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

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Opportunity Knocks

     This past week I started up my volunteer jobs again, after several months of doing almost nothing. I volunteer as a tutor with our local literacy group, and as an instructor at our senior learning center.

     I haven't done much tutoring for almost a year. Last spring the semester was cut short in March. There was a fall semester, but I was just a fill-in. Now I've been assigned to a regular tutoring schedule, and will be working on Zoom once a week for the spring.

     The last senior learning class I did was the first week in December. Now, starting next week, we'll be in full session. I host three classes, and take two others as a student.

     So after months of drifting through the days without much to do, I'll finally be engaged with other people. I'll finally feel like I'm doing something worthwhile -- beyond just killing time by doing crossword puzzles, watching Netflix, and reorganizing the house.

     My wife B also volunteers at the learning center. But she focuses more on organizations that help feed and clothe disadvantaged people. I think that's important, and I'm glad that she does it. But it's not my thing. I'd much rather help people learn -- on the theory that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime. But I'll be honest. I'm a little selfish. I get bored dishing out meals. I like tutoring and instructing. So that's what I do. That's a great thing about volunteering: there are lots of different opportunities.

     It's not hard to find a volunteer job. In fact, once you do, people usually try to get you to do more. I started out teaching one senior class. Now I'm involved in three.

Our senior learning center

     You don't need any special skills or knowledge. You can collect clothes or pack lunches or drive people to appointments. But if you do have a skill, it's all to the better. We have a couple of computer experts who lend their expertise to our learning center. We have retired teachers who spearhead our ESL program.

     I majored in English in college, so I don't have much of a specialty. I don't teach a history course or computer workshop. I lead discussion groups, since discussion -- aka shooting the breeze -- seems to be the only thing I can do. I'm living proof that you don't need a real skill, or have to be particularly gifted, in order to help out people in your community.

     All you really need is an interest in something ... anything. You have to be sufficiently motivated to do some work and not get paid for it. But if you find some position that engages you, then it makes it worthwhile.

     I guess you need to have a desire to help other people. But by volunteering you also begin to realize that by helping others you are also helping yourself. You learn things; you meet people in the community; you get a feeling of accomplishment.

     You do have to be dependable. If you set up a class or a meeting, you have to show up on time to host it. It helps to have some common sense. As a volunteer you often do not get a lot of supervision or direction. You have to make some decisions on the fly ... you're doing what's right, not what the bureaucratic rulebook says. One exception: I was told never to meet with anybody one-on-one outside official channels, to avoid any possibility of bad behavior or false accusations.

     Most volunteer jobs involve other people, so it doesn't help if you're angry or cynical or determined to foist your opinions on other people. Volunteering is not about you. It's about others.

     You might also have to have some patience. Some of the people I've tutored have missed class or shown up late or didn't do their homework. You have to realize that it's not because they're lazy or unmotivated. It's because they had to work late, or their car broke down, or one of their kids got sick. People really do have other responsibilities, other pressures.

     Finally, it helps to have a little humility. Several people in my senior learning classes have more advanced degrees than I do. Some of the people I tutor are smarter than I am. They just didn't have the opportunity to go to school. I'm reminded of the 40-year-old guy who could barely read, and couldn't write a decent sentence. Then I found out he had started and was managing a successful auto-body shop -- something I could never do -- and was now taking classes because he felt it was finally time to get his GED.

     Maybe that's the real reason why we volunteer -- to discover that there's a whole other world out there.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Lose Weight the Natural Way

     Have you gained a few pounds over the holidays? Or put on the so-called Covid 15? Need to go on a diet? You've come to the right place, because I am an expert. I have been on no less than 21 diets in my life. Every single one was an unqualified success. On my diets I have lost anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds.

     I've written about dieting before (see How to Get Fat). The only thing I can't explain is why I now weigh 20 pounds more than I did when I went on my first diet in the mid-1970s, when I gained a few pounds after I got married.

