Category Archives: 2013

Wheels

Getting a handle on the scope of things is a challenge, and I’m not sure many people have the capacity to fully comprehend the universe and our place in it. And I even wonder about those people, having read that some think the universe isn’t real, but only a large hologram. It could be that all theories are just that: educated guesses.

As I have it figured, we’ve got the universe (note that I used the singular), within which our galaxy (The Milky Way – also a wonderful candy bar) exists, and within that our solar system, planet, continent, country, state, County, etc.

So, here we are. People, made up of cells, which are made up of atoms, which are made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons, which are made of quirks and quarks. I tend to be over-endowed with quirks.
I guess, then, that I’m a citizen of the state, country, world, and universe, and the quirks and atoms and molecules in me are citizens of me. While what I do has little impact on the universe, what my individual little bits do may impact me, but they do it without my awareness.

Likewise, what we do in our town or village or city happens with the help of, or in spite of what happens at the state and national level. Our nation is affected by what happens globally, and in the case of alien invasions or meteors, by the solar system, galaxy, and universe.

But, just as my molecules and cells are busy doing their work if I am having a personal crisis of some sort, the people in a town keep doing what they do when there are crises in their state. Washington, D.C. may be really screwed-up, but despite that, we and our fellow citizens and all our component parts just keep working away.
I picture an old fashioned mechanical watch. The mechanism turns the hands of the watch to the right time, but only because of the constant motion of a dozen geared wheels working behind the scenes. We’re the wheels. And, you can bend the hands of the watch, or mess up the numbers, but we wheels just keep working away until the watch is destroyed or runs out of energy.

We, like the tiniest little sprockets in a watch, or the little quirks and quarks in our bodies, are both totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but we, and they, are also instrumental in making things happen.
As big wheels revolve around millions or billions of suns, and “big wheels” in Washington and Madison spin in their orbits, we’ve got our towns and families to turn within.

The earth has just about reached the start-finish line for the four and a half-billionth time, and another year is about to start. Life and death, beginnings and endings, and turning in the circles that make it all happen – inside us and outside of us – are what make up the world, and the solar system, and the galaxy, and the universe.
So, if you were feeling overly important or totally insignificant, you’re right, and you’re wrong. Just keep doing what you do in 2014. Happy New Year! See you ‘round.

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Other People’s Business

There has been a lot of talk about privacy over the past few years. People on the left and the right have questioned the increasing nosiness of various government agencies. Companies like Google and Facebook have also been cavalier with our privacy in their efforts to profit from our information.

There is a different kind of privacy, though. It’s the kind we wish other people would take more seriously. In other words, there is such a thing as too much information.

For starters, people share things about their private lives on television all day long, between the “judge shows,” and the “he slept with my husband’s mother’s hooker” shows. Reality TV shows are pretty contrived, but there’s generally something way too personal exposed during the course of the hour.

People on Facebook and Twitter have famously shared too much, including information that has led to getting fired, not getting hired, or even getting arrested. Also, for some reason people seem to have come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to photograph themselves in compromising or unclothed situations in order to share them on-line. I think the internet needs to close the curtains.

Another astonishing social phenomenon is people having loud phone conversations about very private topics. You have my sympathy if you’re having a digestive or sexual problem, or if your boyfriend has been losing or gaining interest in you. It’s none of my business.

Within the past week I’ve experienced two very awkward situations. In one, a young woman near me on the train was describing in great detail the physical interaction she and her husband/boyfriend had enjoyed the night before. The other incident involved someone having a phone conversation with a very troubled friend – so troubled that she was crying – unaware that she was using the speaker phone feature of her phone. So, I heard both sides of a very personal conversation.

I wonder if this fading of decorum in the sharing of personal information started with television ads for women’s hygiene products, erectile dysfunction pills, and medications with side effects that include leakage from parts of the body that aren’t supposed to leak.

I understand that it’s not healthy to be “closed up” and unable to talk about certain personal topics, but I’d be a lot more comfortable if people would save those conversations for people who they actually know. It’s like underwear: I don’t care if you’re wearing it or not, as long as I don’t know.

