Wednesday, January 16, 2019

With Compliments to Marie Kondo ...

     The Netflix show "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" has become a phenomenon. B's been binge watching it. I know others have, too.

     Kondo has been around for a while. Her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up came out in 2014 and climbed the bestseller lists. She followed that book with Spark Joy, which tells us, according to the New York Times, that "you can own as much or as little as you like, as long as every possession brings you true joy."

     Honestly, I have not read her books, nor have I seen her show. I don't have to. B and I have lived decluttering, first when we each sold our houses in 2007 and merged our furniture, clothes, memorabilia and other possessions into one house. Then we did it again in 2016-17 when we sold our big house, and moved to a smaller house in Pennsylvania.

     Still, maybe those of you who have read or seen Marie Kondo can give me a few of her tips. I can always use more -- for one thing I've realized is that decluttering is not a one-time event, it's an ongoing process.

     It's not rocket science. We're retired now. The kids are gone. We no longer need all that stuff filling up the basement and spilling out of our closets. Yet it can be a big job. I read one rule of thumb that says to budget one eight-hour day of decluttering for each year you've lived in your house. But unless you want a bad back and sore knees, you probably shouldn't try to do it all at once.

     Anyway, here are some steps I've taken to declutter ... with a nod to Marie Kondo for making cleaning up cool.

1. Warn your children. Invite them to range through your house and take what they want. Then insist that they remove any and all of their own materials – the boxes of old school items, the stuffed animals, trophies from soccer tournaments, souvenirs from spring break in Florida.

          2. Have a heart-to-heart with your spouse. Most relationships, it seems, consist of one hoarder and one simplifier. To avoid working at cross purposes, we need to sit down and talk things out -- so one person isn't throwing something away while the other is retrieving things out of the trash. The hoarder has to realize that many things -- VHS tapes, a record player, old sports equipment -- are outdated or can be easily replaced. The simplifier has to admit that some things have sentimental value and can't be replaced. So let's not be like the dysfunctional politicians. We have to realize that there can be emotional issues involved in the process ... and be ready to compromise.

3. Sort one space at a time. It’s easy to get bogged down if you do a little of this, and a little of that. So start small. Clean out a closet. Then a bathroom. Then one of the kid’s bedrooms. The hardest jobs will be your own bedroom, the basement, and the kitchen – unless you’re moving into an assisted living facility where all your meals are provided, in which case the kitchen clean-up should be easy . . . all of it goes!

            4. Touch something once, make a decision. As you go through your old clothes, old books, or old furniture, decide whether you need to keep it, or need to get rid of it. But the key to making progress is to make the decision. If you need one suit, then decide which one to keep and get rid of the others. Try not to hem and haw, change your mind, or postpone the decision – or that one day per year could turn out to be two or three days per year. Or, the decluttering may never get done.
5. Make five piles. Keep. Sell. Gift. Recycle. Trash. Decide what you want to keep and put that in one pile. The rest goes into one of the other four piles. But try to decide right away – you can give it to someone; you can sell it, recycle it or throw it away. But don’t waste too much time deciding – just choose a pile. If you make a “mistake” and throw away something that maybe you could sell or give to Goodwill – be realistic, you probably wouldn’t have sold it for much money anyway, and Goodwill wouldn't have either.
            6. Take pictures. The hardest decision are the emotional ones. But if you can’t bear to get rid of something you need to get rid of, then take a picture. The special dress? Put it on, take a picture, then give it away. The old license plates, the shelf of trophies, the wonderful old oriental rug that will never fit into your new place – take a picture and keep it with you always.  Then make sure to send copies of those photos to your kids.

            7. Books. Marie Kondo has caught some flak for suggesting we keep no more than 30 books in our homes. My own opinion is that books are like albums and CDs, or tapes and DVDs. Keep them around, if they bring you "joy." But it's not the books themselves that are important. It's what's inside -- the information, the characters, the stories. And those are all readily available from the library or the internet.

