"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What the Tutor Learned

     As I mentioned once before, this fall I started volunteering as a tutor at the Writing Center of our local community college. I found the position through a connection I made with VolunteerMatch.org -- a website I recommend if you're looking to volunteer in your community.

     I applied for the job which included filling out an application, going for an interview, taking two writing tests, and supplying two recommendations. I trained for three days, then was given a badge and sent to help college students improve their essays and assignments, and to offer guidance on how to become better writers.

     The age range of students is 18 to about 40. So far, my most rewarding experience came when a 30-something woman asked for help on an application essay for a scholarship to nursing school. She'd written a powerful piece on how as a child her sister had fallen sick in their native village in Ghana, and she'd accompanied her sister to the hospital and watched as a nurse gave her sister medicine, held her hand, and helped her get better.

I volunteer here at the library
     The essay was powerful, as I said, but it was a little confused and riddled with bad grammar. I helped her straighten it out, and went home proud of myself, hoping that perhaps I might have made a difference in her getting that scholarship.

     I've assisted a couple of kids who are applying to continue on to four-year colleges; and obviously I've helped, by now, 25 to 30 students complete various class essays and homework assignments.

     Probably half of the people who arrive at the center are non-white -- blacks, Hispanics, a few Asians. But all of them come from families of modest means. I've seen exactly two students who seemed uninterested, who were probably there only because someone told them to come. The rest of the students are struggling to learn and develop their skills, in an admirable effort to make their way in this competitive world.

     Yesterday I was especially struck by a young fellow who I'd seen several times already. When he arrived I was busy with another student. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I could help him next. I was flattered that he wanted to wait for me, rather than seek help from one of the other volunteers. (There are typically three or four tutors in the Writing Center at any time. There are no appointments. Students come and go at their convenience; and in the month or so that I've been volunteering the Center has consistently been crowded with students seeking help.)

     This young fellow, about 25 or so, was born in Africa and grew up in Brooklyn -- not hip Brooklyn where the 20-somethings live, but a rougher part of the city. English is his second language. He's majoring in computer science, but taking a writing course to improve his English skills.

     The first thing a tutor asks the student is:  What's the assignment you're working on? This fellow was supposed to interpret and react to an essay by Maya Angelou on Joe Louis and a boxing match he won against an unnamed white opponent. (The essay is actually an excerpt from her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)

     The student summarized the essay, included a couple of good quotes, described how blacks at the time felt pride for themselves and their race, yet were still afraid to go home that night, fearing a white gang might descend on them and take violent retribution.

Joe Louis
     The conclusion my student reached is that despite the victory by Joe Louis back in the 1930s, despite the success of many black professionals in the decades since then, and despite the country electing a black president, the racism felt by regular, ordinary blacks in this country is just as bad today as it was when Joe Louis won that fight.

     When he read his conclusion (I try to have students read their essays aloud to me), I had to stop him. Sometimes the students get confused, or they don't write down exactly what they mean, and the flow of their essay comes out muddled.

     I asked him if that's was he really meant. Didn't he really mean that progress has been made in racial relations, as exemplified by those first steps by Joe Louis, but that much more needed to be done?

     No, he said. He meant what he'd written. Yes, he told me, some blacks have climbed up into the middle class. But the majority of blacks face racism every day, when they walk the streets and fear being stopped by the cops; when they go into a store, especially a high-end store, and are viewed with suspicion; when they rent an apartment, buy a car, go through an airport, or somehow end up walking through a white neighborhood.

     I suddenly realized what I was doing when I asked him about that statement -- I was projecting my own view of racism, which has only been formed third-hand through the media and by interactions with those blacks who have managed to work their way into professional jobs and who fit into the middle class.

     So I shut up. I let the young man finish reading his essay. I did help him make a few technical corrections on the paper, but I did not try to change his mind. He knows better than I do.

     That day I went home, not patting myself on the back for helping kids at my local community college. I went home chastened, maybe a little embarrassed by my own cluelessness. I don't know what I can do about it, except go back and try to help more kids as best I can. I wonder what paper this young man will bring me tomorrow?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It Wasn't So Long Ago

     I've had David Halberstam's book The Fifties sitting in my bookcase for a while now, thinking I ought to read it. The book got a lot of attention when it came out a few years ago, I remembered, and so I wanted to see what was so great about it. I'd read a couple of Halberstam's previous books, like The Best and the Brightest, but hardly followed his entire output (after all, he wrote more than 20 books in all.)

     So after glancing at this title on my shelf for far too long, I finally picked it up the other day. I wondered: Is David Halberstam even still alive? Then I turned to the back of the title page, looking to see when the book was published. I knew it was a few years ago.

