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

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Sun Sets on 2019

     We drove out  to Central Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half west of us, to celebrate Christmas with B's sister and her family. They live in an old farmhouse that over the years has slowly been surrounded by one housing development after another as various people have sold off their farms (or in one case, a golf course) to real-estate developers. Apparently, housing is a lot more lucrative than farming.

    The area is still fairly rural, however, and B's sister lives in a stone house with three-foot-thick walls from the 1700s, with three acres, a huge red barn, and a big front yard and smaller backyard given over to vegetable gardening.

     We stayed in the annex, an attached part of the house where her husband's parents lived for over 30 years, until they died. (They chose "shared housing" long before it became popular in current retirement thinking.) The annex has a kitchen and dining area downstairs, and a large bedroom with a half bathroom up the creaky, narrow back stairs. You have to sneak back through a bedroom in the main house into a hallway bath to take a shower.

     We visited with members of the family, plus a young man from Tennessee, originally from India, and a young woman working in Los Angeles, originally from Iran. They were friends of B's husband's brother, who's a high-school teacher and somehow makes friends with almost anyone he meets in the hallways -- and often, as in this case, keeps up the friendships long after the kids have graduated. These kids were traveling back to the East Coast for a vacation. They were staying with their friend, the husband's brother, for a few days, then heading for a day in New York City and a day or two in Washington, DC.

     Anyway, around sundown I went out back and took a photo looking west. For some reason, it just seemed a brilliant finish to a holiday week, and put a period on the year . . . and a decade as well.

        It's hard to believe we're heading into 2020. Each year, each decade, seems to go by faster and faster. Is that the theory of relativity? We have to grab onto them, as best we can, and hold them close.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Aging ... It's Not So Bad

     I read an article in The New Yorker back in November called Why We Can't Tell the Truth About Aging by Arthur Krystal. The writer is a 71-year-old New York culture critic, who seems to want to put the worst face on aging that he possibly can. Or more precisely, what Krystal does is disparage a group of recent books that try to put the best face on aging.

     If an author believes that older people can have good sex, like Ashton Applewhite does in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, then Krystal grumbles that if it's so, he's "never heard anyone testify to this."

    What about reports showing that people actually grow happier in old age, such as Jonathan Rauch's The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50?  Krystal's response: Bah humbug! Unhappy people just don't bother to respond to surveys.

     Do seniors, as some writers claim, experience less social anxiety and find themselves more comfortable in their own skins as they get older? Maybe, maybe not, says Krystal. But one thing he's sure of: You're going to suffer chronic inflammation, weaker bones, strained eyes, flagging hearts, less brain function, and more pain. In other words, "You're going to feel much worse."

     His article goes on from there, as most New Yorker articles do, but suffice it to say that while Krystal may find some philosophical wisdom in old age, he can't help but end on the desperate note that with wisdom comes grief, with knowledge much sorrow.

     The topic of aging is near and dear to my heart, for the obvious reason that I'm getting older. But I'm not nearly so negative as our New York intellectual. And anyway, as the saying goes, getting old is better than the alternative.

     As an antidote to Krystal, let me point out a few things that aren't so bad -- especially if we don't just lie down and accept the worst, but make an effort to keep ourselves active, involved and engaged.

     For one thing, our bodies do not inevitably get frail and fall apart, except maybe at the very end. Everyone who has been on earth the same amount of time has the same chronological age, but they don't all have the same biological age. Your biological age is based on how well your body functions, including blood pressure and weight, bone density and cholesterol levels. A healthy 70 year old who takes care of herself may be biologically no older than a 50 year old who does not. We can lower our biological age with exercise and good nutrition. One simple example: Harvard Magazine reported that subjects who walked an average of just ten minutes a day lived almost two years longer than those who didn't exercise at all.

     And that means we can still have plenty of energy and keep doing most of the things we like to do. Our energy levels depend more on our lifestyle and our attitude than they do on chronological age. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are effective ways to pump up energy levels. If you have trouble sleeping, the advice is to go to bed at a set time every night; get up the same time every morning; avoid caffeine-laden drinks such as coffee, tea and colas; exercise for 20 or 30 minutes a day. And do not try to induce sleep with alcohol. Read a book or magazine instead.

     And so what about our sex lives? Testosterone is the hormone associated with male sex drive, and it's true that testosterone levels diminish with age. (Testosterone levels are higher in the morning, lower at night.) But the reality is, for men as well as women, sex drive is mainly generated in the head. More problematic than aging, for both men and women, are factors such as stress, fatigue, medical conditions and tensions within a relationship. So as long as you can think sexually and communicate your needs and desires, you can remain sexually active – which may not always involve intercourse but can include plenty of other intimate activities.

