Wednesday, December 25, 2013

That Little Voice

The Buddhists say guilt is useless, but regret is something you can work with.  To reflect on and improve yourself, not to wallow in, of course.  When you hear that little voice in your mind that warns you away from something, or the much rarer one which urges you to take this chance, do you let it be heard?  Do you usually just do what you think you're supposed to do or are resigned to?

When you're young and ignorant, and mindful of the sanctions that can be imposed if you step out of the conga line to make your own moves, it's harder to trust that voice at all.  You don't have much experience, don't really know what's true and can't spot manipulation or misinformation.  After much experience in life, if you haven't started trusting that voice and taking it into every decision, well, you've aged but not matured.  Thinking about it, I conclude I should have listened to it every time.

My mother believed everyone was allergic to hundreds of substances, and over the years concluded she had the experience to diagnose exactly what those allergies were for those around her.  She forbid my father to eat peas, salmon and lettuce, for example.  When I was a pup, the forbidden food list began with cottonseed oil (a cheap commodity then prominent in many foods such as mayonnaise and bread) and progressed to such things as all nuts, chocolate and citrus fruits.  We all believed it because were the adults in your family not trustworthy (I felt OK not trusting the discount dentist, but kept it to myself)?  Here's the thing, though:  as I grew, read and thought about things, it seemed logical to test these allergies one at a time in the spirit of scientific experimentation, because I had previously eaten some of these things without incident and many others very like me did so regularly, the only difference being the hundreds of scratch tests I had undergone on my skinny back.  To my curious head, it seemed if even a medical professional scratched your skin with a needle and dropped some concentrated liquid on it, there would probably be no other result than redness.  This just did not seem like proof of anything, and a pronouncement by my mother that a bout of sickness or a rash somewhere was caused by eating something so obviously inherently good as oranges or peanuts did not either.

 I had the subject (me), the time to note and observe, and a spare few bits of change to obtain each item and try it.  Of course, I had no reaction to any of those foods once consumed except a little glow of happiness.  They could have the cottonseed oil one -- who cared about that?

That was the first voice I remember saying that something I was told by a higher authority was just made up.  Funny, if I made up a crazy story it just got me in trouble.

When I worked for the science museum, the local Dairy Council approached us with cash in hand to sponsor an exhibit.  They also gave us a giant trade show exhibit about the glories of milk, which took days to assemble and promptly became a maintenance nightmare (no parts list, instructions, schematics, spares or anything came with it).  I did plunder the thing for years for salvage to re-use, so that was really no loss except for time.  I was really salivating to get my hands on the $1500 or so for the small portable unit they wanted based on the famous "food pyramid."  I never did the exhibit and so had to forfeit the money, which never happened before or after.  Why?

The little voice told me the official USDA food pyramid was just wrong, and I couldn't go along with it.  The wide base in the graphic was all grains, as the prevailing wisdom then (and mostly now) was to eat a whole lot of grain each day, with less protein and very little fat.  It seemed reasonable, but the findings since then have shown that all those carbohydrates and empty engineered grains and starches have a whole lot more to do with obesity and disease than good nutrition and health, and good fats don't really make you fat.  I didn't have any of the information on this to go on that's come out since the time I bailed on the exhibit, but somehow I knew it was the right thing to do.  It's odd, but no matter how much you know or don't yet know, that little voice does seem to know.

I can think of job interview situations stretching way back where the voice was pretty clear:  "get out now!"  It was right every time.  I did not, however, listen every time, and paid the price.  And the times I should have listened and avoided any further interaction with some people?  Yeah, you guessed it.

Someone's sitting in the living room right now because I did listen to the most important message sent by the internal oracle over the years:  "She's the one, dummy.   Let her get away and I'm never speaking to you again!"

'Nuf said.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

To a Car Guy, the Fiftieth Anniversary is...Sheet Metal

1963 Mustang concept car

There are serial snowfalls on the ground, so it's the time of year to plan a trip to someplace inviting and warm.  We discovered some years ago that San Francisco in the summer is definitely the first but definitely not the second.  So it may be Napa again, but it has to be a standout because it will be our 35th anniversary.

Anniversaries and birthdays are, of course, such convenient excuses for spending and living large.  Things so justified are easier on one's conscience.  This year is also a big anniversary, the 50th, for two iconic autos: the Porsche 911 and the Ford Mustang.  Since only a few auto companies last that long, producing one model that does is exceptional.  How the Mustang survived its Mustang II years without total public rejection, however, is something of a mystery.

For its sixth generation and anniversary iteration, Ford plans to launch the new Mustang worldwide --with some trepidation -- trying to appeal to the different tastes of Europeans and Asians (only a few are sold yearly in Africa).  I understand the Swedes are crazy about old American cars, so they may cozy up to this too since it has retro cred as much as anything.

I've heard that Ford adopted the name for the product when new in 1965 in reference to the fast, deadly and sexy P-51 Mustang fighter of late World War II fame, but its logo is a galloping pony, the wild mustang horse of the West.  But it was not the first Mustang car.

It seems a former Ford executive designed a slow, nonsexy aluminum-bodied vehicle with that name and made one prototype of it in 1949 in Seattle, using an empty Boeing building as factory.  It was to have sold for $1235, had a small 4-cylinder engine producing all of 59 horsepower coupled to a 3-speed manual transmission.  There was also a Mustang motorcycle made in California in the same year, and a Mustang truck made by White, but it's the car that is of interest, especially considering which company the former executive worked for.

In 1956, Fiat of Italy introduced the Multipla, which looked very much like this poor thing.  Had they known of it, and if it was not a coincidence, why in the world would they have copied it?  One too many bottles of wine at lunch, maybe.

You can see why they only made one.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Can We Talk?

Apparently we can't communicate, despite all the talk.

It all started with a faint beeping sound, sometime in the evening.  It sounded just like the coffeemaker when it's telling you it's done, but that was far away and about twelve hours too early.  It happened again the next night, and seemed to be coming from my left collar bone area.  It occurred to me, after checking my phone, the smoke detectors and everything else that might have beeped, that my implanted device (sort of like a pacemaker) was trying to tell me something.

The next day was Monday, and I took myself and my little bionic-man implant to the cardiologist's office, where they coincidentally enough had just had a cancellation of an 8:15 a.m. appointment in the "pacer clinic," as the little room where they monitor these things is called.  The pacer lady was most annoyed that I had just showed up, probably because I had messed up her anticipated free 15 minute break, but I said I was concerned about the beeping and didn't know what it was.  She confirmed my suspicion that it was a built-in warning that the battery was running low and needed replaced (this unfortunately involves a little outpatient surgery for a whole lot of bucks).  I was surprised that no one had ever told me about this built-in warning, despite so many visits to said clinic.

Now Nancy was in the process of retiring rather abruptly, so we needed to get our health insurance ducks in a row pretty quickly since our coverage would end with the end of November.  And we are organized types who can read and use the telephone and computer reasonably well, so I did not think we couldn't get this done in time.  But I once again had underestimated how difficult it is to get simple things done quickly and efficiently when you're dealing with people who don't give one small damn about getting the details right from the beginning and closing the deal.

I had not only read the huge yearly Medicare booklet thoroughly, but had the page earmarked with the national telephone number to call to sign up for Medicare Part B (I already had Part A, which complicates matters a little).  The lady promised to send me the application, for which I waited three weeks in vain.  Why isn't the simple one-page application provided in the big Medicare booklet?  A minute with the pen and a postage stamp, and it would have been done.