Then: The last president with no college degree
     The book was actually published in 1993. That's 20 years ago! Has time gone by that quickly? And does that ever happen to you -- you think something happened "a year or two ago" and it was actually ten years ago. And something you think happened "a few years ago" actually occurred 20 years ago?

    Anyway, belatedly, I'm finally reading The Fifties, and I intend to plow my way through the whole thing, all 700+ pages of it. But what strikes me right away are the similarities between the world of over half a century ago, and our world today.

     In the late 1940s, America had a monopoly on atomic weapons. We were the only country that had used them, in Japan in 1945, and we were also the only country that had developed them. It put the United States in a powerful position in the world, particularly compared to our new international competitor, the Soviet Union. So all during the late 1940s American scientific and political leaders worried that the Soviets would get the Bomb, and also tried to predict when they would develop it -- much like we are worrying about Iran developing a nuclear weapon today.

     Some people ridiculed the Russians, presumably believing they were too dumb and boorish to organize the intellectual firepower to develop the bomb. One American scientist quipped: "The Russians could not surreptitiously introduce nuclear bombs in suitcases into the United States because they have not yet been able to perfect the suitcase."

     Of course, the Soviets did get the atomic bomb in 1949 which launched the arms race of the 1950s, and the whole military notion of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) which was supposed to prevent the use of the Bomb -- and which, so far, has proved effective.

And now: The first black president
     Now, today, we are trying to talk the Iranians out of developing their own nuclear weapon -- and we might even be successful, which is a better way to go about things, don't you think?

     I was also struck by Halberstam's analysis of the political strains across the American landscape in the middle of the 20th century. Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, was the Republican nominee for president against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. No one expected him to win. But in 1948, running against the much-less-popular Harry Truman, Dewey was considered a shoo-in for the presidency. Well, we all know what happened.

     As it turns out, Dewey was kind of the Mitt Romney of his day. He was a liberal Eastern establishment Republican who did not inspire much enthusiasm among those "real Americans" out in the Midwest. The split in the Republican party is a little different now -- between establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans who reside mostly in the South -- but there's still a fairly dramatic gap that reflects very separate views of the world.

     Of course the Democrats are different. At mid-20th-century, the Democrats consisted of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Now it arguably consists of East Coast liberals, West Coast liberals, and some union and academic strongholds in between.

     As the 1950s dawned, as always I suppose, we had both internationalists and isolationists vying for the public mind. In 1950 the foreign policy establishment located in the East, both Democratic and Republican, was in favor of engaging in the world, sending money and weapons to Europe, meddling in Asian affairs, preparing to take over world leadership from a declining British empire. But small-town Midwesterners simply wanted to bring the boys home from the war, forget about foreign entanglements, and get on with their lives.

     Today, it doesn't seem much different. People in the foreign policy establishment, Democrat or Republican, are invested in relations with other countries, from Europe to the Middle East and Asia. But a lot of regular people want us to get out of Afghanistan, keep China at arms length, stay away from conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, and pull back from commitments to questionable governments in the Middle East.

     Anyway, don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with stories from the 1950s as I progress through this book. But I did look up David Halberstam. He died in 2007, at age 73, in a car accident in Menlo Park, Calif. And as I reflected on his book, (I've read a hundred pages so far, covering McCarthy and the Korean War) I couldn't help but think:  Times sure do change, but people don't change very much, do they?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Look What I Found!

     Anyone who read my previous posts about how I lost my camera while vacationing on Cape Cod should be as surprised as I was when they see this.

     Yes, it's my camera! I know it's mine because it has the white sticker I put on it when I was in Savannah, Ga.

     As I related in Has This Ever Happened to You? and Lost, Not Stolen, I lost my camera the second-to-last day of our September vacation, and spent most of a day scouring through the rental house and through our car, even calling up the theater where we'd been and the local Chamber of Commerce, in case it got turned in to the lost and found. Nothing.

     "I'm sure it just dropped down between the seats," B had told me.

     "Yeah," I'd replied. "That makes sense. But then where is it ... we've looked everywhere!"

     So yesterday I drove B's son to the airport -- he and his girlfriend had been visiting for a long weekend. On the way home I stopped to fill up the gas tank and get the car washed -- it still had sand in it from our trip.

     I pulled up to the entrance of the car wash and asked for the full treatment, including an interior vacuum. Then I got out of the car and let them do their thing. I walked inside, stopped at the restroom, bought a Coke, paid for the wash, and went outside. The guys were just bringing the car around to be hand dried. They had the doors and the back open, giving the interior windows a wash. As they finished up I stuffed a dollar in the tip can, walked over to the car ... and saw my camera sitting there in the back all by itself!

     Obviously, one of the guys vacuuming the car found it. Wedged under a seat? Stuck in a crack? There are a dozen guys at this car wash, and the vacuuming guy was way off in front. Another car came up in back of me, and I had to get going, so I didn't have time to ask. I'll never know.