            8. Hire a professional. For most people, decluttering is a do-it-yourself project – and they would have it no other way – perhaps with some help from kids or a best friend. But sometimes the job might just be too big; or you’re too overwhelmed by the prospect. There are professionals who will help you, for a fee, ranging from $35 to $100 a hour. If you don't have a personal referral, try contacting the National Association of Senior Move Managers for a list of local professionals.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Naming the Grandchildren

     We have some grandchildren coming along in our family. One of them is a girl, expected by my niece, and so when I was talking to my sister, I couldn't help myself, I mentioned a few lighthearted possibilities for naming the child. My sister offered some strained laughter. But I could tell, my suggestions were not appreciated.

     After I got off the phone, I saw B standing at the door of my office. "What are you doing?" she challenged.

     "Oh, just having some fun, suggesting some names for my niece's baby."

     B rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh, signaling just how stupid she thinks I am. Then she warned me that you never try to suggest names for someone else's baby. The parents don't need our advice, don't want our advice, and will just resent anything we might offer. And for heaven's sake, I should keep my mouth shut when it comes to our own kids.

     Okay, okay, maybe she has a point. I dunno. Have you ever had the temerity to suggest a name for your grandchild?

     I remember when my wife and I were having our first child. We knew it was going to be a girl. My dad suggested we name her Penelope. Needless to say, we didn't name her Penelope.

     Still, I am dying to suggest some names for these babies. And B is too, she just won't admit it. Let's face it, we know more about pretty much everything than our children and our nieces and nephews do, including the naming of babies, so they could use some help. But, reluctantly, I have to agree that it would only cause trouble, so instead of offering names to our children, I will suggest a few here ... kind of like writing secrets in your diary.

     The names we are familiar with are now out of fashion. In the 1950s the most popular names for baby boys were: John, James, Robert, Michael. And for girls they were: Mary, Linda, Deborah, Patricia.

     We can't suggest any of those. We're not that square.

     Today the most popular boy names are Jackson, Liam, Noah, Aiden. And for girls: Sophie, Olivia, Emma, Ava. We can't suggest any of those. The kids will have already seen the lists. We don't want to be that predictable. And besides, Sophie is the name of our dog.

     So we have a nephew who is very hip and cool. He and his wife named their kid August. If August is cool, why not Septima for a girl, or Septimus for a boy. Or if we're going classical, how about Octavia or Octavius. These names are unique, yet there's precedence. Septima Clark was a famous civil-rights leader. Octavia Spencer is a famous movie actress.

     Or, if they don't like August, Septima or Octavia, how about another month of the year? April, May and June are all legitimate names, even if they're a little old-fashioned. How about January? As in January Jones, the actress from Mad Men.

     But a lot of people these days want a name that's unique. So if naming the kid after a month of the year is not unique enough, maybe Joaquin or Dexter, or Axel or Orion, for a boy. Or Paige or Piper, or Colette or Catalina, for a girl.

     But my nephew chose August, not Augustus or Augusta, because it's gender neutral. So how about a gender-neutral name like Blake or Chris or Dana or Leslie? Or some people name their kid after a hometown or favorite place. Brooklyn Decker is a famous model. I had a friend named Dallas when I was a kid. In college I had a girlfriend (briefly) named Cleveland. So maybe we'll end up with grandchildren named Phoenix or Portland, or Newark or Nashville. These work for either a boy or a girl.

     If you remember the TV show "Seinfeld" George wanted to name his (non-existent) kid Seven. "It's a beautiful name, for a boy or a girl ... especially a girl, or a boy."

     I don't know. This is a tricky business. I guess we'll just have to tell the kids . . . go with Penelope.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

10 Things That Are Good for Us

     As I said in my previous post, we hear so many confusing reports about activities, foods, supplements and other things that are supposed to be good for us ... or maybe the latest research says they are actually bad for us.

     So I've done a little research, and can now give a rundown of 10 things that really are good for us, even though we may have heard differently. I've provided a link for each entry, in case you want to know more.

