Sometimes you have to be your own doctor

2012 ends for me with some positive health news. Problems I have been chasing for years appear to be on their way to resolution, or are at least in remission. The bad news is that despite the many physicians and specialists I have seen, overall I have had to become my own doctor. Such is the world of chasing annoying medical problems for middle-aged people like me in the 21st century.

The one physician I cannot complain about is my primary care physician, who is on the ball, at least about problems he can easily figure out, like my high cholesterol. I have been on a variety of statins, first Lipitor before it went generic, then Simvastatin because it was generic. My physician was on the ball enough to order me to get regular blood work after I switched drugs. It detected that the Simvastatin was causing muscle deterioration, so much so that if it had gone on much longer I would have ended up in the hospital. He saved my insurance company and me thousands of dollars and me from a potentially life threatening condition. So now I am back on Lipitor, which is now generic, with the only yellow flag being an increase in a liver enzyme, something that can happen when you are on Lipitor.

I have also been chasing my painful sciatica. Sciatica is a particularly baffling condition since there are so many possibilities for its root cause. Having it meant that sitting was painful and brought burning sensations down the back of my thighs. I’ve been dealing with it for years and have gone so far as to consider solutions like standing desks. Pretty much everything I have tried brought no permanent relief. When no relief was in sight despite seeing orthopedic surgeons and chiropractors, I ended up on the Internet. It seemed there were two possibilities: a herniated disk or piriformis syndrome. The latter seemed more likely and it occurs when the piriformis muscles in the leg constrict nerves exiting the spinal column. After a lot of traction at my chiropractor’s office and releasing pressure on the piriformis muscle it seemed to go away. Then like a doofus I thought it was gone for good, and stopped getting traction, only to have it come back with a vengeance. What works now is more traction, but this time getting it regularly so my L5 joint does slide back into a position so that it presses against the spinal nerve again. I am getting traction every three weeks now. I also have a special ergonomic chair at work that does not put pressure on L5, like many supposedly ergonomic chairs too, including Aeron chairs due to the drop at the back of the seat. The sciatica is not completely gone but most days I don’t notice it. Moreover, it looks like regular traction will keep it in remission and the key is to keep coming back for more traction at regular intervals.

I also have large feet and consequently a lot of foot related issues. These were originally numbness in the feet. My foot issues got more acute with a recent recurrence of plantar fasciitis on the left foot. Plantar fasciitis typically manifests it out as a burning feeling on the souls of your feet, although this time it was at the heel of the foot. This is a condition occurs when tendons are torn in the feet and it takes months to heal. So I have been wearing running shoes with lots of cushion in the heels. Four months later it is not quite gone, but it is nearly gone.

What to do about all the numbness in my feet? I had seen neurologists and confirmed neuropathies. My podiatrist speculated that my varicose veins might cause them. I had the veins removed on the right leg, where the problem was more acute, but it did not solve the problem. At one point I spent four weeks in a boot that immobilized my foot because the joint pain became excruciating. I was beginning to wonder if I would be better off without my feet. The metatarsal bones in my feet felt like they were not where they should be. Had something broken and moved out of alignment? Eventually my podiatrist agreed to have an MRI done of my foot. Everything was exactly where it should be, which would be good news except for the occasional excruciating pain. One thing that was noticed: muscle atrophy in the feet. So I was sent to a physical therapist and spent weeks trying to regain my balance and strengthening the muscles in my feet. With more muscle mass in my feet, my condition began to clear. It appears if I had done this to start with, I would have avoided years of pain and consultations. No one had the ability to figure it out, and it never occurred to my podiatrist to test the strength of the muscles in my feet. Moreover, the sciatic nerve cascades down into the feet. It is likely that sciatica contributed to the problem.

It seems like an informed and inquisitive patient is the key to solving these chronic problems, because our physicians for the most part can’t seem to properly diagnose these more complex issues. I found that pain is a pretty good motivator for action, but I feel frustrated because I had to piece it altogether, as well as prompt my physicians to get tests that I thought I needed.

Obviously, it shouldn’t be this way. However, I am at a loss on how to improve our health care system so that these probably typical experiences that I had are faster to get properly diagnosed. Whatever medical training our medical specialists are getting, it seems insufficient. They are good at seeing trees, but not so much the forest.

The blog turns ten

Occam's Razor turns 10 years old
Occam’s Razor turns 10 years old

To channel The Bard, “To blog or not to blog? That is the question.” This blog has its tenth anniversary on Thursday. Subtracting out this post, I have written 1406 posts since the first one appeared on December 13, 2002. That’s 1,569,166 words, with an average of 1116 words per post.

In short, it’s a heap of writing and a heap of my time over ten years. I’m guessing I spent on average ninety minutes per blog post. I would have to sit down for more than eighty-seven days nonstop to match the same number of words. Blogging takes a huge amount of my time, but as a financial investment I’ve been panning for fool’s gold. I’ve earned just $343.51 in Google AdSense revenue over the years.

So naturally I have been considering calling it quits. Ending after completing exactly ten years seems like a logical time. Like cartoons, a blog tends to be best when it is fresh. When I look back at ten years of blogging, clearly my best writing was during the first few years of the blog. At times I have been repetitious, which is easy enough to do when you blog, as you can’t remember every single idea you have ever conveyed (and sometimes you don’t care). This may be reflected in my declining web statistics. It’s hard to say for sure since for years my statistics were probably wildly inflated by SiteMeter, but even during the time I have been metering traffic with Google Analytics I have seen traffic diminish by roughly half, maybe even more. I peaked at 8515 visits in February 2008 and fell as low as 1461 visits in June 2012. There is no perfect mechanism for measuring human traffic, and Google Analytics has had its issues too, as I documented. In general the trend has been down, which makes it easier to throw in the towel.

