsheet humorous. Apparently, it’s a very Dad thing to do.

We won’t have to worry about babysitting any grandchild. She eventually figured out that she is asexual. This means she is not drawn to either sex. The idea of having a baby appalls her. She does have a cat, which is not surprising as she grew up with cats. That’s as close as she is likely to be to having a child. We call her cat Mimi our grand kitty. The two kitties we have are sort of like aunts to our grand kitty. It’s unlikely they will ever meet.

While she is unlikely to call us out for special kudos on these holidays, at least she remembers them. It’s also nice to know that we didn’t suck as parents. She does see a therapist and maybe that’s due to being an only child. Or perhaps it’s related to being a 911 operator. It can be a very stressful job at times and the counseling is a free perk.

But occasionally ad-hoc complements arrive. A couple of years back I got one when she remembered I got her vaccinated for the Human Papilloma virus. The vaccine was new at the time and she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, but when I took her for her physical I asked her pediatrician to give her the shot. Actually it was two shots. The virus is generally transmitted sexually, so that’s unlikely to happen to her, but you never know. She could be raped, which happens to many women. While it would definitely be a traumatic episode, she probably wouldn’t have to worry about getting the virus from her rapist. Anyhow, when she remembered talking with her physician, it triggered the thought, “Gosh, Dad was certainly thinking ahead. He really loves me!”

It wasn’t a hard decision for me. She was likely to be sexually active during her life. The shot was a way of preventing her from ever getting the virus, which is a small but hardly minute risk for women, as it can cause cervical cancer among other things. I also remember getting her a Hepatitis B vaccine, also delivered in a couple of doses, something not required but it seemed like a good thing to do. She’d likely have to do some foreign travel to get it, but it can be acquired within the United States.

One of the most important things I did as her parent was to get her a real sex education. No, not the stuff you might get in school, which is superficial and required parental consent even for that. That wasn’t good enough. I remember the laughable one-day sex education “course” I got from a priest at our parochial school. My parents tried to talk about it once and utterly failed. What I learned about sex academically came mainly from reading books at the public library. The information was definitely useful, but not enough. Equally important is the emotional aspects of having sex. There I got zero help and like most Americans had to stumble through it.

Her mother didn’t believe in church, but I wanted her to experience it, so we started attending a local Unitarian Universalist church. There she went to Sunday school while I attended services. After a couple of years, I learned about their Our Whole Lives course. I enrolled her in it. (You can too. You don’t have to be a UU to enroll your kid in the class. Just call your local UU church’s director of religious education. It’s likely free too. Also, it’s not just for kids. How we are as sexual creatures changes with age. So at any age, it’s useful.) It’s the kind of sex education I never got. I didn’t want her to be ignorant and I wanted it to be realistic and grounded. The UU church’s OWL course is likely one of just a handful of courses you can get in the United States that teaches actually useful and comprehensive sex education, including contraception, and sex’s invariable emotional aspects. She is grateful that I enrolled her. She met a friend there that remains perhaps her best friend to this day.

In truth, I didn’t mind being her father. I quite enjoyed it, overall. Certainly there were great highs and great lows too, but not many of them. My childhood was rife with physical and emotional violence meted out by my mom. I made sure none of that happened in her life.

Maybe it would have been helpful for her to have a sibling. One child though was plenty for my wife and me. But overall she was an interesting child from the start. Both of us parents were grounded and pretty intellectual. We did our best to expose her to the complexity of the real world and to fill her life with an appreciation for reading, culture and the arts. We took her to many a Broadway show. We tried not to sugar coat life, while also not making it look too bleak. I think we succeeded.

Parenting is an awesome responsibility, but it needn’t be taken too seriously. You can try to enjoy it. We were plentiful with the hugs and complements. We were protective but not smothering. A few times where she veered too off course we intervened and moved her toward the center. At 32, she remains interesting, grounded and a fun person to know not just our daughter.