     But what about our deteriorating memory and those so-called "senior moments"? It's true that older people often suffer some short-term memory loss. But consider this: Researchers from the University of California and Columbia University tested a group of 20-somethings against people in their 60s and 70s, in various subjects, and found that despite a general loss of mental acuity, the older group did better than the younger test-takers in almost every category. How is that? Younger people were better able to manipulate information and process it quickly. But older subjects benefited from knowledge acquired through culture, education and a lifetime of experience. They had more focus, a better perspective and more patience. And for most practical applications – whether buying a house, driving a car, or playing cards – the wisdom that comes with age trumps the quick-mindedness of youth.

     And Krystal's view of happiness is just downright curmudgeonly. Studies have consistently confirmed the happiness curve, showing that people get happier after age 50. The happiness U-curve, as it's called, shows that happiness declines with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood – even for people who are successful, as many high achievers never seem to fully appreciate their success. People's levels of life satisfaction typically bottom out in their 40s, then begin to increase as they age through their 60s. A 2011 study from Stanford University found thatthe peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.

     None of this is to minimize the very real health problems that can come with age . . . or at any age. Many of us live with chronic pain, whether it's garden-variety back or knee pain, or something more serious. But a defeatist attitude doesn't help anybody. We don't have to simply succumb to old age, as Krystal suggests, and it is somewhat of a myth that we can't do anything about how aging affects us, that it's all determined by our genes.

     Of course, we can't pick our parents, and we are stuck with the genes we were born with. But how those genes are expressed depends a lot on how we live our lives. Our thoughts, emotions, our lifestyle, and how we cope with stress all go a long way in determining whether certain genes are turned on or off. This means that we have the power to  nurture the good genes and prune back the bad ones. For example, you probably won't get lung cancer if you don't smoke, even if you do have a cancer gene. And while you may be genetically disposed toward Alzheimer's disease, whether you actually get Alzheimer's depends largely on your lifestyle, including sleep, diet, stress levels. 

     So the inevitable question is: Am I whistling past the graveyard? I guess my answer is: Is there any better way to go past the graveyard?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Guilty! (with Explanation)

     It turns out, I am a hypocrite. I preach traffic safety. Don't speed, I admonish. Don't tailgate. Don't text and drive. Don't drive if you're under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or prescription medications. Make sure to signal when you're changing lanes. No aggressive driving. Be polite and considerate of other drivers, especially if they're young or old or display a handicapped sticker. And again and above all, don't speed.

     And then what happened the other day? I opened the mail to find . . . I got a speeding ticket!

     The state of Maryland alleges that I was driving 49 mph in a 35-mph zone.

     The truth is, even though I'm usually one of the slower drivers on the road, I probably was going 49. But let me explain. And then I'll throw myself on the mercy of the court.

     By way of background, I'll tell you a little bit about my accuser, the state of Maryland. B and I actually considered retiring to Maryland. At first, we thought Washington, DC. But living in Washington, DC, it turns out, is way too expensive for most retirees.

     Then we thought we could retire to the suburbs of Washington. You've heard of Bethesda, MD? Or Silver Spring? Oh, how naive we were! The Washington suburbs are just as expensive as the District. Plus, traffic in the suburbs of Washington is enough to drive you to an early grave.

     At one point we visited Annapolis, MD. It's the capital. It's less than an hour drive to Washington. And it's still close enough to our old hunting grounds in the Northeast. You can hop on Amtrak for a 3-hour train trip to New York City.

     Annapolis is home to historic St. John's college and the U. S. Naval Academy, and features lots of waterfront, boating, restaurants and entertainment. Annapolis is expensive, yes, but not as bad as Washington. We even looked at a few houses in Annapolis. But the prices were a stretch for us, and the real-estate taxes are pretty steep.

     And then we found out that Maryland would tax our retirement income. Maryland does not count among the 13 states that tax Social Security benefits. But it does levy income tax on IRA and 401K withdrawals. And since IRA withdrawals were going to provide a significant amount of our retirement income, that gave us pause.

Caught on tape. And yeah, that's me .... on a four-lane
highway with no traffic. Do you see
a speed limit sign? So am I really speeding?
     We also found out that while Maryland doesn't tax its own people who collect government pensions, it does tax pensions from out of state. B has a small pension from New York. It's small enough already, so we didn't want the tax people of Maryland making it smaller.

     So we decided not to retire in Maryland, at least in part because we felt they were just after our money, and targeting us as out-of-staters. We don't mind paying "our fair share" in taxes, but we don't want to be treated differently, singled out as an easy mark. So we went someplace more welcoming, as in Pennsylvania, where we can keep our Social Security and IRA benefits and live a comfortable retired life, paying taxes like normal dutiful citizens but not worrying about where we'd get the money to stave off a greedy taxman.

     So I hope you now appreciate the position of the state of Maryland. They're pretty aggressive about raising money from people. Or, to put it bluntly, Maryland is out to fleece innocent citizens, especially those from other states who happen to be passing through.

     And that's what we were doing. Passing through. Which leads me to my speeding ticket. Clearly, the authorities in Maryland set up a speed trap for unsuspecting people like us.

