Flying

Air travel is fairly common for me now at this point in my life. It has become routine and despite the delay and humiliation regularly dished out by the “Transportation Security Administration” (more about that later) it is quite convenient. In addition, air travel has steadily become cheaper as airlines have become deregulated. But on the minus side, the cramped seats, my usual proximity to a crying baby or a blabbermouth adult who insists on carrying on a one sided conversation about himself and his exploits in life, can make air travel miserable. For these occasions I usually carry earplugs which, when inserted do not shut out all the noise but do significantly suppress the roar of the engines and the ambient noise around me. And while they do not entirely shut out the blabbermouth and the crying baby, their insertion is a pretty clear sign to others that I don’t want to participate or listen. I just want to be left alone with the newspaper or the book that I’m reading.

I must reluctantly admit that I had never been in an airplane until my early thirties, when I flew in an airliner chartered by the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association taking participants from Massachusetts and adjacent states to the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in Anaheim, California. On this trip I was chagrinned to realize how much flying experience other participants seemed to have that I did not. As if the breathtaking acceleration and take-off right over the threatening waves of Boston harbor weren’t alarming enough for a first-time flyer, I have to confess that I was startled and fearful when I saw the wings flexing as the plane took off. Honestly I guess I thought that a plane’s wings were fixed and totally rigid. I interpreted the flexing as a sign of airframe weakness and feared that these bending wings were about to snap.

Logan Airport

This memorable first flight also featured, courtesy of the Association, an open bar for most of the flight, which most of us enjoyed, particularly the group of principals from Maine, who apparently had not been out of the woods in years and imbibed rather recklessly. I didn’t drink that much but apparently enough to help me embarrass myself toward the end of the flight when flying over the Grand Canyon. As we did so, the pilot invited us over the intercom to take a look at the Canyon out of the left side of the plane, but when everyone left their seats on the right and dashed to the left side to lean over those seated and gape out of the windows, I yelled out in a panic, “No, no, don’t, it’s going to tip!” Everyone looked at me in astonishment and shook their heads sadly. Evidently I visualized that plane as a boat – if everyone went to one side, it would indeed tip. I definitely did not realize that the wings held up the fuselage in the middle quite reliably, regardless of how weight was distributed within it. Anyhow, I took considerable ribbing from my colleagues for the rest of the trip and on the return flight as well.

grand canyon from plane

 

Thankfully with more flying experience over the years I did not embarrass myself like that again. Certainly the greatest amount of experience was accumulated when we moved overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait for four years and then later spending several years in Izmir, Turkey. Then flying became very common, even habitual. The management of the American School of Kuwait obtained bids from different international airlines for the transportation of its newly recruited teachers from their country of origin to Kuwait and to their homes and back in the summer. Thus, while in Kuwait we were able to sample Alitalia one year, then Lufthansa and also Air France. All were good and offered the opportunity of pausing for a few days or a week in one of their hub cities. Thus we were able to enjoy Rome for a week or so on the way back to the US on Alitalia, Paris another time while traveling on Air France, and Frankfort and nearby Heidelberg while on Lufthansa. Later while in Turkey traveling on Lufthansa became the standard because of its convenient service between Izmir and Munich and then on to the US.

Of all these airlines, Lufthansa became my favorite. Lufthansa aircraft appeared spotlessly clean and very well maintained. The meals were delicious and bountiful and you could enhance them with liberal glasses of delicious German wine. One of the best memories for me of all those trips on Lufthansa was the welcome sight of a comely flight attendant strolling up and down the aisle offering refills from a bottle of white wine in her left hand and a bottle of red in her right. And as alluded to a few lines above, while there may have been a trace of doubt about the mechanical reliability of a plane maintained in Italy, France or some other country, there was never any doubt about the reliability of a plane maintained in Germany. Many years later, when our air travel became much less frequent, we used the considerable Lufthansa miles accumulated when flying back and forth from Kuwait and Turkey, when we flew to Italy to enjoy Venice and Florence and when we traveled to Jordan to visit our son Conrad when he was serving in the Peace Corps. And again on both trips – after a delicious meal there was the attractive flight attendant perfectly balanced by the bottles of white and red in either hand offering to refill your glass. We finally polished off the last of the miles with a very enjoyable two week visit to Kauai, Hawaii flying on United Airlines.

Lufthansa

But I have had some pretty unnerving experiences flying as well. While overseas on our way to a teachers meeting somewhere we flew in what was perhaps the worst airplane we had ever experienced – a vintage Jordanian Airlines two engined jet, maybe a Boeing 737, that was in awfully poor condition. The stained and ripped seats, torn curtains, and loose, rattling plastic trim, did not inspire any kind of confidence. But this dilapidated plane thankfully must have been mechanically sound because it landed us safely in Amman without incident, provoking a collective sigh of relief and providing an opportunity for our armpits and palms dry off a little.

Another stressful experience occurred right before we left Kuwait. when we finally responded to an ongoing invitation from one of our wealthy Indian parents to travel to acquaint ourselves with her country by staying in her “farmhouse” near Delhi and touring nearby cities. We finally planned to do this immediately prior to our final departure from Kuwait, planning a one week stay in what turned out to be a huge country mansion with a swimming pool, not a “farmhouse”. Well after our tours of the cities of India’s “golden triangle” – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and focusing on our return we were harshly reminded of a sacred rule in overseas air travel – “confirming” return flights. Even if you had a bona fine reservation and the flight was paid for, passengers still had to call and confirm the flight or else there was the possibility of losing the reservation entirely. Well, while we knew this, we didn’t always remember. Our driver, who worked for the lady who owned the home at which we stayed, delivered us to the airport just fine, laden with our suitcases packed with mementos and spices from our tours and when trying to check in we found that our reservations had simply disappeared. I had forgotten to confirm the return flights. Shaking with anxiety, heart pounding and shirt drenched with nervous perspiration, I presented out tickets and pled our case with several agents and was finally able to obtain seats on a return flight that delivered us to Kuwait in plenty of time for our flight to the US the next evening. I never did and still don’t understand why and how reservations could be cancelled even though tickets were bought and paid for. 

But wait, that’s not all – the story and the stress continue. We had our tickets back to the US on BOAC, the airline with whom our school had contracted that summer, waiting for us at home with our packed and waiting suitcases. However, on the morning of the evening we were scheduled to leave we found that BOAC did not transport animals and we had three cats that we were taking back to Arizona, including our treasured Birman, “Monet”. So quickly we found seats on Lufthansa which did still carry animals in the cargo hold, but Lufthansa would not transport animals on flights terminating in Phoenix because of the heat. However, they could still be shipped to Los Angeles. So we changed the tickets to a Los Angeles destination where we all disembarked and collected our luggage and the cat cages. I booked a flight to Phoenix for later in the day for Conrad, Bobbie’s mother and me and the bulk of the luggage. We then called Liza, Bobbie’s daughter who was then living in Los Angeles for some help so Liza picked up her mother and the animals and drove them to Phoenix to meet with the rest of us. 

The most frightening airport I have ever experienced is Tribhuyan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, in which we landed and took off twice, first on the international flight originating in Kuwait and second, on a local flight for a special trekking experience in Pokhara, Nepal. The airport in Kathmandu is of course in the same valley as the city, deep enough so that the plane had to make a rapid and steep descent from over the mountains surrounding the valley down to properly “catch” the runway at a point sufficient to allow a safe distance to slow and stop the plane. And when taking off, the plane had to accelerate very dramatically in order to gain altitude adequate  to clear those same high mountains. It was almost like the plane had to nose dive down after clearing the mountains in order to land and had to almost “blast off” to clear the mountains upon takeoff. 

Another concern relating to the final takeoff when we left Nepal is that our suitcases were absolutely bulging with gifts and mementos we had bought in this fantastic city and were considerably overweight. So for the first time in my life (and happily the last) I risked actually bribing an airport official to allow us to take them on. Yes, for a twenty dollar bill, the guy routinely tagged them and put them on the conveyor, no more questions asked or concerns expressed. However, the extra heft of our overweight bags in the hold made me even more nervous about the takeoff. What if our illegally heavy bags caused the plane to be just over the weight limit required to clear the mountains? Well, thank God, the plane took off just fine, accelerated at that terribly steep angle and successfully got us out of the valley and back home to Kuwait. 

After all that flying during my overseas career, interestingly the worst flying experience of my life was just last summer when traveling from Vermont to Phoenix for an important dental appointment. I had boarded a Southwest flight in the morning which was to go from Albany, New York to Chicago and then to Phoenix. Shortly after takeoff the pilot informed us that Midway Airport in Chicago was fogged in so the plane would land in Cleveland until the fog cleared. At the time, I did not realize it but the pilot should have also said …”or until passengers can be rerouted”. So after disembarking the plane I waited with my fellow passengers for some word as to what was next. When the fog cleared, were we supposed to re-board the flight and get on our way to Chicago? Of course there was the real concern then that even if this were to eventually take place, would we get to Chicago in time to catch our connecting flights, including my flight to Phoenix. So I milled about nervously with other passengers from Albany and waited. 

southwest airlines

But in the meantime, unknown to me, some passengers were actively seeking other alternatives to reach their final destinations. Eventually the announcement was made that my flight to Chicago was cancelled. Other flights to Chicago were full and while nervously exploring what else I could do, I found out that the flight from Chicago to Phoenix for which I was booked had already left. By then I was really concerned and wondered why Southwest was not more active in taking care of its passengers. Even if I successfully found an empty seat and rebooked for Phoenix via Los Angeles, Denver or Albuquerque, it didn’t look like I was going to get to Phoenix until the next day, too late for my appointment. Suddenly I recognized a family which had been seated near me on the flight from Albany, also bound for Phoenix as I was, in line for a flight to Tucson so quickly I had a Southwest agent change my final destination from Phoenix to Tucson and successfully boarded that flight. I reminded myself that Southwest also maintained a schedule of shuttle flights between Tucson and Phoenix so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be too tough to grab one of these and easily get to Phoenix. 

However,  upon arriving in Tucson with just my backpack (I had no idea where my suitcase was at that point), I discovered that it wasn’t Southwest that maintained the shuttle flights but American Airlines. Finally finding my way to American’s counters I was told that several of those hourly flights were cancelled and to get on the remaining early evening flight would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $300. Heck, I’m not doing that, it was more than the entire Southwest flight had cost, so what should I do? OK, I’ll rent a car and drive to Phoenix. Accordingly I rented the least expensive car I could find that could be taken one way to Phoenix, picked up the car and got on Interstate 10 from Tucson to Phoenix. Arriving in Phoenix two hours later, I first had to find a gas station to bring the car’s fuel gauge back up, then find the airport rental car facility which is now located several miles from the airport itself, return the car and catch the shuttle bus from the car rental facility to Terminal Four in Sky Harbor Airport where Southwest was located. The first thing I did upon arriving was to check with unclaimed baggage at Southwest – no Ralph Friedly bag. After inquiring, I was told that it would likely be on the next flight from Chicago, to arrive in an hour or so. So I waited for that next flight from Chicago and yes, there was my bag on the conveyer belt. Finally, suitcase in hand I showed up at the SuperShuttle desk for my ride home and was delivered to my house at around 9:00 PM, actually midnight on my body clock since I had gained three hours with the time change. I had originally been scheduled to arrive in Phoenix early in the afternoon after about seven hours of flying, airport wait time and the time change. Instead, it had taken about eighteen hours. But I had a good night’s sleep and was on time for my dentist appointment. 

Looking back on this experience, the stress of which probably shortened by life by a couple of years, I still don’t really know what I should have done and despite my extensive air travel experience, was obviously quite naive about these kinds of contingencies. The only thing I can think of is that I should have been far more assertive with Southwest and insisted that they take care of me. But ever since, when flying on Southwest between Albany and Phoenix, I have been careful to avoid Chicago.