Perhaps these changes in society are perfectly normal, as is the deterioration of my hearing and vision as I get older. I guess that will work.

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Where Do I Start

(From mid-December)

Where do I start? Every time I listen to the radio, pick up a newspaper, watch television, or look at news sites on the internet, my stomach tightens up, and my brain starts balking like a 1973 Ford Maverick.

First, the lava chamber that sits under Yellowstone National Park, when it erupts, will wipe out the United States. Merry Christmas. Scientists have determined that the last time she blew, the entire country was covered with ash and lava flows. It could happen today, or in 100,000 years, which means about the same thing in geologic time. Talk about your climate change!

Second, a 16 year-old boy was sentenced to probation after killing four people while driving drunk. The reason? “Affluenza,” which means being raised by affluent parents who didn’t teach him about boundaries in his behavior. Did you hear my brain backfire just now?

Third, it snowed in Cairo, Egypt for the first time in 100 years last week. Israel had a snowstorm too. At least they have that in common.

Fourth, a ten year-old boy was suspended for pretending to shoot an imaginary arrow with an imaginary bow. My brain’s oil light just went on.

Fifth, an 18 year-old attacked his 21 year-old brother with a medieval two-bladed axe after being told to pipe down while playing a video game. So many questions about this one. No good answers.

Sixth, a Lakewood, Colorado baker has been ordered to bake a same-sex wedding cake against his wishes and beliefs, or go to jail. Apparently there aren’t any gay-friendly bakers in Colorado. I wonder if I’d even want a cake baked by a baker who didn’t want to bake it.

Seventh, a large advertisement in New York City seems to be recruiting people to become atheists during this Christmas season. That’s ironic, since most atheists seem to hate it when religious people evangelize them. It’s almost like atheism is becoming a religion. Hmmm… brain is overheating now.

Eighth, two million X-Boxes were sold in two weeks. During that same time thousands of people signed up for Obama Care. In a possibly unrelated story, a man applied for a college coaching job based on his excellent achievements playing the Madden Football video game.

Ninth, the lovely and mystical tradition of Advent calendars with little doors for kids to open each day has been co-opted by the Wisconsin Lottery. I know lottery tickets are a hot gift item for Christmas, but I’m not sure it feels right to me any more than a Christmas Eve trip to the race track to bet on the horses.

Tenth, where is my belt? The one I wear with my jeans. And, for that matter, where’s the new one I bought last month at Menards? How can two belts – not small ones, I’m sad to say – disappear in the same week? I’m tired of hitching up my pants every five minutes.

And that, my friends, is the view from here. My stomach is a little less knotted, and my brain hasn’t exploded yet, so thanks for listening. It was very therapeutic to share with you.

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Country Mouse

I have a vague memory of a children’s story about two mice. One lived in the city, and the other in the country. I know it sounds like a fascinating tale (not tail), but if I remember right, it was a study in contrasts between rural and urban life.

A few weeks ago I spent several days in Philadelphia and New York City. Sometimes my job takes me to such places, and I mostly enjoy the change of pace from my typical country mouse week at home.

My first day involved flying to Philadelphia, and catching a train from the airport to a stop near my first meeting. After walking a few blocks, I met the people for a very good conversation. Then it was time to go to my next meeting. It was about a mile, and it was a nice day, so I walked.

A few wrong turns later, I finally got to the right building and had another good meeting. As it turned out, my hotel was only six blocks away, so trod over, checked in, did some work, and then went to dinner not too far away.

The next day I walked a mile to the Amtrak station, and boarded the train to Manhattan. That morning I got an email saying that the main person I was scheduled to meet with had to cancel, so I had plenty of time to walk to the first meeting, which was a little more than a mile. Walking in New York City is a great way to experience the different neighborhoods, and while I don’t know a lot about New York neighborhoods, I felt I was in safe territory during daylight, so it wasn’t too stressful.

When I got to the second appointment, it turned out that the person mistakenly thought I was coming the next week, and she didn’t have time to meet. Zero for two. But, fortunately, her colleagues were able to meet, and it was a very good and very worthwhile discussion.