    What I do know is that a lot of my friends worry that they're becoming more forgetful with age; and beneath the jokes are real anxieties about Alzheimers or other kinds of dementia. Not to make light of it, but I have a theory about why older people forget things.

     When we were kids, and we wanted to go out of the house, we ... went out of the house. Sometimes without even bothering to put on shoes. When we got older, okay, we had to carry keys and a wallet. That's it.

     But now? We have keys and a wallet; plus a phone and a camera. Plus glasses -- reading glasses, distance glasses, maybe sunglasses too. We likely carry an iPad or a kindle, and an extra sweater in case it gets cold. We go out of the house like we're pack mules setting out across the desert.

     We have so much to keep track of, it's no wonder we forget things!

     Meanwhile, now that I've retrieved my camera, here, from a month ago, is the view from our house in Cape Cod.

     And here's what it looked like in the evening:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Whoa ... But Don't Overdo It!

     I agreed to play golf with a new friend of mine, a fellow I met playing table tennis. One evening at the table tennis club we got talking and discovered we both play golf. He told me he's been playing with the same foursome for years, but recently one of the guys had to drop out because of a health issue, so they're looking for a replacement.

     The fellow is a couple of years older than I am, but in pretty good shape, and he told me how he scores, which is about like me, so I agreed we should play sometime.

     He emailed me a few days later. Could I make a tee time at 8 a.m. the following Monday? Sorry, I wrote back, I was going to be away for a long weekend; and besides, I didn't know if I wanted to be out on the golf course that early, especially in the fall when it's cold in the morning.

     He emailed me again with a second invitation, and again I couldn't play. Finally, the third time he asked, I agreed to join him at 9:30 a.m. on Friday.

     He had a tee time at a course I'd never played before. It's only a nine-hole course; you play around twice. He acknowledged that it's not a particularly challenging layout, although it is kind of hilly. That's okay, I told him.

     Friday morning it was 48 degrees when I got up. I stepped outside and confirmed that, yes, it was cold. So I put on long underwear, dressed warmly, and drove up to meet my new friend. It turned out his friends were even older than he was. The two other guys were going to ride in a golf cart; but my friend was walking. So I agreed to walk as well, to keep my friend company -- and to show that I'm not a wimp.

     So I set out across the golf course -- to walk about five miles, up and down hills, with a 20-some-pound golf bag on my shoulder. The sun came out and the temperature climbed up into the 50s, and then the 60s. By the time we were trudging around the course the second time, it was getting pretty hot, probably in the 70s  -- which is not so bad, except, remember, I had on long underwear.

     I was pretty tired by the time we finished, around 2 p.m. I'd stripped off two outer layers, but still had on way too much clothing. Plus, I probably didn't drink enough water. I had one bottle with me, and drank a little extra from the water fountain.

     On the way home I stopped at Home Depot. It's fall planting season. The shrubs were selling for half price, and I had a couple of bare spots to fill in my front bushes.

     So I bought a couple of plants, and a few bags of gardening soil, and muscled them into to my car. By this time I was feeling kind of woozy, so I stopped at the nearby fast-food joint and had a soda and a snack.
     When I got home, I thought I should probably go inside for a while and rest up; maybe pop a couple of aspirin, because by this time I was developing a headache, too. But I wanted to get the Home Depot stuff out of my car. So I lugged it all out; and then it seemed I should just go ahead and plant the stuff now -- if I went inside I might never come back out to finish the job.

     So there I was, still in my long underwear, huffing and puffing and sweating my way through the job -- digging holes in the hard-packed clay dirt, laying down some gardening soil, placing the plants, filling in the holes and then hauling out the hose to water them down.

     By the time I got inside, around 4:30 p.m., I was exhausted. I was certainly dehydrated, and maybe even had a little bit of sunstroke. I chugged a 12-ounce bottle of water, and then began to sip some more. I took two aspirin. Then I realized I had to take the dog out for a walk, which I did. I stumbled back 20 minutes later, stripped off my long underwear, down to my skivvies, and put my feet up. I closed my eyes and felt the waves of exhaustion pulse through me.

     Half an hour later I went upstairs and took a long shower, warm at first, then cool. I dressed and drank more water, and when B came home we had a light dinner. I took more aspirin, drank more water, and finally by about 8 p.m. I was feeling more like myself. Tired, but better.

     I slept well that night. But as I drifted off to sleep I scolded myself -- I'm not in my 30s or 40s, or even my 50s, anymore. I can't do as much as I sometimes think I can -- and I simply cannot ignore the signals my body gives me, like I used to when I was younger.