That is, if either the booklet or the person I spoke to had mentioned that the required written statement from the former employer concerning termination date and "creditable coverage" was not actually what was required.  Neither the experienced HR person at Nancy's employer, who asked about "forms" without explanation or the Medicare/Social Security people whom I had spoken to on the 1-800 number a second time mentioned that what was required was a (again, one-page) Medicare form filled out with the same information.  Here's the essential problem:  why oh why won't people who do tasks day after day, year after year, just tell you exactly what's needed the first time?  Why do they somehow like getting many calls and communications from the same client when a precise answer at the beginning, or printed material that is exactly what they want, would prevent such a waste of everyone's time and effort?

Getting inaccurate or mis-information has happened to all of us many times, and I really don't know what defect in human beings or their education causes it.  Don't get me started on written instructions -- no wonder no one reads them.

Enough of the rant.  Things can be done well with less frustration; here are two examples:

* I called Moen's customer service line because the handles on our new bathroom faucets were getting loose and I didn't want to mark them up or break something trying to figure out how to take them off to find what needed tightening.  A young lady answered immediately and gave me quick and perfectly understandable instructions.  This was a rare and wonderful occurance and I do indeed treasure it.

* Despite our lousy weather here, one of the reasons we don't move to a place with lemons and palm trees is that our local township government does such a good job.  The police are always where they need to be amazing quickly, the building codes/inspection people are clear, prompt and fair, and the township robo-calls you with any information you may need -- leaf collection days, storm emergency parking rules, approaching natural disasters and various inconveniences, you name it.  Yesterday, they called to advise of a worrisome situation involving a misguided dude who fired a shot at a State Police officer over a traffic stop.  This was especially relevant since we were planning to drive through that area in a few minutes.  Saved us a lot of waiting in stopped traffic.  Seeing an episode of "Cops" played out in sleepy suburbia might have been fun, though.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How I Got My Girlfriend Back

We were prepared and we weren't.  For the past few years, we have been working a plan to be ready for any major changes that might come up:  saving, reducing expenses, replacing all the mechanics of our home from roof to flooring, that sort of thing.  We figured that, in time, I'd have (maybe terminal) health problems or Nancy would retire early, either voluntarily or not.  We thought it would be best to be as ready as possible.

Good thing, because when things change, they can change fast.

Nancy was advised of the advantages of retiring before December 1st of this year sometime in mid-November (I still wonder why none of her co-workers where she has spent the last 26 years ever thought to mention this "deal" a little sooner).  We then had a week of intense discussion and some wild number-crunching, coming to the conclusion that when a rare opportunity comes a-knockin', you should answer the door and let it on in.

So this is her first week of retirement, and it looks like things will be just fine.  The weather report today predicts an ugly commute next Monday (ice, cold rain and all that); someone here will still be in her jammies thinking about what's good for breakfast.  I have always held -- and it's been proven both while a working tool and now as a gentleman of leisure -- that one gets more done more accurately, efficiently and with no stress, if one can organize his/her day without interference from above, below or the side.  The first few days of this week we've gotten a long list of chores and running around completed without leaving early or wasting any effort, simply because we can do things in the right order and at the right time.  The entire working world all on the road at the same time -- the madness of rush hour -- starts everything off wrong, and you know how much control you usually have over the timing and flow of your work once you get there.

Because of the short time frame and a lot of misinformation and misdirection over the phone from Social Security/Medicare and, we still don't have the health insurance thing set up.  A policy for the two of us, retail, would be $1300 a month, so that's a no-go.  Well, I've dealt with them before and have found that dreaded visit to the downtown office is what will have to be done to straighten out at least the SS/Medicare part out. is just as screwed up as you've heard.

But if we were afraid of the turmoil of change, we wouldn't have gotten to what looks like a sweet spot today.  The school-year schedule, the fixed hours of work and having to ask months in advance for vacation days, ridiculous personnel evaluations, supporting multiple cars because everyone has to be different places at the same time, wanting better stuff:  those are just some of the things whose absence leaves room for the light to shine through. 

No one's watching you now, no one needs to be pleased or placated, and your permanent record is closed and filed away.  I think it's going to be all right.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rabbit's Circle

It's only got five weeks to go, but we bid 2013 good riddance.  It's been like a year-long store closing:  "Everything Must Go!"  We did not, as usual, make several vacation plans in February; we must have had an inkling that would not work this go-round. 

Things started out fairly well; we spent some time in June house-sitting for brother Ron and Claire in California, which is hard to beat.  Even the usual "June Gloom" foggy and overcast weather was only partially present, and N. made an impressive multiple-flight trek midway through that time to surprise her brother on his retirement in Kentucky.  And I guess to end the year on a like high note, they (brother Tom and his wife Cherry) will be here for Thanksgiving.  And how lucky are we to have a chef son to prepare a dozen-course feast for all of us?  The weather won't be good but we won't be going anywhere for 24 hours after that.

The losses between those points have been staggering.  Mom passed away in the hospital in Florida, Dad got sick at the same time and never returned home, going from local hospital to rehab center to the nursing home here near us.  We cleared out and sold their home during the summer, ending their 17-year sojourn amongst the palm trees.  At least they got to live their retirement dream for a considerable time.

Our nine-year-old tuxedo cat, Gilligan, was struck by a blood clot which paralyzed his hind legs and there was no way to save him -- and we would have not considered the cost if there had been a way.  His playmate, three-year-old Blackberry, has been despondent ever since.  Chasing a paper ball just can't compare to successfully ambushing his senior mentor from around the corner of the sofa.

That all should have been enough.  But recently B. B. Bunny (that was short for "Big Boy"), our sweet old rabbit, passed away just from old age at twelve and a half years, peacefully next to his box homes.  He was never sick once, never had to live in a cage, and was a wascally wabbit until the final days.  I finally removed all the devices I had installed in his half of the basement to keep him from eating up another dryer vent hose or getting stuck behind the furnace yet again.

The boy loved to be petted -- would quiver with delight and lick your skin off -- and loved to eat even more.  He was just as delighted today with his shredded wheat squares as yesterday or last year; flew to his bowl for the morning blueberries, and made it clear he liked carrot tops over the orange root part by leaving the latter for eating the next day when everything else was gone.  I don't think any child at Christmas was more excited about presents than he was about a couple slices of fresh pear.  We finally hit on the idea of shredded paper for litter (which we used an enormous amount of) after going through several sorts of bought types in gigantic bags.  Document security, junk mail disposal and bathroom efficiency all taken care of at once.

Old B. B. is buried out front near the big holly tree, the last of five rabbits who have lived here.  I found him at PetSmart one day in an adoption display put up by the rescue group Bunny People.  It was funny he had the Silver Marten color pattern even though the rest of his family (all there, rescued from a photographer's back yard after being "used" for the Easter season) was tan and white.  I looked in; he came up and practically jumped up in my hands.  I went through the store with the little guy on my shoulder, adopted him with a phone call, and he lived the rest of a long and happy life here, never leaving.

His life circle will be completed tomorrow, when I take his leftover food, hay and bowl back to the rescue group's adoption display at PetSmart to donate it.  What a year.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mon Doux Jeudi

Back in the late 70s I had a fascinating co-worker Alan who explained, when I asked why he was usually late and in considerably worse shape on Friday mornings, what he called "Little Friday."  College students get into the habit of partying on Thursday nights due to few or later classes on Fridays, but primarily to start the weekend as early as possible.  Alan continued this despite the 8 to 4, five day week world being a different one, one he had no intention of changing for.

