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

Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Year in Review

     Another year over and done with. The years seem to go by faster and faster as we get older, don't they? So it's time to pause and reflect back on the important, memorable items of 2022.

     January.  For several years my wife B and I have been spending February in South Carolina. This year we decided to go early. We left on January 22. And what did we learn? South Carolina is freezing in January. We both came down with nasty colds (not Covid, we tested) but according to B our colds were especially bad because we'd been isolating due to Covid. Our immune systems were out of practice.

     February.  We spent the month in Charleston, visiting children and grandchildren. In the past, my sister would usually join us from Arizona. This year she was going to bring along her two-year-old granddaughter. But the girl was too young to get vaccinated, so my sister didn't risk the trip. B's sister did fly in for a few days. She got sick too. Aside from our own problems, Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24th. It's a terrible situation. We thought it would be over soon. But now it seems like it's going to drag on for who-knows-how long. Let's hope it doesn't escalate and involve European or American troops or, God forbid, "tactical" nuclear weapons.

     March.  When we got home we started in on our Center for Learning in Retirement. We hosted a discussion group on foreign policy and covered topics involving Asia and Latin America, as well as how changing demographics and climate change are affecting U. S. foreign policy. We had some lively and informative discussions. I remember how I used to dismiss older people as out-of-it and irrelevant. But our group has a good historical background. Some of them have lived and worked overseas. And all of them had sharp, cogent comments about the state of the world. Maybe it's not so bad to have an 80-year-old president.

     April.  Speaking of Joe Biden, a Federal judge struck down his mask mandate on airlines. A mistake, in my opinion. Also in April we found out inflation has risen to 8.5%. We're glad we already reserved our place in Charleston for next February when the price will no doubt be even higher. At this rate, how much longer will be be able to afford to go?

     May.  This month we crossed the threshold of 1 million Covid deaths. And yet . . . it's hard to find anyone wearing a mask, anywhere.  Partly because of that, we haven't been going to restaurants. But now it's getting warm enough to eat outside. I love summer!

     June.  The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 0.75%. That really doesn't affect us. We no longer have a mortgage. We paid off our car loan last year. Maybe this will mean we'll finally get some interest paid on our retirement savings accounts. In other news, Ketanji Jackson Brown was sworn in as the first black female on the Supreme Court.

     July.  Another mass shooting -- this one in Highland Park, Ill. Biden signed into law new gun-safety regulations. Do you think they will do any good?

     August.  We drove out to Madison, Wisconsin, to see my daughter and granddaughter. Madison is a university town and a "happening" place. Then we took a side trip to see the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Spring Green, WI. Author Salman Rushdie was attacked while giving a presentation at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. We spent a week at Chautauqua a few years ago. It's a great place. And I guess it goes to show that nobody needs a gun to inflict pain and suffering. At least the guy didn't shoot up the audience.

     September. We try to do an end-of-summer week or two in Cape Cod. But this year we decided instead to go to a place where the water is warm -- Charleston, SC. What we didn't count on was a hurricane. Hurricane Fiona brushed by the coast causing no rain but heavy surf. A few days later Hurricane Ian took dead aim at Charleston. We got out of there. Turned out Ian caused some flooding in the area, but nothing like what it did to Florida.

     October.  A U. S. House Committee subpoenaed Trump for documents and testimony relating to January 6, 2021. I don't know about you, but as horrible as the attack on the capitol was, I still think this investigation looks like revenge -- and it's certainly looking backwards. I wish instead that Congress could focus its efforts on bringing down inflation, on climate change, on the crisis at the border, the Federal deficit, the underfunding of Social Security and health care, and the list goes on and on. 

     November.  The election. Republicans main a few gains, but Democrats did better than expected. In other words, more gridlock, more fighting, more arguments and angst. But is that so bad?

     December. News reports say that travel has rebounded for the holidays. We just went to B's sister's house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, an hour-and-a-half drive away. My son and his girlfriend came down from New York for a day. We saw other family members on Zoom -- a technology I'd never even heard of in 2020 but now seems as simple as picking up the phone. So it's been a quiet December, at least for us, even if the world is still in turmoil.

     What did I miss? More importantly, what do you suppose 2023 will bring? 

Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Latest Thing

     Here's my Christmas list for this year:

     Large bottle of Tylenol.

     Ice pack.

     Tube of CBD cream.

     Two knee braces.

     One ankle brace.

     New pickleball racket.

     Yes, pickleball racket. A few years ago I started playing pickleball. I took a series of introductory group lessons and played a half a dozen pickup games. Then I blew out my left knee. I haven't played since -- until a few weeks ago. Now, throwing caution to the winds, I've started playing again.