     Exercise is good and necessary. But it's not a smart idea to overdo it, and it's certainly not a smart idea to allow yourself to get dehydrated and overheated and overtired. My old body can still do a lot of things. The one thing it can't do anymore is take the abuse.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How to Feel Better in a Few Easy Steps

     Last Sunday I was not feeling all that well. There was nothing really wrong with me. I got out of bed in the morning as usual, had breakfast, went to the computer for a while. But my stomach was a little upset, and I was tired and listless.

     By the way, I'm warning you here that this is an R rated post -- not for sex or violence, but for bodily functions. Okay ... don't worry, I said R rated, not X rated. It's not that explicit!

     I didn't have a cold, or any kind of stomach bug. I just felt kind of lousy. So after I sat at my computer for a while, checking email, doodling around, I picked up the paper and read the news, the opinion page, the arts section. Then I wandered back to my computer, feeling no better. I felt bloated, and -- here's the R-rated part -- seemed to be having problems with gas building up in my system, a problem I usually don't have. I try to eat well, and don't consume too many fats and heavy foods, because I hate to have my system all blocked up and bloated. And it wasn't just that, either. I had a headache, too, and . . . I don't know, by mid-afternoon I was just disgusted with myself.

     Honestly, I was kind of bored, too, sitting around the house all day. I fell onto the couch and turned on the TV and watched a football game for a while. I must have really been at loose ends, because I'm not much of a football fan.

     Later in the afternoon B reminded me that there was a dance going on that evening, and she wanted to go. We go ballroom dancing every once in a while -- she's even signed us up for a class that meets every Tuesday night at our local middle school. We hadn't gone to a dance for at least a month, and this one was supposed to be at a nice venue.

     The last thing I wanted to do was go dancing. I'd spent the day perched on a chair, or plopped on the couch, and I was perfectly content to sit out the rest of the day and do nothing but ... feel lousy.

     But B had mentioned this dance a few days ago, and I'd said I would go, so unless I was prepared to plead some kind of real illness, I thought I had to step up and do my part.

     She fixed us a light, early dinner. Some soup and half a sandwich. I also went down to the basement and got myself a Coca Cola. I try to stay away from soft drinks. But I have in my mind, from a long time ago, that Coke is one thing that helps settle the stomach.

     B insisted I dress up into something a little more presentable, and I doused myself with a a few splashes of cologne to take care of ... you know, any potential problem in that area. And off we went.

     We arrived at the dance. The music was playing. Couples were out on the dance floor swaying and swirling across the room. So B and I walked out and began to step and turn and twirl. We saw a few people we knew. There was a 30-minute lesson teaching us all a new waltz step.

     The dance went from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. We left early. B and I always leave early; we are not night owls. But when we got home, about 9 p.m., I realized I'd forgotten about my stomach and my headache. I was actually feeling pretty good. Good enough to go out and walk the dog, then come in and share a cup of tea with B.

     A little while later I went to bed, and slept soundly through the night, waking up bright and chipper in the morning.

     So what's my point? If you're feeling a little under the weather, nothing serious but just not feeling your best, what's the cure? Well, maybe drinking that Coke helped me out. But I think what really made the difference was pulling myself up off my butt, going out to meet a few people, getting a little exercise . . . and taking me out of myself for a while.

     It's the light exercise that is the key. Nothing extreme. Just walk around the block; play a round of ping pong in the basement; shoot some basketball hoops in the driveway, spend 20 minutes with an exercise video ... or go out dancing for the evening.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Uh, Oh

     Like many of you, I sign up for Google Adsense to try to make a little money off my blog. And I stress the word little.

     I have no control over what Google's computers decide to put on my site. Some of the ads seem appropriate. But not all of them. And so I want everyone to know that just because an ad appears over there to the right, or down below this post, does not mean that I endorse the product or service in any way.

     What got me concerned was an ad I saw asking in big bold letters: Defund Obamacare? Another, featuring a photo, prompted: Back Cruz?

     When I saw those ads, my reaction was: Uh, oh. Are the politicos taking over my blog? I try to present my site as apolitical, in part because when you see a political argument these days -- whether there's a budget "deal" or not -- you usually know what it's going to say before you even read it, so what's the point. Also, politics have become so dirty, I'd almost rather have porno ads on my site than political ads. (Note to Adsense: I am not soliciting porno ads!)

     But what really worries me is that the Adsense computers have decided my blog is somehow appealing to right wingers. That gives me shivers.

     Not that I have anything against conservatives. I know a number of conservatives. Some of them fit the stereotype of judgmental, uncaring, self-centered misanthropes. Others, particularly (I've found) those who are religious, can be very caring of their fellow man, raising money for charity and even more impressively, putting their time and effort on the line to help people less fortunate than they are.