A critical aspect in flying today is dealing with airport security, the beloved TSA. Rightfully instituted after the dreadful incidents of 9/11 and thankfully as a Federal agency and not a private one, as demanded by numerous congressmen and their lobbyists, I still have a considerable apprehension and dread when boarding airplanes. First, I heartily agree with the comedian who joked that TSA recruits were people who were likely ridiculed or beaten up while in high school because they wield their considerable power with such vengeful abandon, seeming to sadistically maximize and apparently enjoy the inconvenience and embarrassment they cause passengers.

tsa_airport_screening_checkpoint_passengers_lax-100722517-large 

There have been times when, after scanning my identification, I am whisked through security, but mysteriously there are other times when I have been subjected to absolute maximum scrutiny. On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Phoenix, my spouse was rushed right through, no lines, no shoe removal, bingo, she was approved for flight. But there I was, confined to the interminable lines where I had to remove my shoes (thank you, Richard Reid) and the lady in front of me her sandals (hey, TSA guy in the blue shirt – what on earth could she be hiding in those thin flimsy sandals?). And of course I had to take my laptop out of its case and put it in a plastic box separate from the shoes. But I was loudly reprimanded when I attempted to put my cell phone in the same box and was also loudly reprimanded when I failed to empty all my pockets, even the shirt pocket containing nothing more than a couple of 3 x 5 cards, and was loudly reminded to place those meager items in yet another separate box. On top of that I was placed in the body scanning booth and asked to lift my arms up while I was electronically scanned from head to toe. And if that wasn’t enough, I was subjected to the ultimate indignity – a groping by a blue shirted, rubber gloved TSA teenager just in case I was hiding a knife, gun or explosives in a remote body recess that had escaped detection by the body scanner. I was totally mystified, to have gone from what looked like routine pre-approval to being treated like a bonafide terrorism suspect. Can it be that I’ve been marked by the TSA because of some of my incendiary unpatriotic blog entries? My God, I’ll have to tone them down a bit I guess. But I suppose I should be thankful for the TSA. They do a good job keeping us safe and exhibit considerable patience when dealing with disgruntled, disagreeable passengers like me.

I have to say that, while airlines today do have their problems, all considered, you can’t beat the speed and convenience of air travel. I am getting fed up with these boring and stressful automobile trips between Arizona and Vermont to which we are limited because of my spouse’s canine friend that must accompany us. Yes, listening to recorded books on the trips makes them somewhat more bearable but still they are a huge drain on my increasingly limited energy and time. And the trips seem to get more expensive each time we travel, and the motels at which we stay get more expensive as well, not to mention less hospitable.

So I am looking diligently for a reliable used car small enough to fit in our substandard garage space here in Vermont, and assuming that our canine friend will not be with us forever, someday we will definitely be flying back and forth between these two beloved homes, in spite of potential TSA abuse and weather or scheduling contingencies. At least these trips will be quick.

 

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On the Minus Side of Dying: Musings on End of Life

Over the past year or so, I have been consumed with thoughts of death. These have not been fearful thoughts, nor necessarily sad thoughts, although life has to be sweeter by far than death. But we all live and die. This is the way of living things – we are born, we live and we die. From the simplest of life forms to the most complex, this is the inevitable progression. And if life is a continuum, a straight line from birth to death, I hope mine is reasonably long, I don’t want it cut short. And if life is a course between two points, birth and death, I am thankfully still on the minus side of that course, still alive, though headed inexorably toward that end point.

I guess that these thoughts hit me for the first time when I was reading “Colossus” a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb last year. Halfway though the book I was struck by the thought that these remarkable people – the brilliant theoreticians and scientists, the skilled administrators, the talented fabricators, the president who made it all happen, are not with us anymore. Their lives, if notable, have been chronicled, their material achievements are listed for us to see, but they themselves are gone…forever. 

I have been reading biographies of famous people for many years but I have not necessarily thought of them as dying, or dead and gone. I was content to read about them and their lives and achievements but never was struck by the obvious fact that they are no longer with us. Why? I don’t know – maybe because I rarely thought about death itself – for me it was still such a long way off. I suppose that this change relates to my own old age and the now perceptible finiteness of my life. I was born, I grew, I was educated by school and experience. I lived and loved and became a father myself. But I will die – maybe sooner, maybe later…but I will die. In my younger days these thoughts rarely crossed my mind.

Another source for these thoughts and this piece of writing is the passing of a very close friend of ours, whose remarkable intellect, loving manner and vibrant personality are unforgettable. Even now, many months later, it is hard to imagine her gone. But is she really gone? Her appearance, her voice and her mannerisms are so alive in our memories, the memories of our children, who had the good fortune to know her, and in the memories of everyone else who knew her, that her absence is impossible to realize or accept.

In my mid-seventies now, I am grateful for my health. I am a trifle overweight, true, but I do still faithfully exercise on most mornings of the week. I watch what I eat, minimize the sugar and maximize the eggs and fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit. Foolishly, to treat a persistent sweet tooth, I still occasionally mix up and bake my favorite cookies, but amend the recipe by reducing the sugar and making it all dark brown, cancelling the chocolate bar and reducing the chocolate chips, using whole wheat flour and increasing the chopped nuts, while including almonds and hazelnuts. Then I ration my consumption by baking them small and keeping them frozen. Or if I’m feeling wiser, I’ll have an apple or some dried fruit if I am craving something sweet. And of course, likely not good for my health, l still have that scotch or red wine in the late afternoon.

And thank God, most of my body still works like it should. Yes the threat of personal embarrassment does rush me to the bathroom once in awhile and accordingly on long drives I consciously keep myself a bit dehydrated to minimize stops. I seem to be treating my hypothyroidism successfully and also treat a previously unknown bone density problem caused by that lazy thyroid gland with the necessary doses of minerals. I also am experiencing some lower back pain resulting from, I am told, deterioration of several vertebrae and a disc or two and some arthritis. Arthritis has also singled out a few key hand joints so I have tried to control inflammation by choosing certain foods and avoiding others. But on the whole, I think I’m doing ok. Those  organs and functions without which I cannot live – my brain, heart, lungs and digestive system, seem to be functioning quite well.

I have a  good friend back in our Arizona community who is about ten years older than I who tells me that while his seventies were okay, his 80’s have been quite different. He can really feel his  body giving out and maintaining this aging machine has become much more time and energy intensive in terms of doctor visits, scheduled medications, painstaking food shopping and preparation, and pursuit of required exercise. 

One thing that bothers me a great deal as I have grown old is that time passes so much more quickly than I thought it would. When I was young, it seemed that Christmas or the end of the school year and summer would never come. My high school and college years dragged on interminably as did my twenties and thirties. And now since I am retired I thought time would really drag and these ”golden years” would really stretch out, but surprisingly it been just the opposite. I have never experienced the hours turning into days, the days to weeks, the weeks into months and then years more quickly than now, exactly when I want things to slow down. 

I did a little research on this phenomenon and surprisingly the passage of time apparently speeds up with routine and sameness and slows down during growth and the acquisition of new experiences and learning. When you’re young every day brings something new and time stretches out. For example, think of how time seemed extended on that special vacation when you encountered new cultures, people, places and activities. And now during retirement when every day is more or less the same time passes more quickly. The new understandings, growth and learning acquired vicariously through movies and books, don’t have the same effect as real ones. I guess if I were wealthy enough to spend my retirement traveling and having those new experiences, these so-called “golden years” might pass much more slowly. But I’m not so I can’t and they don’t.

Some other thoughts and questions about my inexorable drift toward that final point on the continuum of life have occurred to me. What will I leave behind? Who will know that I’m gone? Who will grieve? What’s it all for? Will I be born again or just sleep forever, like I did before I was born and became conscious. 

One thing for sure, I don’t want to leave a mess behind me. I don’t want a spouse, child, sibling or friend sifting through a pile of my possessions rolling their eyes and saying – “Why did he keep this? What in hell was he planning to do with these? Why so many books – did he really read them all or just collect them thinking he would eventually find the time? And these jeans and sneakers – did he really think he would live long enough to wear them out? Why didn’t he get rid of things instead of just letting  them accumulate?” 

I really want to clean up my life like my Swedish kinsfolk recommend and make things easier for those I leave behind. Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”, tells us what we need to do. I just hope that I can summon the energy and willpower sufficient to accomplish these recommended tasks when the time comes. But until then, I still have dreams of utilizing lots of my “stuff”, even now. But it’s so true – in recent months I am looking at certain possessions  and asking myself why I keep them. I’m never going to use them so why are they here? Having moved so many times we took advantage of each move to thin out our possessions and make ourselves a little lighter and more portable. But here we are – two houses, Vermont and Arizona, both full to overflowing. So clearly there is work to be done before I reach the end of that line.

And what am I leaving behind in terms of a legacy of some sort? I don’t mean money or wealth – there’s precious little of either to leave to anyone anyhow. What I mean is a legacy of good works, good deeds that some people will remember, at least for a little while. I hope my career in education has enhanced many lives – I’ll never really know.  But I hope that somewhere, somebody still remembers me and that my work on their behalf meant something in their lives. I was overjoyed to find that a few of my students from my first teaching job stumbled onto my article about them  and still remembered me fondly, but surely there are many more from subsequent experiences, at least I hope so. And once in a great while I hear of someone I once supervised saying some good things about me as a school principal or superintendent. Well, as the Mac Wiseman song says, “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered

And then there’s the question of who will grieve my passing. In addition to my wife and son and my brothers and remaining sister, whom I hope will have retained at least a few fond memories and perhaps mourn my absence, there may be a treasured friend or two who may feel the same. Because of bouncing around the world and the country so much and thus scattering my friends and acquaintances, I don’t think that my survivors will have to worry about an overflow crowd at the funeral, if they even bother to schedule one. And I have requested that my body be cremated and my ashes thrown to the breeze from Yaki Point at the Grand Canyon. So that part of the end promises to be simple and quick as well.

And as it winds down, I cannot escape wondering what it was all for – life I mean. What is our purpose here, other than survival and procreation? What happens when I stop breathing and lose consciousness forever? Will I be “born again” or will I just sleep forever. It certainly is difficult to accept that my life will end – bang, just like that – and there is nothing afterward. But in fact there was nothing before it so why should there be something after? Jim Holt, who pondered the question of “why does the world exist” in his book of the same name, wonders why there is “something rather than nothing”, and suggests that “the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

I envy my sister and brothers and my loving wife, who because of their religious faith, do not have to ponder these questions. They are secure in the knowledge and conviction that our purpose here on earth is to “glorify God” and that they will joyfully be greeted by loved ones on the “other side” after their death. Yes, Mom and Dad, and sister Barbara will be there, healthy and whole – I would love to believe this, but simply cannot. My religious faith has never been that strong. I mean will our loved and treasured pets be there too? And how about that rotten, worthless relative or that duplicitous subordinate who stabbed me in the back? Do I have to put up with them again on the “other side”? No, I think life might indeed just be a lovely experience with nothing before birth and nothing after death. 

Well actually there is a little  built-in immortality associated with my life. Because I have a son, parts of me, my DNA, my genes will go on living. I won’t know it but parts of me already present in my son will go on living in him and his children and in their children. This is wonderful to contemplate, but is this the purpose of life? 

My parents are gone, their parents are gone . They live on my my life now and the lives of my brothers and surviving sister. But after we are gone, do our children remember them and keep them alive in their minds? My dear sister Barbara is gone  but I can see her mannerisms and hear her voice in the movements and voices of her children. But how much of Barb will be left in her children’s children and in their children? And indeed, my wife’s recent addiction to discovering a multitude of previously unknown ancestors does make us wonder what fragments of their appearance and personality we display in our own.

I know I will die but I don’t know when or how. One often hears regarding someone’s sudden death – maybe a sudden fatal heart attack, perhaps a fatal auto accident or some type of dreadful explosion – “well, at least he didn’t suffer…” This I have taken to heart. I really don’t want to suffer. I’d like to die suddenly, instantaneously or perhaps in my sleep. I’ve gone to sleep, I’ve lost consciousness, I just don’t ever wake up. Easy and painless. But I don’t want to suffer the pain of illness and slow inexorable deterioration of my body or my mind. If I’m in pain, let me float into death on the soft clouds of psychotropic drugs. Or if I have my wits about me, please let me decide when I should die and allow those I love to do me this favor. They can hold my hand and kiss my cheek when I expire and before I go I can imagine them doing it. Also, I can tell them goodbye and tell them I love them. This is dying in dignity, enveloped by love and sweet memory: This is the way it should be.

I certainly don’t want to die struggling for life – fighting madly for a breath of air as I am drowning somewhere, or straining for oxygen as my lungs fail. Nor do I want to contend with the indignity of incontinence as I stumble toward death. When those senses and controls fail, I want my whole body, my heart, breathing apparatus and brain to fail as well. I certainly hope that our entire country permits assisted suicide eventually, as do most western European countries and several of our states. As our bodies deteriorate and we are engulfed in dreadful pain or our minds fail, I think that we or our loved ones should be able to decide when we die. 

I suppose that it will be difficult for someone who has thrived on strength, order and “being in control” to relinquish control to someone else, even a loved one. But we all do, I guess, as we drift toward the inevitable end of our lives. Yet there may be some comfort in finally admitting that I can no longer continue being strong and in control. At some point it will be impossible and perhaps it will be a relief and a comfort to turn myself over to someone who is younger and stronger and can care for me. But I dread the day that they take the keys to the car away from me. I hope I have the good sense to realize that I can no longer drive safely and relinquish them voluntarily.