My old pickleball racket
     Pickleball is the latest craze for seniors. It's a cross between table tennis (which I've played off-and-on for years) and tennis (which I played when I was younger but I was never very good). The game is played on half a tennis court, with a solid fiberglass or composite paddle and a whiffle ball, and since it's almost always played as doubles, there's only a little bit of running involved.

     If my knees hold out, I think I'll enjoy the game, meet a few people, and get some exercise. But, ultimately, it's up to my knees. And my ankle as well.

     For a guy who's pushed past 70, I'm in decent shape. I'm not overweight. Don't have heart problems. No diabetes. But I do suffer from arthritis. I have chronic arthritis in my ankle and both knees, due primarily to old injuries. I have arthritis in my back, due to sitting behind a desk for 40 years.

     I also blame my parents for the bad bones. My dad dealt with back pain for as long as I can remember, and my mother got osteoporosis later in life. I don't know how much arthritis is hereditary. But both my sisters also have bone issues. One has had surgery on her foot and her shoulder. The other has had both knees replaced.

     I have not gone under the knife myself -- although I've considered it, and may yet get to that point. Instead, over the years I've been through several rounds of physical therapy, and to this day I do stretching exercises every night for my back, my knees, my ankle.

     I've had cortisone shots in my knees. Then in September I went through a round of prednisone. I don't know if you've taken prednisone, but that stuff must be dangerous. The doctors didn't prescribe it lightly, and the list of side effects is a long as my arm. But I took it for six days and experienced no side effects -- and it worked its magic on me.

     Still, now before I play pickleball, I take a couple of Advil or Tylenol. After I get home I ice my knees. Sometimes I rub some CBD ointment on my knee and ankle. I think that helps a little. But it's hard to tell. It might just be the placebo effect.

     I'm always wondering if there's anything I can do to slow down arthritis, to keep the pain down. There's a lot of advice about diet. The problem is that none of it is conclusive.

     Everyone agrees that eating plenty of vegetables, especially broccoli and cauliflower and spinach, is good for arthritis, as well as virtually every other health issue we have. We're supposed to consume lots of fiber, and restrict intake of salt and sugar. People disagree about milk and milk products -- although no one thinks eating a lot of cheese is a good idea. But that may be as much for the salt content as its milk content.

     The truth of the matter is that you can't eat your way out of arthritis. There's no real "cure." Pain killers might help. Surgery can be useful for severe cases. But for most of us the best medicine is exercise -- stretching for sure, as well as light-to-moderate, low-impact movement like swimming, walking, biking. And, hopefully, pickleball.

     I did ask my doctor if playing pickleball is okay. His basic response was that the best thing to do is keep moving. So do anything, as long as it doesn't hurt -- although he did tell me not to run long distances (no danger of that!). He recommended biking and swimming because they are low impact and they build strength. But he said, don't buy a bike and then never use it. Do some exercise that you will actually do.

     So it's pickleball for me. I just hope that, uh, I'm being careful what I wish for. 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Top of the Heap

     I consider myself a reader. I wasn't always that way. I remember as a kid, my dad and my teachers tried to get me to read books all the time. I read what I had to in middle and high school. But truthfully, I'd always rather be outside playing with friends.

     I became a reader in college -- after all, I majored in English literature. But I think what turned the corner for me was being able to read outside. I remember those bracing fall days and soft spring afternoons, sitting on the stoop of a college building, reading through Hardy and Hemingway, Wordsworth and Yeats, as well as non-fiction writers like Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill.

     I've been reading a lot ever since, but never more than now. 

     Before Covid, I used to say I read a book a week. But I really didn't. I keep a log. Before 2020, I would top out between 45 and 50 a year. But when I was stuck at home with the pandemic, my count went up to about 60 a year. Now that Covid is largely over -- or ignored -- I am getting out more, but still somehow reading more books. Right now I'm on my 63rd book of the year.

     But of course, the other side of the equation is that I'm always looking for good books to read. So if you have any suggestions . . . 

     Meanwhile, I thought I would be in a position to recommend some books. So here are my Top Ten of the year (with publication dates so you know how old they are). Disclosure: I tend to read mysteries and histories. My wife reads a lot of memoirs, self-help books and pop psychology. So if you want that, you'll have to ask her.

     Here's my countdown:

     10. The Order by Daniel Silva (2020). Archbishop Luigi Donati is summoned to the Vatican. The pope has been found dead. Donati calls friend Gabriel Allon (longtime Silva character), a top Israeli spy vacationing in Venice. They suspect the pope has been murdered by a secret right-wing group, the Order of St. Helena, so it could take over the Catholic church. Several people are killed before Donati confronts the papal conclave, just in time and with remarkable results. It's a thriller alright, but pretty far-fetched.