     While I am an expert on dieting, I want to assure everyone that I do not condone fat shaming. Why? Because it's not your fault! It's your spouse's fault (see above). It's your parents' fault. There may be too many fast-food places in your neighborhood, or you have poor impulse control due to an overactive pituitary.

    I've been around long enough to see the Atkins Diet, the Gluten Free diet, the South Beach diet, the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet, and a hundred others. Most don't work. But mine does. Why? Because with my diet you can have as much food as you want, and do whatever you want with it -- except eat it. Just follow these simple strategies:

     Honest Spillage. I got the idea for this diet one evening during dinner when I dropped some spaghetti sauce off my fork. I looked down. Oops, there it was on my sleeve. Then I looked more closely at my shirt and noticed a bit of egg from breakfast that had somehow found its way onto my collar. There was another stain on my pants . . . maybe from the French fries last night. The dietary lesson? If you spill, drop or otherwise lose 5 to 10 percent of your meal, you have cut your calorie intake by that same 5 to 10 percent!

     The leftover corollary: Be more discriminating with leftovers. I swear, B (who is thinner than I am, but how she does it I'll never know) will eat a plate of food that's been moldering in the refrigerator for a full week. And she eats leftover pizza. Leftover pizza! Yuck!  Just . . . don't . . .  go . . . there.

     Serious competition. I grew up as the youngest in a family of four kids. I had some serious competition for the mashed potatoes, not so much for the cauliflower. So I developed a taste for the vegetables that nobody else wanted.

     Later on, I would watch families eating in a restaurant. The kids would order a meal, eat about half of it, and leave the rest scattered around the table. Then the dad would go to work scooping up the leftover mashed potatoes and hunks of meat. This seemed like a good deal . . . for the dad. So after I got married I talked to my wife, and we agreed to have kids. The result? Sure, I gained a little weight. But my kids never got fat.

     The dessert corollary: B and I go out to dinner. Do you want any dessert? asks the waiter. Yeah, I'll have a piece of chocolate cake, says I. Oh, nothing for me, B demurs, just an extra fork. Well, you can see where this is going. I order dessert, B eats the lion's share of it. And I retain my thin, youthful appearance.

     Inedible meals. I recall several incidents when B and I have gone to a fancy restaurant. She would goad me into trying something new and exotic from the menu -- usually something I couldn't pronounce -- and I would feel very sophisticated, until the meal actually arrived and I would discover that the meat came from some unmentionable part of an animal's body ... and smelled like it too. I'd go home with an empty wallet -- and no bloated feeling since I'd consumed less than a hundred calories.

Doesn't hurt you if you don't eat it
     Similarly, B has a couple of favorite dishes she likes to cook. The other night she fried up some sausage (okay so far), but then in another pan she made broccoli rabe, which is like spinach, only worse. Then she throws it all together with little curly pasta that's impossible to fork up from the plate. So the stuff tastes awful, but even if you did want to eat it, you can't possibly transport it from the plate to your mouth. Sure, I go to bed hungry, but who cares if you're hungry when you're asleep?

     The European corollary: Go to France (as I once did). You won't believe what they try to get you to eat over there! No wonder French women are so thin!

     Play with your food. I got this technique from my daughter. Back when she was a teenager and experimenting with veganism, she would lift her chicken breast off the plate, let it hang there dripping over the table, and then start waving it around, complaining in a pained and exasperated voice: How can you ask me to eat dead animals? That's so gross!

     Of course, this kind of behavior, expected from a teenager, is not really acceptable for a grown man. So I use another technique, also inspired by my kids. When they were young, they could never sit still through an entire meal. It was up to me to entertain them -- push away from the table, walk them around, find something else for them to do for a little while.

     So now, many years later, I find that I, myself, can no longer sit through an entire meal either. To this day, halfway through a meal, I find myself getting up from the table and taking a little walk around the house. I come back. The table is cleared. Hey, I wasn't finished with my supper! It's too late. The dishes are cleared. Oh well, I realize, I wasn't hungry anymore, anyway.