Hopes and dreams are necessary to life so no matter how old we get so we need to keep them alive. We should always have a must-read book at our side and a must-do project in front of us. When we stop striving and stop dreaming, we’re done. We dream all our lives – we dream of perfect love and perfect happiness; we dream of having enough money to do anything we want; we dream of the perfect house, that perfect place; we dream of  finding answers to life’s eternal questions – why are we here? Where do we go when we die? And I hope at age 76 that I can and will still dream. I think when we stop dreaming, stop hoping, stop trying, then we are really finished, even if our bodies keep going.

I have had my little set of dreams, yes. And I am happy to say that some have been realized, but so many have not and I know now, will not. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (see upcoming article “The Grand Canyon and Me”); I’ve stood on the highest mountain in Arizona – Mount Humphries in the San Francisco Peaks; I’ve traveled to Ireland twice, Germany several times, driven from Frankfurt to Vienna…and back, seen so many historical sites in Turkey, seen the pyramids, the sphinx, Luxor and the Valley of Kings in Egypt, been on a safari in Africa, walked the streets of Dublin, London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Isdtanbul, Delhi, Bangkok and Katmandu. Thank God, thank God for all this. But many dreams still remain.

Some of those dreams yet unfulfilled – camping for weeks among the red rocks of Canyonlands, Sedona and southern Utah; camping in a wheat field in Kansas or North Dakota on a windy night; taking a “blue cruise” – sailing on the beautiful warm blue Aegean off the coasts of Turkey and Greece; traveling to certain other countries that have fascinated me – like Russia or the country of my kin, Sweden; art museums that I’ve missed – the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to name a couple. I’ve seen virtually nothing of other countries in my own hemisphere – I would love to explore Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve never seen the Redwoods, Seattle, or Yellowstone. I have never lived by the sea, even for a little while, not even in a trailer. To listen to the waves constantly, have them wake you up and put you to sleep would be such a thrill. And to daily see the water stretching out to the horizon to meet the sky would be so liberating and inspiring. 

One of the tragedies of death is the disappearance forever of the knowledge and experience accumulated. We indeed are lifelong learners, absorbing new information, new facts and valuable lessons our whole life. And then when we die it’s all gone. So I guess that’s what all this is – a legacy of some kind, certainly not one as rich and as lasting as those left by many a scientist, novelist, poet or composer but the best I can do – some reflections on family, life, politics, and the world. I write so that some of my experiences and therefore some of me might live on. My son, who’s very busy and involved in his own life and career, reads little of this now. But I hope when I am gone, that he will hold me close once in awhile by choosing to read some more of what I’ve written. And perhaps he will choose to share it with his children.

In spite of accounts of “near death” experiences, death itself continues to be a mystery. Perhaps reviewing Socrates’ opinion on death would be an appropriate way to end this piece: ”To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

Today I noted in the NYTimes that two of my heroes have passed away. One of my favorite novelists, Philip Roth, author of so many great novels, including my favorite of his, “The Human Stain”, died yesterday. And Richard Goodwin, liberal speechwriter extraordinaire, whose golden words spoken by the Kennedys, Johnson and so many others also passed away. Yes, we all die, but what a legacy both of these people left. Read their work and you will agree.

Sanctimonious Hypocrisy

This article had its genesis in three unrelated events – scrawled notes after attending a charity event with my wife in Phoenix a couple of years ago, similar impressions and a few jottings while watching, yet again, “Scrooge”, the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ classic last Christmas Eve, and on the holiday itself reading a New York Times column which, in describing certain charitable acts, underscored my own convictions about charity. Unfortunately the article was never finished so I will attempt to finally sew the pieces together to successful completion. 

Have you ever read an article on the society pages of a newspaper about a multitude of befurred, bejeweled, betuxed and perfectly coiffed wealthy, arriving in their chauffeured vehicles, gathering for an event dedicated to some high profile charity? I am sure you have. There are the pictures of different couples, yes, dressed in their finest, happy to be there to help the sick or the poor. And the final tally of money raised through their pledges and contributions is supposed to invoke paroxysms of appreciation and gratitude among the eventual recipients of that generosity and among us sympathetic observers not blessed with the ability to give so much.

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Yes, these people, so rich that they cannot possibly spend what they have, make themselves feel so good, having contributed a particle or dash of their wealth to a particular cause. They do not think of erasing the conditions or circumstances that cause the deprivation or impoverishment of people in our society, but conspicuously contribute a shred of their vast fortunes so that they can go home, look in the mirror and tell themselves how generous they are and that they have “done their part” in “helping the poor”.

These people do not think of changing their government or their laws so that poverty and illness can be addressed and eradicated. They do not think of going to the source of a problem to find a solution. If they really cared they would put that wealth to work electing new politicians, passing laws and regulations, that would change the tax and welfare systems so that these problems could be prevented. Oh, but that would deprive them of this opportunity to step out on their little stage and show the world how benevolent they are.

But this is the problem, is it not? We spin our wheels, raise money, give to charities and maybe offer a prayer or two. Charity is a poor substitute for government action to solve problems of need. Charity and poverty – how inadequate one is to cure the other and temporary amelioration is not a cure.

A couple of summers ago my wife and I attended the “Circle the City Garden Tea”, an annual gathering of well-intentioned charitable givers whose efforts support medical care for the homeless. I felt very uncomfortable there among the many bejeweled, expensively dressed minor league philanthropists.
While I try to give as much as I can to worthy organizations, charity makes me nervous because what I can give is so limited. While there that morning surrounded by people feeling very good about themselves for having bid on “silent auction” items, buying lottery tickets for other donated items and filling out pledge cards, I couldn’t help getting the feeling that all this giving was a cop-out of sorts. Most of the people present, it seemed would rather give some money and a little time, pat themselves on the back, go home feeling smug and superior (another nice charitable tax deduction to reduce their taxable income at the end of the year), rather than see their taxes raised to ensure medical care for everyone including the indigent and a floor under everyone which would provide security for them.

The very worthy and admirable founder of Circle the City, Sister Adele O’Sullivan, herself a medical doctor who has spent much of her life treating the poor, presented a welcoming talk during which she exclaimed “Oh, I wish poverty would just go away”. Well, Sister Adele, in western European countries people really do believe in helping their fellow man, put their money where their mouths are and do pay the taxes necessary to alleviate hunger, lack of medical care, and lack of shelter….for everyone. Yes, in countries like these poverty does indeed “go away”. 

sister adele o'sullivan

Do any of these people with the designer clothes, jeweled eyeglass frames, expensive hairdos, gushing about how happy they are to be there at the “Garden Tea”, really think that there will be fewer poor people, fewer homeless in need of shelter, medical care and sustenance on the streets because of their efforts? Yes, of course, every person who is helped, every person lent a helping hand to cure their addiction to alcohol or drugs and put on a path to a job and a secure future is a worthy achievement. But do these isolated successes cure the problem? Why don’t these people try to provide homes for the homeless? Or jobs so that they can obtain homes. Or if they are unable to work, provide reliable monetary support so that they can provide a home and sustenance for themselves? People in need should not be dependent on the vagaries of charity. If Sister Adele really wanted poverty and need to “go away” she needs to support a floor under us all beneath which no one could fall.

CTC-Garden-Tea-Party2

 But unfortunately we aren’t doing this – the government, thanks to Republicans, is doing even less to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness, attaching “work requirements” to virtually every benefit from food stamps to Medicaid. The best seller “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance has been seized upon by the political right as ammunition to further cut assistance and support for the poor. Vance attributes his “escape” from poverty to “hard work”, not “government handouts” and this is music to right wing Republicans’ ears. People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. People are poor because they grow dependent on government “handouts” that deprive them of ambition. 

Yes, hard work is important but sometimes there are simply no jobs or if there are jobs, they don’t pay a living wage. One of the greatest ironies of modern life in this country is that so many full time jobs don’t pay enough for people to support their families. The greed of so many companies today that have chosen not to pay a living wage to full time employees is deplorable and should not be tolerated in “the wealthiest country in the world”. All employers should pay a living wage to full time employees. If they claim they cannot or else they will go out of business, let them fold. If the product or service they provide cannot generate living wages for employees, that product or service does not need to be provided. Paying a living wage to employees needs to be just as important as making a profit on that product or service, having your stock price increase and paying dividends to stockholders. And paying employees properly should be required by law.

socks

My wife attends weekly Mass at St Patrick’s Church in Scottsdale and to keep peace between us, I usually try to attend with her. I enjoy many aspects of the experience – observing the centuries-old ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic church and appreciating the dedication, energy, leadership and humor of Father Eric Tellez, the priest who is chief pastor of the church. I also enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the church itself – it’s really a beautiful edifice, reflecting the faith and generosity of its huge congregation. But at certain times of the year I am disappointed to see this lovely church become an example of what upsets and troubles me, by collecting socks for the homeless and indigent. Okay, it’s better than nothing I am sure, but bringing socks to church is just another exercise in ostentatious giving. If it genuinely cared, the congregation would be politically active and elect the right politicians to raise their own taxes in order to provide decent paying jobs and eradicate poverty, rather than making a show of bringing socks to church. But there we are, parishioner after parishioner, including us, strutting up (or slinking up in my case) to deposit a package of Target or Costco socks in a bin. Wow, how generous, how selfless. We are now absolved of any guilt about not caring properly for our fellow man.

It’s Christmas 2018 and I am striving to deal with feelings deriving from two sources – our annual family viewing last night of the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” and a column I just read from the New York Times this morning. In “Scrooge”, The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what has become of his beautiful lost love, Alice, whose affection he tragically  traded for his selfish pursuit of wealth. Alice is generously and joyfully tending to the sick and needy in a poorhouse on Christmas EveAlice. The final revelation of this Ghost shows him dramatically opening his robe to reveal two gaunt, sickly and ragged little children. “This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy…” he intones. Through the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ wonderful story reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas and impresses upon us our responsibility to care for those less fortunate.Ignorance and Want But just like the benevolent organizations to which I have alluded, this lovely Christmas story stresses that we do so through the unpredictability and unreliability of individual charity, rather than through the responsibility of societies and their governments. 

And in the column noted above, the author, Margaret Renkl, whose work I generally admire, begins by considering the contradiction of evangelical support of Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and of a U.S. president who violates virtually every Christian precept imaginable. She then then exhorts Christians to rally around the teachings of Jesus in which all Christians should believe: “Jesus had nothing to say about birth control or abortion or homosexuality. He did have quite a lot to say about the poor and the vulnerable… Surely Christians across the political spectrum believe we’re called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, protect the weak and welcome the stranger.” Great stuff so far, but rather than urging us to elect politicians and pass laws that would help wipe out poverty, Ms Renkl loses herself in describing the wonderful things that she and her fellow Christians are doing to help the homeless.

During the winter months, members of “Room in the Inn”, a group involving Nashville area churches, go downtown and collect homeless people, take them to their various places of worship or shelters for a hot shower, a wholesome dinner, a good night’s sleep in a clean bed, a healthy breakfast the next morning and a sack lunch for later. But then, these same people take their one-night guests downtown and dump them off again on the same streets upon which they are homeless! What does this do, pray tell? Are these selfless and generous Christians of “Room in the Inn” doing anything to eliminate the root causes of homelessness? These people are homeless – they need homes and jobs, not one night stands of temporary shelter. No, just like charities such as Circle the City, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge’s lost love Alice taking care of the poor, they’re just playing round the edges, treating symptoms and not addressing causes.

 homeless shelterIf the reader will allow me the privilege of some divergence, I would like to conclude this piece with another quite different example of “sanctimonious hypocricy”. In the same way I am disgusted by charities beating around the edges of serious problems without attacking the causes, I am sickened by the way do-gooders ostentatiously go through the motions of demonstrating understanding and sympathy for one of the greatest injustices of our time – the stripping of the dignity, welfare, safety, livelihood and land of the Palestinian people in their native country, without ever saying anything about the root causes.

As I noted in my earlier article, there are countless stories in the media of the little efforts and little events that are purported to “bring Israelis and Palestinians together”. Maybe it’s a story, like the one I described in the afore-mentioned article about Israeli and Palestinians women temporarily shedding their enmity to gossip in a beauty salon, or it might be an isolated effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together in some school, playground or sporting event, so that they can show the world how they can get along. Maybe the story makes the nauseating feel-good final entry on the network evening news, or makes it into a similar area of the print media. But it always produces the same feeling in me as do charity events attended by the wealthy. 

Because these weak efforts are really obfuscations masquerading as solutions, only window dressing, covering and disguising the real problems. Oh, these innocent little Palestinian and Israeli children are joyfully playing together and loving each other, oblivious of the real factors and actions that keeps them apart. The daily insults, humiliation, attacks, beatings, deaths and  land theft go on, aided by the 11 million dollars a day US taxpayers provide to collude in these crimes. And our politicians of whatever party continue with their unqualified  praise of Netanyahu and his minions for their “only democracy in the Middle East” and “shared values”  with the United States, just to keep the money flowing into their election coffers. Please save me from the platitudes and the sanctimonious hypocrisy and let’s attack the root causes of these crimes with an arms embargo, cancellation of our $11 million per day support and hauling these Israeli criminals into the World Court for trial and sentencing.