And yet measuring traffic via Google Analytics alone can be deceiving. This is because while GA measures web traffic, increasingly blog content is syndicated.  GA does not track most of this usage. If you are reading this via email or a newsreader, you are reading the blog as syndicated content. As of today I have 85 syndicated subscribers, as measured by Feedburner. In short the number of subscribers to this blog is now roughly equal to the number of daily visitors I get via the web, maybe more. So while fewer people are finding my blog content via search engines, or pulling up the blog in their browser, more people are reading the blog through syndication. Presumably most these readers can be considered regular readers. Crunching my raw Feedburner statistics, I see steady growth in syndicated readers, as the attached graph shows:

Occam's Razor Feedburner Statistics
Occam’s Razor Feedburner Statistics

I have also been tracking social media usage of my blog. I am a latecomer to this, and my reach via social media is certainly in the mediocre range. Since mid March 2012 I’ve been tracking social media usage by using AddThis. You can see how content is being shared from this graph:

Occam's Razor social media statistics
Occam’s Razor social media statistics

My readers are largely a silent lot, with a handful of readers commenting regularly, but with most readers content to read only. Over ten years, I have logged just 891 legitimate comments. (Many more were obviously spam and were removed.)

In short, the statistics offer a mixed verdict on whether I should continue blogging. A number of commenters have said to continue blogging if it makes me happy. Overall, blogging does make me happy, but it also competes for my time among my many other interests, including my job and the time consuming chores that come with living.

It used to be that I would strive to write a blog post once every other day. If I could not keep up that pace, I would feel guilty. Now I am more relaxed about blogging. My slower rate of posts may be responsible for declining traffic. It is believed that one criterion for your search index ranking is how frequently content is added. So then perhaps it is not surprising that web traffic is down, as I am probably averaging two posts a week presently. However, at this point I cannot blog at a faster rate, at least not with an acceptable level of quality. Moreover, I have less to say than I did ten years ago. I don’t feel the chronic need to write simply to improve my search page ranking. Indeed, I have largely stopped writing posts that I know will boost traffic. Based on my popular pages, I suspect I could write a blog that critiques Craigslist, and probably get thousands of page views a day. But I simply don’t care that much about writing about Craigslist, pornography, human sexuality or Walmart, despite the fact that if I did write about these things regularly I would get much more traffic.

For those few enemies I have made over the years, I expect to keep blogging as the blog turns ten. To the rest of you, most of who choose to stay silent, I hope I don’t bore you too much, and you find some wheat among the voluminous chaff that makes up this blog. I take some pride in that Occam’s Razor has kept going so long, as it is ancient in the world of blogging, and that I have consistently maintained a high standard of quality throughout ten years of writing.

That people read my blog in any amount is really a bonus. The blog remains principally my sandbox, where I get to keep my creative juices flowing. Sometimes, perhaps serendipitously, I open a mind or move someone to tears. Although I usually have no idea when these events occur, or how often, perhaps I really write for these elusive moments.

Shuttling to Denver

Someone once told me I could make anything interesting, so today’s challenge is to write something halfway entertaining about this routine flight to Denver. This is going to be quite a challenge and I doubt I can do it. Here goes.

I am at thirty five thousand feet, there is little turbulence but there is this annoying TV screen in front of my seat that I cannot turn off. This at least is new, at least on the United Airlines 737 fleet. You now have the option of DirecTV on this flight, with a hundred channels to choose for the low, low price of just $7.95, but should you not be interested there is no way to turn off the screen. So if United cannot convince you to swipe your credit card for this service, they figure they might as well subject you to annoying ads instead for the full length of this three and a half hour flight. The off button has been conveniently disabled on my armrest. This is all for my pleasure, or something, but of course is really about United’s bottom line. The only way solution is to shut your eyes, which is what I have been doing until my last podcast ended.

On this flight I am trying a few new things to handle the tedium of traveling quickly two thirds of the way across the country. First, I purchased a set of noise canceling headphones. These jetliner cabins are noisy places, eighty decibels or more. You get used to it after a while, but it can’t be healthy. Noise canceling headphones do not deaden the noise of air whooshing across the airframe, but they do make it tolerable. They cancel perhaps twenty decibels of sound, which is good. I can now hear content through my headphones again, not only when it is at near piercing volumes. So both watching and actually hearing movies on my iPad in flight is now a possibility and something perhaps to try on the next trip. This noise canceling technology, while hardly perfect, is making sitting in an airline cabin for three plus hours much more bearable.

I am also trying to use my smartphone for entertainment during the flight. It is in airplane mode, of course, but it still has its uses. I can read books and articles on it easily enough and, at least for this flight, I can listen to podcasts with the nice little BeyondPod podcast app I installed. I won’t listen that much to music, but I can queue up a nice set of podcasts. My playlist is actually a mixture of political, economic and tech podcasts, and I can listen to them or not. Usually my brain is like a sponge and likes to be fed a steady stream of facts and opinions until at some point, like now, I can’t take more input and have to do some outputting, which means blogging. Being that the smartphone is much more portable than even my iPad, it will probably end up as my default electronic traveling companion.

It seems that if you have to travel by air, early December is a great time to do so. This plane is about three quarters full, which means I have the luxury of an open middle seat next to me back here in economy class. Also empty were the airline ticket counters early this afternoon at Washington Dulles International Airport. Two Ethiopian dudes speaking behind the counter seemed really animated about their topic of the day, not that I have any idea what they were saying in Ethiopian. This is another example of the weird multiculturalism around here, but has become so routine that I hardly notice it, other than the language is different. There is no line at the TSA baggage check, and only a couple of people ahead of me at the TSA credentials check. Note to self: try to travel more in the off season and schedule flights that leave in the middle of the afternoon. This no hassle way is the only way to travel by air.

