Self Improvement? Do I Have To? Can It Wait Until Tomorrow?

I hate the idea of dieting almost as much as I hate the suggestion that I read a self-improvement book.  It’s not that I don’t need to lose a few pounds, or that I couldn’t learn somethings about my better self through the words of others.  It’s just that remaining in a state of denial and self-loathing are so much easier that the work that one needs to put in to actually make substantive life changes.

Regardless, last week, for only the second time in my life, I began a structured diet plan because I had grown tired of watching the tire grow about my waist and because I had read an article about heart health that made me think that dropping these really unattractive pounds would be good for me.

Since I’m too lazy to do any research on my own and rely heavily on recommendations of people I like and respect, I leaned on the advice of my acupuncturist to guide me into a program that she enthusiastically endorsed. I had her order the shakes, supplements, and other goodies that would see me through an initial two-week cleanse/detox/weight-loss experience.  Last Monday I jumped in.

I discovered that the claims that sold me on the program proved to be true (mostly):

The shakes taste great!

I don’t really ever get hungry!

I have more, not less, energy than ever before!

I have stopped craving the things that are bad for me!

All of the above were true for about 48 hours.  The two daily shakes, which now make up my breakfast and lunch, do not taste bad at all, but are the consistency of wall-patching compound.  I frequently feel like I’m eating the shake, not drinking it.  By the third day, I was really hungry and found the shakes weren’t holding me until I learned a bit more about how to snack effectively.

It is absolutely true that I have more energy that before I started the diet.  The big negative to this development is that it has begun to cut into my afternoon nap time. I’m having to plan more work for myself to keep busy because I’m sleeping more soundly, waking up earlier, and having trouble drifting off in the afternoon.  If this keeps up I might actually finish projects around the house that I’ve been avoiding for almost 30 years, and I find that a bit distressing. It’s always been comforting to know that I’m behind on something

My craving for beer absolutely died for exactly two days.  My enthusiastic resolve to take advantage of the diet plan killed my desire for a brew for 48 hours, and then it came back with a vengeance.  I’m cheating moderately, but it’s OK–I feel plenty guilty about it.  Please don’t tell anyone.

So, of course, given this (mostly) concerted effort, I expect the pounds to fall away precipitously, but then I remember that it took several years to attain this unsightly fat and it might just take more than a couple of weeks to burn it all off.

My highly Puritanical digital scale does not help, especially when I start checking my weight twice daily, expecting quick results.  It is either just highly sensitive or wildly inaccurate.  I swear that if I have a passing thought about eating a donut, the scale jumps a pound or two just as a warning.  However, my clothes are fitting better, I have regained a notch on my belt, and I’ve stopped weighing myself for the time being so I can just focus on how I feel more than the half-pound I might have gained or lost.

Time is another issue.  I have too much of it now.  Having a shake as a meal twice a day really cuts into the amount of time needed for grocery shopping, food preparation, and meals.  I try to take my time while chewing on my shake to really savor all 8 ounces of it, but from start to finish, it’s about a 15-minute process.  And then I stare longingly at last night’s leftovers, the delicious lunch-sized portions of healthy looking soups, stews, and other dishes that my wife so lovingly prepares for our dinners.  I check my watch to see how many hours are left until dinnertime and a real meal.

Today, I am enjoying a “cleanse” day where instead of the shakes, my food intake will be limited to four 8-ounce glasses of nutritious bliss spread out across the day, along with other supplements and a couple of snacks.  It’s easier than it sounds actually.  And, heck, it’s given me time to write this piece.  Who knows, I might even pick up one of those self-help books that people keep giving me and give it a try.

 

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Shakespeare Sunday: Goodbye For Now!

When I started “Shakespeare Sundays” I had this absurd notion that I had time to maybe read a play a week and have a constant stream of great quotes to work from.  After all, I’m an accomplished reader and have plenty of time for reading right now.  I had forgotten a few things though.

Reading an unfamiliar Shakespeare play is hard.  It is beyond time consuming because I actually want to understand the references and the arcane language, so I have to read all of the glossing and the footnotes and the commentary that might go along with a single page.