So concludes this article about the sanctimonious hypocrisy of our many institutions which, while they might do some good, refuse to expose and address the real causes of poverty, deprivation and injustice and seek real solutions. But before we part company, it might be useful to share some reminders from notable people about our responsibilities and how to fulfill them.

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.” 

Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” 

Eugene V. Debs

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” 

Franklin D. Roosevelt

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 

Hélder Câmara, Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” 

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Foresight in 2020

I read a column last weekend by my second favorite New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan (favorite – Paul Krugman) in which, after going through a list of potential Democratic candidates for president in 2020 and discarding them one by one, he finally settles on “building a better Biden”. Timothy, I’m not so sure, no, in fact I am sure – settling for Biden would be sheer folly.

During the 2016 campaign, like many desperate Democrats, I sadly realized the inadequacy of the Hillary Clinton campaign. From the meaningless slogan “Stronger Together” to her glaring Wall Street ties to her inability to articulate a Democratic vision for the country or even a reason why she was running for president, her campaign was hopelessly shallow. Yet, like many, I was shocked at her loss, especially the narrowness of it, losing the electoral vote in several key states by a mere collective 40,000 votes. But those key states – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, will matter just as much in the next election and so Democrats have to consider what kind of candidate could have won these states in 2016 and will take them in 2020. 

Also like many other Democrats who followed the 2016 election closely, I could easily have visualized Bernie Sanders beating Trump soundly in these key states, just like the polls indicated. Bernie’s genuineness and his authentic rage at the both the Democratic and Republican donor-based establishments perfectly reflected the anger and desperation of the many voters in these states that threw the election to Trump. Also, during the late phases of the election and certainly reflecting on this dreadful loss afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that Joe Biden, with his blue collar Scranton, Pennsylvania roots, could also have honestly articulated and reflected the insecurity, outrage and resentment felt by so many disaffected voters in these key states. So I don’t entirely disagree with columnist Timothy Egan. However, I think he misses several important points, some serious and some superficial but no less important.

But first, I think that the Democratic Party has to get away from crying about why they lost the presidency. It wasn’t because of Russia or because of Comey or any of the many other petty reasons stated by Democrats. It’s because they had no message, ran a bad candidate and were, pure and simple, beaten by money. Oh sure, Hillary outspent Trump by a considerable margin overall but millions of billionaire donor dollars (read Koch, Adelson, Singer et al) were poured into the afore-mentioned states during the last months of the campaign and the Democratic candidate didn’t even bother to campaign seriously in them. 

Secondly, the lack of a convincing Democratic message lost the election for Hillary Clinton. In moving right over the years, illustrated by husband Bill’s sellout to Republicans and corporations by “changing welfare as we know it” and in embracing NAFTA, there was little that Democrats could convincingly say to address the insecurity of blue collar workers who had seen their unions, jobs and middle class hopes continue to disappear over the Bush and Obama years. Yes, Obama was the quintessential corporate Democrat, only disguised in black clothing. He sold out his country and his party with a continuation of the shrinking of unions and stagnation of wages and consequent diminishment of the middle class. And Hillary couldn’t ever dissociate from these Democratic trends, in fact she personified a perpetuation of them.

As Mr. Egan demonstrated in his column, it’s not difficult to sort through that grab bag of potential candidates. And there’s no shortage of such accounts by other pundits. So I will do the same, with several changes. Joe Biden does not distinguish himself in my list and I would like to suggest several “dark horses” – excellent choices that the other lists, Egan’s included, do not contain. And yes, I’ll use some extremely superficial reasons for rejecting a few otherwise substantial candidates, like age, blackness, voice and hair. Listen, please don’t dismiss hair – history tells us that Americans prefer political figures with hair. Our society views hair loss as a liability, and given a choice, Americans will pick the person with better hair. The days of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson are gone – substance has given way to image.  

Also, I should mention that it’s still way too early to be looking to 2020. Much could change between now and then. Some Democrats who test the water may find it unwelcoming, others will fall by the wayside for other reasons, some of which I will articulate below. But one of these people will be the Democratic nominee and very likely our president. So join me in taking a look at them:

  • Bernie Sanders – our hero, told it like it was, didn’t pull punches, accepted no billionaire donor money or PAC money, right on target with his policies and programs, knows what the country needs, likely would have become our president except for the Democratic establishment led by the Clintons. But unfortunately will be too old by 2020.
  • Elizabeth Warren – believes and says the right things but comes across as way too impatient, exasperated and whiny. 
  • Kamala Harris – attractive, intelligent, well connected, but way too California and way too new. And a “black” woman? I don’t think so.…and I don’t think black voters will think so either. And too tied to the Democratic establishment.
  • Chris Murphy – too young, unseasoned, inexperienced and too linked to his single favorite issue – gun control.
  • Sherrod Brown – genuinely liberal in his beliefs and legislative stands but always seems too angry. Plus something is wrong with his voice. (like I said  some serious reasons to accept or reject candidates and some superficial but real)
  • Cory Booker – pretty good candidate but manic mannerisms – bulging eyes, talks too fast and always seems ready to explode. Also some pretty tight ties with Wall Street money which would hurt him. Also is single – why? – may be an issue here of some kind? But, thank God…he’s really black, unlike Kamela and Eric.
  • Terry McAuliffe – a great Virginia governor with some notable progressive accomplishments. But much too tied to the Clintons and would be picked apart by the opposition over the long haul. Too bad because he’s good looking and has great hair.
  • Kirsten Gillebrand – has recently placed herself alongside of or maybe even to the left of Bernie on some issues. But is still a legitimate candidate to break the glass ceiling in many ways that Hillary was not. But ties to Wall Street could hurt her.
  • Andrew Cuomo – well connected and would likely run a strong campaign. But he has lurched right or left for so long, depending on the headwinds, that he seems without principle. Right now he’s lurching left to counter his quite liberal primary opponent.
  • Eric Holder – not a bad choice but his liberal credentials are cloudy and he’s tied to big money. And he’s not black. Or maybe just black like Kamala.
  • Jay Inslee – Washington governor with impeccable progressive credentials – not many negatives here but then he has that “west coast” stigma, although in this case at least it’s not California.
  • John Hickenlooper –  great Colorado governor and former entrepreneur with a record of liberal achievements which have helped turn his state fairly blue, but (shallow) is his name a handicap? So easily ridiculed, don’t you think? Hickenloopy, Hickenpooper, Chickencooper, etc.
  • Martin O’Malley – a good guy but weakened by overexposure during the 2016 Democratic primaries. And hasn’t done much since then.
  • Tim Caine – an establishment candidate whose liberal credentials are dubious – rather a Republican in Democrat’s clothing. Also, forever soiled by his association and unsuccessful campaign with Hillary Clinton.
  • Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Cuban – forget all of these. They’e rich entertainers, not public servants. That’s what we have now and Democrats don’t need this. Nor do they need
  • Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg – yes, I can’t believe that these two pompous Facebook billionaires – he of the weaponized social media tech platform and she of the egotistical self-help books (see my upcoming article “The Great Books”), have been mentioned seriously by the pundits.
  • Julian Castro, Mitch Landrieu, Eric Garcetti, Deval Patrick – regardless of their very real liberal bona fides, none of these have the national stature and profile necessary to be the formidable candidate that the Democrats need.
  • Joe Biden – sorry Mr. Egan, but I just can’t take your suggestion seriously. He’s too old. Period. He came to Congress with fellow freshman Jesse Helms when the presiding officer of the Senate was vice president Spiro Agnew and while Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were dating in law school. Oh yes, he could break another “glass ceiling” by being the oldest president-elect in history but he couldn’t reasonable consider a second term, and who wants a president who’s an immediate lame duck? Plus, good old Joe has been known to be a little bit creepy and “handsy” over the years and as a drug warrior, incarceration hawk and death penalty proponent, he has been on the wrong side of more than a few legislative issues. And his cavalier treatment of Anita Hill’s harassment claims was responsible for the ascension of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Add to this that he is long gone from his humble blue collar Scranton roots and has ever been an eager supporter of the big money Delaware financial institutions, which have generously contributed to all of his campaigns. So, Timothy, Joe Biden is not only way too old but way too tarnished. And all this would be mercilessly highlighted by Republicans should, God forbid, he becomes the Democratic nominee. Yet there he sits, right on top of most pundits’ lists, including yours. My gosh, I forgot to mention his hair – the worst imaginable – hair transplants – bad enough, but they don’t even follow the natural lines of male pattern baldness. Superficial yes, but enough….goodbye, Joe.

 So, there you have the complete list, except for whom I would expect to be the strongest candidates, any one of whom has more honesty and genuine liberal credentials than any of the above save my Bernie Sanders. Why these great Democrats have been overlooked beats me. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Sheldon Whitehouse – ok, first let’s first be superficial – the junior Senator from Rhode Island has got great hair, really great hair. And how could an American presidential candidate ever have a catchier last name than “Whitehouse” – unless his name happens to be “Sheldon President”? Not hard to imagine what campaign slogans could be inspired by this name. Now let’s be substantive. Mr. Whitehouse has impeccable credentials. Public service is in his veins – he grew up in a diplomatic family with both father and grandfather in the foreign service as ambassadors. Mr. Whitehouse exudes intelligence, gravitas and substance and went to the right schools – St. Pauls and Yale. He has also written the requisite book – but not the typical book about himself and his views on the issues and the world. “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy” is a passionate and scholarly treatise on two of the most important issues faced by our country and the world today – corporate money in politics and climate change, and how they relate and intersect. The book has been written about in the New Yorker and discussed by its author in a great Book TV interview on C-Span. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Senator Whitehouse has authored another book – “On Virtues: Quotations and Insight to Live a Full, Honorable, and Truly American Life”.
  • Bill De Blasio – the mayor of New York City has impeccable liberal credentials and a stellar record of progress such as providing free universal pre-kindergarten for the city’s children, financed by a tax on the wealthy and significant progress in creating middle and low income housing. Mr. De Blasio said of Sanders, who swore him in for his second term, “From the bottom of my heart, the American political process will never be the same because of what you started,” He could do much more as mayor but but he has been handicapped by his greatest rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo. And on the superficial yet important side, Mr DeBlasio is tall, has great hair, is married to a real black woman and has bi-racial children. And he rides the subway to work each day, chatting with his constituents and finding out firsthand what’s on their minds. Mr. Mayor has not yet written the requisite book, but unlike many candidates who have, has had several very complimentary books written about him.
  • Gavin Newsom – the Lieutenant Governor of California has movie star good looks, and genuine Democratic credentials. His linkage with one of the greatest governing families in California history, his mentor Jerry Brown and father Pat Brown, doesn’t hurt, although just the fact of where he is from, could. Right now he’s focused on succeeding Brown as governor of California so It might be better for him to wait, but he has built a lofty reputation and has momentum going forward. Claims he will not run but many other candidates over the years, when they felt that forces enabling and requiring them to run were coalescing, have eagerly swallowed those words. Mr. Newsom also has the required book, “Citizenville”, about how citizens can use digital tools to improve participation in and effectiveness of democracy. And oh yes, he is tall and has great hair.

So there is the complete list – I don’t think I’ve forgotten anybody. Nobody knows who will ultimately be nominated by our feckless party, which seems always to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, I fervently hope that whoever it is will exhibit not only the strength and resolve necessary to win but the intellect, honesty, humility,  seriousness, dignity and sophistication, that are the precise opposite of the abomination that now inhabits the office, and will restore honor to the most important elective office in the world.

Black Ice

Recently reading a piece in the New Yorker by staff writer John Seabrook about his “black ice” near-death experience, my own very similar, and also almost fatal experience, was resurrected with a jolt and begged to be memorialized in writing. 

I have often reminded my son Conrad that fate (or God, if you wish) is watching over him and is saving him for some very special achievement, for already in his young life he has survived three potentially fatal experiences, where only a slight change in circumstances would have resulted in his death. Looking back at my own much longer life, I fortunately can recall but one such experience for me – and that is the one which I am about to describe.

“Black ice” is the common term for the thin layer of ice that forms on pavement when it is raining and the road surface and ambient temperature are at or below freezing. Of course the ice that forms under these conditions is not black but is so named because it doesn’t appear as the more visible packed-snow type of ice that also presents a challenge for winter driving. This you can see and can deal with; however, black ice is usually a surprise, covering a roadway invisibly, while the black surface of the road is still clearly visible – hence its name. Also, when driving in snow, or in snow packed so thoroughly on a road surface that it becomes ice, your vehicle’s tires can still retain a bit of traction – control of your vehicle is a challenge but enough is retained for at least some traction and steering. On black ice, however, there is absolutely no control – traction required for acceleration, steering or braking is lost completely.