During my walk back to Penn Station, I realized that my feet were killing me. But, I hobbled onto the train for my trip back to Philly and found a seat. After all that walking it felt good to sit down. We pulled into Philly, and I figured since my feet already hurt, I might as well walk back to the hotel – another mile or so. It was dark by then, and a little misty. That might help explain me falling onto the street while stepping off a curb. The embarrassment and ankle sprain took some of my attention away from my massive heel blisters.

That night I discovered that there was a very large and popular club across the street from my hotel, and even though I was on the 12th floor, and the windows were closed, the dance rhythms pounded with great monotony until closing time at 2am. Even if my feet had been feeling great, I’m not a “club” kind of guy. So, I stayed in bed and turned up the TV to try to mask the sound.
Then the various late night sirens of emergency vehicles chorused around the area, lulling me to sleep.

When I got home the next day, there was something I hadn’t experienced in three days: quiet. Calm and quiet. Then on Sunday, there was beautiful, soft, quiet snowfall to watch. Cold and slippery too, of course, but very beautiful.

I enjoy the energy of big cities. Manhattan in particular vibrates with energy, and Philly vibrates with sound late at night. However, I think maybe I’ve become more of a country mouse over the years. I realized that at around 2am the other night when my heartbeat had become synchronized with the primal beat of a drum machine 12 stories below. I don’t know for a fact, but I think the city mice may have a problem with insomnia.

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The Hardest Word

Elton John sang a great, sad song about how “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”  I think there is a lot of truth in that song, and in the difficulty of making a sincere, heart-felt apology.

The last few weeks, and really the years before, there have been a lot of apologies from many well-known people.  As a true cynic once said, it’s hard to be sure if they were saying they were sorry for what they did, or that they were caught doing it.  Since nobody can see into their souls, I guess we’ll never know.

The Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, has made a lot of apologies in the past few weeks.  His apologies seem to be laced with excuses, like how he only used crack cocaine because he was really drunk.  Oh, well that explains it.  No problem!

Our president apologized for people having misunderstood him when he made promises about the Affordable Care Act.  He didn’t apologize for lying, and in reality, it’s possible he didn’t know the law well enough to know what he was saying wasn’t true.   After all, then House Speaker Pelosi said we’d have to pass the bill in order to find out what was in it.  THAT was a rare moment of Washington honesty.    

CNN’s Martin Bashir, ostensibly a journalist, observed that someone should defecate on Sarah Palin in response to a comment she made which, by the way, was one a person could take issue with, but Bashir’s comment was a bit rude.  He apologized unequivocally, to his credit.

Alec Baldwin lost his fledgling TV show after another explosion at a photographer.  It was another gay slur, apparently.  He is sorry.

Republican Congressman Trey Radel of Florida made the mistake of buying cocaine from a federal agent.  Whoops!  He apologized to everyone, and said he was ready to face the consequences for his actions.

Comedian Dimitri Martin says that “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” mean the same thing, except in the receiving line at a funeral home visitation.  That typifies the range of what saying you’re sorry means.  Many apologies are conditional and either say, or suggest, that we’re sorry that the other person is unhappy, and not so much for what we did.  A true apology is about what you’ve done.

Newt Gingrich and John Edwards both “stepped out” on ailing wives.  That’s pretty bad, and both apologized.  Bill Clinton apologized after denying his guilt.   Ditto for Lance Armstrong.  I’m not sure that Charlie Sheen ever really apologized for his behavior, which is kind of refreshing.

The best apology I ever got was from a Jewish acquaintance on the Day of Atonement.  She called me from out of state to apologize for a wrong that I wasn’t really aware of, or at least didn’t remember.  I gained a lot of respect for her, and I imagine her conscience was cleared as well.

Here’s what makes an apology mean something: whatever you did, stop it!  Don’t do it again!  Take responsibility and take the punishment.  If you did something stupid when you were drunk, don’t get drunk again.  If you did something wrong because you need help, get help!

Despite Elton John’s song, sorry is really a pretty easy word to say.  It’s altogether a different word, though, if you actually mean it.

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Flo Knows

Have you ever noticed that you can see something a number of times before you really see it? I had an experience like that the other day. A commercial came on for Progressive Insurance. It’s the fairly scary one in which some nice folks are driving their car, when suddenly people start clinging to the outside of it, including the windshield.