Add to that, my body, even when well-rested and upright, recognizes reading as a prelude to napping.  Even fast-paced thrillers might last for only a short chapter on a warm afternoon before I’m long gone.  Scholarly close reading?  Fuggiddaboutdit.

Add to that, I’m usually in the process of reading three books at a time.  The good news is that I’m often finding little, non-Shakespearean gems that are very worthy of commentary.  That’s why I’m opening the Sunday feature up to whatever I may stumble across over the course of my reading for the week, including my daily immersion in news reporting and opinion writing.  I still have to figure out a title for this revised feature (suggestions are welcome!).

I just finished reading the densely researched book by John Bohrer, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy.  It describes the personal transformation of Bobby Kennedy from being an often ruthless aide to the hated Joseph McCarthy to becoming a keeper of his brother’s legacy and an even more capable champion of oppressed people, not just in the U.S., but world-wide.  Even after 400 pages, I was disappointed that the work just covers the years 1963-1966.  I wanted to see how the “revolution” continued and formed his campaign for president in 1968.

Two passages stood out because they were familiar.  Many people from my generation will remember Teddy Kennedy’s simple, but eloquent summary of his brother’s life, delivered with a distinct quaver in his voice as he said, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.  To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it…saw war, and tried to stop it.”

Not much to say about that.  Whenever I see it, or hear a recording of that mournful moment, I’m taken back to the chaos and sadness of that time, that feeling that hope itself had died along with him.

But the words he spoke on June 6, 1966 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa still recharge my faith even in this dark time:

“Each time a man stand up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lots of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Here’s wishing you a peaceful and hopeful Sunday.

Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

The Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.

My Museum

On my most recent visit spring visit to Phoenix, Arizona to watch spring training baseball, I took a day off to visit the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) which had been recommended to me repeatedly by two of my best friends.

I am not a great museum visitor.  If it says to plan to stay for three hours, I’m pretty sure I will be done in one.  It’s one of the substantial differences between my wife and I when it comes to travel is that she will go through EVERY room, and read EVERY card for every part of the exhibits.  This is not a criticism.  She likes to soak in all of the details and moves through the museum at a most leisurely pace.

I sort of cruise through and skim a lot of what I see unless or until something really catches my attention, and then I’ll read up on it more thoroughly.  On this particular day, I found two rooms that were terrific.  One exhibit, called “Dragons and Vines” was dedicated to the art of how elements like pearl, abalone and other substances are inlaid into the fretboard and body of guitars.  The technology,craftsmanship, and flights of imagination were incredible.  The second room was dedicated to individual artists worldwide featuring pictures, videos, instruments, and outfits that they wore on stage.  I think I spent over an hour in these two rooms alone. I had to go back into both rooms twice, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything.

I spent about 10 minutes in the entire rest of the museum which featured a vast array of musical instruments from all over the world.  It was overwhelming, and I really didn’t care about the how or why the noisemakers of Sri Lanka were different that those from Serbia.  If I had read any of the info cards on the second floor, I would have forgotten anything I learned by the time I got back to my car.  It’s why I don’t spend the time reading up on all of the historical stuff.  I just don’t retain it. I leave museums with a few highlights in my mind and a general sense of if it met or exceeded my expectations going in.  In this case, the MIM absolutely did.  I loved the two rooms that I loved.  That was plenty for me.

Museums are like our archives of our civilizations, right?  Besides teaching us about who we are, we are trying to hold on to the good stuff so we don’t forget about it.

I’ve been thinking about that as my wife and I have been going through a continual purging process around the house.   It started when we had to move virtually everything out while we were having our floors re-done.  We have thrown away and given away boxes and bags full of clothing, books, furniture, kitchen supplies, you name it.  Going through the process made us look at everything, contemplate how long it had been since we used or even touched the item (we have lived in the same house for 36 years) and soon we had cleared whole shelves and emptied multiple storage boxes.

We’ve been trying to narrow the archive, our personal museum, down to the really important stuff–to the things that will bring us joy to look at and that will enrich the lives of whomever we decide to leave these things to in the future.