     Conversely, I have a few friends who are, to borrow a phrase, Liberals In Name Only -- people who talk the liberal talk, but live in segregated neighborhoods, use every dodge to avoid paying taxes, and look down their noses at people less fortunate than they are. And I also know liberals who help build houses for the needy, who volunteer at the prison, who make every effort to recycle and lower their carbon footprint.

     I don't mean to offend anyone. I guess I'm only saying the obvious: Some people talk the talk. Others walk the walk. And nobody has a monopoly on virtue. The only people who really bother me are those who hate people who don't agree with them. The liberals who rush to call people racists; those conservatives who jump on anyone who reveals the slightest bit of social responsibility.

     As I pointed out this summer in How You Know Vacation Is Over, I don't agree that our country has become split in two, into Red groups and Blue groups. Maybe Washington has gone that way; maybe the media have gone that way. But most of the people I know in real life are reasonable individuals who see that many of our social and economic issues are not black and white, but range through shades of gray. And even if they do disagree, they can do it in a civilized manner.

     Besides, I regard the current labels of Liberal and Conservative, as well as Democrat or Republican, as basically outmoded terms. Take any one of our social issues, from abortion to gay rights, and I think they fall as much into the personal moral realm as the political realm. Meanwhile, I don't understand how conservatives can be against conservation. I mean ... it's right there in the name: conserve! And unions are supposed to be liberal, but it seems most of the time they are defending the status quo, which is a conservative thing, isn't it?.

     In addition, many political  pundits make simplistic assumptions -- for example, that all poor people deserve what they get because they're lazy and irresponsible, or that all poor people are helpless victims of a predatory capitalistic system. But just because they say it, doesn't make it true. There are multiple causes of poverty, and of practically everything else.

     Anyway, I have expressed a few opinions on my blog, but only a few -- in support of protecting the environment and putting reasonable regulations on guns, for example, and to the annoyance of some, I've argued in favor of obeying traffic laws. But for the most part, these issues are not particular to Baby Boomers or retirees, so why should I talk about them here?

     There are plenty of other sites to go to if you want a political opinion -- for, as they say, opinions are like you-know-whats, everybody has one. All I'm really saying is that I don't think complicated issues can be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan. And I do not believe in the old canard -- if you're not for me, you're against me.

     All by way of saying, the ads that appear here are beyond my control. I also saw one appealing to: Male Gamers Only! I don't know where that came from. Male video game players? Not exactly my demographic. So maybe those computers aren't so smart, after all. (And if anyone has suggestions on how to improve the ads on my site, I'd love to hear them.)

     But regardless, I do not support any political ads that might appear on this blog, especially if they're suggesting that I favor any right-wing cause ... or left-wing cause, either. I'll speak for myself, thank you very much.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fall in to the Baby Boomer Blogs

     Our roundup of Baby Boomer blogs offers a sprinkling of advice, in all forms and colors, like leaves falling from the autumnal trees.

     To begin with, SoBabyBoomer says that when Millennials/GenYers started joining the workforce in the early 2000s, managers balked at parents getting involved in their kids' workplace struggles or job searches. That was then. Now, some firms have begun embracing parental involvement and using it to attract and hold onto talent and boost employee morale.

Helicopter parents     (But, is what today's young worker wants really so different from what we wanted when we started out? Btw, for future reference, here's a thumbnail run-down of the generations:

     The Greatest Generation, aka The G.I. Generation -- Born before the Depression, they fought in World War II, led post-War prosperity, and produced the Baby Boom. Hello Pres. George H. W. Bush.

     The Silent Generation -- Born 1930 - 1945, they were known, at least superficially, for devotion to career, loyalty to family, belief in traditional morals and values. Hello Mad Men.

     Baby Boomers -- Born 1946 - 1964, they are known for their long hair, idealism, political activism, and later on for "selling out" and moving up. Hello Bill Clinton.

     Generation X -- Born 1965 - 1980. The post-Baby-Boomer crowd is supposed to be selfish and cynical, looking for immediate gratification. Hello Punk Rock.

     Generation Y, aka Millennials - Born 1981 - late 1990s. Supposed to be materialistic, self-involved, technologically adept. Hello Apple.)
     Anyway, on to more serious things:  Laura Lee Carter, aka the Midlife Crisis Queen, offers an important life lesson in What You Focus on Does Grow. A propos to that, Laura's favorite quote comes from Gloria Steinem:  "Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else."

     Meanwhile, Karen Austin asks:  Did you know that bone health can be measured in three states? Most know about Normal and Osteoporosis. But in 1992, an in-between state termed osteopenia was identified. Karen at The Generation Above Me recently discovered bone weakening lurking in her own bones (as you can, or can't, see in the picture to the left).