   The facts of the case:  I was driving on a Saturday, around 8 a.m., heading out to the Interstate. As you can see, the road I was on is a four-lane highway. During the day the road is choked with traffic, so maybe a 35-mph speed limit makes sense under that circumstance. But when I was traveling, there was no traffic at all. And when did you ever hear of a clear, four-lane highway with a 35-mph speed limit? Do you think I was posing a risk by driving 49 mph? Do you think they noticed my out-of-state license plate?

     Okay. You're the judge. You've heard my explanation. Are you sympathetic to my argument? Are you ready to give me a break? Or do you think I'm a threat to society and find me guilty as charged? 

     To be fair, the state of Maryland did not throw the book at me. I'm not going to jail. I won't have to pick up litter by the side of the road. They even say on the citation that paying my fine will not result in points and will not increase my insurance rate. They just want my money.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Glad to Be Alive

     Right now, I'm just grateful to be here.

     Over the weekend B and I witnessed an accident on I95, north of Baltimore. I was driving in the middle lane, doing the speed limit at 65 mph. B was sitting in the passenger seat.

     There was a box truck up ahead in the left-hand lane. I hadn't noticed it passing me by, which I would have done if it had been really flying. But it was in the left-hand lane, so it was probably doing around 70.

      B saw it before I did. She let out a squeal. Then I saw the puff of dust and dirt. The truck was veering off the highway into the center median. For a second I thought he was going to cross over into oncoming traffic.

     Instead he swerved back onto the road. I saw the box of the truck start to wobble and tip. It only took a second, but time seemed to slow down as the truck turned again, trying to correct. Then the top of the truck slanted to the right, balanced on a knife's edge of gravity and momentum. Then it toppled and flipped.

     I didn't see the truck go all the way over. There were cars in front of us in the way. But fortunately, traffic was relatively light. I hit the brakes and slowed to about 20 mph, following other cars.

     As we inched forward I saw the truck up ahead, on its side. It was by itself. No other vehicles seemed to be involved.

     The cars ahead of me slowed even more. Traffic stopped for a moment, then inched forward again. By the time we approached the overturned truck there were already two cars stopped -- one in the center lane beyond the truck, the other pulled up onto the left-hand shoulder. A woman was standing by the side of the truck with a phone to her ear. A man was reaching up to the cab of the truck. The driver's side door was open. The man was trying to help the driver climb up vertically out of the truck.

      I thought, briefly, if I should stop too. But we were in a line of traffic that was moving slowly down the right-hand lane. I could try to get over. But what could I do? The driver was trying to get out, having difficulty because he was climbing out the top. But he was struggling like it was difficult, not because he was hurt.

     We figured the woman with the phone was already calling in the accident. But B dialed 911 on her phone anyway, just to make sure. She reported the incident, gave the mileage marker and her name and call-back number. Clearly, the woman on the other end of the phone didn't know about the accident, but we thought she would pass it on to the dispatch operator -- who may already know about the accident but at least this would confirm it.

     By this time we were past the truck, and traffic was speeding up again. We breathed easier, thinking there were no injuries and we had at least done our duty to call it in. Two minutes later we saw a police van coming the other way, lights flashing. We assumed it was responding to the accident.

    We don't know what happened to cause the turnover. Was the driver texting or talking on the phone and just got distracted? Did someone cut him off and force him over onto the shoulder? Did he fall asleep? We'll never know. We're just glad he wasn't hurt -- or if he was, it wasn't bad -- and there didn't seem to be anyone else in the truck, or any other cars involved.

     It's dangerous to be out on the road these days. Please be careful over the holidays.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Can We Live Forever?

     We all know that how long we live -- and how healthy we are -- depends partly on the lottery of birth. It matters how healthy our parents were and how long they lived. It matters whether we drew the fat card, the alcoholism card, the cancer card, or the predisposition to any other disease.

     Still and all, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves live longer and feel better, no matter who our parents were, or however much we may have mistreated ourselves in our younger years. If a person smoked when they were young, for example, but has not touched a cigarette in 20 years, their lungs look almost the same as someone who never smoked at all. And even if you spent 40 years sitting at a desk job (like I did), you can go a long way toward improving your heart and lung functions by exercising three or four times a week when you're in your 60s or 70s (I'm trying!).

     Don't take my word for it. Consider philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He argued that while we are not complete masters of our fate, we're not passive victims either. We are co-creators of our destiny -- and our longevity -- because while external forces do play a part in determining our actions, we ourselves are an indispensable force, and we can carve out a unique existence even if, as often happens, it does not turn out precisely as planned.

     Some people have their own secrets for staying healthy. A fistful of vitamins or glass of wine every day? Never turning on the TV or avoiding social media? Yoga three times a week? Here are a few suggestions that come from my own experience, along with a small dose of research.