So thanks dear for your Father’s Day best wishes. But really, I enjoyed being your father. It was perhaps the greatest privilege in my life. I’m glad to know I didn’t suck and it sounds like I did a pretty good job.

It’s a great time to take nervous nellie investors to the cleaners

It’s often said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So is it foolish to buy into the stock market right now?

Yesterday’s market suggests it’s a foolish time to buy anything. After yesterday, the S&P 500 is in official bear market territory. The DJIA briefly dropped more than a thousand points before ending down more than 800 points. All this followed a lousy week last week. Most of us in the market must either grin and bear it or try to cut our losses by selling.

By buying now, you are betting that markets will recover and that you can ride it out until this happens. You are also betting that whatever you are buying will be worth more then and there won’t be some fundamental shift in the world economy. But it definitely feels riskier investing now because there may be fundamental market forces at work that we haven’t seen before. We live in turbulent times that are likely to continue to get more turbulent. It may be that inflation is one of the few things you will be able to bet will keep on happening.

What’s basically going on is panic. Markets don’t deal well with uncertainty. That’s because markets on a daily basis reflect the consensus of those who feel the need to trade on a particular day. Unsurprisingly, this is often those who figure they will need the money in their investments in the short term, rather than the long term. When calm returns to the market, these same people move from panic mode to greed mode. Essentially, your portfolio is being held hostage by the nervous nellies out there. It’s a herd mentality that you can’t stop. But if you are nervy enough, you are likely to eventually come out ahead if you can hang in there and make these dynamics work to your profit.

When someone sells at a loss, someone else is buying. If no one buys what you have to sell, your asset becomes non-fungible. This is generally not a problem with stocks and bonds though: the seller just keeps reducing their asking price until someone bites. A market index becomes an overall fear index. The faster it goes lower, the greater the fear. The faster it rises, the greater the optimism.

A stock’s price reflects a current assessment of its value based principally on nervous nellie investors. It isn’t necessarily correlated with its actual value. A company’s actual value should be assessed using criteria like these:

  • Does this company have a unique niche in the market that makes it relatively immune from competition?
  • Is it well managed?
  • It is primed to rise quickly if certain criteria are met? If so, it might be worth the risk of an investment on the hopes of greater future gain.
  • Does the company have a history of producing profits both in good times and bad?
  • Does the company treat its employees well, recognizing that good employees make for good company?
  • Is the company well capitalized so it can endure during market downturns?
  • Is the company investing money wisely so it can be bring future products and services to market that will meet anticipated future needs?
  • Does the company show a history of being agile, so it can adapt flexibly to changing markets?
  • Does the company have assets that are now historically undervalued but are in demand and of quality?

If you see companies that meet these criteria, I’d argue that this is a great time to buy them up.

I’m no Warren Buffet, so I won’t give any particular stock tips. I don’t claim to be smart enough to pick these companies, mainly due to lack of interest. But I can sense that certain forms of asset look like great investments. REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts), for example. Everyone needs a place to live. Internet services. Clean energy suppliers. Electric car manufacturers.

But I do know we made most of our money inadvertently by buying systematically in good times and bad. I can also report that so far no market downturn has lasted forever. We bought into a lot of funds when they were dirt cheap during the Great Recession, and were still a bargain in the years that followed. By regularly balancing our portfolio, we captured a lot of these appreciated assets and put them into cash reserves. So far my pension is mainly keeping us from spending that cash. But should we need it, there’s a healthy cash reserve that should see us through any longer term market declines.

The advantage of being a long term investor rather than a trader is that you use these market downturns to buy good assets at a discount. It’s the traders/nervous nellies whose profits you can expect to reap in time during these times.

I say take them to the cleaners. Someone’s going to, so if you have the money, it might as well be you.

Our national mental health crisis is in full display at your local Emergency Department

My wife volunteers one day a week at our local hospital’s emergency department. During the worst of the covid-19 pandemic she was told to stay home, but for the last six months or so she’s been invited back. She’s heavily gloved and double masked and of course has all her shots and boosters. She mostly cleans bays in the E.D. and tries to lower stress by offering patients snacks and drinks.