     The caveat: Everyone is different and many people have their own issues. So if your doctor has you on a particular regimen, ignore this general information and pay attention to your doctor.

     1. Breakfast. According to one study, over 30 million Americans skip breakfast every day. Yet a nutritious breakfast gives you energy and helps you resist unhealthy high-calorie snacks later in the morning. Eating breakfast is therefore associated with maintaining a healthy weight, reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, better concentration and better memory. What's good for breakfast? Eggs, whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables.

     2. Saunas and hot tubs. I always thought the benefit of a sauna or hot tub was that it made you feel good. But apparently there are some actual health benefits as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, sauna bathing can improve cardiovascular function and lower blood pressure, and can also help relieve symptoms of arthritis, headache and flu. But watch out for bacteria. Don't drink the water, and shower both before and after.

     3. Organic foods. I've been skeptical of organic foods ever since I mistakenly bought a bunch of organic grapes. I only noticed they were organic when I got to the checkout counter and found they cost over $9, instead of the usual $4. Then the grapes made me sick to my stomach! But ... my experience notwithstanding, the science says that organic foods, although more expensive, are in fact better for you because they have more nutrients, less toxic metal and fewer pesticides. However, organics (as I found out) do not have fewer bacteria, so you're still supposed to thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables.

Now these are organic
     4. A skeptical attitude. Not cynicism. A cynic distrusts everything. A skeptic looks at the facts and weighs the evidence before believing in something. So skeptics are less likely to fall for the latest panacea, fad diet, trendy cure-all or quick-fix. They are also less likely to just believe that, somehow, everything will work out fine, and so they take measures to improve their outlook for the future -- they exercise, eat right, drive safely and avoid other health risks.

     5. Snuggling. Being physically close, holding hands, giving backrubs all tend to reduce physical pain. One study from Colorado looked at 22 heterosexual couples. The women were subjected to mild pain, first when their male partner was holding their hand, then when they were sitting together but not touching. The women reported significantly less pain when they were holding hands -- but not when they were just sitting there. It seems we can share each others' pain, and when we do, it actually makes us feel better.

     6. Herbs and spices. They are full of healthy compounds that reduce inflammation, and since they offer interesting flavors they lead us to use less salt, sugar and fat in our foods. The list is a long one. Cinnamon may help reduce inflammation. Cumin can play a role in weight loss. Garlic may reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Ginger helps an upset stomach. Turmeric may improve memory and help ease pain.

     7. Coffee ... and tea. Coffee perks you up, and tea helps you relax, according to WebMD. Coffee may help stave off Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, diabetes and liver disease, and the recurrence of colon cancer. Tea boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol; and studies have suggested that tea drinkers have lower than average risk of skin, breast and prostate cancer.

     8. Cannabidiol, or CBD. Well, I'm still skeptical about this one. Nevertheless, as reports come in they seem to be more and more positive about the substance. CBD is the non-psychoactive element in marijuana. There is increasing scientific evidence that it helps relieve pain, lower anxiety, and possibly reduce high blood pressure. I don't know. I haven't ingested any CBD since the 1970s. How about you?

     9. Housework. The AARP cites a worldwide study on physical activity that found "doing household chores can be just as effective as running or working out when it comes to cutting your risk of heart disease and extending your life." The crux of the issue is that any type of physical activity is better than sitting and reading or watching TV, and it doesn't matter much whether you're walking on a treadmill or pushing around a vacuum, using the stairmaster or bending and stooping in the garden.

     10. Religion. Taking part in prayers and rituals on a regular basis has been shown to prevent isolation, decrease risk of depression, lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. The benefits of religion, or spirituality, are not associated with any particular religion, and may in large part come from social support and perhaps having a sense of purpose in life. Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that people who attend church regularly are healthier; they lead longer lives, have more robust immune systems and experience better recovery times from surgery.

     P. S. on pets. As I mentioned in my last post, it is possible to catch a disease from your pet. Still and all, according to the CDC, "The bond between people and their pets can increase fitness, lower stress and bring happiness to their owners." How can you argue with that?