     The chopstick corollary: Order Chinese food ... with chopsticks. You can never get fat as long as you're fumbling with these little sticks that are completely unsuitable for the task at hand.

     The seafood addendum:  Order lobster, mussels or clams for dinner. You actually use up more calories fighting for the food than you take in by eating it. This addendum also applies to a few fruits and vegetables, such as grapefruits, artichokes, or pretty much anything in a salad.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Is Longevity in Your Future?

       The world is awash in studies on longevity. Perhaps the most famous are those from Dan Buettner who identified several "Blue Zones" around the globe -- in places like Japan, Greece, Italy -- which boast unusually high numbers of centenarians. Buettner credits the longevity of these people to moderate exercise, healthy social connections, strong family ties, and mostly vegetarian diets with a moderate amount of alcohol.

     But what about here in the United States? I ran across a 2020 study from Washington State University that analyzed the elderly in the state of Washington. The researchers identified a number of factors associated with longevity -- and a few that aren't. Their conclusions were derived from a somewhat narrow study of 144,000 people, age 75 and older, in just one state. But it's reasonable to think that the results apply to the rest of us as well.

     Less than 2% of us reach the ripe old age of 100. However, because of advances in medicine and public health, the number of centenarians is projected to increase dramatically, from less than a million today to an estimated 3.7 million in 2050. Still, social and environmental factors -- not the latest surgical techniques -- are the main determinants of healthy aging, which is defined as "the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age."

     So here's what the Washington researchers found:

     Race and gender. Women are more likely than men to live to see 100. White people are more likely to reach 100 than African Americans. However, Hispanics and Asians have lower mortality rates compared to both African Americans and white Americans at all ages, and thus have the best chance to cross the centenarian goal line.

     Neighborhood. Living in a walkable neighborhood has "a strong positive correlation" with the likelihood of living to 100. Walking, a healthy activity in itself, is associated with lower body mass index and other measures of health. But also, people in walkable neighborhoods typically have access to public transit, medical facilities, healthy food and other helpful goods and services.

   Education. Previous studies have linked higher levels of education with better health and lower mortality. But this study actually found the opposite: "education was found to be negatively associated with becoming a centenarian." The authors speculate that the finding may apply specifically to the older population they were studying. In other words, it's possible a higher education increases your chances of making to age 75 -- because of better employment opportunities and a healthier lifestyle associated with higher socioeconomic status (such as not smoking, better diet, less risky behavior). But if you've already made it to 75, then education doesn't seem to matter anymore.

     Marital status.  Compared to married older adults, those who never married or were widowed, divorced or separated were more likely to become centenarians. This also flies in the face of some previous research which has identified a "marriage protection" for older people due to greater social connectedness, less self-destructive behavior, and the healthier habits generally found in married people. But this study found that the marriage protection seems less relevant among older people. Why? They may have became widowed earlier in life; hence stress associated with the trauma is long gone. The study also included more women, who suffer less negative effects from the break-up of a marriage than men. Additionally, some people still married may be experiencing a strained relationship which can take its own toll on health.

     Socioeconomic status. People who live in middle and upper middle-class areas are more likely to reach age 100 than those who live in poor areas. A higher income is associated with all kinds of advantages, including closer and stronger social connections, as well as healthier lifestyle choices and better access to medical facilities, parks and recreational activities and many other social services. 

     Population. The study found clusters of healthy older people in urban, higher socioeconomic areas, but very few centenarians in rural areas of the state. The researchers concluded that these communities, with more younger working people, enjoyed more government support, greater availability of community organizations, better access to transportation and health care services -- all factors that separately influence longevity and the chance of become a centenarian. 

     What does all this mean for us? Many of the factors that determine our longevity, such as race and gender, are beyond our control. But lifestyle matters a lot. We can exercise more, eat healthier diets, develop stronger social connections -- not so much to improve our chances to live to 100, but more to support "the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age."