You know you travel too much when you get sloppy at the airport. Today this meant I never bothered to check my concourse and gate. Concourse C, I figured, since that is where I usually catch these United flights. I stood for a few moments before the subway to Concourse C before I thought to check my boarding pass. Oops. My flight was out of Concourse D. No subway for me; instead I had to take one of the old fashioned mobile lounges to my gate. Washington Dulles seemed as close to dead today as it can get in the middle of the afternoon. No lines at the Starbucks or Subway sandwich shop in Concourse D. The stalls in the restrooms were even spotless. All of them!

We passengers on Flight 1160 are an apathetic and self-absorbed bunch. Mostly people are not bothering to look out the windows, but instead are focused on their tablet computer of choice. Tablet computers and eReaders are everywhere on this flight. Hardly anyone can be bothered to get up out of their seats and walk the aisles. With kids in school, there are no crying children to distract us or ratchet up the noise level. One lady across from me is studiously writing in longhand in a spiral bound notebook, which suggests she is at least forty something. Increasingly, cursive is not being taught in elementary schools. In fifty years will anyone remember how to read cursive? Ah, there will be a Wikipedia entry on it.

Off season also means the plane is relatively clean. This makes a nice change of pace for United, where they go through the motions of cleaning the cabin but you can usually find trash under the seats if you look or sometimes crammed between seats. I flew on two regional jets with United recently that were disgracefully unclean. Not only was it filthy, you could barely see out the windows they were so caked with grime and what looked like encrusted saltwater. Today, there is a dirty stain or two on the carpet, but at least the carpet looks vacuumed. This is high quality for United Airlines. Instead of rating the flight the usual C- perhaps I will give it a C+. The best news of all is at the rear of the plane: no lines at all at the toilets! This is very unusual and for once I can ponder the possibility: do I want the starboard or the port toilet? Decisions, decisions.

I figure that since 2004 I have made at least twenty trips to Denver, mostly on United Airlines, which means roughly forty flights between Washington Dulles and Denver International. It’s a mostly featureless flight, but usually there is a bit of excitement on approach to Denver. Denver International (DIA) consistently gets strong crosswinds coming off the Rocky Mountains, to the point where I expect them on approach and to encounter a bit of a bumpy landing. A smooth landing is the exception at DIA.

Once deplaned I know what to expect: I will be in Concourse B, probably need to use the restroom, then take a smooth subway ride to the terminal. On the ride there will be the annoying recorded announcer with a fake cowboy voice on the PA system. I will claim my bag at Carousel 12, and take a shuttle to rental car row, a few miles from the airport. Thence will commence a substantial drive from the airport in far northeast Denver to Lakewood in the rental car, where the local Towneplace Suites awaits, our hotel of choice for the last four years or so. It feels like my second home now. While I have a rental car, I will likely walk down to Jus Cookin’s for dinner instead, a one of a kind family restaurant where everything on the menu is home style, cheap and delicious. Tomorrow there will be the continental breakfast to greet my tummy, and three days in a conference room at the Denver Federal Center.

With luck on Friday I will be on an on time return flight to Dulles, arriving toward dinner hour. My spouse is likely to whine about her boss. My cat will be complaining that he is starving even though he will have been fed. In February I am likely to do this shuttle circuit again.

It’s boring business travel but at least this time of year, unless there is a premature snowstorm, it is at least predictable. For that and the empty seat next to me, I am grateful.

She is more like me than I thought

There are children that are a chip off the old block, and then there is my daughter. Physically she has many of the attributes of her father (me). She tends toward being tall, with bigger feet and the proud Roman/English nose sported by my side of the family. However, she has never seemed to take after her dear old dad. Her room and car are usually a mess. Whereas I put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters after a meal, the best I can hope for is that she washes a pan or two and her plate and silverware end up at the bottom of the sink. Whereas I spend my leisure time reading news online or various political blogs, she is reading and LOL Cats. If she shares interests in common with a parent, they seemed to be my wife’s, who is also looking at LOL Cats. My daughter likes most of the same TV shows my wife does. That is because my wife introduced her to them.

But lately there have been some weird signs from daughter-land. The other day I heard the theme music from the TV Series The West Wing emanating from her laptop computer. “Hey Dad! Guess what? I am on Season 1 of The West Wing!” she exclaimed. “And I really like it!” This got us into a deep fan discussion. Who is her favorite character? What episode does she like the best? When she got to the famous Christmas episode in Season 1, perhaps the best show in its entire seven seasons, she was crying at the end, just like me.

All this may have something to do with the fact that she is 23 now, and on the cusp of graduating from her interminably long quest to complete a bachelor’s degree. I was hoping her degree might be in engineering, like her father, but it’s in English. However, in retrospect, maybe she takes after her father here too. My bachelor’s degree was in communications. It wasn’t until the 1990s after ten years of doing IT work that I got a masters degree in engineering like my father.

My daughter and I are both creative writers, as evidenced in me by nearly ten years of writing this blog, and evidenced by her in various stories, none of which have yet been published. But just as I had (for a brief time anyhow) a literary agent about the time I graduated, she has one already, and her agent is reviewing her novel. It may suffer the same fate as my attempts to sell fiction did, but maybe not. For one thing, she is a better writer than I am. Her dream of making a living from writing fiction just might be realized. She promises her mother and I a chalet in Switzerland when she hits the big time, like JK Rowling. Meanwhile, of course, we subsidize her modest lifestyle, which includes tuition at a state university, her rent, her car and her living expenses. She dreams of an apartment and a cat of her own. Right now she has roommates.

