Saturday, October 29, 2011

Letting Go Is The Hard Part

We are starting to clean out my parents' house after my father's death and my mother moving out to assisted living.  Going through things trying to figure out what to keep and what to throw is an emotionally exhausting experience.  Disposing of things that my parents were attached to involves a guilt trip down memory lane.

My cousin went through the similar cleaning out process a couple of years ago.  I helped him relocate his mother.  His mother had already lost her husband and her three older sons (I call my cousin Private Ryan) so she had lots of stuff with emotional attachments.  He said she kept asking him:  "How can we possibly throw THAT away.  His repeated reply was:  "It's easy, Ma.  You pick it up;  Hold it over the trash can; and let go."

Yup, sounds easy.  Pick it up.  Hold it over the trash can.  And just let go. 

Letting go is the hard part.

Each object tugs at the heart.  A material object shouldn't have that much meaning:  It's just a book, a table, a chair, a mirror, a tool, a hat, a ticket, a painting, a marked up calendar.  But we remember them using it, making it maybe, treasuring it.  It connects us to them, the memories, the events, our childhood, the things they did, the way they lived, the things that in part made them who they were.  It was a book they read, maybe even read to us.  It is a tool they used to make things for us.  It is the table we sat around with them.  It is the mirror she got as a wedding present.  It is the ticket to that big event in their lives that they talked about for so many years afterwards.  It is hard to let go of the objects that connect to those memories.

There's also the feeling that this stuff doesn't belong to me.  It isn't mine.  It's theirs.  They wanted it.  They kept it.  It feels like I am messing with someone else's personal and private possessions.  Part of the problem is coming to terms with the reality that they are no longer there.  My father is gone.  My mother is alive, but has moved;  moved out; perhaps moved on. Neither of them, in different ways, could take it with them. The stuff is no longer theirs. They had to let go of it.  So so do we.  Letting go is hard.

It is not just my own mementos I am disposing of:  It is my parents' mementos, or their parents', or even their grandparents'.  Some of those of course are truly precious and will be saved.  But there are so many more than can possibly be saved, that we just HAVE to get rid of.  We can only hold onto a few things.  Most of it, we just have to let go of.

To some extent letting go of the objects means letting go of the people.  Sure, people are more than their possessions, but they cannot be entirely separated from the objects they spent a great deal of their lives working for, working with, creating, accumulating and caring about:  Their collections, their hobbies, the home they built, not only figuratively, but half the house my father indeed literally built, by himself.  The plants they so carefully tended and nurtured.  The things they used.  The way they lived. It means recognizing that is all over.  Gone.  Done with.  Finished.  They don't need them any more, because they are not there any more.  That is hard to accept.  Hard to let go of.

We learn early on that honoring our parents means doing what they have taught us to do, even if they are not there to supervise us directly.  Our "conscience" is really just the conditioning they give us that makes us feel what is right and wrong without them having to tell us.  We know what they would say; what they would do; what they valued. To devalue what they valued means letting go of some of that conditioning.  It means consciously doing what we know they would not, did not, could not do.  It requires going against a part of the way they lived and how they trained us.

Letting go involves recognizing that we are not our parents.  We do not live their lives.  What they valued was what was a part of their lives.  Although much of them lives on in us, the possessions that were important to their lives are not what is important to our lives.  Our lives are different.  Times change.  Needs change.  Places change.  People change.  The things we need now are not the same things they needed then.  The lives they lived are past.  We have to let go.

It is not just about letting go of the objects, but about coming to terms with the reality that dead or alive, that part of their lives, and that part of our lives, is over.  Those possessions that used to be important to them are no longer important to them.  They did let go of that stuff, in one way or another, but left it where it was.  Now, we have to pick it up, carry it out, and let go of it.  Letting go is the hard part.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Father Could Do Anything

My father was a do-it-himself-er.  I don't mean that in sense that he did some handyman hobby projects - he did everything himself.  Whatever it was he wanted to do, he did it, himself.  I grew up thinking he could do pretty much anything.  I still think so.  There wasn't much he put his mind to that he couldn't figure out on his own.

He died sometime Friday.  He was 93, going on 94, still driving, still working around the house, still trying to keep up the house and yard, still resisting help to the end.  He had been diagnosed by a surgeon with multiple aortic aneurysms recently, but that merely confirmed the diagnosis he himself had made some years before. The doctor needed a CAT scan to verify what my dad had deduced on his own.   He resisted going to the doctor because "they would just want to operate, put me in the hospital, and I'd die there."  I actually respected his opinion on that. He was such an independent person I just could not see him enduring the indignity and surrender of independence involved in going into the hospital and probably subsequent nursing home.  He did finally go to the doctor only because of the pain he was in.

Although he had only a community college two year education, about the time I was in the expensive University my dad had saved to send me to, he decided he should get an engineering license and started studying at home on his own.  Before I graduated, he had passed the state exams and was a registered mechanical engineer.  A lot of university graduates have trouble passing those exams.