     Amy Blitchok, a writer and researcher specializing in issues involving seniors, aging in place and mobility, says that if you are a Baby Boomer (that's me), the good news is that your generation will enjoy the longest life expectancy in history. (Yay!) The bad news? (Oh, I knew this was coming.) Boomers suffer from chronic diseases at about twice the rate of the previous generation. So what gives? The truth is that more people are relying on medications to treat the symptoms of chronic diseases instead of taking preventative measures. Essentially, we are sacrificing quality of life for longevity. Visit Modern Senior to learn Simple Ways to Live Longer AND Better! 

     (Her post includes a cool chart called "Prevent Disease and Grow Old Gracefully." Anyway, I myself do not suffer from diabetes ... and I plead the 5th on obesity!)

     Finally, on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about a Boomer survey showing that empty nesters want their adult children to move out and move on.

     (So, what would you do if your grownup kids needed some help? Would you rather give them money, no strings attached, or let them move back in with you? I know which way I'd vote.)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Speeding Toward Oblivion

     Two weekends ago we had dinner with friends, along with a third couple. The man is a lawyer and a father of three boys. He's a nice guy; active in his church; involved in a foundation to raise money to help local kids go to college. He spent a good portion of the evening regaling us with a story of how he got a speeding ticket and is trying to fight it in court, because it's his third ticket and he's worried that he'll lose his license.

     The way he told the story was pretty funny, but my laughter was a little forced. How could this guy -- a lawyer, an officer of the court who should set a good example for the rest of us, not to mention his three boys -- flout the law so brazenly and so publicly?

     I asked him what his hurry always was that he kept getting speeding tickets. He shrugged. He has a 25 minute commute to work every day. If he gets caught in traffic or hits the lights wrong, and it takes him 28 minutes, he says it ruins his entire morning, whereas if he makes the trip in 23 minutes he feels great all day.

     The other friend pointed out that he was spending hours and hours dealing with tickets, which squandered much more time than he saved by speeding to work -- not to mention putting himself and others in danger.

     But he just didn't get it. It's all a game to him. And to tell the truth, I've met many other commuters who share the same point of view.

     We need to remember that, even though traffic fatalities are way down from their peak in the 1970s (due not to better driving, but to seatbelts and airbags), there are still over 30,000 Americans killed in traffic accidents every year. That's more than ten times the number of Americans killed in over ten years of fighting in Afghanistan.

     The research says that speeding is a factor in over one third of fatal accidents. And the faster you go, the more likely you are to die. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Forces on impact double with every 10 mph increase in speed above 50 mph, and as crash forces increase, so does one's chances of being killed or seriously injured."

     Meanwhile, the other day I was driving along a road near our house, one that goes up to a main east-west artery three or four miles north of us. It's a straight road, but narrow with no shoulder and so the posted speed limit is 30 mph. The road is so straight, it seems like you should be able to go faster. But it's dangerous, because the road is elevated above the fields to both the right and left, as much as eight or ten feet. So, literally, if you go a foot off the road, you will plummet down an embankment eight or ten feet into a tree or a rock, and likely roll over in the process.

     I was driving north, going between 35 and 40 mph. Like I said, 30 mph just seems so slow. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and I saw an SUV come up behind me. It kept coming and closed the gap and started riding my tail.

     I glimpsed down at my speedometer to make sure I wasn't going to slow. It read between 35 and 40. I went past a sign that posted the 30 mph limit. I thought the car behind me might get off my tail when the driver saw the sign.

     It didn't work. The car kept tailgating me. Now I'll admit that most aggressive drivers -- those who speed, tailgate, weave in and out of lanes -- are male. But this driver was a woman.

     She followed me for a minute or two, which seems like a long time when you're trundling along a narrow road, casting your eyes into the rear-view mirror every few seconds. Then she backed off. I thought maybe she saw another of the speed-limit signs that are posted along the road and just decided to slow down.

     But I was wrong. She'd backed off to give herself room to pass me, because even though the road has a double yellow line, meaning no passing allowed, she gunned her car and zoomed past, up toward the main road ahead of us.

     I continued along, going just under 40, and a minute later arrived at the light. The woman was sitting there, waiting behind one other car at the red light. I pulled up behind her and stopped, and when the light turned green, she turned right, and I turned left, never to see her again.

     Maybe this woman was from out of town, and just didn't know the road and how dangerous it is. Or maybe she thinks the state should do something to improve the road, and she's simply not going to let the state's neglect slow her down. But you can't blame the state too much. It's a difficult stretch, and not a major thoroughfare.

     But what I know, and what she should know, is that since I moved up here in 2007, three people have died on that length of road. In each case they wandered off the pavement by a few inches; their wheels caught in the grass, and they rolled over into a tree.

     And as one expert said about speeding in general: "In most cases these accidents could have been avoided or made less severe if the vehicles had obeyed the speed limit."


Monday, October 7, 2013

The First Pictures . . .