     Eat a good diet. We've seen the fad diets come and go, but the real answer is no secret. Healthy people avoid too much of the saturated fats in meat and dairy. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. They drink lots of water, tea and coffee, and perhaps a small amount of alcohol, and they consume lots of fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

     Get plenty of sleep. Various studies have determined that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts the immune system, making our bodies better able to fight off infection. Other research suggests that too little sleep could be linked to an increased risk for stroke and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health..

     Get some exercise. Experts argue over how much is enough, but everyone agrees that some is better than none at all. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for two and a half hours per week. We should also engage in some moderate strength training, whether it's lifting weights or doing sit-ups, or digging in the garden and practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that we enjoy so we'll keep doing it on a regular basis.

     Drive safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts, airbags and crash zones that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death -- some 40,000 Americans in 2018, according to the National Safety Council. So we should wear our seat belts, put down our cell phones, obey speed limits, and watch out for aggressive drivers. Also, be careful about the side effects of any prescription or over-the-counter medications you may take.

     Maintain an active social life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends typically live longer than people who are lonely. Experts say that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of security, promotes healthy behavior, and helps people avoid self-destructive habits like drinking too much. It's just easier to stick to a healthy diet, or an exercise program, if you're doing it with other people.

     Stay involved and engaged. Death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. The mortality trends for women are similar, though not as pronounced. Researchers have concluded that it's not working that makes the difference, but staying engaged in life and involved in something bigger than our own personal problems. Self-sufficiency is not the key to a longer life. Staying connected to a community is the secret.

     Relax. Yes, we need to stay involved and engaged. But the experts also say it's important to spend time in silence, in nature, and not be hounded by constant social stimulation. As behavioral geneticist Susan Smalley of UCLA says, "We need time to do nothing, to be our best selves -- well-rounded and creative human beings. The 'doing' side of our nature needs a 'being' side to be in balance."

     Go to the doctor. Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should all get the pneumonia vaccine, and every fall the flu vaccine. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, including the much-dreaded colonoscopy that can find and eliminate precancerous polyps. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. So we all need to check our blood pressure, take our medications -- and make all the other lifestyle changes that will allow us to live long and prosper.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Broken Promise

     "I never throw up," I bragged to B on one of our first dates. This was sometime in 2003. At the time I was working on a no-throw-up record of almost 30 years.

     B was pretty; she was smart; she had a great personality. I liked her. So I thought this was a good selling point for myself. I mean, who likes someone who throws up a lot? But I guess what I was doing, with my lame attempt at humor, was making a kind of promise. I would stay healthy for her. She was not signing on to be my nursemaid. No throwing up.

     The last time I'd thrown up was in 1974 or 1975 when I'd had a terrible bout of the flu. And, well, stuff happens. Soon after, I fainted and cracked my chin on the bathroom sink as I went down. My wife (my first wife) panicked when she saw me crumpled on the floor with blood running down my face. She called 911. The first thing I knew, I woke up with my wife hovering over me and two male faces murmuring some mildly reassuring words.

     That's how bad it has to be when I throw up.

     But last weekend . . .

     We had just gotten home from our trip down south. Our grandson had had a bout of stomach flu. So did someone else in the family. But I kept my distance, washed my hands. And anyway, that was four or five days earlier.

     The morning we got home we went out to breakfast at a diner. We had never been there before, but it was crowded. Must be good.

     I ordered eggs, pancakes and a side of fruit.

     The portions were huge. But the fruit looked good. I dug in. As usual, B forked a few pieces for herself. But I was the one who gobbled up most of it. 

     Later that afternoon I just felt tired. I don't know why. I'd slept well. I hadn't really done anything vigorous or taxing. But we'd been traveling. That creates more stress than you think. Maybe it made sense that I was tired.

     At dinner the food, to me, looked intimidating. I ate a bite or two of chicken. It was too rich, too spicy. The asparagus seemed stringy and hard to chew. I left most of the meal on my plate.

     I did the dishes, as usual, then went upstairs to my desk. I tootled around on the computer for a bit, then B came in. We had an engagement the next day. She wanted to discuss what time we should leave and other details of the outing. I looked at her and said, "I hate to say this, but I don't feel so good."

     She looked disappointed, but understanding. "Well, let's see how you feel in the morning."

     It was about five minutes later when for some reason the thought crept into into my mind: I'd better get to the bathroom.

     I'll spare you the details. But it's a good thing I did. Because my now more-than-40-year throw-up record was over. In spades.

     Luckily, B decided to sleep at the other end of the house. I got more exercise than sleep that night. But finally around 5 a.m. I settled down and slept till about 10. I heard the phone ring a couple of times but didn't pay attention.

     I got up for an hour or two and found that B was still there. She had canceled our engagement. Then I went back to sleep. I got up again around 2 p.m. B asked me if I wanted anything to eat. I said no. She asked about dinner later on. Some toast? Chicken soup? No. No. Then I saw a potato on the counter. "How about mashed potatoes?" I asked.