When she was allowed back there were still a lot of covid-19 cases coming in. There are procedures to isolate these patients in special rooms. My wife can’t clean these rooms. A special technician in something like a spacesuit comes in and uses a large machine to shine ultraviolet light all over the place. This kills the virus better than wiping down surfaces.

There’s still a lot of covid-19 out there, but it’s been around long enough where most cases don’t require hospitalization or a trip to the emergency room. Most days though when she is there the place is bursting to overflow. What she’s been seeing most of this year are people having mental health crises.

In better days, these people would go into a local psychiatrist ward, but there’s no beds for them; they’re all taken. So they end up in the E.D. As my wife can attest, there are a lot of mentally struggling people out there.

In a recent case she related, an adult son took his mother to the E.R. because he couldn’t deal with her craziness. He just dropped her off; his mom was their problem now. Confused and disoriented, all the bays were full so she was placed on a gurney in the E.D. hallway. She was triaged as best they could handle her, but she decided she was going home. Dressed only in a hospital gown she made a beeline for the exit to be stopped by a security guard who was hastily called in.

Most of these patients “graduate” to a hospital room. That doesn’t mean they get much in the way of treatment, at least for their medical condition, but at least they can be effectively monitored. A staff psychiatrist might come by once a day, but everyone’s waiting for some bed to open up somewhere in a facility that can treat these people. Naturally, many of these people are poor, underinsured and in some cases, even here in Massachusetts, uninsured.

Nationwide, it’s adolescents though who are disproportionately affected. Suicide is now the second cause of death among adolescents. Parents are left holding the bag trying to keep their kids functional while waiting months for a therapist, which often they cannot afford. Ending up in an E.D. is something of an act of desperation, but an E.D. visit can easily become a traumatic episode to a child who is already having problems coping with life.

It’s pretty clear that, at best, the pandemic made things worse. For many adolescents, a healthy self-image comes from relationships occurring mostly at school. That was suddenly taken away with classes held online. Making it back after months online trying to get an education didn’t help much either. It wasn’t the same. There were new protocols and masks. For many, the pandemic turned their whole lives upside down. It was a huge burden placed on all the other burdens that come with adolescence.

I might well have had a mental health crisis too when I was a teen had I gone through what teens today are going through. I suspect it would have helped that I am naturally introverted, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need some regular company other than my wife and cats. One thing I didn’t have to worry about were school shootings. Nuclear war was a theoretical but existential threat. Worrying about sudden death from some crazed gunman, largely unprotected by a society that placed the rights of gun owners over the lives of kids probably would have been enough of a trigger.

We live in a crazy, topsy turvy world now. In some ways it strikes me that it’s entirely logical that so many teenagers can’t keep it together. They face myriad stresses I never had to face. My biggest concerns were overcoming my shyness so I could get a date and pimple control.

I can keep it together today because I’m introverted and relatively isolated. I have my wife as my primary company and a supportive community of seniors nearby. I don’t have to struggle to raise a child anymore; she’s 32. I don’t have to worry about rent increases and soaring food costs. I find inflation somewhat concerning but we have the assets to see this through.

But we are the exception. Most people are struggling, anxious and nervous, and this is inculcating a general public mental health crisis. There is too much personal and global risk and it affects almost all of us. We’re becoming unmoored as a society. It seems like this mental health crisis is a harbinger.

I don’t know how my wife continues to keep volunteering at the E.D. It’s one of the last places I would volunteer. I already know that my capacity for dealing with this kind of stress is not large. She reports the staff there is stressed too and burned out. It’s been a true hell of a last few years, but emergency departments are usually challenging places to work. There’s just little to no downtime there these days.

I can already sense that regardless of how much the pandemic wanes over the next year, our local E.D. will be mostly the same a year from now, and about a third of the people in it will be trying to cope with a mental health crisis in a place not really equipped to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem.