I went to one of his parties, and on Friday morning felt and looked like he did.  One was enough.  But I think I learned something.

Many years ago N. and I tired of the traffic and lines everywhere on the traditional going-out nights, Friday and Saturday.  We took a cue from Alan and that much more adaptable and happy society -- collegians -- and made Thursday night date night and Sunday morning a lazy sojourn at an oasis (home or a favorite cafe).  Thursday from close of business to Sunday night is ours (and as the song says, you can't take it!)

Thursday is just the jewel of the week.  It's television's festival day and you used to have to miss some of your favorites or watch them on alternate weeks before VCRs and DVRs.  It is fun now, though, to find a missed Seinfeld episode twenty years later.  Old but new, like a vintage toy in its original box.  Thanksgiving is a Thursday specialty (although in Islam it's the preferred fasting day of the week), and now some employers understand that you'll be in no shape to be at work the following day, Friday, and so give you a four-day weekend.  You will need at least that much time to clean up, anyway.

Fictional characters and famous people have been named after the other days of the week:
Nicole Kidman's daughter Sunday, actress Tuesday Weld, the Addams Family's daughter Wednesday, and both My Man and Girl Friday.  The only Thursday I could find was a character on Ugly Betty.  The day itself is, as you could guess, named after the Norse god Thor; Thunor's Day in Old English.  In the Roman world, it was named after Jupiter, and Thor would have been identified with him.  It's a wonder we retain those pagan god names for our weekdays after 1700 years of supression of the old religions. 

Here's to Thor and his fine day.  Just give the old boy a martini glass to raise instead of his hammer.


(Added 11/23/13:)

How could I have forgotten about one of ole Cliff's high school bands, the legendary "Thursday Night"?  He says they suddenly got their first gig and didn't have a name.  The dance was on Thursday night, so...
Their tagline, "swinging teens," still brings a grin.  And how about that clarinet in the illustration?
Sure they had one of those.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Maybe We Can

"Now you need to chill, President Putin."

Presidential limo

Tomorrow is local election day.  Like a lot of people, I used to ignore these thinking (1) I don't know who they really are and (2) it didn't matter because they were all the same.  Now that I'm not away working or losing my mind to commuting time, problem (1) can be solved with a little effort, but unfortunately condition (2) still applies.

To wit:  there are exactly two Republicans running for a judgeship.  One is the establishment's choice, and has solid, longstanding connections to the wealthy elite and their pockets.  The other is a retiring Congressman who was first elected with Dubya and was a reliable vote for the neoconservatives, but was certainly no Eric Cantor or Pat Toomey; he was not harmless but not nuts. 

Just a Hobson's Choice...  The first candidate is undoubtedly being put in place to rubber stamp real-estate developers' constant applications to build where it makes no sense to and get exceptions to any and every law, regulation or ordinance (I'm thinking of you, McNaughton, and your relentless attack on that lovely open space in Newberry Township, which is supposed to be protected by covenenants and already-settled agreements).  The problem is our establishment man is much more qualified for the post.  The former Congressman, on the other hand, is leaving after six terms as he originally promised, but is just seeking another taxpayer-funded job for life.

Sometimes when faced with the situation (OK, it happens every time), I write in someone.  Last time it was Frank Zappa, but I need someone who's alive who would look, um, more credible.  What we need is candidates from a new party who would blow these sad creatures we're currently offered right out of their stagnant water. 

I think we need a Surf Pirate party!  A Jolly Roger on a surfboard would be our logo; we'd appeal to the religious with tiki gods present at all events (fire-breathing ones, natch); the surf lifestyle would appeal to the Greens (recycling old woodies, loving nature, living the simple life); and we'd turn the pirates loose on the banksters, the PACs and think tanks, Monsanto, and AM radio millionaire blowhards and TV evangelists.  That's where the money is, and you know they like their booty.

Think of a possible candidate everyone likes and who would win by write-in easily -- how about Jimmy Buffett for governor (or president someday)?  Dick Dale for superior court judge (he's a stern dude and pretty wise)?  Johnny Depp -- and he could finance a huge campaign.  Keith Richards would probably give it a go if he didn't have to actually read anything or be up before 3 p.m.

If there were a State of the Union speech beginning with a comprehensive surf report, I'd actually tune it in.  And Talk Like a Pirate Day would be the national holiday it should be.

That's it.  I'm writing in Mr. Dale tomorrow instead of the Bert and Ernie who are running for judge.  Righteous.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A First That Didn't Last

Johannes Kelpius, the "maddest of good men"

All that's left -- the "cave"

You dodged a bullet:  yesterday I spent about 45 minutes writing a way-too-long entry which went off, in detail, in about four different directions.  Some kind of mistake made by an inaccurate right pinky finger erased it all, though, and it didn't go to "Drafts" as usual.  Probably for the best.

What I was thinking about was prompted by coming across an essay, with copious pictures, about Pennsylvanian Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion concept automobile.  Back in my museum days, I'd noticed that people responded to exhibits about themselves -- their bodies or their local environment.  I had seen the effect on visitors of an infrared camera in the Baltimore science museum:  people couldn't get enough of seeing which areas of themselves were "hotter" than others. 

No possibility of the funds being available for such a camera and a big-screen projection system (this was way before LCD flatscreens, of course), I decided to make "Pennsylvania Science" a theme for an ongoing exhibition,  beginning with five units and being further developed over time.  I thought this would educate and engage visitors of all ages and sort of brand our museum as a regional museum with a unifying idea (other than anything we could cram in there, largely copied from others).

The only representation of Mr. Fuller's appealing oddness that ended up being made was a paper geodesic dome exhibit in which one could cut out, assemble and find how well it supported weight (and thus get a free take-home:  the children liked that for 15 seconds before they got bored with it).  I had rejected the idea of making a Dymaxion model which one could get into due to lack of good information.  And now I run across this article which provided all I would have needed.  That would have been a hit, and a good candidate for a newspaper publicity article and picture.  But without the internet back then, I was limited by how much time I could give to rooting out information from books or other static media, and how lucky I was in finding such things at all.

Another exhibit was a pretty large interactive light-up panel of Pennsylvania science-related facts and firsts.  Once again, what a dream it would have been to have the internet available for the research to dig up the about 100 of these I needed.  I would have had to stick with "firsts" that were relevant, and I did finally find enough of those thanks to publications by the State Museum and their fine library.   I keep running into so many others online, and it's a little frustrating knowing how much easier all this would be now.  But it's fun discovering fun facts and "firsts" just for their entainment value now. 

So, would you have thought the first communal living experiment took place in America before 1700, and in Philadelphia? 

German mystic, scholar, Pietist and pretty brave dude Johannes Kelpius arrived in that city in 1694 with 40 followers to build a site near the confluence of Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River (now in a park, then dark wilderness) to await the return of Jesus in a pristine place away from civilization -- and organized religion.  He had inherited this all-male group (called "The Society of the Woman in the Wildnerness" by others due to an obscure Bible reference) from a J. Zimmerman, and a generous grant of money and land from one of William Penn's sympathetic agents in the Netherlands.  It was not intended to be a commune with a future, however, as they (1) expected to raptured up soon and (2) it was limited to 40 maximum due to that being the number of days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and Jesus spent in the desert, as well as the site being at 40 degrees latitude.  