     I took another nap from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Got up. Ate a few mashed potatoes. I was worrying that I would lie awake all night since I had slept most of the day. But no. I fell asleep listening to a podcast and stayed asleep until 8 a.m. the next morning.

     I got up. I don't know if it had been the flu or the food, but now I felt fine. Well, mostly fine. I felt like I had been through a fight, and was now recovering, like the guy in the movies who is sitting there half-dazed with a bandaged face and an arm in a sling.

     A day later I was back on my feet. I went to my class, played table tennis that night. I had met the enemy and had won. And the silver lining -- I'd lost about five pounds. But it took two days out of my life. And I had broken the promise I'd made to B, all those years ago.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Too Much to Do?

     I woke up this morning to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus" on the clock radio. B insists on setting the alarm for 6:10 a.m. because twice a week she wakes up early to get to her 7 a.m. yoga class.

     Most of the time I don't hear the radio in the morning. I'm a good sleeper. But how can you resist the gentle, mellifluous voice of Gene Autry from so long ago? I love the old Christmas songs, the ones that herald in the holiday season. Yes, the holidays are upon us, and our Baby Boomer bloggers are preparing for the season.

     To kick things off, Meryl Baer at Six Decades and Counting tackles the subject on many of our minds. Shopping. In Small Business Saturday and More she recounts all the special shopping opportunities we have these days, from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. But she ends, appropriately for the season, on a different note, reminding us about Giving Tuesday.

      Rita Robison of The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide offers some holiday advice from her perspective as a consumer and finance journalist. She suggests that we make a budget, compare prices, avoid impulse items, keep receipts. But there's more, so check out her post Tips for Shopping before you hit the stores, virtual, brick or otherwise.

     Rebecca Olkowski of BabyBoomers.com reminds us that the season is really all about gratitude and counting our blessings. It's sometimes hard to do, she admits, when times are tough, but making the effort to feel and express gratitude can actually help us get through our challenges. In A Time to Be Grateful she reflects on her own life, which includes dogs, family, home, cancer, and the world we live in.

     Jennifer from Unfold and Begin is also grateful for the year that is drawing to a close. As she tells us in Be Thankful for What You Have she left Connecticut in 2019 to find a new life in central Florida. Now the blogger shares her first-hand experience about moving so far away from home . . . and how she now eagerly awaits "what's next."

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul has been thinking along the same lines as Jennifer Kolsak. Except she lives in California, not Connecticut. And she hasn't actually changed her life; she's only thinking about it. She's beginning to realize, she says, that as we age we tend to lose patience with nuisances, inconveniences and everyday problems. Things we might have done as a matter of course when we were younger become "too much trouble." So in her post Is My Love Affair with California Over? she examines life today in the Golden State . . . and if, for her, the love affair has run its course, or if, like any other love affair, it just has its ups and downs.

     Finally, Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles, asks us: Do you feel the holiday pressure starting to kick in? Do you feel the need to get everything done on time . . . on a budget . . . with a smile? As she watched her to-do list grow ever longer -- trees, wreathes, cards, decorations, stockings, holly, cookies, gifts -- her inner Scrooge started to well up. But then, like me, she heard a song. It was an unmistakable voice, one we all remember, one that for her would Save Christmas.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

What Are We Doing?

     Sometimes I wonder: what are we doing? Everybody, it seems, is worried about climate change and global warming, the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the general level of pollution in our water and air. But nobody seems to do anything about it.

     People blame the California fires on the electric company and global warming. But still they keep building more houses in sensitive and threatened areas. Politicians propose a green new deal -- but, it seems, only to make a point, not to seriously address the issue. But meanwhile . . .

     I just drove 150 miles down I95. I spied a few Toyota Priuses and other hybrids. There were some economy cars -- the smaller Hondas, Toyotas and Chevrolets -- that might average better than 30 mpg. But by far the majority of vehicles on the road were trucks and SUVs -- vehicles like the Dodge Ram, Toyota Tundra, and the Jeeps and big Mercedes that burn up fuel and spit out exhaust at a rate of 15 mpg. It's hard to believe these people are interested in saving the planet.
     And then, do they drive at 55 mph, when the car is at its most efficient? Or even 60 or 65 mph, when it's not much less efficient? No, they speed at 70 or 75, or many of them do, when gas efficiency starts to deteriorate significantly. I guess people want to save the environment . . . unless they're in a hurry.

     Then I get to my airbnb, a condo complex on the coastline of Florida. There are 24 units in my building, and there are a dozen buildings -- for 288 units. I checked in with the manager. She handed me a copy of the rules and pointed out where the trash bins are. She didn't mentioned recycling, so I asked.

     "No, we don't recycle," she said. She gave me a guilty look. "We used to. But too many of the guests just didn't bother, and it was costing us money. So we stopped. Everything goes in the trash now."

     Again, it seems people want to save the planet. But not if it's too much trouble, or if it costs a few extra dollars.

     And when I went to the beach, guess what I saw. The sand was peppered with little pieces of plastic, in amongst the seaweed. Should we be surprised?