I keep thinking about what I wanted to leave behind to the people I love to remember me by.  Didn’t it make sense to start giving some of this stuff away now?  I’d rather give them a keepsake of some real or sentimental value now, while I can cogently say to them, “Here’s the story behind this object and why it’s so important to me, and I want you to have it because I know you’ll love and value it just as much as I have.”

Like, I have this wine opener, a simple but elegant design, that my dad gave to me when I was 21. We met up after work on the day I turned 21, and he took me out for my first official drink.  But as we were drinking in this divey little bar, he told me what he had REALLY wanted to do for me on my birthday.  He had planned to take me to a strip club when I turned 21.  Apparently, his father had done this with him on his 21st as kind of a rite of passage thing, to expose him to the “world of men” and show him it was no big thing.  He wanted to continue that little tradition with his son, but my mom quashed his plan, so we had to settle for a drink together.  I kind of wish he had thrown caution to the wind and that we had had that moment together doing something a little salacious, just me and him.  Even though we didn’t, I appreciated that his heart was in the right place.

The fact that I have managed to hold on to this token for over 40 years makes it valuable along with the memories it holds.  My daughter Emily, who enjoys an occasional glass of wine recently celebrated her 30th birthday.  I gave her the opener with a letter explaining its history and significance to me.  I knew that she would like the thought that the gift was from both me and her Grandpa Jack.

So, as I go through every box and crate, I take a hard look at what is still stuck in our own personal museum and think about the people I love and wonder if they might like this object or that book, dedicated especially to them.  It’s easy to accumulate a lot over nearly 40 years and sometimes so much harder to begin to let it go.

Grumpy Old Man

My wife recently made the observation, with both honesty and concern, that I was becoming a grump.

With both reticence and reflection, I had to agree that she was 100% correct.

The evidence was undeniable.  There are a growing number of things which I just find intolerable.

First and foremost is that Donald Trump continues to be President of the United States no matter how often I wake up and hope that I’ve just been having a bad dream.  Sure, there is some satisfaction in watching him careen about from crisis to crisis, constantly showing off his incompetence and ignorance.  But watching the horrifying damage he is causing to America’s reputation, his willful destruction of our environment, and his lack of concern for justice and human rights is almost as appalling as the fact that 30% of Americans still think he’s doing a good job, or at least are willing to “give him a chance.”  The hypocrisy of his backers grates on me remembering that this same 30% along with 100% of Congressional Republicans never gave President Obama a moment of support even as he advanced initiatives that would improve the lives of all Americans.

I mean, that should be enough to justify four years of grumpiness.  It is epic and bigly, and I have absolutely no control over it.  So, I think that carrying around that angst has made me hyper sensitive to little things, like noise.

I always thought I lived on a quiet street until I retired and was home more hours of the day.  Now it seems as though there is a mower or a blower or a chain saw in operation near my house (actually as I am writing, a chain saw just fired up somewhere nearby) from 7:30 AM on.  I appreciate that people are keeping their houses and yards in good shape, I really do, but couldn’t we have some established “quiet hours” in the middle of the day when I like to take my nap?  Is that really too much to ask?

And when did it become OK to carry on conversations in public places with your phone set on “speaker”?  It seems that everywhere I go now, I run into people on their phones and have to listen to both sides of the conversation when I’d prefer not to hear either of them.  I was taking my walk around a local lake and had to push myself hard to get past a lady who was negotiating with her bank, phone set on “speaker”,  and I could hear her getting put on hold and bounced from person to person and telling and re-telling the story of her loan problems.  I got anxious just listening to someone else getting the runaround!

I even feel my grouch level rising when I know someone with whom I am having a conversation has put me on speaker so that he or she can walk around the house or dust or do the dishes or god knows what.  Can’t we stop a moment and actually talk to one another without feeling a need to multi-task?

I love my smartphone.  I don’t want anyone to take it away from me.  But I don’t want to listen to your conversations.  I certainly don’t want to listen to your music (headphones, please!), and if you want to dust, or do the dishes rather than talk to me, call me back when you have time, for god’s sake.

See what I mean?  Grouchy.