When the event did not come to pass, this group employed their considerable education and talent in writing music, poetry, hymns, as well as collecting botanicals and pursuing astronomy.  In reaching out to educate and assist the small community of colonists (not too) nearby, and in establishing a school, gardens and orchards, they resembled a developing monastic order despite their intention, originally, of not hanging around very long.  They had quite a good reputation locally, despite their otherworldliness, and would trade, share or teach readily but not for profit. 

The year 1700 looked auspicious for a big cosmic event (like 2000 or 2012 more recently) and the group kept watch from their observatory for the physical descent of the Messiah from heaven.  I guess it's not a spoiler to reveal nothing much happened, and as Kelpius' health declined in the next few years, members began leaving to pursue semi-professional careers in the community outside, which was growing quickly and getting a lot closer to their woodsy hideout.

Go down Hermit Lane today, and all that is left of the Society's settlement is the "cave," which was actually a spring house also used for silent meditation. 

Wouldn't history be a little duller without people like Fuller and Kelpius inventing three-wheeled torpedo-shaped automobiles or mystic communes in the woods?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Stop Making Sense"

One of my favorite titles.  While "Embraceable You" or "These Boots Were Made for Walking" aren't of much use for further thought, the concept of the limits of what makes sense can be of daily use.  If only to bypass understanding on the way to acceptance.

Luxe World

We recently took a short trip to Atlantic City, a place that lost its reason to exist after the craziness of the Prohibition era, and stayed, as usual, at the Borgata.  Resorts have to be heavily used to generate a profit, and that means they are quickly physically degraded  and in these dizzying times, look outdated in a few years too.  Most hotels are sold at this point, exactly as planned by the original builders (too bad suburban developments can't be got rid of when they become more expensive to maintain than the revenue they generated in the first years of newness), and the deterioration is patched up by the second set of owners as minimally and cheaply as possible before the last slim profits are drained out and the project heads to the dumps.  After 10 years, the Borgata underwent a subtle but thoroughgoing renovation, bucking the usual real-estate investment trend, and is still as attractive, pretty much, as ever. 

The faux-Italianate design is paired with modern furniture and artwork, which works in not seeming yet another dive into nostalgia or over-stylish futurism alone.  The limestone-looking columns and ceilings are surely some fake substitute material, but the marble floors are real enough (of course, I could be fooled) and close attention is paid to such high-wear areas as elevators and restrooms.  Signage is actually updated -- something that often is neglected.  Of course, too much was built and sits empty -- cashier booths replaced by machines and storefronts in dark corners that look permanently abandoned. 

It's the stores and restaurants inside that seem such a jarring contradiction to your eyes, though:  how do all the high-end crystal, jewelry and clothing stores jibe with the resort clientele, who don't look like resort clientele at all?  Many families, even more very old and handicapped people, and, well, real slobs who dress far down from the U.S. mall standard.  Flip-flops, tee shirts, dumb hats, shorts -- is this crowd really going to spend $80 and up on an entree or buy $5000 jewelry?  The pizza place downstairs and the Starbucks always have lines, but the salespeople in the shiny places must be just short of falling over asleep.  What in the world is the WalMart crowd doing here? 


If you keep up with the damage being done to the developed world's over-financialized economy since it was completely freed from sensible restraint after the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (the unemployed and foreclosed-on thank you, Senator Phil Gramm), you have probably been amazed at the disastrous path taken by J.P. Morgan Chase megabank.  They have paid an $80 million settlement for their credit card malpractices, a $920 million fine for admitted wrongdoing (and jaw-dropping incompetency) tied to the "London Whale" trading fiasco (which had already cost the bank $6 billion), and are facing a possible $11 billion settlement with the Justice Department right now for their malfeasance with mortgage-backed "securities" (there's a contradiction in terms).

Yet we know someone who has had a home mortgage with Chase for several years who was recently approached by them with an offer to reduce his interest rate to the current pretty low standard, with no closing costs.  An offer that solely benefitted the customer, a.k.a. the usual victim!  It took many e-mails, calls and much paperwork, but it was all done as promised and within a very reasonable time frame.  The Chase people and their associated contractors made every effort to respond quickly and accurately, and even provided their superior's names and contact information if the mortgagee was unhappy with anything.  How could this possibly be the same organization?

Joisey Shore

Individually, folks from New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey can be great -- lively, talented, with it, funny.  They make you up your own game.  That thought is hard to keep in mind on the highways into that vast metropolitan area, as drivers around you become deadly missiles obviously devoid of any good sense or manners at all.  Crowding just drives people and animals crazy, I guess.  The rich are self-centered and greedy beyond belief, and the rest seem crude, ignorant and predatory.  People are like that everywhere, but the overcrowding raises the noise level beyond 10 far too often.  After fighting to just get around (never mind finding a place to park!), every visit, you swear, is your last.

So we were invited to visit our neighbor's condo, which she bought this year in Ocean City, NJ, and where she's been happily staying for months.  As we left Atlantic City for the day, we were pushed away from our exit onto the Parkway by a youthful moron driving video-game style, and had to double back and pay the tolls again.  You're not leaving a good impression, New Jersey.  We arrive in what looks like a very nice town, though -- much in contrast to A.C., obviously.  Our neighbor has a fine location five blocks from the beach, which in itself was far superior to A.C.'s wretched, eroded one.  Her family has vacationed there for many decades, and she knows it well.

She takes us on a short tour, and O.C. looks like it has what every town should have -- family-owned movie theaters, cafes and mom-and-pop lunch places, lots of nicely kept houses that don't betray their age at all.  Seventeenth Street is her favorite, and we saw why, with a fascinating array of architecture ranging from three-story manses to narrow quaint cottages.  One of the former was getting the finishing touches on a curved exterior stairway made of some beautiful wood.  The street bends around, Old World style, and faces the bay on the back side, most houses having a boat dock or mooring.  We didn't see one shabby area -- so is this a Disney Main Street without the sugary fakeness?  In New Jersey?

I just don't know what to make of these contradictions.  What makes sense?  What works, maybe.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oh, The Places You Won't Go

A newspaper article and a disappointing can of paint prompted today's profound thought.

One of the few features of our local paper I enjoy are the restaurant reviews.  Years ago there were great (almost New Yorker - quality) movie reviews, but the author died too young.  And the fine political commentator (also female) left for bigger horizons -- or was sent packing by unhappy conservatives applying pressure.  So we're left, as readers, only with that third tier of journalism, food and beverage.  Could be worse: it could be the Washington Times.

Today's feature review was of a place of long standing, and revolving ownership, in Mechanicsburg borough.  It has a nice location among old buildings and a strange dual character.  One side, with a vaulted ceiling and large windows, has always been fine (well, varying over the years) dining, and the other side which looks out over a noisy parking lot full of pickup trucks, is a redneck smoking-allowed bar.  And thereby is our tale.

Picture this:  a group of librarians celebrating at said redneck bar -- how would that work out?  When I was working part-time at the Mechanicsburg library (across the street), we somehow decided to do that for some occasion; whether anyone knew what the place was like (there aren't any other choices in town) I don't know.  In any case, we tried to enjoy ourselves on this very rare outing, but it was impossible.  The smoke was unbearable (the review mentioned its presence), the crowd really drunk really early, and the song of choice played at 180 decibels was "Red Neck Girl," which seemed to get them even more rowdy if that was even possible.  I left early as any conversation or socializing was out of the question, and decided I would never, ever return.