Her interest in The West Wing truly surprised me, but it should not have. This is because she has become a politically active creature, just like me. She has not joined the Young Democrats or anything, but she did make a point to vote this year, to the extent that she drove home from Richmond to make sure her vote was cast. She is passionate about gay marriage, health care for all, and most issues of concern to liberal Democrats like me. Of course, her mother is as well. So she gets that from both of us. But my wife will largely ignore the front pages of newspapers. She is delving into the details of current political issues, albeit via rather than The Washington Post.

Most surprising of all is her new interest in classical music. Four years ago we took our last family vacation to New England. One night we ended up at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony. It was the first time she had been to a classical music concert. She hated it. Her eyes rolled toward the heavens and could not wait to leave. At university however she is enrolled in a music appreciation course, and has been studying composers even I have not dabbled into, like Bedrich Smetana. However, even before her music appreciation course, she had been online downloading classical music. Maybe she took up my suggestion that it facilitates studying, since there are not usually any lyrics to distract you. I find that we are getting into rather deep conversations about classical music composers and their strengths and weaknesses. I am astounded by how quickly she is mastering this genre. For example, we can contrast Beethoven’s influence on artists like Brahms and Wagner. A couple of weeks ago she even joined us for a concert by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in part because her class required going to a live performance.

For a girl who rarely got A’s in school, we were often frustrated that her natural intelligence rarely translated into high grades. I still have no idea what kind of grades she is getting, but I do see evidence that her natural intelligence is coming out. I see it in her writing, in our conversations, in her term papers, in her ability to handle complex reasoning and exercise critical thinking. In this sense she is more like her mother. She picks up knowledge more indirectly than through studying, and most of it gets filed away for later use.

Her cautious nature may have come from me. Her friendships tend to be relatively few but deep. She mostly keeps her mouth shut in crowds but expounds at length in small groups. She tends to be firm in her opinions and can justify them at length.

On the cusp (we hope) of surviving independently, I still hope that she will embrace financial prudence. So far there is little sign that she will, but I do think it is getting observed and perhaps filed away for future use. She seems to be aware that her education is not just chance, but involved a great deal of planning, mostly by me. The one course she never got, and which is not even required in either school or college, is financial literacy. Trying to engage her on the topic usually leads to rolled eyes. Soon as she tries to make her income as an English major cover her life’s expenses she will have no choice. Toward that end she will find a couple of books under the Christmas tree on financial literacy that might help her. I’m not sure whether she will take the time to read them, but I am hopeful that she will.

Overall, I find myself warming to her more as an adult than I did as a child. I have always loved her of course, but she rarely seemed a person that I could relate to. More recently I am seeing that there is far more of me in her than I suspected, and it is mostly (I hope) the good stuff. I hope it rubs off. Life is far more complicated for her generation than for mine, and she will likely need every bit of her wits and her intelligence to thrive in this resource-competitive 21st century. Maybe I am guilty of wishful thinking, but I think that she eventually will. In time, I expect that I will learn some new tricks from lessons that she will teach me.

Lost in translation

I am starting to realize that one of the reasons labor costs are so low is because so much of the labor I use cannot speak English. In theory, English is the common language in the United States, but in practice it often is not. English works fine for me on the job and usually works in stores, but its use becomes problematical with most of the service industry.

At the Wendy’s, the lady behind the counter speaks English as does the manager, but everyone actually preparing the food appears to speak only Spanish. At least that’s how I hear them communicate among themselves. In fact, I have yet to go to a Wendy’s within fifty miles of my house and not find all the workers Hispanic and speaking Spanish to each other. I assume that most whites won’t consider working at Wendy’s. Maybe it’s too low class or something. Or maybe it is because they would have no idea of what their colleagues are saying, unless they studied Spanish in high school. It’s intimidating to work a job when you can barely communicate with your coworkers. I suspect to the extent that anyone wants a low wage job, Hispanics are preferred at Wendy’s.

I don’t interact much with the people who cut my lawn but when I listen to them, it’s clear that they too are Hispanic. The same seems to be true with the trash crew. I hear the guy hauling the trash whistling and talking with the driver, usually in Spanish. I have no particular reason to complain about this. I don’t normally need to speak to someone who is cutting my lawn, but if I did it would be best to relearn Spanish, because I don’t think they understand much English.

It’s those home services where it is easy to get meaning lost in translation. Recently, we removed the dated vinyl countertop and installed a new granite countertop. The business we bought from is family owned and run by a Chinese man. It’s hard to know if the installers were family, cousins or just part of the local Chinese American network, but they were all Chinese. When they came to install their English was obviously marginal. One of the two clearly did not understand a word of English, and the other often had confused looks on his face and spoke in short sentences when he spoke. Communicating mostly involved a lot of pointing and repetition. To make it more confusing, while our countertop installation was done by a Chinese crew the plumber arrived to attach the new garbage disposal. He was Hispanic. It all got done, sort of, but it was often confusing.

I am learning that when I have a contractor in the house I must closely monitor them because chances are they will goof up on some important detail. It’s not their competency which is usually the problem, just clear communications. Something usually gets mistranslated between talking to the salesman in the showroom and the installer trying to do the work.

If you can afford a maid service, you will likely discover that maids are particularly challenging to communicate with because few of them can speak more than a handful of English words. They are usually dropped off and picked up when they are done. Explaining how you like your bathrooms cleaned or how to dust properly can consume a lot of your time because mostly you get blank or confused looks. It helps to have the same maids every week, but there is often large turnover among maids. Eventually we decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

This system is less than optimal, but presumably is quite cost effective. Arguably it does sort of work somehow. It must be intimidating to the non-English speaking or marginally English-speaking workers around us, and there are many. It is no wonder that they choose to cloister in similar communities. Some businesses have decided that being multi-lingual is good for business. The local Lowe’s has signs in both English and Spanish, and some of the cashiers identify themselves as multi-lingual. While Hispanics form the major minority in the area, they are hardly alone. There are also Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Egyptians, Turks, Filipinos, Cambodians, Thais, Indonesians, and people from various places in the Caribbean. They seem to have their specialties. The Koreans are running the dry cleaners and convenience stores. The Indians are in the carpet and tile business. The Pakistanis are also in the carpet and tile business. The Chinese are mostly doing high tech stuff or are in a highly entrepreneurial business and at least here in Northern Virginia are mostly businesses of one or two, usually related, subcontracting to some major Beltway Bandit. Mostly the Hispanics are mowing and landscaping our lawns and running the trash trucks. So far the roofers still seem to be principally blue collar whites, but that is doubtlessly changing.