It can even come down to a scrubbing sponge, wet and soapy and full of germs, left in the bottom of the kitchen sink.  I’m not a germaphobe, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to obsess over this, but when I do the dishes, I’ve trained myself to always wring out the sponge and put it in a spot to dry.  So when I find it sitting, soggy and gross in the bottom of the sink, there’s only one other person who could have left it there.  We no longer have the kids at home to blame things on, and I think we both really miss that.

I tried to approach it in a lighthearted way since it was one of those issues that I can recognize as being both petty but increasingly critical at the same time.  “Hey,” I told her, “you know, it’s the weirdest thing, for some reason I’ve developed this sponge obsession” which I went on to describe to her.  You know, subtle, joking, not really a big deal.  She just looked at me blankly.  “I never do that,” she claimed.  “Oh, ha ha!  Guess it’s just me!”  because, you know, it’s petty, inconsequential.  So now, I’ve begun snapping photos of every time it happens, every time she leaves the damn sponge behind.  Clearly, I need to come with evidence next time.

See what I mean?  A Class-A grump.

I’m not actually taking pictures of every time she leaves the sponge in the sink.  I’d like to continue to stay married.  In truth, the root of my grumpiness is me.  Sure, I need to read the news less and take whatever other medicine is available to combat the Trump-virus in my brain.  But I came to realize as we talked about my moodiness that most of my unhappiness comes from the nagging anxiety that comes with being retired and a little unsure if I am still relevant in some way.  It comes from being unhappy that I can’t lose the same 10 pounds that all Americans are trying to lose, no matter how many failed attempts that I make. It comes from every new ache, pain, and wrinkle that announces my advancing age.  It comes from every time I look about me and see a project I haven’t finished or the list of projects that I haven’t even had the energy to begin.

But don’t cry for me, Argentina.  I have discovered one powerfully curative potion.  Within the past week, on a trip to visit my niece in Colorado Springs, in the space of 4 days, I went zip lining over beautiful Colorado canyons, something I’d been afraid to try on other occasions AND spent two glorious hours roaring down the Arkansas River through Class III and IV rapids, feeling an utter sense of calm and a pure rush of adrenaline coursing through me at the same time.

When I got home, suddenly everything seemed possible again.  I came home younger than when I left, ready to let the little stuff go.  Ready to look for the next chance to push the limits for myself.  Turns out that that may be the cure-for-what-ails-you.

Shakespeare Sundays: The Readiness Is All

I’ve worked hard about not going all English teacher on all of you, my faithful 15 readers, but part of me has wanted to bring a little structure to the blog to keep me writing on at least a weekly basis.  Let’s see how this goes. I’d like to bring you a passage from Shakespeare on the weekends that we can talk about.  I’ll share what I can, and please feel free to add your comments.

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I taught this play for years but always struggled with this passage syntactically. In Act V, Hamlet is about to go into a “friendly” fencing match against Laertes, a man with a grudge, since it was Hamlet who caused his father’s death.  Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, cautions Hamlet to withdraw from the match if he has any misgivings.

Above is Hamlet’s reply. I’ve always interpreted it as kind of an existential statement.  “It” seems to be his death.  If he is to die now, that just means he won’t be dying in the future (“tis not to come”), but if he isn’t meant to die in the future, he is meant to die now.  He reassures us that no matter what, he knows that he will die, like all of us (“if it be not now, yet it will come”). I’m thinking the actor would have to hammer that last WILL.  Death is inevitable, “the readiness is all.”

I think about this passage a lot.  I admire Hamlet’s resignation to the truth of the moment.  I think about mortality often.  I can say with some certainty that I won’t see the year 2043.   I don’t expect to see 90.  Waldron men do pretty well getting into their eighties, so 2038 is certainly reachable.  That gives me about 20 more years to do whatever I might want to, to see what I still would like to see.  Sounds like a lot, except for when it is your last 20 years, when you’ve already seen 20 years go by three times.

I don’t think of it as being sad or morbid.  It just is.  As Seth Avett says in his song The Perfect Space:

I wanna grow old without the pain,/Give my body back to the earth and not complain.

My life has been good.  I suspect it will continue to be so for a while, but if “the readiness is all” then I’m ready.