I must have been about 35 or so, then living by myself in the house at 7 Brook Street in Plympton, Massachusetts, which my brothers Richard and Glenn had built for me. On one late winter evening I had spent a pleasant hour or two with a female friend living in neighboring Kingston, intending to drive home afterward, get to bed and rest up for the next day’s work at my job as elementary principal in Duxbury. I had shared a delicious dinner with her but had drunk no alcohol of any kind, so I was pleasantly sober and alert.

I was then still driving my Volkswagen camper, described in my previous article about the cars I have owned. Now, any VW bus of that vintage, including the much more spare and simple Kombi and the heavier camper with its convenient Westphalia trappings, is a notoriously poor handling vehicle – very unwieldy and top-heavy, woefully underpowered, and, with so much more weight in the back where the engine and drive train were located and so little up front, rendered dependable steering under any slippery conditions, somewhat challenging. 

In addition, the VW bus positions the driver and front seat passenger right up front, over and a little in front of the front axel, without any of the crash protection of the protruding front engine and axel of a standard vehicle. Even the steering wheel on this vehicle was a bit awkward to handle because it was almost horizontal. Of course, in spite of the vulnerability, this seating afforded great visibility for the driver and front passenger, if it mattered at any time.

Well back to my story. Snow had been forecast, but when I left my friend’s home I noted that is was cold and raining lightly but not yet snowing. I recall that I could hear the sound of my tires on the wet pavement during the initial segment of my trip home. Having experienced the challenges,  threats and risks of winter driving in New England for some years, I was comforted by this sound – it was wet pavement, not ice, upon which I was driving. As I left the village of Kingston behind me when I turned up Route 80 toward Plympton, I could still claim to be driving on wet pavement because I heard that reassuring sound. But as I proceeded up the several miles of the darkened and isolated stretch of the road leading toward my home, one of the last things I remembered was that the sound of my tires on wet pavement had changed – I could no longer hear it. That’s when it happened. I guess I was driving at or below the speed limit, maybe 40 – 45 miles per hour, when I realized that my VW camper was slowly rotating, spinning down the road at the same speed I had been driving, totally out of control. I was absolutely helpless – there was no steering, no brakes, no control of any kind. That’s the last thing I remembered until waking up in the Plymouth hospital the next day, with terrible pain in my chest and my aching, pounding head bountifully bandaged.

Later discussing my accident with the policeman who found me, I found that after spinning totally out of control on black ice, I had struck an electrical pole, effectively putting out people’s lights for miles around. The impact was on the right side of the front of the vehicle, the passenger side, which was crushed in clear to the seat. If I had struck the pole just a little more to the left, I would likely have died instantly, crushed by the pole and the steering wheel. As it was, my body had evidently struck the steering wheel, breaking several ribs and my head had struck the windshield, giving me a severe concussion and multiple cuts, the former of which had rendered me senseless until I woke up the next morning. The policeman said that he had found me moving and apparently conscious, lurching around the interior of my bus trying to extricate myself while bleeding profusely from my head wounds. An ambulance he had summoned had taken me to Plymouth hospital, where my cuts were treated and I was put to bed until I recovered consciousness.

I don’t remember returning to work immediately after my accident. Perhaps it had occurred during our winter break and I had sufficient time to recover before returning. I do remember that the head cuts healed quickly and completely but the broken ribs were another matter. For a long time I had great difficulty even breathing without significant pain and a cough or a sneeze made me cry out, so this injury required a much longer time for recovery. My first contact in the hospital was with my friend and her two children, who showered me with attention and concern which I am sure hastened my recovery. 

Well, that was my one and only near fatal experience. My son is two up on me and I hope it will stay that way. I certainly don’t want any more for either of us. But “black ice” is always a concern for me in winter driving. I am in Vermont now as I write this and even though it’s April and springtime should be here, it’s unfortunately still winter, with conditions perfect for “black ice” at night. It’s been snowing and raining with temperatures hovering around 30, sometimes in the high 20’s at night, and a little above freezing during the day. Needless to say, I am staying at home, well provisioned by the groceries I bought last Friday on the last leg of my journey. I refuse to go anywhere until a general rise in temperature arrives this weekend. And perhaps I should  conclude by injecting this otherwise serious piece with a little humor from Comedy Central’s Key and Peele and their discussion of “black ice”, alluded to in the afore-mentioned New Yorker article. 

 

Why We Drink

I have to laugh, really. People dressed in suits and lovely dresses at a wine-tasting event – smelling, observing, pouring, sipping, commenting, exclaiming, celebrating. Or long articles about some remarkable new (or old) wine derived from a particular grape from a special vineyard in a certain country. And both the sippers and the writers employ a lexicon of special adjectives to describe it – like “impudent”, “woody”, “flippant”, “fruity”, “decadent”, “lazy”, “buttery”, “intellectually satisfying”, and so on. 

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Or people, maybe younger, maybe not dressed in suits and lovely dresses but in much less formal attire, perhaps in jeans and plaid shirts, extolling the virtues of the latest “craft” beer. Wow, that tastes really “accessible”, “aggressive”,  “caramel”, “hoppy”, “assertive”, “bright”, and so on.

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 Or some mustachioed elderly gentlemen in tweeds and vests lounging in leather armchairs and sofas at their exclusive club, being served some expensive single malt scotch or Tennessee sour mash whiskey, either “neat” or “on the rocks”, and murmuring to each other as they sipped that it tasted “smooth”, “malty”, “peaty”, “youthful”, “oaky”, “mellow”, “austere” or “smokey”.

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Oh, come on now. You are tasting or drinking this stuff mainly because it has alcohol in it, not because of any special flavor or “feel”. You there, wine sniffers, tasters and sippers, would you be gathering there in your finery, affectatiously tasting all of those different wines if they did not contain alcohol? Maybe you should just consider savoring and comparing the different grape juices before they were fermented. Or perhaps set up a “grape tasting” event comparing the grapes themselves. No, let’s be honest – the big reason that you wish to fancy yourselves wine connoisseurs is simply that the wine contains alcohol and imbibing the alcohol makes you feel good. 

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And you guys over there at the brewery sampling all those different craft beers. If suddenly the alcohol were removed from the beer would you be gathering together like this – laughing and carrying on, hoisting those embossed mugs and glasses to toast the brewer that created this marvelous stuff? What if it didn’t contain alcohol but still tasted more or less the same – would you really still be drinking it and enjoying it so much? Hey, then why not an O’Doul’s instead of that Kilt Lifter? Of course, if we’re honest, you are enjoying that rich craft beer or even that bland Bud Lite for one reason – they contain alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.  

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And you distinguished gents in the tweeds – you’re really enjoying that exclusive scotch or bourbon. You’re drinking it properly too – you’re moving it around in your mouth, letting the vapors penetrate the sinuses; you’re breathing minimally so you can appreciate the flavors and aromatics…..and savoring every sip. But honestly, gentlemen, if that expensive single malt or sour mash had no alcohol, would you be drinking it at all? I think not, because after the flavor and the aroma, both good, of course, you are drinking this stuff because it contains alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.

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Readers, I’m not impugning our collective enjoyment of the myriad flavors of wine, beer or whiskey (or gin, vodka, rum, tequila, brandy and the rest). Sure lots of it tastes great and if our taste buds and palates are in good shape can truly be savored and enjoyed. But…..and I beg you to consider….if these libations did not contain alcohol, would we be drinking them? I mean would we seek out anything at all that tastes like gin if it did not contain alcohol and could not conveniently become a martini or a gin and tonic?

Humans consuming alcohol has been around since we homo-sapiens began to populate the earth. No one knows when man first squeezed some grapes to render the juice, then accidentally let it sit around for too long, finally drank it and noticed that he felt great, much better than when he drank the juice fresh, and then began to leave it around for longer on purpose, finally perfecting the process of wine-making.

Beer was purportedly discovered (or invented) by the ancient Sumerians and enjoyed in ancient Egypt as well. Now exactly how did this happen, do you suppose? Maybe some guy was cooking up a nice barley soup for supper, threw some handy herbs in for flavoring, but forgot about it, letting it cool down and sit for a few days or weeks. Then when he finally got around to consuming it, wow, it tasted a little different and made him feel good! Voila! – beer was invented (or discovered?).

While the discovery of wine and beer were perhaps fortuitous accidents, the varied family of liquors or spirits historically resulted from a purposeful process because all have one thing in common- the process of distillation. All were developed over the centuries by distilling alcohol from sugars or starches acted upon by yeast, producing the alcohol by the natural process of fermentation. Sugars yielded the rums, grains the whiskeys, other starches the gins and vodkas, berries the brandies and so on. And it’s worth noting that some of these distilled spirits were first used as medicines, particularly gin. And also, the triangle trade developed as the popularity of rum rose – slaves bought in Africa for New England rum, traded in the West Indies for sugar and molasses, and these to New England to make more rum. And the first licensed whiskey distillery in the world, “Old Bushmills Distillery” located in Ireland (how appropriate!) still produces whisky today.

A visit to a huge warehouse type of liquor store like “Total Wine” or “BevMo” is an incredible experience. There they are – hundreds and hundreds of different wines from all over the world, an astonishing number of different beers, also from everywhere, from small craft brewers to huge conglomerates, and a truly impressive array of spirits – dozens of different scotches, whiskies, brandies, gins, rums, tequilas and vodkas. And you know what? Everything in this bewildering array of beverages has one thing in common – alcohol – that substance that makes you feel good. Everyone who walks up and down the isles, dropping bottle after bottle into their shopping cart is buying the same thing, alcohol, only adorned in different trappings.. 

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And I’m no different than these people. I enjoy a scotch on the rocks sometime around 5:00 almost every day. The scotch I drink is relatively inexpensive because it’s a blended, certainly not a single malt and is aged for only thirty-six months. But it’s still 80 proof so I drink it because it relaxes me and makes me feel good. Oh yes, I wish I could afford a more exclusive scotch to enjoy each day, but I can’t. So I have my House of Stuart, Scoresby or Clan McGregor, depending on what was on sale. And I pour it over the ice cubes, sip it and it tastes quite good. And because I get that nice relaxed feeling, I really don’t care that it’s not Macallan, Johnny Walker Black, or Glenlivet – although I do sometimes sacrifice and buy some of these to keep on hand for special occasions. But for my much-anticipated daily drink, my inexpensive blendeds do just fine.

scotch on the rocks

 And if for some reason I don’t have my scotch, I may drink some red wine, usually Charles Shaw merlot from Trader Joe’s, famously known also as “Two Buck Chuck” or Kirkland cabernet sauvignon from Costco, both actually quite well regarded. They both taste great, don’t give me a headache, go down well with whatever I’m eating and are reasonably priced. While comparatively inexpensive, they’re certainly not the cheap rotgut that’s shared by the unfortunate alcoholic vagrants gathered under our city bridges or sold by bootleggers on our Native American reservations, like Roma Tokay or some other cheap wine that may give you a buzz but also likely indigestion and a massive headache. But to further make my point, exactly why do they drink this stuff? I don’t think that groups of poor down and out inner city vagrants or poor native Americans on the streets of Farmington, Shiprock or Gallup, New Mexico, gather in groups and discuss the various flavors or bouquets of the liquid in the flat bottles stuffed in their back pockets. No, they could care less about the taste – they’re just trying to get that buzz, the good feeling that comes from the alcohol.

So friends – let’s not kid ourselves. It’s perfectly ok to admit why we enjoy alcohol – it relaxes us and makes us feel good. It’s not necessary to deceptively cloak that enjoyment in cloying rationales like aroma, taste, or feel, or attach any of the hundreds of picturesque adjectives to the beverage we’re enjoying. It’s ok to just say – it tastes fine and makes me feel good. 

Reasons for Seasons

I grew up in a family with solid farm roots – Dad from a farming family in Missouri and Mom from one in North Dakota. I also married two spouses from farm families – one the daughter of a New Jersey truck farmer and the other the daughter of a Vermont dairy farmer. So I am steeped in farm values, habits and principles.

One of these is “make hay while the sun shines”, meaning that if the weather is good, you should be outside getting some work done. Or generally, when conditions are favorable, get something accomplished. You can’t plow or cultivate crops when it’s raining and the soil is soaked. You can’t harvest the wheat or the corn then either. Nor can you even do the wash and hang it on the clothesline to dry. So good weather requires you to get outside and get something useful done because the rain might come again tomorrow.

Growing up in the four seasons of New Jersey, this precept was demonstrated to me quite often by my parents, both of whom had obviously experienced the urgency of good weather. It was only on rainy days, or in the winter, that the pressure was not there. It’s winter – the hay has been cut, dried, baled and stacked, the wheat has been harvested and marketed, the corn has been cut and is in the bin, fruit and vegetables have been picked, peeled and canned, the potatoes and turnips are in the cellar, the wood is split and stacked, the coal bin is full, the stove is heating the house, you’re well provisioned and secure for the winter, so relax, read a book or listen to some music.