It is clear to me that I pay extra in time and attention for having so many people providing services who cannot speak English or who can speak it only marginally. In fact, English is not really our common language, as so many residents simply cannot speak it with reasonable proficiency. Maybe we need some other common language. Spanglish, perhaps. Maybe it is time to resurrect Esperanto. Its time may have finally arrived.

Greeted by the lovebugs in Ormond Beach

If home is where your heart is, then my heart is in Endwell, New York instead of Ormond Beach, Florida. I spent nearly ten years in Endwell and they were during my prime developmental years: ages six through 15. No wonder I feel bonded to the area and its climate. In contrast, I spent only three years in Ormond Beach, at least if you are counting continuously. I spent nearly seven years in Florida altogether, but about as many of them were spent going to the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando. By mid 1978, degree in hand, I was out of Florida and glad to put the state in my rear view mirror.

Ormond Beach, Florida
Ormond Beach, Florida

Florida and Ormond Beach never quite felt like home. My friends were seven hundred miles away and there were few prospects at my public school in Daytona Beach that looked friend-worthy, as they struck me as a class to be vacant and intellectually incurious. Florida’s climate was completely different, as was its terrain. For months I felt the need to wear sunglasses; Florida was just so darn bright all the time. In general things felt sticky, hot and harsh in Florida. For most of the year going outside meant being smothered in a hot and wet blanket of air that only blessed air conditioning could relieve. Giant armored rats (okay, armadillos) lived in the woods and were occasionally pancaked on the highways. In New York State I rarely saw a cockroach. In Florida even the nicest houses had them and they were huge, black and hiding pretty much everywhere. I had a visceral loathing for them. They showed up in the least expected and grosses places, like inside my shoes. Even the grass felt unnatural. Bermuda grass, if you were brave enough to walk on it, felt like walking on razor blades. Yes there were palm trees and beaches but there were also flying roaches, snakes, alligators, fire ants and love bugs.

So perhaps it was fitting that as my rental car pulled into Ormond Beach, after a lapse of twenty-six years between visits, that I would be greeted by lovebugs. Plecia nearctica is their official title and these insects only join together for a few weeks at a time, at most. They must really love their mates, so much so that when they join they fly together glued at their butts. This and their black bodies make them easy to distinguish. They hang in the air and are generally harmless, but they become a huge nuisance to drivers. They smash into windshields, die messily and clog radiator vents. Getting their carcasses off the windshield is a challenge too. Ordinary windshield washer fluid and wiper blades won’t do it. Coca-Cola works, but that got expensive. Anyhow, September must be their mating season because they were out in force when I exited my rental car in Ormond Beach to visit the local Catholic church where we prayed for a few years.

Visiting Endwell, as I did last month, was an easy decision. I could easily spend a week getting reacquainted with my hometown. For Ormond Beach, a few hours were plenty. I never stayed in the city long enough to feel rooted to it. Curiously, I had stayed long enough to find my way around easily. I didn’t need a map and always knew just where to turn. Unlike Endwell and its surrounding towns and villages long in decline, the same was not true in Ormond Beach.

The good news: Ormond Beach was looking up: much prettier than it was in the 1970s, and starting to look kind of quaint. The City of Ormond Beach agrees. South Ridgewood Avenue, which I knew well from innumerable bike trips to school and work across the Halifax River on the peninsula, now has signs calling the neighborhood historic. That’s pushing it for an area where the houses were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, but even forty years earlier when I first arrived there, tourism was its cash crop. In the intervening years the city simply has gotten better at presenting a good image. The strategy has largely worked, although the U.S. 1 corridor on South Yonge Street still looks a bit stressed, as does my old neighborhood and the house we lived in.

Where had the blacks had gone? There used to be a clear color line nearby between Ridgewood Avenue and South Washington Street. Perhaps the neighborhood got too pricey for most blacks. Lots of places in Ormond Beach now looked upscale. The old Bowman’s Care nursing home down the street where a couple of my sisters worked is still there, but is now a spiffy managed care facility with a new name and likely corporate overlords. The nearby recreation center is new to me too, and looks like a mini water park.

Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)
Hard to believe I lived here (Capri Drive in Ormond Beach)

I had no desire to hang out on its beach, or the more famous Daytona Beach to its south, although I did drive on it, which is still possible in 2012. Even if I had wanted to, the weather was not cooperative. Oversaturated clouds periodically spat rain at me. I ended up taking pictures of our old house on Capri Drive from inside my car. By the time I made it across the peninsula to Seabreeze Senior High School I just had the oppressive humidity to deal with. My alma mater also looked spiffier and modernized. The signs told me to register at the visitors’ desk, but as it was after school hours when I arrived and the campus was empty, I felt empowered to tour the campus without official permission. No one stopped me and I walked the vacant hallways alone.

Daytona Beach, Florida
Daytona Beach, Florida

In the 1970s most of the school had no air conditioning. The school was amply named because you generally stayed cool from the sea breeze, if it deigned to come into your classroom. Back then half the students dozed at their desks, the women wore halter tops (no bras) so thin the outline of their nipples were clearly visible, and students actually brought surf boards to school, the beach being a short walk across Route A1A. Now there is a chain link fence with no easy way to get to the beach or the nearby McDonalds. Nor is there a whiff of marijuana in the outdoor hallways and I am sure the lockers are now inspected regularly for contraband. The 1970s was a much more laid back decade, at least in Daytona Beach.