Are there places in your own experience that proved that once was quite enough?  I can think of many: 

Route I-270 in Maryland.  This stretch of highway is just hell.  On wheels.

Gold's Gym.  The day care inmates screaming in the snack/lounge area is just wrong.  Wronger are the spaghetti-strap wifebeater shirts the meatheads all wear.  Yuck.

Downtown Harrisburg on New Year's Eve.  Twenty-two degrees and you're thinking more about pickpockets than getting buzzed.

OK, downtown Harrisburg, period.

Erie, Pennsylvania.  Actually our state doesn't have one good city.  Some small parts of Pittsburgh have their quirky charm, but it's not worth the confused drive to find them (check out a map of the greater city area).

Working with rednecks.  They have this strange over-the-top self confidence combined with vast ignorance which is eerily schizophrenic.  And they always go full speed or top volume on everything followed by longer periods of goofing off and jabbering about sports or NASCAR like a bunch of hens.  They will keep every tool of yours they get their hands on.

Sun City Center, Florida, where I just spent two months.  However, that's just the people.  Without them it would be quite nice.  The weather's great and the bay is so close the breezes are a delight.  I do miss the palm trees and exquisitely blue sky.

...Meetings, Home Owners Associations, broadcast news and opinion, math classes and school assemblies, school cafeterias, commutes to work, having to be broke when young, a Barry Manilow song, a used car with six-digit mileage that leaves you stranded, getting the flu every year (sometimes twice) before those wonderful annual shots, losing all your keys through the hole in your pocket...done with all of those except for the damn HOA.

And what about that can of paint?  This morning I walked down to Zach's house and had everything ready to start painting the concrete porch.  The weather was absolutely perfect and there was nothing else on the schedule.  OK, most people would not think of this as fun, but (as you would know from a post way back) I love a project of almost any kind and really enjoy painting.   Upon opening the left-over half-gallon from last year, I discovered it was useless despite being stored well.  With a car handy, could have solved that problem in 30 minutes, but our one vehicle was many miles away in Nancy's work parking lot.  So while there are a lot of places I won't go again, the hardware store was one place I wanted to go but couldn't. 

So I sat down on the steps of the (unpainted) porch and watched rednecks speeding by in pickup trucks, smoking, maybe going to a math class or a HOA meeting with Manilow crooning on the radio.  Ironic.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

One Sweet Soul

One week short of nine years ago, a very young kitten walked in our back door, fuzzy little tail held high, and until last night was an integral part of the family.
We had been grilling chicken on the deck, and heard a loud and insistent "MEW" from somewhere out of sight.  We found him peeking out from underneath, and it looked like his hunger would override his fear of those human things.  We put some chicken on a plate, he hopped up the step, and afterward just walked in the opened door.  He had many chicken and tuna snacks after that. 

Of course we never knew if he had escaped his home, was put out, or if his mother had dropped him off in the neighborhood when his six weeks of idyllic family life was over.  We were just glad he had a nose for chicken and showed up here.

We named him Gillligan, because it looked like he took a three-hour trip and got lost.  We were glad he'd filled the place left empty by Moonshadow's death several years earlier.  But the poor thing, despite looking as pretty and lively as they come, had health problems.  At his first visit to the vet, a heart murmur was discovered, and shortly after that, at home, he seemed dizzy and disoriented; the vet found he was losing his sight due to uvitis.  If he had stayed outside, he'd soon have been starved and dead.  The treatment is not always successful, but the little rascal made a full recovery.  

As a young adult, we found he was crying and looking miserable one day, and so rushed him to the vet again.  We found it was again a common cat ailment (common to most male cats, that is): crystals in his urinary tract.  A harrowing stay in an emergency hospital and a week of wearing a plastic cone later, his fur started growing back where it had been shaved, and he got back to normal on special prescription food.  This free cat had become quite expensive, but he was firmly lodged in our home and hearts.

Like all cats, he found favorite places all over the house, but would exchange them for new ones after a while.  He always got along with the rabbits downstairs, and we were always impressed (and bragged about it maybe too much) by his polite and dignified demeanor.  He would ask for what he wanted, then sit quietly and wait.  Very talkative, he'd hold a conversation with you as long as you wanted to continue, with different inflections of "meow" to seemingly indicate different answers.  And we liked that he wasn't too much of a scairdy cat, coming up from his basement safe place to greet visitors and strangers after a while, then give them a rub to let them know they were accepted.  And a pet from anyone was always welcome.

For some reason known only to him, Gilligan was crazy about fresh ears of corn.  He knew immediately when it was coming into the house, whether in cooler or bag, and jumped up on the counter to push his face into the container and gnaw on the husk.  We looked forward to summer on his behalf, anticipating the complete joy with which he greeted the fruit of the maize plant.  But of course, chicken was still the best treat out there.

A big change occurred three years ago when another kitten all on his own outside approached our deck in search of food and shelter.  Blackberry was feral and had been dropped off by his mother (whom we had seen in the area several times), so he was not so easy to convince to come inside.  He loved his kitten chow in the bowl on the deck, though, and became a regular visitor, conversing with Gilligan through the back window screen (we set up an inverted box for him to get up there).  A blue mouse toy coaxed him inside, a little to Gilligan's dismay, but eventually they came to some sort of living arrangement and gave each other some much-needed exercise chasing around and up and down the stairs.  Eight paws thudding at the same time can make quite a racket!

These two left a lot of tracked litter and fur to clean up, but they were always well-behaved and full of irresistable behaviors.  Last night things changed suddenly.  Gilligan came downstairs where Nancy and Zach were, and lay down on the carpet by the litter pans, crying.  He tried to get up and move, but his back legs just dragged.  He cried louder, and we knew something was very wrong.  We'd already had a busy evening, but we got ready quickly and wrapping him up in a towel, ran to the car and headed to the new emergency vet hospital we had, believe it or not, just noticed a few days before outside Mechanicsburg.  Poor Gilligan howled and thrashed all the way over, giving Nancy some bloody wounds in the process.  The assistant and the vet both gave a diagnosis immediately, having seen the sypmtoms many times before.  His heart problem was back.  A clot had broken loose and lodged near his hindquarters, cutting off the circulation and paralyzing the back legs.  His lungs were filling with fluid also.  The vet gave hime a shot of morphine to lessen the pain, but it had no observable effect, so she returned with an anesthetic, which mercifully ended the crying and panting.

The doctor said she had just euthanized her own 8-year-old cat for the same condition, since it could not really be treated.  One could try, with operations and hospitalization, but she said in 23 years she'd never seen a good outcome.  We knew what had to be done and spent the last moments close to him.

It's a pretty sad around here today and will be for a while.  Blackberry stayed with us all night and has been close to me all day; he knows something is not right.  And we know full well everything that lives only has some much time, but that knowledge and our feelings are two different things.

We're going to miss our elegant and beautiful friend for a long time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vagabond Summer

I have about a week left of my summer-long absence from home.  Other than the three weeks in June at Ron and Claire's house in California (while they were in Scotland, driving on the wrong side of the road), we had not planned much special, so I planted over a dozen pots with edibles and flowering plants, the south-facing ones of which I knew would need constant watering.  It started off well with the basil plant going, vegetatively, nuts and the tomatoes growing strongly.  The onions took off and I actually enjoyed one before setting off to Cali, which was delightful as usual.  Nancy joined me for a week, and in the middle of that week, flew off on a four-leg flight to surprise her brother in Kentucky for his retirement as school principal.  With her usual careful preparation, she did that, completely, in the greeting card section of the Dollar Store in Fulton, Kentucky.  He was very surprised.