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Questions to Ask Yourself

     At the beginning of the year we tend to assess our lives, wonder about the future. I think it's especially true this year, since we've all been sitting around the house with not enough to do, and too much time to think.

     So here are some questions to ask for 2021:

     What am I most excited about, right now? It is your grandkids, your volunteer job, your future travel plans? Of course, we can be interested in more than one thing, and we shouldn't feel that we're slighting one aspect of our lives just because we're focusing on another. But if your volunteer work seems like a drag, but your grands light up your life -- or visa versa -- don't feel guilty spending time on what you love.

     What's the best thing that happened in 2020? It's easy to focus on the negative. But surely all of us have at least something we did in 2020 that we loved -- and want to do again. For me, it's our February trip to South Carolina. Can't wait to go back!

     What are we most looking forward to in 2021? Probably first and foremost we want the pandemic to end -- to get our vaccination and resume somewhat normal life. But once normal life does begin, what's at the top of your list? Even before South Carolina I want to go see my new grandchild in Wisconsin. We were scheduled to make the trip last summer, but we canceled due to fear of exposure. Hopefully by this summer we'll feel safe enough to make the trip.

     What can I do for fun? I just read a memoir by a hard-drinking Irishman. He had a lot of fun in his youth. We all did. But what fun can we have at this age? Well, some of us, like my brother-in-law, still like to pop into the local bar for a drink and some camaraderie. But he lives in Florida with outdoor service even in January. As for me, it's table tennis. Alas, we're not playing anymore since Covid hit. But I'm hoping we can get our club back together this year -- outdoors for the summer if we have to.

     What is the most important charitable cause I can support? Some of us give time, some give money. And we each have our own focus. B is involved with our local Opportunity Council and other organizations providing food to the hungry. I focus on education, based on the old idea that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime. But there is no right or wrong way to go about helping others. We each have a role to play.

     What should other people know about me? Many people used to be defined by their job -- they were a lawyer, a teacher, a housewife, a dentist. Now many retirees feel that nobody knows who they are, or pays attention to them. That's why we need to define ourselves in retirement -- by highlighting what's important to us, who our friends are, what we spend our time on. So in my town, I'm the guy with the Center for Learning in Retirement. I do lots of other things -- I'm a volunteer tutor, I play golf and table tennis -- but mostly I'm the man to call for CLR. So . . . who are you in your community? 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

What's Your Favorite Decade?

     We've all been around for a while, most of us since the 1950s, some of us from the 1940s. Times have certainly changed, for the country and the world -- and for ourselves as well.

     I need to credit Apache Dug for the idea of this post. He recently wrote a post on Bob Newhart and along the way mentioned that he loves the 1970s, or more precisely he said, "for me, the '70s are gold."

     Personally, the '70s was not my favorite decade. Okay, there were some great TV shows like All in the Family and Roots . . . and Bob Newhart. But otherwise, honestly, there was also Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines . . . bellbottoms and bad music.

     So my question is: If you had to pick a favorite decade in your lifetime, which one would it be?  I  know, I know, we're probably supposed to say our favorite decade is one that's yet to come, the 2020s. But c'mon. For us? Realistically? Besides, the decade hasn't exactly started out so well.

     So looking back, we've all seen some good times and bad times. I sometimes think that the best time in my own life was when I was in junior high (now known as middle school ... don't ask me why they changed the name). I remember those days fondly. I had a great group of friends. My family lived in a nice house in a great neighborhood. I even got my first girlfriend. They were innocent times for me, before my brother got sick, before we had to move to a new town where I didn't know anyone, before I felt the slings and arrows of high school.

     But my favorite decade, I think, was the 1990s. I was doing well at work, getting promotions and making good money. My wife and I were getting along (we got divorced in the following decade). We had a nice house, and I worked close to home, so I didn't have a long commute and I was able to watch my kids grow up -- I went to a lot of their swim meets, tennis matches, school concerts, class plays. 