The tall condos and hotels along the beach have not lost any of their impressive heights, but nearby Belair Plaza where I used to work is stressed. The location of the Winn Dixie supermarket in the plaza where I had my first job is now vacant, although a Publix supermarket has moved in on the south side of the Plaza. The bookstore now contains a Walgreens. The other Winn Dixie where I worked closer to home is gone as well and contains a furniture outlet. I spoke briefly with a lady who runs a consignment shop there. I remembered that part of the supermarket as the stocking area. I remember unloading trucks in the evenings to the sound of blaring rock and roll on the radio. According to the woman sweeping debris near the back of the store, homeless men can often be found behind her store in the morning. That at least is new.

In general, the retail in Ormond Beach is a notch or two higher than when I lived there. Starbucks saw no reason to skip Ormond Beach, in spite of its heat and humidity. I dined, if you can call it that, at a Moes Southwest Grill with all the conveniences of home, including a WiFi for my iPad. The most surprising find in Ormond Beach was the Cheaters Gentleman’s Club that I passed on my way out of town back to St. Augustine. I guess its location makes short work for local private detectives.

I said in my last post that if I had to retire to Florida, I could retire to St. Augustine. Ormond Beach simply does not have its allure. Being forty miles from the city made it easy to visit. There was a reason I had avoided it for more than a quarter of a century: it was nothing special to me. In 2012 it is still nothing that special, just looking nicer.

It’s better outside

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

Perchance to dream

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1

Do you look forward to sleeping? The evidence suggests that most Americans do not. There are too many modern world temptations, like your smartphone. In a way, perhaps it is good that modern life is more tempting than sleep. It suggests that life, however harsh it may be at times, is engaging.

Like it or not, sleep (or attempting to sleep) is how we typically spend a quarter to a third of our lives. Arguably, sleep is not productive at all. During sleep we cannot create anything, except possibly in our subconscious, and you don’t get paid to sleep. Perhaps you can learn a foreign language in your sleep. It sounds iffy to me. I suspect like most of us that when I sleep I want to sleep deeply, dream vividly and wake up rested and reinvigorated.

I actually attempt to get eight hours of sleep a night. More typically it is seven, and that includes the time it takes to get to sleep, rising to use the bathroom and trying to tune out my wife’s snores three feet away (earplugs help). I’ve attributed some of my success in life to following this strategy. The only problem was I was fooling myself. It turned out that when I thought I was sleeping, I mostly was not. More specifically, I was not dreaming. I have sleep apnea. It’s a condition where your brain goes so far into hibernation during sleep that it forgets to tell your lungs to continue breathing. This cannot go on too long before other parts of your brain detect the rise in blood pressure and reduced oxygen. It then sends a mini-jolt of adrenaline through your endocrine system that restarts your breathing and wakes you up, or at least kicks you out of an attempt to get REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the sleep where you actually dream. Waking up so often, even when most of the time I was not aware of it as such, had lots of side effects. I still don’t know all of them. It may have caused my arrhythmia. It has also meant rising to use the bathroom four to six times a night, a tendency to nod off in conference rooms in the afternoon and, perhaps most importantly, little in the way of dreaming. My dreams, when they occurred at all, tended to be short and full of untimely interruptions. I rarely felt rested, even after eight hours of “sleep”. No wonder: sixteen times an hour on average my body was kick-starting me awake.

That was then. Today I sleep with the help of a breathing machine, a common solution (but not a cure) for sleep apnea. It pushes measured amounts of air into my lungs when it detects I am done exhaling. To make it work, I wear a mask over my nose and mouth and then connect the mask via a tube to a machine next to my bed. Sleeping is not necessarily perfect with my BiPAP machine. There is the incessant noise, both the motor and hearing your breathing echoing inside the mask. After a month or so of struggling, I was able to get the mask working so that it does not usually leak air. It helps to clean my face and mask before bed so skin oils won’t interfere with the mask’s adhesion to the face. It also helps to have a flexible, clear plastic nose bridge so my nose does not become pinched by the mask. Just as I am aware of my wife’s snoring, I am also aware of the presence of my mask and the hose while I sleep. It’s hard not to brush against the hose when I turn in bed.

I can attach or detach a humidifier to my unit. I need it in the winter when the humidity is low. I don’t need it in the summer, except for now. Right now I am recovering from having my deviated septum fixed. My surgeon does not want high pressure air surging through my nose all night long, and possibly undoing my sutures. So I cover my nose with gauze and tape and breathe through my mouth instead. My mouth turns into the Sahara Desert anyhow, but less quickly with the humidifier plugged in.

As for dreaming, dreams are coming back, just slowly, almost with some prodding. I thought that once I was using the masks, my dreams would return automatically. Perhaps they have returned and I wasn’t aware of them. Instead, what I discovered is that my fragmentary dreams slowly became longer. Now nearly six months into treatment I often get long, languorous, florid, sometimes even glorious dreams. I also get the occasional nightmare. However, nightmares don’t hold the same terror that they used to. I find I can wrestle and talk back to my nightmares. As for my pleasant dreams, I am easily seduced to stay inside of them. Indeed, rising in the morning to plug into the Internet is often quite a letdown. It is so much more fun and nicer to stay in dreamland, if I can.