Unless of course you are a dairy farmer, as was my late father-in-law. These dedicated farmers had to milk the cows twice a day, every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. They also had to take care of the cattle year-round, making sure they were fed, healthy and comfortable. And then there were always calves to take care of. But at least in the wintertime there was somewhat less to do – at least the hay was in the mow and the silage in the silo.

So on sunny days, I have always felt uncomfortable about staying inside and involving myself in indoor tasks. I’m trying to read a book but the sun is shining in through the window and lighting up the page. Something is wrong here, this shouldn’t be. I should not be inside reading when the sun is shining. There has got to be some work outside to be doing. So I can’t concentrate properly and fail to appreciate or understand what I’m reading – the page and the words are blurred by guilt.

Before retirement, this feeling was minimized. After all, we weren’t farmers, we were educators, so we plied our craft rain or shine. No matter what the weather, the children came to school and their teachers taught them. The teaching and learning went on when the sun was shining or when it was raining or snowing. It was during retirement that this pull of the sunshine and the comfort of rain or snow became most obvious.

Retired, we began the practice of living for six months or so in the house we have owned in Scottsdale, Arizona since 2000. This home in Casa del Cielo, a subdivision of Scottsdale Ranch, is a “patio home” – tiny backyard, very close to other dwellings in the back and on both sides, separated by six foot walls. During the other six months we live in our little house in Dorset, Vermont, on the last little piece of my wife’s family’s dairy farm – 1.2 acres of grass, gardens, some woods and a brook.

So the only cold weather we now experience are the late spring and early fall of Vermont – both actually quite pleasant. In springtime we work on the house, repair some winter damage, rake leaves, dead twigs and branches and other accumulated winter detritus, while we watch the lawn turn from brown to green and harsh bare trees gradually become softly green with new springtime leaves. Then during the summer there is the actual work of living there – maybe some new gravel for the long driveway that needs to be purchased, delivered, dumped and spread; perhaps some new paint on the deck and the trim, and always the weekly grass mowing and related maintenance of the mowers. And my spouse is busy clearing dead vegetation from her gardens and planting, pulling weeds and mulching.

And now here in southern Arizona, we are experiencing our “winter” – some cloudy, cool and rainy days in November and December, but typically mostly sunny days starting with cool nights, perhaps an occasional frost, crisp mornings and then temperatures in the high 60’s and low 70’s. Later in January to April when we generally depart for Vermont, the weather has warmed considerably, The sun steadily rising in the southern sky becomes discernibly more intense as the days heat up to the high 70’s, 80’s and perhaps even the 90’s.

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During this time, we watch the green citrus fruit on our six trees gradually ripen to yellow and orange and around Christmas we pick and enjoy our first sweet tangerines. And soon we need to strip the tree, refrigerate the fruit, eat as many as we can and give away bags of tangerines to friends and family. Later we pick the oranges and squeeze and freeze the juice. Finally, right before we return to Vermont, we pick all the grapefruit, eat what we can and pack the rest in boxes to bring back to Vermont, store in our cold basement garage, and share with friends and neighbors.

And in March, we systematically care for the trees by spreading measured quantities of citrus fertilizer around them, watering it into the desert landscape and hoping for a spring rain or two to finish the job. And all this while, my spouse is enjoying tending her flowers and feeding her birds, while I work on organizing the garage and maintaining our vehicles – making sure they are properly serviced and vacuumed, washed and waxed.

And here emerges the problem that I hinted at in my first several paragraphs. While here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I find it very difficult to read or write because of the abundant sunshine. Typically, the only time I can comfortably read or write is early in the morning before it gets light, or in the evening after the sun goes down. The rest of the time I am dealing with the pull of sunshine and the urge to get something done because the weather is good – maybe only a walk to the mailbox, a bicycle spin around the neighborhood, grocery shopping or a trip to Costco but I find it utterly impossible to read a book or write anything when it’s sunny outside. Even cleaning up the desk in my study is uncomfortable when I can see outside. So to get anything significant accomplished there, I keep the blinds drawn, blocking the outdoors and making the room as dark as possible.

Now in southern Arizona there is a time of the year, like winter in the east where I grew up, when you are comfortable being indoors doing some reading, writing or sewing and do not feel compelled to work outside, despite the lure of the constant sunshine. This is the summertime, when the heat here becomes unbearable. It is during these hot summer months that you draw the blinds, make sure the air conditioning is working properly and hunker down and relax because it’s too hot to do anything outside. You do your shopping or eating out early in the day or in the evening when the heat is more bearable but spend the rest of the day on indoor activities. This is the season in southern Arizona that resembles the winter in the east – the outdoor work is done, you did it when the weather was cooler, so it’s ok to stay inside now.

And in Vermont, where rainy and cloudy weather is much more common, it is truly much easier to work inside, not only doing some reading or writing, but also some interior painting or work reorganizing the basement or cleaning out the garage. But on sunny days, we are pulled outside like a magnet. Hey – forget those dishes in the sink, forget clearing off the kitchen counter, to hell with the dusty floors that cry out for vacuuming, avoid that full laundry hamper – just get outside and mow that grass, mulch that garden, pull those weeds, repair that fence, rake that driveway. Do something, for crying out loud. Well, if it’s all done, which is rare, do not remain inside but instead take that favorite walk around Scallop Drive, a lovely, colorful, and fragrant 2.2 mile walk north on Danby Mountain Road, then west uphill on Scallop Drive, south along the wooded mountainside, then east downhill to Danby Mountain Road again and home.

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In the fall, right before the winter sets in and we leave Vermont, is when I feel the most intense influence of this farmer frame of mind. It’s October – the leaves have turned their stunning shades of red, yellow and orange, and have begun falling and, as they dry, begin blowing about the yard, accumulating in piles wherever the breeze drops them. My wife has cut her dead flower stems and collected what seeds she needs for the spring. She has dug up the bulbs she needs for planting next May. Her gardens are ready for the predictable onslaught of another harsh Vermont winter. And I have painstakingly cleaned up the mowers, changed the oil and air filters, disconnected the batteries, sharpened the blades and stowed them in the garage. I have carried the outdoor table and chairs from the deck and stacked them in the garage, cleaned up the barbecue, disconnected the propane tank and taken them there as well. I’ve carried the heavy steel milk cans from Bobbie’s father’s dairy farm, now painted a bold red and embellishing the entrances, porches and stairs of the house, into the garage and stacked them for the winter. All the rakes and shovels are hung and the big steel wheelbarrow is now in the garage too. I have turned off the outdoor spigots and opened the faucets so there is no residual water to freeze. And I have had the plumbing company come out and clean the boiler so it’s prepared and trustworthy for the winter.

But now what do we do? Instead of blowing the dust off those books, opening them to where we left off and settling down for a season of relaxing security inside a warm house while the cold wind and snow swirl outside, we pack some suitcases, box the big black books of cd’s and dvd’s, put our folders of receipts and records and my piles of journal articles in file boxes, pack them all carefully in the car and leave our snug house with everything done for the winter for the four day drive to Arizona. And there we do it all over again – contend with the eternal sunshine and the constant urge to get outside and do something, start getting up very early to get the reading and writing done and never experience that rare winter feeling of enjoying life inside looking out, reading a book, writing a letter or a poem, taking a nap, doing some sewing or baking some cookies, because all the outdoor work is done. We’ve left all that back in Vermont.

So now, avoiding the frigid winters in Vermont and the boiling summers in Arizona, there is little time to feel comfortable about being relaxed indoors and getting those indoor tasks completed. My spouse has been dragging her sewing machine back and forth between our two houses wondering why she never feels like sewing. And I drag my music and writing stuff back and forth wondering when I can focus my mind enough to get something significant completed. Well, having thought about it and experienced it, I know why. We are farm people drawn outside by good weather and happy to stay inside during less agreeable times. But going back and forth to obtain the best weather in both Vermont and Arizona and avoid the worst, we’re missing those special secure and relaxed indoor times entirely. However, I know we’ll experience them again someday, perhaps sooner than we think, because as we age, we’ll no longer be able to maintain two homes and will have to choose one to remain in year round. So again we’ll experience that secure and relaxing feeling during either a long Vermont winter or a hot Arizona summer – the outdoor work is done – relax and enjoy indoor activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fitness Frustration: Pet Peeves at the Gym

I have lots of “pet peeves” which I deal with by rolling my eyes, sighing emphatically, shaking my head, making a disparaging remark or maybe uttering a profanity or two. These include inconsiderate drivers, telephone salespeople, rap “music” and the person in front of me in the “about 15 items” supermarket line with clearly many more than 15 (and yes, I counted them). Thankfully, I avoid conflict by doing much of this reacting mentally, not physically, although my overall body language may give me away. But lately, I have extended the list of things that irritate me with the stupidity and thoughtlessness exhibited by many of the people I encounter in the gym at which I work out most days of the week.

I love this gym – it’s huge, it’s modern, with dozens of cardio machines of all kinds – bicycles, treadmills, ellipticals, stairclimbers, rowing machines, yes they’re all there. It also has more weights, benches, dumbbells and barbells than I have seen anywhere. Also, the selection of resistance machines is incredible. At 75 I’m not trying to put on muscle, I’m just trying to keep what little I have left, so I have a modest routine that I follow each time I go, rotating a series of resistance machines with dumbbells and other machines over a two-three day cycle and correspondingly alternating my choice of cardio machines. My daily session takes approximately an hour – around 30 minutes on the resistance machines or weights, and 30 minutes on whatever cardio machine I’m on that day. It’s a great workout and I experience a healthy exhaustion when I come home to shower and eat my breakfast.

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But every day I go, I am frustrated, bothered and irritated at what I see. It seems that there’s always some goofball lifting his weights or pulling or pushing the handles on his resistance machine who thinks he has to wince, grimace or grunt loudly with each of his movements. Sometimes I think – wow, this guy must be lifting (or pushing or pulling) quite a bit, to make such a loud and obvious show of effort. But when I glance at the weights or move to the machine and use it myself without adjusting, I discover that his exercise required but little effort – certainly not the loud and effusive demonstration of superhuman exertion that I just observed and heard. I mean, what are these people trying to do? Show off their strength? No, they’re not requiring or using that much strength. Trying to get noticed? Why? It’s a just a big gym – everybody is exerting themselves. To impress the cute girl using a machine across from him? No, too bad, she’s rolling her eyes. No, it’s just the “I’m important, I’m different, I’m exerting myself more than anyone else here” syndrome. Well thank God for the majority of exercisers who perform their activity quietly and unobtrusively, without the contorted countenance or the loud grunts.

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And related to this are the ubiquitous musclemen who not only gaze admiringly (and longingly?) at themselves in the huge mirrored wall behind the weight racks, but attract attention to themselves by noisily banging weights down on the gym floor when concluding their lift. This is especially the practice of those genuine weight-lifting types who perform a “clean and jerk” (with emphasis on the “jerk”) exercise with barbells and slam the loaded bar down with a startling, deafening clank. Hey, really not necessary, but if it garners attention, why not?

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Another pet peeve in my lovely gym is related to today’s world of cell phones and social media. I’m busy doing my machines, starting to breathe a little faster, by going from one to the other in rapid succession. But then I find a doofus sitting on a machine – just sitting, mind you, not using the machine – not pushing, pulling or lifting but just sitting there, taking up my next machine staring at his cellphone screen, perhaps thumbing a message to someone, perhaps just checking Facebook to see what a “friend” had for breakfast that morning, or if he got up feeling good, or had a great night last night. But there he sits – for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes (yes, I’m counting), occupying the machine that I want to use. My God, you inconsiderate fool, there is a refreshment area in the gym, with tables and chairs, there are stretching pads all over the place – go there if you want to play with your cellphone, don’t sit at a machine when someone else may want to use it!

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This selfishness and lack of consideration is demonstrated in other ways as well, usually with a couple of old guys chitchatting – one sitting idly on a machine (yes, the next one I was going to use) and the other leaning up against it talking. They both laugh, gesture with their hands, guffaw and chuckle, shake their heads in agreement or disagreement, and talk and talk and talk. For five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes (yes, I’m timing them). One day, and I’m not kidding, two old fools, one on a machine and one leaning against it, were talking when I arrived at the gym, and were still talking when I left an hour later. Again, if these selfish and inconsiderate jerks want to talk – go sit down some other place and talk. Don’t occupy a machine when others may wish to use it.

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Occasionally when this has happened, I have asked the idle occupier of a machine, “Hey, pardon me, but are you going to use this machine?” Usually I’ll get a dark look in return but the person may really lay down the cell phone, grab the handles and resume his “reps”. Or if it’s two old doofuses I may get a highly animated emphatic apology as one old guy hastily scrambles from the machine. Or I might get an excuse and apology like “Gee, sorry, I didn’t know you wanted to use this machine”. Yeah right, you were sitting there goofing off for a half hour and thought you were the only one wanting to use that machine? Come on now, wake up, what planet are you on?