And that was to be the hijinks highlight of the summer.  But as we all learn, the more one plans, the more hilarious the gods find your presumption.

After years of bouncing in and out of the regular and rehab hospitals, our parents' ongoing health crisis seemed suddenly very serious right before Memorial Day.  Mom passed away there before any of us could get to Florida, and Dad, who had joined her at South Bay Hospital, went to the nearby rehab for what turned out to be a very long stay.  We each went there for alternating weeks until I finally moved to the Sunshine State on a one-way ticket to stay until something was decided or even decidable.  When we realized he was never going home again, a family friend found a room for him in a very fine nursing home near ours in Pennsylvania, thus happily ending an anticipated long time on a waiting list.  If you think your taxes are a lot of paperwork, try applying for entrance to one of these.

I guess most out-of-state family members in this situation just have an estate sale (there are several companies that do this locally, as you can imagine with the area population being 95% retirees) and then call in Goodwill or the Salvation Army.  It seemed more right to go through everything, item by item, and figure out what to do with it: send to family, sell -- hardly an option in this land of, uh, constant turnover -- give away, or take to one of the many thrift shops.  All of the above, of course.  Long story short, we (Nancy was here with me for one very productive week) became regulars at UPS and the post office, and some of the thrift stores got pretty tired of seeing me.  If you are interested, I am now an expert on where to find boxes in the 33573 zip code, and can point out the best dumpsters. The Salvation Army was great at taking those many items that just didn't fit anywhere else, and they came in their truck, which worked a lot better than Dad's Toyota sedan for all that hauling.

Reluctantly, I guess I'll have to take the hated I-95 north, getting to Richmond at the end of the second day.  Many wrapped items in boxes to hand off to family members there, and maybe some time to hang with old comrades.  Then home, unloading what's left and hoping to send a lot of that to others in the future.  A dilemma to be faced, I don't know how yet:  you can't throw these things away, but there's no room for anything.  We need a three-car garage.

So it's goodbye to all that: the beautiful bridge from St. Pete to South Bay, with its bright yellow ribs standing up like pick-up sticks, exotic palm trees of many species, waterbirds (egrets, cranes, herons and storks) with impossibly skinny legs and long beaks, golf carts with everyone's home state license plate on the back, old people who can talk the paint off the wall, scattering geckos and lizards by the hundreds, ferocious storms that build up too quickly to run from and bayside tiki bars I'm really going to miss with their sunset ceremonies and island music.

  And a long goodbye to people married for 66 years as I pack their lives up.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Real Burgoo

I'm plotting my escape carefully, printing out maps of highways, exits and possible stops on the return trip homeward and north, which might occur sometime before my birthday in September.  While I await the wrapping up of the long-delayed repairs and the completion of the household goods dispersal via my new best friends at UPS near the often-fatal intersection of FL Route 674 and US 301, I've got time in between constant e-mails and little chores, but nothing much to do with it.  My temporary pass to the amenities of the Kings Point community expired a day or two ago, and the pool is empty anyway, getting some maintenance (pools, boats, appliances, the blasted garage door opener at home -- everything always needs maintenance).  So I pulled an old "Southern Cookbook," copyright 1939, off the pile of kitchen stuff to ship out, and looked through it at lunch (all the books are gone, and the free box at the community library is worthless).  What a find.  I remember this being in the kitchen somewhere all the places the family lived over the years, and must have read it before, but it's a pleasure to re-find.  Delightfully but politically very in-correctly written, it is also graced with little drawings as publications were back in the mid-century, with snatches of blues songs, sayings and quotes next to them, like:

'Case cookin's lak religion is --
Some's 'lected an' some ain't,
An' rules don' no mo' mek a cook
Den sermons mek a saint.

The first recipe, for Kentucky Burgoo, is so Southern and so fine, you could stop right there.  I have been fortunate to try a few versions (and they are infinite) of this, as well as the equally famous Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich, and can heartily agree with Jesse Winchester that "a man sure is lucky, to live down in Kentucky."  This stew is of folk origin, unlike the sandwich which was invented in a hotel kitchen in Louisville; the recipe in the abstract is any meats, a variety of vegetables, and beans or potatoes for thickening, and soup bones (or no soup bones, depending on the local tradition).  Early on, those meats were those caught in the wild, like squirrels, possum or birds.  Your backyard pest is probably safe now, as beef and chicken are now preferred, and easier to catch at the supermarket.

Made usually in large quantities for social occasions or festivals, it has been especially a requirement on Derby Day, those endless political rallies (in the South, you'd better have food for the potential votes) and horse sales.  Don't forget the corn bread to go along with; if you're real old-time, it will be corn meal dodger or something else your great-grandmother would have made several times a week.  If your GGM wasn't some Yankee.

The recipe in "Southern Cooking" is from a handwritten original by a Mr. J. T. Looney of Lexington, Kentucky, who was known as the Burgoo King.  He made it the old way, too, outdoors in huge kettles simmering over wood fires all night.  Since he made about 1200 gallons at a time, this required:

600 lbs. lean soup meat (if you use those squirrels, it's a dozen of them per each 100 gallons)
200 lbs. fat hens
2000 lbs. potatoes, peeled and diced
200 lbs. onions
5 bushels of cabbage, chopped
60 10 lb. cans of tomatoes
24 10 lb. cans of tomato puree
24 10 lb. cans of carrots
18 10 lb. cans of corn
red pepper, salt, Worcestershire and Tabasco

And it's said to ensure delectibility, a rabbit's foot at the end of a yarn string must be properly waved by a preacher whose salary has been paid to date.  These people were serious.

Both Kentucky and Illinois claim towns as the Burgoo Capital of the World.  I have no doubts which is the correct one.  Maybe I'll take I-75 north and west and find some of that savory stew.  Well worth the miles, it will be.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Private Eye

Yesterday I paid a all too brief visit to the fitness center in the morning for the first time, and found that's when it's really crowded.  Only one treadmill was open, and that one I knew was directly beneath the relentless barrage of Fox News always on the TV facing it, so that's why my stay was brief.  I'd like to use the rower also but it is in front of an even bigger TV also always on the Noise channel.  Oh, well.  It's either a soft stomach or a soft brain, and I guess it will be the former, being the lesser of two evils.

Then back at home, what is the daily topic of friend Cliff's blog "Just Another Life," but a look at journalism?  And I've been thinking a lot about that lately, since seeing yesterday, on the Fake News scroll, their claim that over 50% of Americans oppose the Affordable Care Act.  Any other source has it that over 50% support it.  They just make it up; you decide.

The Heritage Foundation agitprop machine just recently touted the results of a survey which I'm sure cycled through Fox, the Washington Times, Limbaugh and all the rest, which had numbers they liked.  On a much less noticed website, a reporter took that survey apart and found the usual:  it was taken from a very small sample in a heavily Republican district who were polled with misleading questions.  I guess those too slimy to even be lawyers find their way to employment at the Heritage and the thousands of similar Institutes and Foundations.