The effects of years of chronic sleep apnea are hard to measure. I coped as well as my body could while having little idea that I had an underlying condition. It’s not quite the same as torture, as no one was torturing me. However, in a way it is like being forced awake regularly all night. While now I hardly start the day with the energy I had in my youth, my days are definitely brighter now. I rarely feel the need for a middle of the day nap. I have more energy and can concentrate easier. In some ways I feel more connected with my soul. Sleep theory suggests we dream to incorporate experience into long term memory and to file away lessons learned during the day. REM sleep may be fantasy and nothing more than the mind unfettered, but having it again strikes me as fundamentally healthy and natural.

Do you have sleep apnea? Snoring can suggest sleep apnea, but many people snore without having sleep apnea. My experience suggests that if you awake three or more times a night, you have sleep apnea. If you find yourself falling asleep at your chair at work, it could suggest sleep apnea. (It could also be that you need a more stimulating job.) General tiredness and lethargy, particularly after getting what appears to be a good night’s sleep, could mean you have sleep apnea. Being overweight or obese are often associated with sleep apnea. In my case part of the problem is congenital: my throat is narrower that most people’s and my uvula is unnaturally large. Some health care specialists are suggesting that sleep apnea is being over-treated. Perhaps. I still think that if you have some of these symptoms and can afford it (sleep studies are not cheap, but usually are covered by insurance); it is worth the time, hassle and expense. It might save your life, as many cases of people dying during sleep can be attributed to sleep apnea. Perhaps the best reason is, to quote the Bard, perchance to dream. For me, this alone was worth the effort.

A truly capital Fourth of July

It’s a curious thing: I have lived in the Washington D.C. region since 1978 and had never been downtown to see the Independence Day fireworks. Why? For years it was because I could not afford to get home sometime after midnight and then struggle to work before dawn the next morning. As I got older I found other excuses. For example, there is Washington’s legendary July combination of toxic heat, ozone and humidity. For most people, spending Independence Day in Washington D.C. means crowds, profuse sweating, scorching heat, oppressive humidity, long lines to use disgusting Porto-potties, little chance of hearing the NSO perform from less than a half mile away, eighteen minutes of amazing fireworks usually more than a mile away, then hour-plus long waits to get onto jammed subway cars for a long commute home. So much easier to stay at home, turn on the air conditioning, watch the fireworks on TV and listen to the NSO in stereo on your receiver.

July 4th, 2012 fireworks as seen from the roof of the Interior Building, 18th and C Streets NW
July 4th, 2012 fireworks as seen from the roof of the Interior Building, 18th and C Streets NW

There is a good chance I would have never made it to see the fireworks had not I got an invitation to see them from the terrace on the roof of the Interior Department building. The invitation was open to a guest and me as a benefit from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for thirty years of federal service. The Interior building is at 18th and C Streets N.W. It’s virtually impossible to get closer to the reflecting pool, where the fireworks are launched, than from our building. In fact, there is probably no better viewing spot anywhere for the national fireworks, and that includes the Rose Garden. It is not eight stories up, and it is farther away.

Yet amazingly, there I was on the roof with my wife in ninety-five degree heat and oppressive humidity. It is not really July in Washington unless you have both of those factors, and Washington delivered an impressive scorcher yesterday. An occasional light breeze and a setting sun made it tolerable, along with free ice cream and hot dogs provided for attendees. Also provided: a free parking space in the basement.  It was a strange experience to present a pass and drive down a blocked off street, and then take a ramp generally used by higher graded people than me to a free parking space.

Up on the terrace, Washington was splayed out in front of and below us. Nervous looking National Park Service helicopters kept circling the Mall for signs of trouble. The heat and humidity smothered you like a hot blanket, but it offered a convenient excuse to get more ice cream. The crowds around the Washington Monument were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder at 7 p.m. More were streaming in from local Metro stations. Constitution Avenue, right below us, was blocked off. It turned out this was for public safety. Trust me, we were about as close as you should ever get to the fireworks.

My “buddy” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who gave me my thirty-year certificate personally the day before, was on the roof with the rest of us sweltering partiers. He gave a short speech, told everyone we were the best department in the government, patiently shook the hands of everyone who came close and posed for innumerable pictures. Also there were a few of my friends from the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director was rumored to be wandering around, but I never saw her. Mostly we ate, sat in large plastic chairs facing south and kept hydrated by drinking many bottles of free bottled water. A security detail kept a sharp eye the neighboring streets and us. In the distance you could not quite see planes arriving at Reagan National airport, but you could see their headlights. The humidity was quite thick, but somehow the Jefferson Memorial look splendid bathed in lights in the twilight across the mall. The city buzzed and pulsated.

I knew there would be a good show, but I thought I knew what to expect. I am no stranger to fireworks shows, and have been to places like Disney World that never disappoint. I can’t compare the experience to fireworks shows in other major cities like New York and Boston. I have to think they should be comparable. But I doubt they are quite as majestic. The nation’s capital has over two hundred years of practice, and it is down to a science. Certainly it would be hard to get as close to a fine a show as we were, a mere five hundred yards from the Reflecting Pool where the fireworks were launched.

The experience, which began promptly at 9:10 p.m., was truly once in a lifetime. The video I took with my relatively inexpensive camera (above) can give you some appreciation for it, but no video, not even one in BluRay with surround stereo sound can truly capture the experience. It is overwhelming! Even if you were blind, it would have been impressive because the percussion from the fireworks smashes you in the chest and shakes your body. Then there is the quality of the fireworks, made more impressive by being so close. There were so many colors, beautifully orchestrated and intermingled, arrayed against a temporal majestic backdrop. Up close you could see pulsating clouds of smoke shot through with new streaming rockets ascending into the sky. Frankly, the experience was quite stupefying. Eighteen minutes passed quickly. For a while it was hard to tell the grand finale from all that had come before it, because it was all so amazing. And then suddenly it was over. Puffs of smoke hung over the Mall, gently rising and heading east. And once we gathered our wits and belongings, we made our way back to our car in the basement. We were escorted through the barricade onto E Street, quickly got on the ramp, and found ourselves home at the surreal hour of only 10:30 p.m.