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Another pet peeve is not putting things back where you found them. One of the important maxims in the “Golden Rules for Living” that applies at home or anywhere else in the world is “If you move it, put it back”. Well, most people working out at my gym follow this rule. It’s really not that difficult – all the barbell weights are arranged in order on eight or so perfectly constructed racks arranged along the weight benches. It’s really easy to put them back after using them. And all the dumbbells are arranged on racks in sections numbered for the weight – there are the 10’s, the 15’s, the 20’s, the 25’s and so on. You just have to be smart enough to match the number on those you are using to the number on the rack – that’s where they belong. But always, always, someone who can’t read the numbers or who just doesn’t care enough to put things back where they found them, screws things up – there’s a couple of 30’s where the 25’s belong or 10’s where it says 15. I just can’t believe that people do this. Is this an ego thing? Hey, I’ll do what I want, to hell with rules or is it not caring, or is it just plain stupidity – gee, that 25 looked just like a 30. Whatever motivates people to do this, or disinclines them to do things properly – irks the heck out of me. So, taking the two 25’s I want to use off the spaces where 35’s go, I shake my head in disbelief and roll my eyes, hoping some offenders might see how frustrated I am. But of course they don’t and they don’t care anyway. The world has people like this and there’s nothing I can do about it.

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And probably the most frustrating pet peeve of all in my gym is watching the inevitable idiot who hops on board a treadmill, cranks up the speed to an adequate level, then increases the incline so he’s walking uphill, but then spends his whole time on the machine holding on to the bar or the control panel. This is stupid – you’re not really walking uphill, you’re being pulled uphill. You’re not getting a good workout at all. You’re hanging on to the machine for dear life, being pulled along. Oh yes, maybe you’ve seen other people do it and so you do it yourself, without a question or a thought about what it’s doing or not doing for you. You do your cardio this way for six months and still have the beer belly you had when you started. Moreover your cardiovascular condition has not improved one bit.treadmill Yet you think that because your treadmill is elevated 10 degrees and pointed toward the ceiling, you are getting a great workout. But you’re wrong, you idiot, you are holding onto the bar. Hey you fool, try leaving your machine at that same incline and letting go. Big difference, isn’t there? Now you’re really walking uphill, you’re swinging your arms, your heart is pounding, you‘re breathing hard, you’re actually breaking out into a sweat. This is a real workout. But there they are, always the same people – machine set at 10 or more percent incline, speed at 3.5 miles per hour, and they’re holding on to the bars, thinking they are getting a workout when they’re not. I can’t believe it. But it happens….every…..day.

But wait, there’s one more. Just this morning, when I was doing my cardio on a recumbent bicycle right under the CNN screen, some guy, already drenched and dripping (from his chin) with perspiration resulting from his encounter with another cardio machine, plopped himself down next to me to check the news and sip his waterexcessive-sweating-485x323. Then after polluting the air around me with a rare redolence of BO, got up and left, leaving the seat and back glistening with his sweat. This is disgusting. First, while it’s ok to sweat, actually good in the eyes of some – to help leach “poisons” from the body and whatnot – it’s not ok to offend others with the sight and odor. Nor is it ok to leave a residue on the machine. A rule to wipe down equipment after use should be established and enforced. And users of my gym ought to have the basic decency to bless their underarms with a stroke or spritz of deodorant before coming to the gym. Or at the very least, how about bringing a towel?

Really, I’m tempted to run off and distribute little printed notes that say “Hey, want to use your cellphone? Then find another place to sit”. Or “Hey, what to chat with friends? Find another place to chat” or “For God’s sake, man, stop cheating yourself…let go of the handles and really walk uphill” or “Hey, could you please wipe your sweat off the machine when you’re done?”. Or better yet, I wish my gym management would post some signs in convenient places saying “Use your machine and move on” or “Work out, don’t chat or text” and “Please wipe down equipment when finished”. Perhaps this huge gym should establish “texting zones” or “chatting areas”. There’s lots of room. And there have to be many other people just as frustrated as I am.

But I am sure they won’t and I’ll just go on this way – elevating my own heart rate and breathing rate not only through my workouts but through the constant frustration with the inconsiderate and egotistical people with whom I share this marvelous facility. C’est la vie.

 

 

 

They Are Missed

I have recently read a very interesting book with which I first became acquainted through reviews in the NY Times and the NY Review of Books – Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War”.

Mr. Gordon’s book is a fascinating mixture of economics and history which describes in great detail through prose, numbers and graphs the growth of the economy and the corresponding improvement in the standard of living in mainly what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970. The main point of the book is to demonstrate that the improvement in the standard of living since the Civil War until about 1970 was huge and, despite our faith in continued progress through the benefits of technology, neither can nor will ever happen again. Gordon names “five great inventions” of this particular century – electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication – any one of which, he asserts, had a far greater impact on our standard of living than the recent IT revolution.

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Professor Gordon sketches for us what life was like right after the civil war and compares this to life in 1970. By that year homes had central heating, electric lighting, toilets and electrical appliances to assist with household chores. We had automobiles, paved roads and telephones and performed our work in comfortable environments. We dressed in clothing that we bought from stores and ate fresh or well preserved food from supermarkets. If you could take people living then back to 1870, they would find city streets knee deep in horse manure, extensive travel very difficult or almost impossible, homes dark and cold. If you were a man you did backbreaking manual labor for a living; if a woman, you worked dawn to dusk washing clothes with a washboard in water you carried and cooked over a wood or coal stove. You had no fruit or vegetables in the winter and the meat and milk you bought could be bad. Your children were often ill or died of disease because there were no medicines to make them well. You carried in water to be heated for bathing in a tub. Your bathroom was a cold outhouse or a chamber pots emptied outside into the streets or fields. The contrast between 1870 and 1970 was quite stark, almost black and white, in terms of how people lived.

In reading this fascinating book and its descriptions of what life was like before the “five great inventions”, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents and what they experienced growing up. My Dad and Mom were both born in 1915, pretty much right in the middle of this “special century”, both into large farming families – Dad one of six children in Missouri and Colorado and Mom one of seven in North Dakota. I certainly wish Dad and Mom were alive today so that I could develop a more complete picture of what their lives were like as children and through them, what their parents’ lives had been like growing up.

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Ralph and Ida Friedly wedding day, both  21

I remember my father telling us children that he walked three miles to school every day when he was young. I’d like to know – on what kind of roads? Did anyone have automobiles or were his neighbors limited to horses and carriages? I do know that as a boy on the farm in Versailles, Missouri, he plowed fields and planted and cultivated crops with teams of horses or mules. Also I remember visiting the Missouri farm as a child and, looking back, I don’t remember the house having bathrooms. There was a primitive outhouse with an old Sears catalogue hanging on the wall from which you could rip a few pages to clean yourself up. Instead of a bath or shower, you cleaned up with a sponge bath in a protected area of the kitchen.

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Audra Frances (Arnold) 15 and Conrad Adam Friedly 26 in 1913

I wonder when my father’s family got electricity and how they lived without it when he was a child. I presume kerosene lamps provided the light and a wood cooking stove or a pot bellied stove provided some heat in the wintertime. And I presume that one’s body on top of and beneath a featherbed, with the bodies of brothers and sisters close by, was enough to keep warm in the unheated bedrooms of that day.

My grandfather, Conrad Adam Friedly, lost his farm in Versailles, Missouri in 1927 and moved the family to a farm on the plains of Colorado, east of Denver where the family tried again to make a go of it. I know little of these circumstances – if the farm in Missouri was lost, what means did the family have to buy a farm in Colorado? Or did they rent the farm or just work on a farm? My grandfather later moved back to Missouri with what remained of his family to the farm he used to own. How and when did that happen?

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Friedly family circa 1926 Dad second from right

More to the point and considering the book I read which raised all the questions, what was life like for them in Missouri, then Colorado, then Missouri again? Professor Gordon stresses that even while cities and towns across the country were making progress with electric lighting, bathrooms, sewage and running water, farms, especially in the rural south, lagged far behind the rest of the country. Looking at my father’s situation, I would have to assume that outhouses, carrying cooking and cleaning water, bathing in the kitchen, kerosene lamps, wood or coal stoves for cooking and heating were exactly what he had in his youth.

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Dad at Belleview, Pillar of Fire church,  15 or so

Gordon points out that there were differences between rural areas and suburban/city areas in how quickly these modern conveniences were provided. I would have liked to compare Dad’s primitive, hard-scrabble farm life in Missouri, which indeed was the south, to Mom’s prairie farming life in North Dakota, on the northern plains when they were both little children in the 1920’s. What do they remember about how their houses were heated, about bathing? Going to the bathroom? Running water? When did their families obtain their first tractor and put the mules and horses out to pasture? When did each family obtain their first automobile? How were their crops harvested? What were their dietary staples and how was most of their food preserved? I do remember Dad talking about butchering hogs and hams hanging in the smokehouse. And I know that farm families at that time “canned” food in the summer for consumption in the winter, filling and sealing mason jars, then “cooking” the sealed jars in huge pots of boiling water on top of a wood stove. Wait a minute, there was no wood on the treeless prairie plains of North Dakota. What was the fuel they used for heating and cooking?

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Four generations 1941: Standing Dad, Mom and Dad’s parents, Audra and Conrad; seated George and Ida Arnold, Fred and Donnie Friedly with Barbara, 3 years old.

What was school like for Mom and Dad when they were children? What memorable teachers did they have? Did they obtain their respective love of reading and desire for learning from them or from their parents? Mom’s parents were not educated but nevertheless obviously instilled a love of learning in their children. I know Uncle Arnold had a college degree and of course Uncle Emil, and finally Mom. Who else?

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Nels and Anna Baxstrom, Mom’s parents

I would love to ask the same questions of my father, were he still alive today. What do you remember of your teachers when you were a child? Does any one remain in your mind as a special inspiration? I suspect that Dad would claim that his love of learning began when, as a youth of 14, he left his family home and cast his lot with the Pillar of Fire church. And I know that Dad would eagerly tell me about one teacher in his Pillar of Fire experience as a high school student who inspired him – Agnes Kubitz, whom I remember too as a gentle, soft spoken, dignified, white haired teacher. I believe that she may have still been teaching at Zarephath when our sister Barbara was in high school.

Gordon makes a point of describing how clothing was sewn by hand in many families. Did both my Dad’s and Mom’s families have to purchase cloth from local stores and then sew their own clothing? Mom was an accomplished seamstress, perhaps this is why. When exactly did they begin to buy ready made clothing from department stores or from mail order catalogs? I certainly wish Mom and Dad were alive so that I could better understand this and so many other aspects of their childhoods and through that knowledge better understand them and  myself.

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Baxstrom family circa 1928, Ida (mom) second from left

I miss my parents for other reasons as well. Charles Ralph Friedly, my father, and Ida Marie Baxstrom, my mother, were not perfect people by any means. As noted in my article about him, Dad was rarely home when I was little. He fled family responsibilities by being busy teaching school in the Pillar of Fire Church’s Alma Preparatory School, or taking taking courses at Alma White College, both at nearby Zarephath. As noted in that article, Dad also pursued several part time vocations – such as serving as the community barber, with his faithful Oster hair clipper at hand, by serving as pastor at other nearby Pillar of Fire churches, like the one in Brooklyn, New York and by farming and selling his produce. But Dad had an awesome intellect that I never properly appreciated, my perception being clouded by my bitterness and resentment caused by his frequent absences. I wish he were here now so I could get his take on for example, today’s Republican Party. Even though a faithful member and supporter of the Republican Party (he even attended the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago), I would fancy that Dad had a great deal of sympathy for the less fortunate and for the common working man. What would he think of the Republican Party today compared to that of his day, exemplified by these provisions in the Republican platform of 1956:

1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;
2. Protect Social Security;
3. Provide asylum for refugees;
4. Extend minimum wage;
5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;
6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;
7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

What would he think about the perennial Republican tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? I know that he was constantly surprised and pleased by his own Social Security check which, though small, arrived faithfully every month, from that same Federal government that his political party liked to condemn.

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Emil, Elma and Ida Baxstrom circa 1932

I would love to ask my mother more about how her family came to send virtually all of its children at one time or another to the Pillar of Fire schools in Denver, where Mom and Dad eventually met in high school. I know that Mr. Clarence Yoder, somehow a church member, owned a quarter of land adjacent to the Baxstrom farm in North Dakota. But why and how exactly did Mr. Yoder wield such influence on Mom’s family? And who was primarily responsible for the final decision – her mother or her father? I know one brother, her youngest, Uncle Emil, left the Pillar of Fire in disgust after a few months there, calling the church a “cult”. How did the others feel? How did my mom really feel about the church? I do know that Dad’s parents adamantly disagreed about the church – his mother embracing it and backing Dad’s decision to leave his family for the church at 14. I wonder if Mom’s parents had conflicting opinions as well.