When it comes to dying and coping with life, religion probably isn’t helping

I turned 65 recently. This makes me officially old, in that I’m now old enough for Medicare.

The good news is that for the first time in my life I’m on socialized medicine. The bad news is, well, I’m 65. My mother died at 85, my father at 89. That’s pretty long as lives go, but it also suggests about three quarters of my life is in my rear view mirror.

Both my parents were devout Catholics. This was one of the few things they had in common: they liked going to church and the ceaseless rituals their faith provided. For both of them, religion was mainly a way to cope with life, which can be pretty chaotic. It also offered a way to cope with death, as it provided assurances that you were loved by some higher power. Unless you led an egregiously bad life, the afterlife was promised to be much better: free of the pain that is rampant in real life plus external life to boot.

But when it came to actually helping my parents cope with death, the results were mixed. It worked better for my father who took comfort in Catholic rituals for the dying. My Dad also had an easier death, as he could exercise reasonable independence right until the end.

For my mother, dying was something of a horror show. Removal of a polyp in her colon resulted in loss of bowel control, and her Parkinson’s-like symptoms meant she could not move her eyes or focus on much. She confided in me just how terrified she was in dying. All that Catholic ritual didn’t work and seemed to offer no comfort.

She wanted family by her side 24/7, but that simply wasn’t possible as her children were living all over the United States. The best I could manage was a once a week visit. For much of her last year she languished in hospitals and a nursing home. Her fears were entirely rational. In a way, the church made dying much worse. She sensed the falsity of their teachings about an afterlife and took it as a betrayal of trust. She exited the world a scared woman with no sense of control over her life and unable to cope with the reality of death.

In a way, both of them were cheated out of a lot of what life could offer. While religion offered the illusion of certainty, it also imposed shackles on their thoughts and behaviors. Sundays were not for sleeping in, but for going to church. It imposed limits on free thought, introducing guilt or worse if they even considered transgressing those boundaries.

My father picked the wrong spouse. As a result, we got sort of Stepford parents who often seemed unreal or surreal. I hold their religion principally to blame, in that it imposed a set of rules and expectations on them often contrary to their nature but which they could not seem to escape.

It’s not surprising then that of their eight offspring, just one remains a Catholic. It just didn’t agree with us. Coming out as non-Catholics as adults simply added to my mother’s guilt. My father didn’t seem to be very much bothered, as his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant.

The good news is that many of us survivors are getting it. The “Nones” (unchurched) now amount to about thirty percent of the population, a figure that is likely to keep growing. The long term impacts of this trend are hard to know. It’s unclear whether by being unchurched these same people will be as loving and charitable as those who are churched.

As I read the tealeaves, I’d say the Nones are in general more so. Those in the churched community seem increasingly non-ecumenical, at ease only among people who think and behave a lot like them. In many ways their lives seem cloistered, and they seem unable to cope with those who don’t share their perspectives. I think this contributes to a lot of the racism and political instability that exists in our current society.

This results in large sets of “Christians” bearing no resemblance to Jesus Christ. I give Catholics points for at least being ecumenical. The word Catholic means universal, so it’s a faith meant to apply to everyone, regardless of race or creed. But even among Catholics, a lot of them no longer seem to have that ecumenical spirit. I count, for example, my brother-in-law (married to our Catholic sister) who voted twice for Donald Trump and does not want “those people” living anywhere close to him.

If religion is supposed to form your center of being and be the prism through which you experience and navigate through life, then it’s largely failing here in the United States. It’s likely to fail faster for the churched than for us unwashed heathens.

You can see it in the response to the pandemic. Minds trained by religions to be closed are minds that are conditioned to believing crazy things, like the pandemic is a Chinese conspiracy, vaccination is evil and wearing masks is an infringement on personal liberty. Over 900,000 Americans have died from covid-19. While many of these were in minority and marginalized communities, many were also people of closed minds simply untrained to cope with reality and the shared sacrifices modern living requires.

If this is what religion amounts to in the 21st century, the sooner it goes, the better.