     The world was also safe in the 1990s. The Cold War was over; freedom rang out in Europe. There was peace at home. There was no violence in the streets (a few exceptions like Rodney King, but nothing like the '60s, or 2020 for that matter). There was relative peace in the world (with a few exceptions like Bosnia, but even Afghanistan was relatively quiet).

     I recently read that the last time the polls showed a majority of Americans thought our country was "headed in the right direction" was in the 1990s -- for several years under President Clinton. Since then the only time a majority thought things were going right was for a brief time under President Bush after 9/11. Ever after, it's all been all downhill.

     Back in the 1990s people seemed more civilized, less polarized. They weren't as nasty and hateful. Or so it seems to me anyway. And then there's the capper. The '70s had Newhart, true. But the '90s had Seinfeld. As well as The X-Files, The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, the list goes on. And movies like Fargo, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park.

     One last thing. Today in 2021 we pay $148.50 a month for Medicare Part B. Back in 1991 the Part B monthly premium was a $29.90. Wouldn't you like to pay $29.90 again? So if the 2020s turn out anything like the 1990s, I'd be okay with that!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Silver Linings

     Covid has brought mostly bad news. Sickness, death, unemployment, confinement, loneliness. But there have been a few silver linings. For example, according to one estimate, global greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.4 billion tons in 2020, for a 7% reduction. 

     Something else:  animal shelters reported that the pandemic created new demand for dogs and cats as more people stayed home. One national animal rescue operation said that shelter intake was down 24% compared to 2019.

     Perhaps there are some other positive things that come out of the year 2020. Can you think of any?

     On a personal level, too, it's been a tough year. We've been shut in. We have friends and relatives who've gotten sick. We know people who've lost their jobs.

     B asked me if there are any activities or habits I've developed in response to Covid that I might want to carry over into my post-Covid world. Am I anxious to get back to my old life, just as it was, or is there anything I've started doing that I want to continue in my new life?

     My first reaction was: No, nothing. I want to get out of the house. I want to go see friends, play ping pong, go dancing, attend our senior classes in person. I want to go out to the movies, and most of all I want to travel --  visit friends and family, go someplace warm in the winter, or just experience a different environment or take part in different activities.

     But then I thought, there is one thing I'd like to keep doing. We've been Zooming fairly regularly with far-flung family. I used to talk to my sister in Phoenix about once a month, my sister in Florida about twice a year. Now we've scheduled a Zoom meeting every other Thursday. We're getting together more now than ever!

     Before Covid, I hardly ever talked with my kids, because they live far away and lead busy lives. It was always hard to get them on the phone. But now their lives have slowed down as well, and they have time to talk to their old man. So we've been Zooming on a regular basis, getting the family together. We have a new granddaughter. She lives a thousand miles away. But we see her once every two weeks. We saw her new teeth; we saw her start to crawl; now she's beginning to walk. She likes to wave and stick her tongue out at us.

     B has a large family spread out, literally, coast to coast from Seattle to Boston. I don't know the last time they all got together in person. But now they've held several family reunions on Zoom -- all six of them plus spouses and a few children.

     So in turn, I asked B what she hoped to hold over from Covid. She agreed she wants to keep up our Zoom meetings. Then she said that she's actually been enjoying the slower pace of life, the more relaxed lifestyle. She can watch TV without feeling guilty. She can have a cup of tea in the afternoon. She can sit and read a book . . . in the middle of the day!

     Don't get me wrong. I'm am fed up with Covid. I feel like I've been running a marathon, and now I've hit the wall. I hope they can make the vaccines available soon . . . for us, maybe sometime in February?

     I just hope, after it's all over and Covid is nothing but a memory, that we'll continue to see our friends and family on a regular basis. I want to be there when my granddaughter starts to talk!