Heartbeats and Airplanes

One of the goals I set for 2016 was to throw myself out of a plane.  That is, to experience skydiving.

When I told my wife I wanted to do it, she was all for it. She has a friend who is really connected to the sport and has friends that run a company up in Lake Elsinore, I think.  She started to throw out ideas about getting a bunch of friends together, having a party afterwards, etc.  It was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be alone when I did it because if I backed out at the last minute, I wanted me to be the only one who knew.

I have a pretty good track record of talking myself out of things that I perceive as being risky, even when the risk level is actually pretty low.  However, I started planning for the jump.  I researched a place nearby (the one out in Otay), cheap rates during the middle of the week, and had actually picked the day I was going to go, written down the directions, chosen a time.  I wanted to be sure it was a day that Mary was going to be working so I could just do it on my own.

And then, as it became more a reality, my heart began to skip beats. For years I’ve had something called “premature ventricular contractions” (or PVCs for short), extra, abnormal heartbeats.  It is generally a benign condition that I will have occasional bouts with, and have come to ignore them, pretty much knowing that it just means something is messing with my body’s electrical system and the heart is not getting the consistent messages it needs.  Stress, alcohol, dehydration all can contribute to starting off an episode that can last a few minutes,a few days, or even a few months.

But it’s still my heart, and while I don’t mind stressing it with a little exercise during an episode, it seemed to me that jumping out of a plane might be unwise while I was having symptoms.  So I scrubbed the first date I had chosen and decided to wait until I was symptom-free for a while.

And then it just sort of slid to the back burner of my mind.  The episodes still come and go, but I’ve had some pretty nice stretches of stability.  It’s just that when one of those stretches comes along, I don’t immediately think, “Hey, it’s a good day to jump out of an airplane!”

I really don’t think it’s the height thing.  I feel pretty secure with the idea that the guy I’m attached to values his life enough to make sure that I get to the ground safely.  I just want to feel a higher degree of confidence that my heart isn’t going to burst on the way down. It would really suck to only get to enjoy half of the experience.  I haven’t checked to see if my family would get a partial refund if I died half-way down.  I probably should ask.

So now, it’s an excellent goal for 2017, and I still have 8 months left to talk myself into or out of this particular five-minute thrill ride.

Ripped From The Headlines: A Day In The Life Of The Trump Apocalypse

I was getting ready to go to work on writing an update to my article “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” but I’ve been too busy failing at the very first principle I outlined which was to ISOLATE myself from the news.  I thought that I’d be a happier and more peaceful person if I quit listening to NPR and religiously reading the front page section of the New York Times every day.  I thought I had exhausted my capacity for outrage during the Bush 43 years, but it turns out that that abomination barely pushed my outrage-o-meter up to “WARM.”  Like a person who can’t make himself turn away from a train wreck about to happen, I can’t stop watching for the next WTF moment that will emerge from these clowns. That has led me to at least read the front page section of the local paper where I can get the short version of what is going on.

However, Thursday was remarkable, in that article after article seemed to have some additional bit of confirmation of how incompetent, duplicitous, or hypocritical this administration is and how each of his inner circle seems to be in a competition to prove he (there aren’t many women in this group) is just as bat-shit crazy as number 45.

You think I’m kidding.  Here are some headlines all from Thursday’s paper, some quotes, and some commentary:

Kelly (Secretary for Homeland Security) Concedes a Full Border Wall Doubtful

“Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Wednesday that it was doubtful that a wall along a full border with Mexico would ever be built, despite an of-repeated campaign promise by President Donald Trump.”

Well, this will come as a surprise to absolutely no one except some die-hard Trump supporters, the one’s who took him literally.  I find it remarkable that we are often being told not to take the President so literally, except when we should take him literally because after all, he was the candidate who “tells it like it is.”  Back to Kelly.  He was asked about one element of “extreme vetting” which included “the possible separation of mothers and children at the border to discourage immigration.”  He reassured senators that while he had not actually taken the time to write up a policy for when agents might do such a heinous and inhumane thing, “he had told employees that he must approve any such separations.” When questioned further about actually writing a policy, he replied, “border agents don’t need a written policy because he’d given the order verbally.”  After all, he is a retired four-star general and “his subordinates know that his orders are to be followed even if they aren’t written down.”  Does anyone else hear Jack Nicholson’s voice there?  I’m surprise he didn’t end the session standing on his chair and shouting at the senators, “You want me on that wall!  You need me on that wall!”