     B and I went on a long weekend, and I thought I'd use our getaway as an opportunity to try out the camera on my new smartphone. I took about a hundred photos. To be honest, many were close-ups of the street or the grass. I got a few good pictures of my foot. But along the way I did see this sign in front of a bar in Pennsylvania, and so I had to stop and take a snapshot. How can you not like a saloon keeper with this dry sense of humor?

Better than the other way around?

     Anyway, we went to Philadelphia for the Chestnut Hill Fall for the Arts Festival, held every year in October. (This the first time we've gone.) Now, some of you might think that the cheesesteak capital of the world is an old rundown industrial city that has seen better days, and that it is no place to take a minivacation.

The restaurant was empty Sunday morning, but packed on Saturday night when we ate there

     In fact, Philly probably has seen better days, but it is still the fifth or sixth largest city in the country, depending on how you're counting -- bigger than Washington, D.C., Miami, Atlanta, and San Francisco. And there are still many good things about the city -- the music, the art museums, the historic sites, several top colleges and many other schools of various forms and functions. And there are some nice neighborhoods, too.

The band kept everyone hopping
     Chestnut Hill is considered by many to be the nicest neighborhood in this city of neighborhoods. But actually, Money Magazine recently selected its next-door neighbor Mount Airy as one of the top urban neighborhoods in the country -- while Rittenhouse Square is a place where you can buy a $1 million condominium, the nearby Fitler neighborhood is an up-and-coming area, and Manayunk, a little farther up the Schuylkill River, is where the 20-something hipsters live.

The garden store was decked out for fall
     But I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on Philadelphia. I was just there with B to enjoy the arts fair, which featured around 150 tents and kiosks where artists, craftsmen and others plied their wares.

Something for the kids

     We arrived in Chestnut Hill on Saturday evening, and it was plenty warm enough to dine al fresco and watch the crowds walk by. But the real crowds arrived Sunday morning, and stayed all day.

Yes, it was crowded.

     There was music, and rides for the kids and all kinds of food. The weather was perfect -- partly cloudy and warm enough to walk around without a jacket. And best of all, we stayed another night so we didn't have to fight traffic getting home on Sunday evening.

Mistake? No way ... this is art!

     We had a lot of fun . . . but to be perfectly honest, I have a lot more learning and a lot more practice to do before I can rightly say that I know how to use the camera on my new smartphone.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Dummy Gets a Smartphone

     I purchased my first smartphone the other day. You might think I'm behind the times. (Well, maybe you don't, but my children sure do!). But actually the latest figures I found, as of July 2013, say that approximately 30 percent of Baby Boomers use smartphones (as opposed to about 50 percent of the overall population.) So I'm not that far behind the times.

     When I finally made the decision to make the purchase, and came away from Best Buy with a hot little phone in my hand, I felt that I had joined some kind of exclusive club. I felt that, finally, I was . . . smart.

     But now I'll tell you the real reason why I got a smartphone. I lost my digital camera. I was going to buy a new camera -- my Canon Powerpoint was four or five years old, and even though I liked my camera a lot, I wasn't too upset because I figured they've improved the technology by now. But then I started to do some research, and I reached the conclusion that a smartphone will take a photo just as well as any mid-range digital camera. And you get a phone in the bargain.

     I actually talked to the salesperson at the camera counter at Best Buy. I was playing dumb (not hard for me to do) and asked him about various cameras, and I told him how I'd lost my old camera, and I was in the store to buy a smartphone. The camera salesman told me that the new smartphones take just as good a picture as all but the very best of the cameras . . . and you don't have to lug around a big heavy device.

     He pulled out his Samsung Galaxy S4, and showed me the pictures he had taken the other day at the zoo. He explained how he had gone to the zoo with his girlfriend, and after he parked, he opened the back door to the car, intending to get his Nikon from the backseat. Then he stopped and thought, do I really want to have that heavy camera dangling from my neck all day? So he left the camera in the car, and used his smartphone to take pictures.

     He showed me the photos, and they were bright and clear and in focus. He did point out one photo of some kind of lizard. I took this one indoors, he told me, and it's not really that good. That's one thing the Nikon will do better -- take photos in low light. But otherwise, he said, I'm completely happy with the pictures I got from my cellphone.

     Ultimately, I bought the Samsung smartphone, partly because it got good reviews online (yes, I know the i-phone also gets top reviews, but I didn't want to pay the extra money.) Also, as the camera salesman pointed out, the camera offers 13 mp, instead of 8 mp on the other phones, which should give me photos comparable to my old Canon, or even better; plus it has more battery life as well as some other features that he explained but that I didn't understand.