Can you see the little bits of green and blue plastic on the Florida beach?
     I'm certainly not setting myself up as holier than thou. I drive a car (but not an SUV). I usually recycle my paper and plastics. But on occasion I've thrown a bottle in the regular trash, especially since I've read that there's so much plastic they can't recycle it all and some of it ends up in the landfills anyway.

     We have to live in our world. But it's easy to blame PG&E or Big Oil. But who buys the oil? Who uses all the plastic? Who's responsible for our ever-increasing use of electricity? What's the old saying? We have met the enemy, and it is us.

     I remember when I was a kid. My aunt lived out in the country. She'd burn her trash and throw what wouldn't burn into the woods behind her house. This was a common practice in those days. But eventually there was just too much trash. So now even the rural residents put their garbage in the proper receptacles to be hauled away to proper disposal stations.

     We really should stop throwing paper and plastic into the ocean, and stop spewing carbons into the air. Like the people in my aunt's old neighborhood, we have to become a little more advanced in our ways. Even if we don't care about it for ourselves, we should do it for the grandchildren.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

November By Any Other Place

     So the other day I left the Northeast and traveled almost a thousand miles, just to get out of the cold. Well, lo and behold, it turns out that Florida has winter, too!

     It rained the day I got here.

     The cloud cover broke up a little bit. But still, the beach is gray and wind-swept. Maybe, no matter where you go, you can't escape November.

     Nevertheless, there's a different feel. The coast is windswept, but not cold. Damp but not frozen. Lonely, but not bitter.

     And, a surprise for me anyway, the dunes were dotted with flowers, brightening up the gloom of the darkening skies.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Shelter in Place!

     This happened just the other day. It was late afternoon, starting to get dark. I was home alone. My wife was out running errands. I noticed a cop car parked across the street, lights flashing. At first I didn't think anything of it. We occasionally have cop cars parked at our corner because it's a school crossing and the cops like to keep an eye on things.

     Then I thought, uh oh, maybe it's the woman across the street. She's elderly, pushing 90, and maybe something happened to her. But the next time I looked out the window I saw her walk onto her front porch, look around for a few seconds, then go back inside.

     A few minutes later the phone rang. I looked at caller ID (because I don't answer the phone if I don't recognize the number), and it was B. "I can't get home," she said. "The street is blocked off."

     There was a cop blocking the street, she reported. And the other entrance into our neighborhood was closed down as well.

     As we spoke on the phone I got up from my desk and peered out the window, then went around to the guest bedroom and spied out the other way. I saw cop cars, lights flashing, lined all the way down the street, starting at my house and going out toward the main road.

     "Oh, boy, something's going on," I said to her. "Maybe it's an accident? Or a medical emergency?"

     It was obvious this would take a while. We decided B would turn around and go over to Panera's and have a cup of tea.

     I hung up the phone, and about five minutes later it rang again. Caller ID said it was from the township. So I picked up the phone. And that's when I heard the recorded announcement: Due to police activity in my area, I was warned to shelter in place.

     So I called B back. She was in Panera's, and she'd had an opportunity to check in with the neighborhood women's group. The texts were flying. There was a shooter. A number of people had reported shots fired in the neighborhood. No one knew anymore than that, except my next-door neighbor was panicking because she had six neighborhood kids in her basement. They could see the lights of the cop cars out the basement windows, and knew there was a shooter on the loose.

      I checked our local news website. There were reports of gunfire coming from a house -- a house just around the corner from us. No injuries were reported. There was a young man involved. The news story claimed the incident was confined to one house.

     Next I surveyed the street as best I could, peering out from window to window. I saw a man in what looked like full combat gear sneaking around the house across the street in back of us. Down the street I saw a van with three -- no, four -- people crouched behind it for protection.

     A few minutes later an armored truck slowly rumbled down the street. It stopped. Then it started up again and moved down to the corner. The back of the truck opened and four or five fully armed men hurried out the back. They gathered on the corner, conversed with one another, checked on their radios.

     After a few minutes the men climbed back into the truck, and the truck turned the corner and continued down the street.

     I saw several other cops walking up ad down the street. A few were in combat gear, others wore blue uniforms with bullet-proof vests. The van stayed where it was, with the cops huddled behind it, surveying the area, keeping watch.

     I called B again. She'd been busy texting with her neighborhood friends. There was a young man, hyped up on drugs, who'd been shooting out the window of his house. Apparently the situation was now under control. She'd call me back as soon as she heard more.

     Sure enough, a few minutes later I saw a few of the cop cars turn and head out. B called me back. She was coming home. More cop cars left, until the street was dark. That's when I noticed that none of the houses along the street had turned on their lights. Everybody, it seems, was lying low.

     A little later a line of headlights appeared on the street. People coming home from work. They were now allowed in.