Trump Removes Bannon From Key NSC Post

With Michael Flynn gone, Trump actually put a qualified individual into place who has now sorted out just who should and should not be on the National Security Council.  Little things, like making sure there was a chair for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  LIke kicking Steve Bannon out of the room who never belonged in the first place.  But this was Bannon’s head-spinning explanation for why he was there in the first place, and why now, it was no big deal that he was leaving.  He said, “Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration.  I was put on the NSC with Gen. Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized.  Gen. McMaster as returned the NSC to its proper function.”

Now, even I realized that I was reading this at 7 AM and there was some chance that the caffeine from my morning coffee and not yet kicked in, because I found myself say out loud, “What the fuck does that mean?”  I was pleased and reassured when I read the next paragraph where the reporter commented, “Bannon did not explain what he meant by “operationalized” or how his presence on the committee had ensured that it would not be.”  The syntax is so twisted, bizarre, and incomprehensible that Joseph Heller (Catch 22) would be proud.

U.S. Warns of Unilateral Action in Syria

This article was remarkable on several fronts.  While he has tried to blame any bad thing that has happened in the opening days of his administration on President Obama (including the atrocities in Syria), he finally acknowledged that, “the responsibility is now mine.”  But as so many times before, Trumps language is empty:  “Trump said that the incident “crosses many, many lines” and had “changed very much” his attitude toward Assad.”  His Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “It was a heinous act and will be treated as such.”  I’m not sure what any of that means, but if Trump thought health care was “really complicated” just wait until someone, talking slowly and using small words, explains his options for Syria. Note:  I wrote this piece early yesterday before the missile strikes in Syria, an action most startling because it reverses many of Trump’s previous statements about U.S. involvement in the Middle East.  He has stepped into something “really complicated” here and interestingly, his severest critics have been his most fervent supporters who feel he has betrayed the many promises he made about keeping America out of messy international problems.  For some thoughtful commentary, I suggest you look at Charles M. Blow’s opinion piece on the NYT website entitled “Creeping Toward Crisis.”

Tillerson’s Reticence on N. Korea Confuses Allies

If you haven’t heard of Rex Tillerson, he’s our new Secretary of State although he’s been left out of numerous key meetings and only a fraction of his staff positions have been filled.  I’m not sure, but I don’t even think we now have a deputy Sec. of State.  His quote of the day was, “North Korea launched yet another intermediated-range ballistic missile.  The United States has spoken enough about North Korea.  We have no further comment.”  Really? Nothing to say about the aggressive actions of a strategically important nuclear power.  The reporter pointed out that the comment was startling because, “In fact, the Trump administration has said very little about North Korea apart from some Twitter posts and Tillerson’s own statements in Seoul, South Korea, two weeks ago–when he said the United States would negotiate with North Korea only after it gave up its nuclear weapons and missiles.  And that is unlikely to happen.”

EPA Seeks To Eliminate Lead Paint Programs

It’s hard to pick out the saddest part of this administrations efforts to basically turn the government over to business concerns, but if you had any doubt that the Environmental Protection Agency is now one of the biggest enemies of the environment, this should seal it:  “EPA officials are proposing to eliminate two programs focused on limiting children’s exposure to lead-based paint–which is known to cause damage to developing brains and nervous systems”, gutting federal support for states’ efforts to safely remove lead paint from aging and deteriorating houses.  If you haven’t been following the dismantling of the EPA, and the rollback of regulations that would have insured cleaner air and water for ourselves and our children, you probably should.

Apparently, there just wasn’t enough room on Thursday’s front page to include Trump’s defense of his buddy Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and the continuing reports of the millions of dollars that Fox has paid out to settle (cover up) complaints from numerous women of O’Reilly’s alleged incidents of sexual harassment.  According to Trump, O’Reilly’s “a good person.”