     So now I'm making phone calls, and accessing the internet and trying to get used to the camera, and researching all the apps I'm going to get. But there is one more reason why I got a smartphone. Text messaging. Now, I know you don't need a smartphone to text; but it does make it a lot easier. And the fact of the matter is, my two kids, like most 20-somethings, never answer the phone anymore. They only text. And I want to be able to communicate with my kids.

     My first text was to my son. He never answers his phone. But he texted me back, literally, within 30 seconds: "Whhoooaaa ... never thought I'd get a text from this number!"

     Then I texted my daughter. She never answered, either, when I tried to call her on my regular cellphone. But now she answered right away, and proving that sarcasm can be conveyed in a text, she said: "Wow, Dad, welcome to the 2000s!" 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Remember Him?

     He made his debut 51 years ago tonight, and became a touchstone in many of our lives for the next 30 years. Such was his influence that when in 1973 he made an offhanded joke about an alleged shortage of toilet paper, American consumers panicked and wiped out all the toilet paper from supermarket shelves, leading to a real shortage. For several weeks both paper manufacturers and grocery stores had to ration supplies, until the panic was relieved.

     He was born on Oct. 23, 1925, and grew up in Iowa and Nebraska. When he was a kid he found a book on magic, and started performing at local picnics and country fairs, for $3 an appearance.

     He joined the Navy in 1943, received officer training and was commissioned an ensign. He shipped out to the Pacific on the USS Pennsylvania, where he took a turn as an amateur boxer and posted a record of 10-0. He was en route to a combat zone, aboard a troop ship, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. So he was able to finish out his service as a communications officer, then go home to attend the University of Nebraska. He graduated in 1949 with a major in radio and speech, and a minor in physics.

     He got a job on a local radio station, then was tapped to host a local morning TV program called The Squirrel's Nest. He did a comedy bit involving pigeons reporting on political corruption; and he also supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local functions -- where the very politicians he'd been mocking would likely turn up.

     He headed to California in 1951, looking for work, and talked his way into hosting a local sketch comedy show. He was spotted by funnyman Red Skelton, and eventually asked to join his show as a writer. One evening in 1954, so the story goes, Red Skelton knocked himself out during rehearsal and needed a substitute for the night. The former sailor filled in and was judged a complete success.

     The next year brought him to the Jack Benny Program, and before long he found himself hosting nationwide game shows, until he moved to New York and became a regular on Who Do You Trust? He spent five years on the successful game show, interviewing guests and throwing out one-liners, and also meeting future sidekick Ed McMahon.

     His success on Who Do You Trust? led NBC to put him -- and surely, by now, you know our special guest today is Johnny Carson -- in the running as host of The Tonight Show. The fledgling late-night show had originated in 1954 starring Steven Allen. In 1957, Jack Paar took over the show, but the acerbic comedian was not a particularly good match for the late-night audience. NBC asked Jackie Gleason to replace Paar. Gleason refused. NBC turned to Groucho Marx, Bob Newhart, and Joey Bishop. After they all turned down the opportunity, NBC went to Johnny Carson, who took the job, and first opened the curtain on Oct. 1, 1962.

     Pop star Paul Anka wrote the lead-in music for the show, and Ed McMahon soon joined Carson as his second banana. The formula was an instant hit, attracting top talent from New York and Hollywood. In 1972 Carson moved the show to Los Angeles -- or, "beautiful downtown Burbank," as he often joked -- and continued there until he retired in 1992, at age 66, and was replaced by Jay Leno.

     During his 30 years on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson created many characters, from Art Fern, the Tea Time movie announcer, to Carnac the Magnificant, the psychic who could answer a question before it was asked. He was given credit for launching the careers of many young comedians, including Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman -- and David Brenner, who appeared on the show more than any other guest. But Carson also destroyed his competition, including Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase and a host of others including Joan Rivers, who claimed that Carson never spoke to her again after she went into competition with him.

     Johnny Carson did occasionally get in trouble when he made fun of other celebrities, including Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton and corpulent TV detective Raymond Burr. But for the most part Carson projected an amiable personality, refusing to discuss politics, for example, insisting that his personal views didn't matter and besides they would only serve to alienate a portion of his audience.

     Carson was married four times -- explaining the many alimony jokes on his program -- and had three sons from his first marriage. Off camera he was notoriously shy, and after he retired in 1992 he studiously avoided the limelight, although according to the New York Times he did occasionally send jokes to David Letterman to use on the air.

     Carson, a long-time smoker, suffered a heart attack in 1999, and in 2002 was diagnosed with emphysema. By the time he died, in January 2005, he had been awarded virtually every honor in American comedy. And in 2012 he was the subject of a PBS documentary, King of Late Night, as part of the American Masters series, narrated by Kevin Spacey.

     Here's a funny bit Carson did in 1968 with Jack Webb, who'd played the detective from the old TV series Dragnet.