     B showed up and settled in. We had dinner. Her church activity scheduled for that evening had been canceled, due to the police activity. The school on the next block also canceled its evening program, a concert by the kids. We later read that while school had been let out before the incident occurred, there was a group of kids in an after-school program that were subject to the shelter-in-place order. The school went on lock-down.

     The news the next day summarized:  "No injuries were reported in conjunction with the incident, which unfolded just after 3:45 p.m. The police responded after reports of continuous gunfire in the area. When officers arrived a standoff situation ensued and 'numerous' shots were fired from inside the house, police said. The standoff ended just after 5:30 p.m. A 21-year-old man who lives at the home surrendered and was taken into custody."

     We don't know the young man, or the family that lives in the house. I guess we'll never know the details of the situation. But the basic problem is obvious. There was some mixture of drugs, mental illness and ready access to a gun that precipitated the crisis.

     We're always surprised when something like this happens. But we shouldn't be. We have more drugs, more mental illness and more guns than we've ever had. Shouldn't we do something about it?

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Night to Remember

     This happened to me a couple of years ago. It was sometime in November, which maybe explains why it haunts me to this day.

     It was a cloudy, overcast morning before Thanksgiving. I was still groggy from sleep, and as I drank my coffee I recalled how I had just seen my old friend Phil.

     I'd been sitting in my office at work, behind my desk, looking out through the glass wall. Someone had pasted a notice on the outside of the glass, so I stood up to see what it was. As I circled around my desk, Phil appeared at my doorway -- tall and thin with bushy black hair and a big smile. He came in as though nothing had happened. He was walking a little funny, but gave me his usual throaty laugh.

     "Phil!" I said in astonishment. "You're here!"

     "Yeah, I was just down the hall," he said, pointing outside my door. "Thought I'd come by and say hello."

     He had some papers tucked under one arm, and set them down on the corner of my desk. And that's when I noticed he was using crutches. They were metal, the kind that go halfway up your forearms.

     He caught me looking at the crutches. Then he looked me straight on, with a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, I recovered," he said, acknowledging what I knew. "I'm okay, all except my legs. They don't work too well so I have to use these crutches."

     "Wow," was all I managed to say.

     "It's not too bad," he said reassuringly.

     I still couldn't believe he was here. But his laugh was real, for sure. I looked down at the papers he had dropped on my desk. They were written in some kind of Chinese characters. "That's great, Phil," I said, trying to regain my composure, trying to be cool about it . "So what are these papers?"

     "Oh, yeah, I've got to hand these out to some people," he said. Then, seeing I was puzzled by the strange lettering, he explained, "I've been doing a lot of traveling."

     "That's good," I replied. "Where to?"

     "Well, I've got to get going," Phil said, ignoring my question. Then as he turned to leave, he dropped one of his crutches, but he kept right on going, walking out the door leaning on one crutch and turning the corner. I bent over and picked up the crutch. It was cold in my hand. Then Phil peeked back around the corner. "Oops, forgot my crutch," he chuckled.

     I took a step over toward the door and handed him the crutch. He reached out and took it, then slipped it onto his arm. He turned and hobbled out. "Good to see you," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hallway.

     So what really happened? It took place about ten years ago. Phil came over to the office. He was going to treat me to lunch. He was a few years older than I was and had taken an early retirement package from the company. But he lived nearby and often came by to see old colleagues. He'd told me he'd pick me up; he'd be happy to drive. My office was right by the front door, so that day he pulled up in his Corvette and honked. I saw him out my window, and he waved to me.

     I threw on my jacket, rushed out the door and jumped into the passenger seat. It was an old Corvette. He'd bought it for his wife on her 40th birthday. But by this time she'd gotten a new car, and he was driving the Corvette . . . for sentimental reasons, I think.

     As we headed over to the restaurant we talked about our friends and joked around about various things going on at the office. But I noticed, as he drove, that he handled the steering wheel kind of funny. Was something wrong? I wondered. I didn't say anything. He was talking like the same old Phil. How could anything be wrong?

     Again at lunch, it seemed as though he was awkward -- was there something the matter with his hands? I wasn't sure, and decided he should be the one to bring it up if he wanted to, so I kept my mouth shut. Still, I searched his eyes for some kind of recognition, trying to offer a non-verbal signal that it was okay to tell me if something was wrong. But he didn't pick up on it. His conversation, his attitude, his demeanor all said that everything was fine.

     We finished lunch and Phil dropped me back off at work, laughing and joking and promising to meet up again soon. "So long," I called to him as I closed the car door.

     "Bye bye," he waved.

     It was the next day when I heard the news. Phil was dead. He had committed suicide. He had written a note to his wife and daughter, gulped down a bottle of pills, lay down in bed and died.

     Why? What happened? Everyone wanted to know.

     Phil had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Nobody knew about it except his family. He'd been hiding it. It's a progressive, fatal disease. No cure. No way out. We could only guess what went through his mind -- that he didn't want to be the object of sympathy from his friends, that he didn't want to become a burden to his family, didn't want to subject himself to the indignities of the inevitable heartbreaking decline.