I have to stop. I can feel the outrage-o-meter getting into dangerous territory.  I may have to skip tomorrow’s paper entirely and immerse myself in a “West Wing” marathon.  I always feel better after visiting my friends in that fictitious White House.

Volunteering: Feed the Hungry

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I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into in last June when I decided to jump in as a volunteer for Mama’s Kitchen, a local non-profit that provides food assistance for San Diego residents who are living with HIV/AIDS or cancer. I went through the training to become a driver, someone who would have a selected route that I would cover one day a week and from about 3:30-5:30 PM would get bags of food out to my list of clients.

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By the time I show up, a whole lot of people have done a whole lot of work preparing the meals that I will deliver to my clients.

I did know that I was going to work for a first-class organization filled with compassionate, dedicated people.  Since 1990, Mama’s Kitchen has served over 8 million meals to needy San Diegans.  Their mission is to provide three nutritional meals a day, for no charge, to their clients with AIDS or cancer and to their clients’ dependents.  That means getting over 400 bags of food delivered every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 52 weeks out of the year.

That’s where people like me come in.  I show up every Wednesday at around 3:15, load up my bags of food (my client list has ranged from 7 to 17 on any given day) along with a hot bag that contains a freshly prepared hot meal for each client to have for dinner that night.

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Packed up and ready to go!

Then I’m on the road for the next 1-2 hours making deliveries.  To be honest, there was a lot that I did not like about the work in the beginning.  The route changed every time a client was added or deleted as the routing computer tries to give me the most efficient order of delivery.  Initially, that made it hard to relax as I was often in unfamiliar territory and had to pay close attention to Siri’s sometimes imperious directions.

What makes her think I know my east from my west, anyway?

Needless, to say, at the beginning, I missed a lot of turns and sometimes was unsure if I was at the right house even though Siri reassured me I had “arrived at my destination.”  I had to do a lot of checking and double-checking until streets and houses became more familiar.  The transactions with client seemed strangely impersonal, and I just felt like the rewards of this particular volunteer gig were going to be limited.

Seven months in, I’m enjoying it tremendously.  I now am covering the route on both Wednesdays and Fridays and some Mondays as needed.  Now that my clients know I’m committed to the work, that I’m not a student who is looking to do some volunteer work to be able to listed on a college application or someone on probation who has been sentenced to community service, they have begun to treat me more as a real person and not just “the food guy.”

And my clients are no longer just strangers which makes the work both harder and easier.  It’s hard to see them when they are having a bad day because all of them are on a rollercoaster when it comes to their strength and vitality.  I often have to pound on the door and ring the doorbell repeatedly, and shout that, “It’s me, Tom, the good looking-looking food delivery guy!” because they sometimes sleep heavily in the afternoon, and it pains me to think that they might not get their food for the next two or three days.  We are expressly forbidden from leaving food on the porch with the hope that they’ll get it before it begins to spoil.

The longer I do the route, the more of a sense of ownership I have and the more the positives pile up.  I have a standing invitation to join one of my clients for bingo night (Wednesdays at 6 PM) at the senior apartment complex where she lives.  At Christmas, one of my clients insisted I come in while she bagged up some tamales for me to take home.  I get a lot of good wishes and “God bless you”s since I’m the final contact for Mama’s Kitchen and represent all the work done by so many people. The son of one of my clients has offered to detail my SUV for me assuring me that he’ll “take good care” of me.

My favorite moment on the route is delivering to a family with two school-aged daughters, maybe 7 and 10 years of age.  They seem to love being “my favorite helpers!” which I announce loudly whenever I see them.  The older daughter’s bright eyes and ready smile kill me every time as she takes one or two of the three bags I need to tote up to the house.  I haven’t been able to resist treating them by slipping a pack of gel pens or drawing pads into their bags on Fridays and claiming that it “must have been the elves at Mama’s Kitchen.  They must have heard you are taking good care of your mom!” –two children managing to thrive in the most precarious of situations.

As the fifth pillar of my guide to “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” (soon to be revisited and revised), volunteering is a solid investment of my time.  It takes me out of the whirlwind of bad news that #notmypresident Trump inspires and makes a small contribution to a vulnerable population, one that will receive no help soon from the federal government.