     9. The Woman in the Library by Sulari Genrill (2022). Australian writer offers a clever mystery focusing on four young Bostonians -- Freddie, Cain, Whit and Marigold -- who become fast friends when they hear a woman scream in the library. The woman is found dead. A homeless man -- friend of Cain's -- is knifed to death. Whit gets stabbed. His mother is attacked. Who's the culprit? Is it Cain the ex-con? Too obvious. One of the other three? Or Freddie's neighbor who writes creepy letters? Some might find the novel manipulative, but it's still a great read. 

     8. In the Morning I'll Be Gone by Adrian McGinty (2019). Irish detective Sean Duffy is a Catholic working for the RUC of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. Duffy is trying to track down IRA terrorist Dermot McCann who's planning a major strike. But no one will talk ... until Duffy finds Mary Fitzpatrick, Dermot's mother-in-law, who will turn him in if Duffy solves the murder of her daughter. It's a clever plot that ultimately leads to a shootout in front of Margaret Thatcher's hotel. The story is well-crafted, and Duffy a sympathetic and believable detective.

     7. The Maid by Nita Prose (2022). A mystery narrated by simple hotel maid Molly Gray, who is presumably "on the spectrum." She finds the body of wealthy businessman, Mr. Black, in his hotel room. But what else did she see? And can you believe it? It's clever, to be sure, but sometimes reads like a fairy tale.

     6. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (2011). Book No 8 of 14 in the excellent Bernie Gunther series, loosely based on the real-life assassination of Reinhold Heydrich in May 1942. Heydrich summons Gunther to Prague to flush out a possible assassin. When Heydrich's adjutant Albert Kuttner is found dead in a locked room, Gunther has to solve the case ... or else. Complications arise as Gunther unmasks the murderer and the real point of the investigation is revealed. Nobody does it like the cynical but honest-to-a-fault Bernie Gunther, and nobody writes like Philip Kerr who left us too early in 2018 at age 62.

     5. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World by John Man (2014). Retells and analyzes the famous late-1200s trip to China made by Marco Polo, along with father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo. The trio spent over 20 years trekking across Asia, and at the behest of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) traveled extensively around China. After Marco returned to Venice he was captured in a sea battle against Genoa, and while in prison he dictated his adventures to a friend. He tells some fantastic tales, and according to Man some of them are actually true. Fascinating book opens your eyes to Asian geography and history.

     4. A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner (2015) An updated and shortened (350 pgs. instead of 650 pgs.) version of his original book chronicles the path of reconstruction from 1863 - 1877. There was some progress, he concludes, in the development of black citizenship and changes in worker relationships, but ultimately Reconstruction was a failure because of resistance from the Democrats, factionalism among Republicans, weak cotton markets, the depression of the 1870s, and KKK violence. The book, honestly, is not an easy-to-read narrative like we get from Erik Larson or Candace Millard. It's more analytic and legalistic. Still, a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the era.

     3. The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian (2022). I'm a Chris Bohjalian fan, so I love his novels. In this latest book it's 1964 and movie star Katie Batstow is leading a group of Hollywood types on a photo safari in the Serengeti. They're ambushed by a gang of Russian mercenaries and held captive. There are fistfights, gunfights, animals attacks. Several people die. It's all told through the different characters, which I found a little awkward, but it's still a rip-roaring tale of intrigue and adventure.

     2. River of the Gods by Candace Millard (2022). One of my favorite history writers takes on the search for the Nile. She does a good job, especially in giving us a taste of the age of exploration in the 19th century. But the material lets her down a little as our hero, rebellious Englishman Richard Burton, is upstaged by second-in-command John Speke who stole the glory by reaching Nyanza, aka Lake Victoria, and connecting to the Nile. Only in the epilogue does Millard tell us what we've wondered all along: a British explorer in 2006 traced the actual source to Nyanza's largest feeder the Kagera River, now considered the most remote headwater of the Nile.

     1. Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones (2021) If you think you live in a brutal world now, take a look at the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome in the 400s to the Black Death of the 1300s, and beyond to the conquering of the new worlds in the 1500s. This is a very readable, accessible account of a thousand years of history (as opposed to some of his other books which focus in great detail on specific eras). I'd recommend to all amateur historians.

                                        Honorable Mentions:

     Too many to ... uh, mention. There's Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen's latest novel from 2021. Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook, an interesting look at 17th century history. The Men Who United the States by one of my favorite history writers Simon Winchester. Bewilderment a 2021 "sciencey" novel by Richard Powers, The Current, an interesting Midwestern mystery by Tim Johnston, The Thin Light of Freedom by historian Edward L. Ayers about the end of the Civil War.