     So he'd ended it on his own terms.

     Phil, I don't know if you did the right thing. Who am I to judge? But, damn, you had a lot of courage. It's been over ten years and I still miss you. But thanks . . . thanks for coming to visit me in the night in my dreams.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ghosts Along the Delaware

     We drove over to Lambertville, NJ, across the Delaware river, because we heard that one of the neighborhoods puts on a pretty spectacular Halloween display. And since we, personally, invest more time, money and interest in the candy side of Halloween than we do in the decorations, we thought we should go see how the other half does it.

     First we took a drive up to Goat Hill and walked up to the lookout over the Delaware. We didn't see any goats, but we got a nice view looking north, and back west across the river to New Hope, PA. We felt the presence of a few ghosts from the distant past -- during the Revolutionary War both the British and the Americans used this vantage point to scout out enemy positions along the river.

     Then we headed into town and did some scouting of our own. One house featured a panoply of ghosts and goblins and witches in the front yard.

    A witch beckoned us down an alley to find more scary creatures.

     Yikes, two of them!

     One household was getting a little help with the yard work.

     Another offered a bit of glamour.

     Don't ask me what this is, but it's spooky enough, don't you think?.

     However, I do know a ghost when I see one. Anyway, may you be happy and safe for Halloween ... and get lots of candy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

May We Never Go There Again

     When people say to me, "America is more polarized and divided than it has ever been," I say to them, remember the 1960s and Vietnam, or the 1950s and McCarthyism and desegregation. Think about the 1930s and the Depression and the police shooting union strikers in the street. And think about the Civil War.

     We've been divided before. And sometimes we need reminding: We don't want to become that divided again.

     B and I made a trip to Gettysburg last weekend. B told me she'd been there as a child, but didn't remember anything about it except a pleasant memory of her father leading her around by the hand. I had never been there before at all. But now I can tell you: It's a sobering experience.

A painting of the battle

     We went on an overcast day in October, so it wasn't too crowded. It was hot and humid for those three days in July 1863, when the battle took place, but somehow when we were there it seemed appropriate that the skies were cloudy and the air hung heavy with mist.

     We were told by friends to take the personalized tour. A guide gets in your car and drives you around the battlefield. You will learn a lot more than you will going on the bus tour, they said, and it will be a lot less confusing than the self-guided tour.

     The guide took us around the battlefield, which surrounds the town of Gettysburg, roughly following the chronology of the battle.

Looking down on the town of Gettysburg from the west

     On July 1, 1963, the Confederate army, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrived from the west. They had advanced up the Shenandoah Valley, essentially hiding from the Feds behind the mountains, and then cut northeast into Pennsylvania. Some units made it as far as the Susquehannah River. The Southerners hoped that an invasion of the North would demoralize the already war-weary Union, and perhaps persuade President Lincoln to come to the negotiating table and agree to a peace treaty that would leave the Confederacy intact.

     The North's Army of the Potomac, under General George Meade, rushed up from Washington, DC, to meet the challenge. The Confederates had numerical advantage that first day and pushed the Federal troops back, chasing them through the streets of town.

     By July 2, more Federal troops had arrived, and they formed a line along the high ground that ran east and south of town, called Cemetery Ridge. The ridge was anchored on the south by a small hill called Round Top, and an even smaller hill called Little Round Top.

Round Top on the right, Little Round Top on the left

     General Lee attacked, using a flanking maneuver. One group hit the Union right side. Another moved on the Union left, trying to take Little Round Top. During intense fighting, with both sides suffering terrible losses, a contingent of Confederates got caught in Devil's Den, below Little Round Top. Hundreds were mowed down by the Union forces above them.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top

     Confederates took refuge on Seminary Hill, opposite the Union forces on Cemetery Hill. On July 3, Lee tried a flanking attack once again. When that was beaten back, he decided to risk everything on a frontal attack, right into the middle of Union lines. The Confederates spent several hours bombarding Union forces with canons, Then some 12,000 rebels advanced across the mile-wide open fields. At the center was a division led by Maj. Gen. George Picket. In an attack later known as Pickett's charge, one brigade breached Union lines. Soldiers fought with rifles and bayonets. For some it came down to hand-to-hand combat. But finally the rebels were beaten back. The Union had won.

First the Confederates used the canons, then they attacked across this field

     The next morning, July 4, Lee retreated south. General Meade followed, but failed to press the advantage, and so the Confederates were able to cross the Potomac River and head back to Virginia. The South was finished, but they didn't know it, as they still held out hopes for a peace treaty. The Civil War lasted almost two more years before General Ulysses S. Grant, who'd replaced Meade, took Richmond and forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865.

A few of the graves in the nearby National Cemetery

     Of course, we know Lincoln was assassinated just a few days later, arguably the last victim of a war that killed more than 600,000 American volunteer soldiers -- including as many as 30,000 men who died from those three days at Gettysburg.