Even eyewitness reportage and testimony without an axe to grind or an ideology to spin is often less than half accurate, despite having great weight in our justice system.  I can think of stories in VA, PA, TX and especially IL in which men have spent a large part of their lives in prison, innocent, due to eyewitness testimony.  More entertainment and hyperbole than reportage, stories of the bad guys of the Old West were seldom witnessed at all but printed in newspapers of the day, written from far away with much more fiction, color and rumor employed than facts.  And the audience is always receptive and ready to believe a juicy myth, like the Spanish explorers lured inland by natives' tales of cities of gold, or on the pages of today's tabloids.

History starts out as reportage but the essential stories of serious,  influential events are often lost or suppressed if they don't fit the kind of tale that the powers that be want in the official or popular record.  The history we read in school did not make clear the importance of exactly what Lewis and Clark saw and carefully recorded:  the diseases of the Europeans moved far in advance of explorers and settlers, penetrating  fast and devastatingly into the interior.  They found Mandan and Hidatsa villages in the northern plains where a European had hardly been seen in decades (a few fur traders at most) full of people dead and dying from influenza and smallpox.  Their journal and drawings are available to us now, but we surely did not hear of or understand the great extent of these plagues and how native society was mostly destroyed before ever being contacted.  Thee hundred years earlier, the Spanish had barely landed in Florida when their diseases destroyed 80 - 90% of the population all the way into Texas.

We still have a report from a rational, not sensationalist, English chronicler in the year 1150 who admitted he had heard from "many and ... competent witnesses," about an unusual event which defied his understanding.  It seems that reapers going about the harvest in East Anglia were surprised by two children, a boy and a girl, who emerged from depressions the locals called "wolf pits," who "were completely green in their persons."  It was such a novelty in that small and out of the way place that the locals kept the two captive without food while they marveled at the novel sight of green children.  Eventually someone showed them how to remove beans from the pods they had been offered and they ate that for months before being introduced to bread.  Then, "at length, by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and they became like ourselves."  The boy, unfortunately, did not long survive his baptism, but his sister lived to be married and eventually explained that where they had come from it was always twilight and they had found themselves in the pit after hearing a great sound, but that is all they knew.  Our chronicler, William of Newburgh, concludes with

Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.

Be it literature in the rough, the science of opinion molding and propaganda, fancy and humbug, a razor-sharp report by Hemingway or half-literate babble from a television mannequin, we all like the stories journalists tell us.



Tuesday, August 6, 2013


   The Banda Islands -- Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?

My head is swimming, even though I haven't had much time to actually do some of that, whole body, in the nearby very nice pool.  The old folks in their visors, hats and sunglasses just bob and are well behaved, the blue sky and rustling greenery are soothing and the music on the loudspeakers is surprisingly agreeable -- Link Wray and some old surfing instrumentals the other day.  Okay, that's just what I like.  The jury's out whether that's good music or not, if analyzed objectively.
What has my head swimming is not the presence or lack of such pleasant things, it's what I'm engaged in here daily at Sun City Center, FL.*  Have spent hours each day visiting Dad in his rehab hospital, and it is sad to see people having to give up what they are.  I enjoy getting engaged with fixing problems (TV and remote screwed up, laundry MIA, cords all tangled around the bedframe, probably for years) as that gets Dad involved in little details of the real world for a few minutes.  There's nothing else real-feeling about lying in a bed for 23 hours a day.  No fault to be found; inevitable age has brought the patients to their knees.  Dad said he's tired of the regimentation and is about terminally bored.  Can't read, can't really see or understand what's on TV, and the lower end of the staff (the only ones who seem to be working) only buzz in quickly, do whatever the thing is at that moment and disappear like Houdini.  Instead of paying yet another R.N. to ignore everyone and everything, shuffle papers or noodle on a computer screen while at the station, how about one to visit each patient and find out what little things they need and have a normal conversation?  Now, many patients are beyond that and are lost in their own interior wilderness.  But you'd be surprised what happens sometimes when you look one in the eye and talk to her sincerely.  For a few moments at least, they return to life.

So, I've been there enough time to observe how, as with every organization, inattention and incompetency rule.  The laundry disappeared, and Dad spent three days in a food-stained shirt, because (as I found) Housekeeping had him in two rooms he was not in, and had removed the hamper when his silent roommate left.  I went directly to the "back of the house" this morning, found all his missing clothes, and got the stinkeye from an employee as I was stacking them to carry back to his room.  With little effort, I had found a lady the previous evening who was the institutional TV expert and who could fix those electronic problems in a few minutes.

That's how it goes.  You either do, and get, what you need in any organization directly without asking permission or filling out forms (like Radar on "M.A.S.H.") or you find that one person with the skills.   And I didn't learn everything I needed to know in kindergarten as the book said; I learned how to go through the "back channel" in the school system, military and in pathetic non-profits on one hand, and how to deal with people, on the other, from my smart and sweet wife. She reminded me long ago that it doesn't cost anything extra to be nice and treat everyone with respect from the start.

A lot of the people around here are 70 - 90, and the men in particular seem to be egotistical, demanding authoritarians who were previously career military or business executives, whose style was to intimidate and demand; when that no longer works they just become complainypants malcontents.  Apart from a very few loud and unbalanced types, most of the women have long mastered the art of being positive, well-mannered and skilled in people relations.  What the men miss is the simple fact that other people like to be treated well, are probably being used by their employer and they know they're not valued, don't appreciate being abused or put in their place, and will generally be as helpful as they can when approached with courtesy to cooperate in solving a problem.

All this works in person better than on the phone.  When someone can keep a safe distance from all your warming radiating sincerity, they are usually more mindful of the time limits their employer puts on each call than of solving your problem the first time, accurately.  While dealing with the myriad details of our mother's estate, for example, just getting Dad's new insurance member ID number and card (which they changed without notifying him or us) and getting it to Medicare has been a comedy of unnecessary errors.  In these sorts of dealings, you must find or already know the key words that will elicit the correct response.  I don't have any pointers about how you do that, because neither the company's literature or information on the internet will be helpful providing those all-important terms so both you and the company rep can cut to the chase and just get the small job done. My Brother The (relentlessly efficient) Executor found out that the operative term was "Automatic Crossover," and after hitting the rep with that after many calls, she said okay and it was done.  Why oh why does someone who does the same thing all day, every work day, not ever get good at it?

The movie "Groundhog Day" seems to me to be a pretty good description of life as it is.


*When things get you down, think about what happened to the previously happy natives long ago in the Banda Islands (part of present-day Indonesia), once the only source in the world for nutmeg.  As you learned in junior high history, worldwide trade has always been spurred on by the search for commodities to sell that the folks back home can't (or think they can't) live without.  People have gotten very medieval when it came to getting those commodities, be they spices, tea, sugar, rubber or even free human labor, making our daily frustrations look pretty microscopic in comparison.  The Dutch East India Company hired Japanese mercenaries to slaughter almost all the adult males in the Banda Islands to enforce their total control, and limited production of cloves, nutmeg and other rare items to keep prices up; trees producing them were even cut down and cargoes dumped at sea to enforce that policy.