     One more thing. I asked for Michael Connelly's new book Desert Star for Christmas. That'll surely be on my best-of list for 2023!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Tooth of the Matter

      When I was younger, living in New York, I had a good dentist. He had a terrible bedside manner -- he was gruff, he scowled, he was almost scary-looking -- but he knew his stuff. He kept my teeth bright and shiny for 25 years.

     Then he retired.

     After that, I had trouble finding a decent dentist. I got one who messed up my root canal. Didn't go back to him. I tried another who charged a lot of money, but the cavity she filled fell apart in less than a year.

     After I left work I found a dental office that was "in network" of my new dental insurance (Delta Dental through AARP). I liked the dentist; she seemed both caring and competent. But she always seemed like she was bring rushed. I felt that the office was pushing her to treat as many patients as possible as fast as she possibly could.

     I finally got a good dentist, recommended by a neighbor. I googled him. He went to Columbia University dental school and was voted one of the "Hudson Valley's Top Dentists". That seemed like good credentials. He was not in my network, but he still ended up charging me the discounted insurance rate, which meant he was affordable. He took care of my teeth, filled a few cavities, made sure everything was clean and up-top-date. 

     And then I moved.

     When I landed in Pennsylvania I found a good dentist, right in my own town. He'd trained at the University of Pennsylvania dental school and was voted a Philadelphia Top Dentist. He had a great staff that gave me all kinds of tips about flossing (every day), mouthwash (with fluoride but without alcohol), brushing my teeth (always use a soft brush), and recommended the mini-picks which I still use almost every night, just to make sure those pearly whites are as clean as can be.

     And then this dentist retired!

     I tried the dental office that advertises at our local movie theater. Didn't like them. 

     Then a friend recommended a dentist a few miles away. "But worth the trip," she assured me. I googled him, and he too, had trained at the University of Pennsylvania and was voted a Philadelphia Top Dentist. One problem: He didn't take insurance. So he was expensive.

     He had all the latest computerized equipment; he took lots of x-rays; he was short with his staff, almost rude . . . making me think that he had exacting standards. He was confident, perhaps even overconfident. 

     But then one of my crowns fell out. He said he could put it back, and he did. But ever since, it's seemed a little crooked to me, and the gum above it sometimes feels chafed. Later, he replaced a different crown. It was never right. It hurt for a long time -- about a year before it finally settled down. And even today there must be something wrong with it. It catches food all the time. I have to floss after every meal.

     So now I have yet another dentist. She's shockingly young . . . at 28, almost a decade younger than my daughter. She went to Temple University dental school, graduating just two years ago. She's not on anyone's Top Dentist list.

     But on my first visit she seemed very caring, very thorough. She found one cavity. The tooth already had a large filling, so she said I needed a crown. I went back to her last week for the drilling, and she fitted me with a temporary crown. I'll get the permanent crown in a couple of weeks.

     I hope she knows what she's doing. Wish me luck.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

How to Live a Long Healthy Life

      Many of us say we don't care how long we live, only that we live well while we're around. But the two are intertwined. Those of us who are healthy and feel good are likely to live longer.

     So how do we stay healthy? I wish I had the answer. There probably isn't just one thing, but a package of habits and activities that, put together, help us get out of bed in the morning and keep us moving and living.

     Here are some ideas . . . and how I measure up. How do you measure up? More importantly, do you have any other suggestions? Because I'm always looking for suggestions about how to feel healthier and have a better attitude.

     1.  Get a good night sleep. Eight hours are recommended. Check . . . I'm a good sleeper.

     2.  Eat three healthy meals a day. I start eating breakfast about 7:30, and usually string it out until noon. Is that one meal or two? Then we have dinner around 6:30. Occasionally I have an afternoon snack that, um, sometimes involves potato chips.

     3.  Eat lots of fish, not too much meat. Check.

     4.  Don't eat too many carbs. Unfortunately, I live on carbs.

     5.  Exercise on a regular basis. I exercise on a non-regular basis. Should do more.

Can you touch your toes?

     6.  Drink plenty of water. I should drink more.

     7.  Don't smoke or drink too much alcohol. Haven't done that in years.

     8.  Have a positive attitude. Most of the time.

     9.  Have a good intimate relationship with another person. Yes.

    10.  Laugh a lot. No problem, I laugh at my own jokes!

    11.  Cultivate a few good friends. I don't have really good friends. I have several groups of casual friends.

    12.  Have a purpose in life. Sometimes I think I do; sometimes I wonder.

    13.  Have good genes. My mother lived to 89, my dad to 91. That's pretty good. But not as good as B. Her mother lived to 103.

    14.  Avoid negative, toxic people. But what if they're part of the family?

    15.  Get your regular medical check-ups. Yes, I do that . . . and, with all the vaccinations, have the sore arm to prove it.

     Now it's your turn. Any confessions? Any suggestions? Thanks!