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

10 Things to Avoid If You Want to Stay Healthy

     We hear so many confusing reports about activities, foods, supplements and other things that are supposed to be good for us ... or maybe the latest research says they are actually bad for us.

     So to clear my own mind, and start the year out right, I did a little research, and can now give a rundown of 10 things that we should avoid if we want to stay healthy. In my next post I will offer information on 10 things that are good for us.

     But a caveat: Everyone is different and many people have their own issues. For example, everyone knows salt is bad for you. But I remember my dad had low blood pressure, and his doctor told him to use extra salt on his food. He was a special case. So if your doctor has you on a particular regimen, ignore this general information and pay attention to your doctor.

     1. Analgesics. Everyone knows the dangers of opioids. But even such everyday painkillers as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen carry risks to our health. So we take them, because we have headaches and backaches. But be careful. Side effects include constipation, drowsiness and upset stomach. Acetaminophen can harm the liver, especially if mixed with alcohol. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen increase risk of stomach bleeding, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Even aspirin, according to the Mayo Clinic, poses risks along with its well-known health benefits.

     2. Bottled water. I used to drink bottled water, thinking it was healthier than tap water, and certainly better for me than soda. Then I found out that bottled water contains microscopic pieces of plastic. One analysis, reported in The Guardian, surveyed 259 bottles from 11 different brands and found an average of 325 plastic particles for every liter of water. Of course, if plastic is in bottled water, it must be in bottled soda and iced tea as well, don't you think?

     3. Staying up late. According to a study from Northwestern University, people who are night owls are at risk to develop health problems, including diabetes and neurological disorders. But it seems the crux of the issue is sleep deprivation, which affects not just your physical well-being, but cognitive performance as well. But don't be complacent if you sleep a lot. Sleeping too much is associated with the same health risks as sleeping too little. So how much is the right amount? Anywhere between 7 - 9 hours seems about right.

    4. The internet. There are so many bad things about the internet you might wonder why anyone uses it at all. According to a wrap-up by Reader's Digest it can make you lose sleep, hurt your self-esteem, restrict your social life, cause obesity, send you into debt.  Other sources cite addiction, alienation, depression, cognitive impairment ... and pretty much every other ill known to mankind. Also, the jury's still out on whether the low-frequency radiation emitted from your smartphone can cause cancer.

     5. Vitamins. Vitamins are controversial, and there are arguments on both sides. But the fact is, most of us get more than enough of the vitamins we need through our daily diet -- and besides, taking a vitamin pill does not produce the same effects as getting vitamins from food. In addition, consuming too much of some vitamins, such as beta carotene, vitamins E and A, can be harmful to your health. Better advice for most people: Skip the multivitamin and eat your fruits and vegetables.

     6. Grilled food. Cooking meat over high heat such as grilling or broiling produces harmful chemicals. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends that people avoid eating burned or charred foods frequently, as epidemiological studies suggest a link between consuming lots of overcooked fried and grilled meats with certain types of cancer. In addition, a recent Harvard report says eating well-done or grilled beef, chicken or fish may raise the risk of developing high blood pressure.

     7. Disinfectants. The problem, according to Health Care Without Harm, is that some household cleaners contain materials that are classified as toxic waste, and they can cause cancer, respiratory ailments, eye and skin irritation and other adverse effects. Plus, using antibacterial agents can enhance the ability of bacteria to resist antibiotics. Disinfectants have also been linked to obesity in children, by altering the bacteria in their gut. So do as B says: let them eat a little dirt.

     8. Gluten free. Michael Greger, MD, says it all on Nutrifacts: "The reason health professionals don't want to see people on gluten-free diets unless absolutely necessary is that, for the 98 percent of people who don't have gluten issues, whole grains -- including wheat, barley and rye -- are health promoting, linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes ad other chronic diseases."