So, we've got to keep things in perspective, don't we?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Like a Squid

That's sort of how I feel, silent and big-eyed, as I drift in another alien (and I don't mean that in a bad way) environment this very different summer.  First it was California, a vacation and retirement destination like my present stay on the Gulf Coast of Florida.  CA is dry, but like wet FL has many Live Oak trees, lizards and palms; it also has very conspicuously gone far along the road the whole country is taking regarding income disparity.  Like the passenger pigeon and bison in their millions, the middle class is cascading back into the lower classes while a few rise to breathe in the finer air of the 1%.  While there is no state income tax in the Sunshine State, a punishingly large sales tax takes a bite out of the food and clothing purchases of those trying to live on what I've seen to be almost Third-World wages.  One of the young aides at Plaza West Rehab Hospital, where I visit our father daily, told me she is on Medicaid.  Meanwhile, the residents and visitors, almost all of them of the Greatest Generation, arrive in new Cadillacs and Lexuses (Dad's plain Camry sort of stands out).  The very occasional offspring or grand-offspring zip by for a brief visit in 5- and 6-series BMWs.  How would it be to be as sick and disabled as these patients, and not have any financial resources?

Just an observation.  I'm not declaring class war on anyone; they used to beat and shoot the strikers who, back when, on either side of 1900, practiced that in their outrage, and what did that get them?  An eight-hour day, it's true, but exactly the same level of income disparity in the 1920s as there is now.  The intermittent light of progress seems like a candle in the wind, snuffed out sooner rather than later throughout history.

Progress is tripped up by the law of diminishing returns, even without knotheaded humanity doing its best to reverse or nullify it.  An example in today's post at provides a clear example (although a few seconds' recon would provide thousands more):  a very costly refrigerator is now available that promises to cool room-temperature drinks in five minutes.  We see all around us that the costs increase while the worthwhile benefits diminish. It's funny how complicated and overpriced improvements flood the market and our consciousness (through relentless advertising and promotion) while things that need serious attention aren't worked on.  That's the supposed "rationality" and "efficiency" of the free market, folks.  Expensive, short-lived toys we don't need but nothing we desperately do need.

Spending any time in an institution filled with (usually very elderly) people who aren't going to get better, and in fact have lives you would not take ten million dollars to trade for, makes one wonder about how the resources of the vast big business of medicine are allocated.  Of course, it generates an inconceivable amount of money which rises, as always, to the top and like any institution perpetuates itself quite well.  And that's all most of it does.

Seeing those people at the end of their lives makes you realize that our relationship to our (many!) material possessions should have been examined before we wasted so much time and energy accumulating them. Usually all the things you spent so much for, kept for so long, and valued for status or sentimental reasons, just become dead weight.  It would have been better, in hindsight, to have traveled very lightly through life, enjoying what came your way, then passing it along, but seldom holding on to anything.  How many suitcases have N. and I gone through, for example?  Probably over twenty.  One, maybe two, good quality ones would have done the job:  too much is clearly never better, if you have any perspective. 

And this year's model Cadillac SUV may make you think you have status among peers and their admiration, but that's as pointless as trying to impress your pet with your place in the human hierarchy.  That dog or cat knows the only things that do matter: are you kind, do you have a heart?


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Singing in the Dark

Soulful Scotsman

Lisa Fischer in the spotlight

Claudia Lennear

I was listening to WXPN (from the U of PA in Philadelphia) yesterday, and the host said, "that was Rodriguez from his famous album Sugar Man, and one of the finest singers you've never heard of, Frankie Miller."  I'd heard of Rodriguez, who had been living in obscurity for decades (and thought to be long deceased) in Detroit since his last recordings or performances, because he'd been rediscovered as a result of the documentary film made by a persistent overseas fan.  Miller's recording was more compelling, arresting even, but I had indeed never heard of him.  His work isn't even in the Goldmine Record Album Price Guide; only a country artist by the same name who recorded in the early 1960s is.

Mr. Miller is not once-and-done musical mystery man, though; he's had a long career, mostly ascendant in the 1970s, interrupted in 1994 by a serious brain hemorrhage which put him in a coma for almost half a year.  But he's written songs since he was a teen, recorded many, and even had his compositions covered by other singers and songwriters such as Bob Seger.  Rod Stewart said he's "the only white guy who brought a tear to my eye."  He's worked with Nicky Hopkins and Joe Walsh and dozens of others known everywhere.  Fortunately for him, he hasn't faded away later in life, having the closing song in the 2011 Johnny Depp movie, The Rum Diary (which I really need to see).  Some artists (and that's using the term generously, in a lot of cases) are known for decades for one novelty song, many make a lifelong career based on that one song if they don't just disappear, and many others like Mr. Miller never seem the break the surface tension despite persistent and quality efforts.  And many don't get credit at all, remembered or not, like Darlene Love and the Blossoms being used by Phil Spector as the voices for recordings issued under others' names. 

As brought out in the recent movie Twenty Feet from Stardom, many superb vocalists rarely leave the shadows that backup singers and studio session journeymen labor in, despite being as good as or better than the stars.  You'll remember Lisa Fischer if you see the movie, especially for the scene of her recording an operatic song-without-words for a movie soundtrack; she has immense reserves of talent and and intuitively knows exactly what to do without seeming to work and worry over it.

Both Ms. Fischer and Claudia Lennear had moments up front with the Rolling Stones, like Merry Clayton did on the epic "Gimme Shelter."  Claudia was supposedly the inspiration for "Brown Sugar" (you've always wondered who that was, haven't you?) and a song by David Bowie. 

Who knows, maybe fame and exhausting world tours would have done more damage than good to these people's lives. While things like Garth Brooks and Kanye West sell millions of albums and amass a billion dollars, you can only conclude that maybe the wheels of justice do grind very slowly indeed.         

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Going My Way?

I guess I could only make only about one or two posts per month (and this world would, of course, be a poorer place) if I didn't find ideas and stories of events past and present while poking around on the Internet and through what print materials drift by.  My poor old head can only do so much on its own.  So, with full credit to, I'd like to share an observation about the frameworks we use to make some sense of all the inputs we absorb from a big and noisy world.  Mr. Greer, luxuriously bearded author of precisely written essays on that site, this week offered a pair of metaphors for how we think.

Some conceive of human history as linear progress, interrupted and rerouted for periods as it may be, like a road into the future; traffic does get stalled but the movement is inevitably forward.  This is certainly what we think due to our societal values and education, while more than half the populace prefers to look at it in the rearview mirror instead of through the front windshield, trying desperately to return to some previous point in the journey when everything was settled and everyone submitted happily to authority.  So those who believe in scientific and rational progress (what he calls the secular religion) look forward and those whose beliefs are founded in emotion, sentiment (that poor relative of emotion) and theological religion look back to a golden age, but almost all think in terms of a directional road.

Another way of thinking sees time and events as a tree:  an unrecorded beginning as a seed, surviving if resources are found, growing through good times and carefully conserving during adversity, roots searching for sustenance and branches reaching for sunlight full of productive leaves, the ones in the dark naturally dying out.  The journey is up, down and out, but the horizon stays where it always is; there is no illusory forward motion except through time.  This may be a better metaphor for us to go by, as it places humanity on the planet like the tree, succeeding or not depending on the realities of resources and threats, not losing the clear perception of those realities through a fog of abstract beliefs.  Funny to think of some cogitating trees confusing themselves so much with theories of how things are, were or will be that they create the conditions for their own early failure.

Nearby, someone just ordered the clear-cutting of yet another gerrymandered-looking parcel of land, probably to sell or "develop."  A while ago, two streets in town were denuded of big trees and the houses and sidewalks now roast in the sun.  The trees are playing the long game, though:  they'll be back when we idiots hit the end of the road.