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Baxstrom women Ruth, Elma, Ida (mom) and their mother Anna, maybe 1930

And I would like to ask my mother about how she developed her affinity for music which exerted such a pervasive influence on all of us children? Did they sing a lot in her little Mylo school? In her Lutheran church when she was a child? Did her parents also enjoy music at home? Did they have a piano in the house? Who played it? How did she learn “Star of the East”, that song on the piano which became her trademark? Incidentally, thanks to the magic of Google, I was surprised to learn that this song was actually a Christmas carol, has beautiful lyrics and was recorded on the B-side of a Christmas record by Judy Garland.

And Dad, too, enjoyed music, enjoyed singing, which surely influenced all of us as well. Where did that come from? What church did he and his family attend when he was a child in Missouri and in Colorado? I know I could have asked many of these questions to some of Dad’s siblings when they were alive. But they are all gone now too and I didn’t ask. So I will never find out.

All the questions outlined above could have been extended to what Mom and Dad knew of their own parents’ childhood. What Mom knew about the difficulties of everyday life faced by her Swedish parents, Nels Baxstrom and Anna Jonsson, when they were children would have been very interesting. Also, I would like to have known what Dad knew of the daily challenges faced by his parents, Conrad Adam Friedly and Audra Arnold and their respective families when they were growing up. I just didn’t ask Mom and Dad these questions and regret it very much today.

So I miss my parents more than ever and at age 75 I’m wondering why. Right now I’m attempting to prepare a huge page of the Friedly Family with Mom and Dad, their birthdates and birthplaces on top and their children and progeny listed in order below, replete with birth dates, occupations and so on. Ralph and Ida Friedly would have been so pleased and proud to see this extensive list of individuals who, with an assist from the infusion of other rich blood, descended directly from them, and have pursued such a huge variety of careers and vocations.

It hit me the other day, during one of my early morning reveries, during which I seem to think most clearly and write most fluently, that perhaps the reason I miss my parents so much now, is that I’m getting on in years myself and have a clearer sense of my own mortality. Mom and Dad did indeed pass away but they continue to live richly in my mind.  With the inevitable end of my consciousness, they will finally fade away completely for me. So along with a final goodby to my own loved ones, it will be a final farewell to Mom and Dad as well. They are missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollow Patriotism: Honoring the Troops

Here we go again – the NFL’s annual “Salute to Service” – coaching staffs wearing Nike-manufactured military style jackets, hoodies and jerseys, and players sporting a camouflage towel, wrist band or an occasional pair of “camo” shoes. And for some teams even cheerleaders decked out in scanty camouflage outfits. What is all this for? How many of the NFL’s coaches and players have served in the armed forces? How many of their obscenely rich billionaire owners? Not many, I think. No, it’s a sickening, gratuitous, self-serving act that makes players, coaches and owners feel better for basking in luxury on their millions of dollars while the less fortunate among us risk life and limb doing the fighting in our ill-conceived wars.

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I wonder how our soldiers feel – missing loved ones, being under fire, losing comrades and buddies, seeing limbs blown off, face to face with the blood and gore, going to sleep at night fearing that tomorrow may never come, struggling with the question of what they’re fighting for, wondering who and where the enemy is? Ooh, I bet they feel really great when they are able to see a televised NFL game back at the base and see all the coaches, assistant coaches and other sideline hangers-on, even the Gatorade boys, wearing this olive drab and camouflage attire, with an American flag on the sleeve and “U.S.A.” printed boldly on the back. Yes, suddenly, our soldiers are overcome with emotion and get teary-eyed with gratitude at seeing how much these overpaid players and coaches appreciate their sacrifice. Yeah, right – instead, our servicemen must shake their heads sadly and roll their eyes at this spectacle of self-righteous condescension.

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How our soldiers actually feel is grimly illustrated in Ben Fountain’s, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, a finalist for the National Book Award and now a movie . Billy Lynn is one of eight survivors of a horrendous Iraq War firefight, which, caught on tape, made them instant heroes, to be whisked back to the US for a two week “heroes tour” culminating in their halftime appearance at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The book and the screen adaptation focus on the soldiers’ awkward and embarrassed struggle to absorb this unseemly attention and an adoring public’s futile attempt to make them into something better than they are. After all, these survivors of a brutal incident in a mistaken war, were simply surviving, trying to protect themselves and each other.

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Guess what – our returning servicemen do not wish to be thanked for their service. They find such gestures, especially from people who have never served in the military or who would never even allow their children to serve, shallow, disconnected and self serving. According to Matt Seitz, in his RogerEbert.com review of the recent movie “Thank You for Your Service”, we have “…subcontracted war to lower middle class and poor people (and mercenaries), then allowed politicians to keep them mostly out of sight and mind after they’ve endured and committed unimaginable violence. Veterans are treated as human props in this country, posed in front of flags and trotted out at sporting events and momentarily flattered by politicians of both parties, even as legislators and presidents neglect their care or gut their benefits, and large sections of the public forget they even exist”.

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And actually, how do you think the coaches and players themselves feel about this childish dress-up fakery? Do their hearts swell with pride as they don this quasi military gear? Or perhaps do they shrink and feel a little bit ashamed? The number of veterans or active National Guard members among NFL coaches and assistant coaches is undoubtedly tissue thin and the number of active players who have served is thinner still. So does wearing an olive drab jacket with camouflage trim with the US flag on your sleeve, the big U.S.A. on the back and the Nike swoosh on the other arm or wearing the camouflage-team color and logo combination cap or the logo/olive drab knit hat make up for it? Do the players waving a camouflage towel make them feel okay about not serving in the military and merely awkwardly trying to honor those who do? Frankly, except for the most shallow players and coaches, I don’t think it does. And the most conscientious and sensitive among them likely wish the NFL would do away with this transparently weak cultivation of hollow patriotism.

How much does all this costumery cost the NFL? What is the cost to require NFL coaches to masquerade as military personnel? Thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? This is a huge operation – check it out – 13 website pages ( http://www.nflshop.com/Salute_To_Service) of NFL “Salute to Service” apparel all featuring the logos of your favorite team on caps, jerseys, knit hats, jackets and hoodies carefully matched with the best of olive drab and “camo” designs. Hey, instead of paying this this kind of money to Nike to add to their hoard hidden in the Cayman Islands, why doesn’t the NFL send the money instead to Veterans organizations, to the grieving families who have lost a loved one “defending our freedom”, or to researchers trying to find successful treatment for the many veterans suffering from PTSD? This would be really caring about the military, instead of all the flimflam and fakery. Or better yet, they could contribute the money to organizations supporting peace in our world instead of war.

Also very upsetting at NFL games is the showy trickery of picking out a uniformed member of the crowd and zooming in to show him or her on the stadium jumbo-tron so that the subject can rise for a bow and the crowd can cheer its gratitude. A couple of years ago when, can you believe it, the military actually paid NFL teams for these patriotic shows, a “statement of work” agreement with between the Pentagon and the New York Jets stipulated:

• A videoboard feature – Hometown Hero. For each of their 8 home game, the Jets will recognize 1-2 [New Jersey National Guard] Soldiers as Home Town Heroes. Their picture will be displayed on the videoboard, their name will be announced over the loud speaker, and they will be allowed to watch the game, along with 3 friends or family members, from the Coaches Club.
• Place 500,000 Digital Banner impressions on the New York Jets website
• Kickoff each Home game with “Into Battle” Video Feature with Soldier/Crowd prompts
• [New Jersey National Guard] Branding on every Monitor, specifically 3 Minutes of IPTV L-wraps, in Met Life Stadium for each NY Jets 2012-2013 Season Home Game.
• Salute to Service Gameday Activation with enhanced presentation on Military Appreciation Game (DEC 2012)

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Yes, between 2011 and 2014, the Pentagon actually dumped 5.4 million dollars into the already bulging coffers of NFL teams to honor service members and put on elaborate “patriotic salutes” to the military. This disgusting misuse of Defense Department funds would have gone on much longer had not Senators McCain and Flake discovered it, publicized it and the Pentagon suddenly decided that the NFL should pay for its own glorification of the military.

The Super Bowls, the NFL’s crown jewels, have become huge military propaganda extravaganzas, the potentially competitive and fascinating game playing second fiddle to not only the typical dazzling halftime show but also to the football field-sized flags, the squads of Homeland Security soldiers with their Humvees “keeping us safe” and always the US Navy’s Blue Angels Delta formation thundering above the stadium and its cheering crowd.

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This contemptible practice of militarizing sporting events is even spilling over into other sports. I could not believe what I saw at the US Open last year. This essentially dignified international event was totally militarized, presumably because its schedule included September 11, 2016. But if we want to honor those who died on 9/11, would it not have been more tasteful and appropriate to scrap all the flags and the uniformed military and instead honor some courageous policemen or firemen who rescued so many on that dreadful day? What on earth did the American military have to do with 9/11 anyway?
Why are we so enamored of big colorful, noisy ultra-patriotic demonstrations at our sporting events? Why the “support the troops” signs on cars, why the dozens of programs to “honor the troops”, including 2015’s “A Salute to the Troops: In Concert at the White House” on PBS and “The Concert for Valor” on HBO?

Is it to ease our collective guilt as we sit on our fannies while mercenaries do our fighting for us? Is it because we love flags, uniforms, military bands and patriotic speeches so prevalent in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s? Or is it to spread a veneer of patriotic respectability over what has become the American Empire – 240 thousand troops on almost 800 military bases in 70 different countries.

A related and far more pervasive but no less lamentable practice in the US that I have questioned for years is the playing of the national anthem before sporting events. Suffusing even the most humble events, for example high school basketball and football games with this musical celebration of “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” is a step much too far. It’s interesting that “national anthems” are not generally played at European sporting events. You don’t hear “God Save the Queen” before English Premier League matches. When you ask non-Americans about the patriotic spectacle that permeates American sports, they tend to find it abnormal and somewhat bizarre. Yet every sporting event in our country has to be introduced with this terrible song and its multi-octave melodic span. Careful now, if you begin on a note a bit too high you’ll never reach that “red glare” note. Flags, crowds, chants, applause, cheers and veneration of the military. Can’t I be patriotic without all this Nazi stuff?

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US participants, Universiade, Izmir, Turkey 2005

Hey, I am patriotic, in fact quite patriotic. That’s why I deplore what is happening to my country – its Presidency debased by Donald Trump, its Congress in thrall to corporations and big money, unable to accomplish anything at all for the general welfare of its people. I am proud (and a bit envious) that my brother Robert served as an officer in the US Army in Germany after he graduated from Rutgers University and my nephew, Winston, son of my youngest brother, served an extended term in the US Navy. While working in Kuwait from 1996 to 2000, my family and I were always comforted by visits to the US Embassy where we could rub elbows with our diplomats or to Camp Doha, the US military base, where we attended church services every week and joined our servicemen at a mess hall dinner. And while working in Izmir, Turkey, I attended the Universiade opening ceremonies and actually got choked up as the US squad of competitors and the US flag entered the stadium. Yes, I love my country and am proud to be an American. But I don’t want my love and respect for my country to be conflated with the military, the violence and death of war, flag-waving and patriotic songs and certainly not with the NFL and the exploitative violence it represents.

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I wish that we had the good sense and honest gratitude to honor other kinds of American heroes at our big sporting events. Why not honor teachers or nurses? These professions help others, they don’t harm them. They improve the world with knowledge and healing instead of destroying it with bullets and bombs. Oh, sorry, you just want to honor people who fight? Well then, why not honor the valiant people who fight disease and death all over the world – Médecins Sans Frontières, “Doctors Without Borders”. Or the people who courageously struggled to preserve life by fighting the ebola epidemic in Africa.

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Or at our big athletic extravaganzas, it might be appropriate to honor Peace Corps volunteers, who faithfully teach, help people and win friends for the US in 60 countries around the world for $338 per month while at the same time our much better paid armed forces create bitter lifelong enemies for our country by spreading death and destruction. Perhaps we should raise the salaries of our valiant and generous Peace Corps volunteers and maybe provide them some benefits that military veterans have. How about some Peace Corps mortgages, or Peace Corps medical benefits. They deserve these just as much as military veterans – who knows, maybe more.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Conrad Friedly with his special needs children in Jordan

So, my fellow patriotic Americans, can we please get our priorities straight? Can we support peace instead of war, enjoy our sports events without the military trappings and “Oh say can you see…” and honor those who improve lives rather than destroy them? This is what America needs to demonstrate if it truly intends to be an example for the world.