     9. Skim milk. According to the research, such as a study from Scandinavia reported in Time, skim milk does not help you lose weight. The study tracked the dairy consumption and obesity rates of more than 1500 middle-age and older adults. Those who ate butter and drank whole milk actually had lower obesity rates than those who avoided dairy fat. Furthermore, many of the nutrients in milk are contained in the fat, and so skimming the milk strips it of many of its healthy properties.

     10. Pets. There's one family I know that ... well, I just don't get it. They make you take off your shoes when you enter their house. But they have two dogs and they let them lick and slobber all over their little kids. Really!?! Now we know that pregnant women should not empty the kitty litter to avoid getting taxoplasmosis But you shouldn't let your dog "kiss" you either, since most of the bacteria on a dog's tongue is different from the bacteria on a person's face. Dog licking can cause Pasteurella, gingivitis, giardia, cryptosporidium and hookworm. Also, one report suggests that the risk of catching the flu from your dog could be rising.

     You still think pets are good for you? Well . . . maybe they are. Check out my next post to see why.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Danger in the Night

     We went down to the Delaware River on Christmas day to witness a group of men gather together in the afternoon to recreate an historic event.

     For it was just about 4 p.m. on Christmas afternoon, as it was beginning to get dark, when a ragtag group of American men assembled in the rain and the cold, and prepared to cross the river and fight a desperate battle.

The troops assemble
    It was 1776. That autumn General George Washington had been pushed out of New York. His army of roughly 5000 men had retreated through New Jersey and crossed the Delaware to encamp along the shoreline in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, British troops had settled down in New York for the winter and had left a force of Hessian soldiers to guard their southern flank in New Jersey.

     During their retreat, the Americans had been forced to leave behind precious supplies. Morale among recruits was low. Over a thousand of them were ailing or injured and unfit for duty. A number of soldiers had deserted. Many of the others were looking forward to going home, since their enlistment period was expiring.

     But Washington wouldn't give up. He sent some of his men to enlist new recruits from around the area. They signed up a number of new men, largely because of the mistreatment by British soldiers throughout New York and New Jersey. Then Thomas Paine published his pamphlet The American Crisis:  "These are the times that try men's souls ..."

Two men to carry one oar
     Washington read the inspiring pamphlet to his men, and it lifted their spirits. Then a separate American force of approximately 2000 men managed to join them by the river, providing much-needed reinforcements.

     And so Washington decided to cross the Delaware River and make a surprise attack on the Hessian soldiers who defended Trenton.

     A small fleet of open boats was assembled from people along the Delaware. At dark, around 4 p.m., the Americans began to march quietly down to the riverbank. As night fell, the rain turned to sleet. But Washington pressed on. The general rode in one of the first boats to cross the river, but it took until 3 a.m. for the entire force to get across -- and longer to finish transporting the supplies.

The plan of attack
     Once they were in New Jersey, the small army split into two groups and marched nine miles through the night to the small city of Trenton. They attacked the Hessian outpost at dawn, catching them completely by surprise. The Americans lost three men. The Hessians had 22 killed before surrendering. The American soldiers then destroyed or captured Hessian supplies, and took several hundred prisoners.

     Washington brought his men, and the prisoners, back across the Delaware to his outpost in Pennsylvania, and the Americans reveled in their victory, drinking rum captured from the Hessians. A few days later the Americans crossed into New Jersey again, and on January 3, 1777 they won a decisive victory in the battle of Princeton.

Cannon fire
     Washington's army then spent the winter in Morristown, NJ. But the struggle for independence was far from over. By the next winter the British had occupied Philadelphia, leaving Washington to winter over in Valley Forge. And it was another five long years before the British finally admitted defeat, after they lost the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783. America gained its independence ... and the next chapter had begun.

     On this December day, in 2018, the river was high and ran fast. The reenactors decided not to cross the river, and I don't blame them one bit. Too dangerous. But they gathered the boats, assembled together, read the speeches, and then shot off the cannon, memorializing a bunch of men who were, I believe, far stronger and braver than we can ever claim.