Those people, according to the commercial, are “rate-suckers,” because they make insurance rates go up. But, if you use Progressive’s gizmo that plugs into your car’s dashboard, and if you drive sanely, you’ll earn lower rates. In other words, actuaries have determined that how you behave can affect your potential risk of having an accident, and using that insurance.

Simple enough. But wait! The founder of Progressive Insurance didn’t choose that name by accident. I’ve read that he is a true “progressive,” and a big supporter of our president.

So, keeping with the premises of the Affordable Care Act, Progressive Insurance should require that everybody have the same coverage at the same cost, irrespective of driving history, arrests, or other behaviors.

Okay, I admit that that’s a stretch, but the point remains that just as the “rate-suckers” in the commercial cause rates to go higher, people with higher health risks, like pre-existing conditions, smoking, obesity, family histories, drug use, etc., also cause higher rates, if we’re lumped in together with them.

I went to an informational talk by an insurance agent last week. He explained much about the Affordable Care Act that I hadn’t heard before. For instance, all qualified insurance plans must cover things like pediatric dental care and eyeglasses. Plans must cover maternity. Plans must also not take into account pre-existing conditions or medical history.

So, if I were a 60 year-old man with no particular medical problems, I’d still be required to buy a policy that covers maternity, and pediatric dental and eye care, along with many other things I wouldn’t need.

In other words, the price I pay has little to do with my needs or my health risks, but more to do with the “common good” for people who may need those services.

To be clear, I agree with the insurance agent who said that the pre-existing conditions problem has to be resolved. Wisconsin has had a plan for such people, and I’m sure other states do too, but I’m guessing that much more help is needed for people who have been uninsurable. I’m not sure the ACA approach is what I would have taken, however.

It’s also true that a person can choose not to drive a car, but we can’t choose not to have a body that will eventually need care – some of it pretty expensive. So, the comparison isn’t entirely fair, but the math is inescapable. I’m not that good at math, but the folks at Progressive Insurance are, so let’s not pretend to be surprised at how much our rates for health insurance are going to go up. Just ask Flo.

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Life and Death Situations

If you think about it, every situation is a life or death situation. Fortunately, most situations skew towards the “life” side of the equation, or the planet would be feeling pretty empty.

Last week a couple of situations occurred, and while they weren’t related, I couldn’t help but find some common ground between them, or at least a connection.

The first situation involved a young woman whom I had never met, but who is the friend of a friend. This person had many obstacles to happiness in her life, but seemed to be handling them, and in fact, looking forward to a new job.

My friend returned home from a trip to find that this woman was in the process of committing suicide while house sitting for her, and was unconscious. A week later she died.

Suicide is the ultimate personal decision, and it’s one that is very hard to understand for all but those who see it as a viable option to living. There is a tremendous sadness to a life ending in that way, and even though I didn’t know her, I too feel a sense of loss… of senseless loss.

The second situation revolved around a memorial ceremony at a church, celebrating the lives and mourning the deaths of people from that parish, including my father-in-law who died in June.

It was a very nice service, and was followed by a visit to the cemetery in that early evening, where candles were made available to be placed near the graves of loved ones. The cemetery was alive – and I use that term aware of the contradiction – with the soft voices and flickering lights of dozens of family members and others who gathered to visit the gravesides. It was less sad than I would have thought, and more meaningful than I would have dreamed.

During the church service itself, the priest talked about thinking of departed friends and family when we feel and hear an autumn wind, a cold winter night, a warm spring day, and a hot summer afternoon. For some reason, those words really resonated with me, having experienced all of those time with my father-in-law over the 37 years that I knew him. The autumn wind reference was especially poignant to me, remembering raking leaves with him, or “putting the garden away” for the year during cloudy, cold November days.

How we live and how we die are both much more important than we know. Most of us don’t control how we die, but we have a lot to say about how we live, and about the memories we will leave behind for the All Saints Day ceremony our loved ones will attend someday. Leaving a legacy sounds awfully ambitious, but I’ll remember that even a cool wind can somehow warm a person when good memories come to life.

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