If you feel some jealousy, please realize that this was the first and only sizeable benefit I have gotten for thirty years in the civil service. No lavish employer provided holiday parties for us. We get one event, and it’s always a potluck. While we are unlikely to get laid off, we never get a holiday bonus either. Occasionally we will be let go an hour or so early the day before a national holiday. This is generally as beneficent as management ever gets.

Yet I don’t feel cheated in the least. This short but memorable experience more than made up for thirty years of being treated decently but never lavishly. In fact, I feel like I owe someone quite a lot of change.

Thanks Ken!

Eulogy for my mother in law

My mother in law passed away Sunday night. As a consequence we find ourselves in Phoenix, Arizona to mourn her death where she died with family. She was aware that she was dying, having been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer some six weeks back. She was expected to live four to six months but obviously did not make it that long. There will be no funeral as she was cremated, but there will be a gathering of family and friends to remember her life. I am not sure if I will be asked to say anything about her life or not, so this may end up here only. I will do my best to communicate these thoughts in person if they cannot be done publicly.

It would seem, as a son in law, that my relationship with Mom should have been largely superficial and meaningless. Yet it certainly was not meaningless to me. She was the mother of the woman I love, so I had an inkling that time spent with her would be well spent. If nothing else, it would help me better understand the woman I married. In fact, our relationship spanned nearly thirty years, an extraordinarily long time. And I felt we had a relationship of some depth.

I first remember meeting Mom in Arlington, Virginia a couple of months after my wife and I began dating and long before she had become anything more than a new girlfriend. The location was The Orleans House, a steak house in Rosslyn known for its prime rib and tuxedoed waiters. Mom was in town basically to  check me out. Was I good enough for her daughter? I never really found out, but I got the sense that I met her seal of approval, which should have surprised me. In 1983, I was not a terrific prospect. I had little inkling of my future career in information technology, and eked out a modest living as a production controller for the Defense Mapping Agency. At the time I could not even afford to live independently.

There is a big difference in being nurtured by a mother and acquiring one as a result of marriage. My own mother, who passed away in 2005, I found to be a challenge to love sometimes. We loved each other but our relationship had rocky spots. With Mickey there was no baggage. The woman I found I liked.

From the start she was not Mickey but simply Mom to me. This was because to me I sensed nothing but mom vibes from her. Moreover, I wanted a mother relationship with her and I sensed she wanted a son relationship with me. In some ways, our relationship was ideal. It did not have the baggage that I carried with my own mother. The same I think was true with her. We both got to enjoy the fruits of a nurturing mother-son relationship without any of its downsides. It was win-win. I sensed she truly enjoyed knowing me and including her in her life.

Mom was always uniformly kind and loving to me. In fact, it would be hard to have asked for a much better mother in law. She remembered my birthday with cards even when sometimes my own mother did not. (Well, she did have eight of us.) I enjoyed talking with her on the phone and often asked how things were going in her life. She often wanted to hear things about my life as well. She was very generous of her time and energy. Whenever we visited, she insisted on hosting us, and the spare bedroom wasn’t good enough. She vacated her room and we got her bedroom.

My only real regret is not having spent more time with her. In truth, over thirty years I saw her quite a bit, just not as often as I would have liked. Mostly it was hard for her to visit us, so we had to visit her, and we couldn’t do it every year. But I have come here enough over thirty years to still feel very attached not just to her, but to you all and to the Phoenix area. With every trip here I carry back wonderful memories of our time here, mostly with you. I remember bringing Rosie here when she was just over a year old and reveling in a traditional Hamilton Thanksgiving. It was such a change from Thanksgivings that I remember, full of good food, good company, and lots of laughing. To me, Phoenix is like a second home that I visit from time to time, and when I am here I always feel very much at home, loved and included. What I get from all this is that the Hamiltons are a close and loving bunch. You were raised right and a lot of that rubbed off on Mickey, and thus on my wife. In some ways I envy Terri because you all stay so close to each other. I love my siblings, but we will never be close in the way all of your are close. I think the intimacy you share is neat and special.

I’m going to miss Mom. She filled in those parts of my own mother than I wanted filled. Particularly after my own mother died in 2005, I found I appreciated Mickey even more. I thought that Mothers Day would be sad, but it was not because I still had a real mother in my life, and I could pick up the phone and wish her a happy Mothers Day, and send her a Mothers Day card too. Having her around made dealing with the loss of my own mother much more bearable.

The irony is that I did not tell her most of these things when she was alive. One thing I did say to her, mostly on the telephone, but in person when I had the chance was simply, “I love you, Mom.” And of course she would tell me, often unsolicited, that she loved me too. So I guess that says it all. I am sorry though that I never shared these particular thought from my heart with her. But I think she felt them.

I leave you with thoughts I echoed at my mother’s memorial service that may be of comfort to you. I find six years later these thoughts are not only still a comfort to me, but still ring true. It is simply this: she is still alive inside of you. She is not here in the flesh, but she is with you in spirit. Moreover, there is no getting rid of her. She is absorbed and integrated inside of you. She is in every step you take and in every breath you take. You were changed forever simply because you have known her. She remains, literally, a heartbeat away.

To Jesse: my deepest condolences on the loss of your wife. To Bill, Fran, Peggy, Jim and Bob: I don’t know what it’s like to lose a sister, but I am devastated for your loss. To Dave, I have walked in your shoes and know what it is like to witness the decline of your mother up close. You have my deepest empathy and I am so sorry for the heartache, stress and your enormous loss. To all of you: I hold you and your sorrow closely in my heart. I can only wish I had the opportunity to have known Mickey like you have known her.