Until recently when he was in such poor health that he just physically couldn't do it any more, he did all of his own auto repair work.  I  even remember him doing automatic transmission repair.

When I was young, he got into radio and television repair, back when it was vacuum tubes and stuff like that.  He had a bunch of antique radios he had fixed.

He built his own grand piano.  Well, not a whole piano, just one octave of it.  It was a class project in a community college course he took.  But it's a full size working, playable piano octave, complete with all the parts, strings, keyboard, case, the works.  That octave is sitting in his living room (what on earth are we going to do with it?).  I think he got into that to learn to tune pianos because ours needed tuning.

He grafted camellias and other plants.  If I recall correctly, he had a lemon tree that grew half oranges or something of the sort by grafting one onto the other.

At one point, he took up oil painting.  I don't think he had what you would call great talent at it, but he did some pretty good paintings.  Wouldn't have won an art contest, but could have entered one without being laughed at.

He developed and printed his own photographs.  Mostly black and white, but even did a little color.  He had some old, old cameras, probably still there actually, an enlarger, full darkroom equipment.  He would tape up the door and window in the bathroom to keep the light out when he wanted to do darkroom work.

I never went to a barber until I got married and left home.  Daddy cut our hair (yes, his own too, using two mirrors to see the back of his head).  Probably wouldn't win any awards in Hollywood, but I never had anyone say anything to indicate my hair cuts were crude or amatuerish. I don't think he ever got a professional haircut in his life.

He added a bedroom and bathroom onto our house.  Did everything from drawing the plans, surveying the plot, digging the foundations, framing, drywall, electrical, plumbing (back in the day when that meant pounding molten lead into cast iron plumbing), glazing, and cabinetry.  He even stuccoed the exterior to match the rest of the house.  At this point, honesty compels me to admit that he sort of ran out of steam on that project after he got the permits signed off and never totally finished the interior.  That was his Achilles heal - trying to do so many things that he left a lot of projects unfinished.  Then he re-roofed the whole house.  That roof is now 40 some years old, and about at the end of its life, but it was a good roof. He was up on a ladder checking it out two weeks ago, thinking it, like he himself, was pretty near the end of life.

He played the violin.  Not anything close to professionally, but well enough to be enjoyable to listen to.

Of course he was a Christadelphian, which is pretty much the ultimate in do-it-yourself Christianity, with no clergy and members doing everything themselves.  He wrote a magazine column on Bible prophecy, entitled Signs of the Times, for our national church magazine for a number years.   I would read the magazine and think:  "That's pretty good - who wrote it?  Really, my dad ?"  It amazed me.

He got into computers later in life than most people, because he was of a pre-computer generation, but he adapted and learned that too.  He took a class in programming and wrote a program for playing Black Jack.  He did adapt to Windows when that came along, but he had some "antique" PC's he kept going for years, because they still ran the DOS software he had set things up in.

He was church treasurer and board member for decades. Yep, he computerized that too, of course. His integrity and confidentiality were absolutely unquestionable.  The real problem I have now is that he was executor for the estates of several of the members of our church, taking care of their finances toward the ends of the lives and afterwards.  Why is that a problem for me?  Because now, we need to do what we always depended on him to do.  The complexity is so daunting.  I sure wish he was around to help me with it.

If my dad couldn't fix something, then it just couldn't be fixed.  Of course, even if he couldn't fix it, it's almost certainly still lying around his house somewhere, waiting for him to find a way to fix it after all, or at least to cannibalize the parts.  Some things he fixed that he shouldn't have, like that old refrigerator that uses 7 times as much electricity as a new one (yes, we metered it to prove that).

Oh, yes, he also found time to actually work for a living, as a mechanical engineer, designing controls for the Gas Company's long distance gas transmission lines.

Of course, he was far from perfect.  In many ways, his inability to let anyone help him was as much curse as blesssing.  Doing everything is humanly impossible.  He left way too many things unfinished: A house full of clutter of things that need doing that he couldn't let anyone do for him.  Because no one else would do it "right."  Being the stereotypical Scot that he was, Frugal MacDougall just refused to pay someone else to do something he could do himself (i.e. anything).  It would have been a sinful waste of money.  I think too that his independent ways were also driven by being shy and socially uncomfortable.  His biggest problem was that, although he could do anything, that didn't mean he could do everything.  There was only so much one man could get done.  So there were lots of unfinished projects all over the place that he just couldn't get to.

He was  kind of a hard act to follow, in many ways.  I am what I am in large part because of what he taught me about what a man can do if he sets his mind to it.  I have had to learn from others not to try to do quite everything by myself, but it's a struggle.

But in the end, for all that he could do, the thing I will remember most is that he loved me and he was proud of me.  He happily sacrificed for his family.  He did what he did to provide for his family - to give us the luxuries that he wouldn't buy for himself.  He was always there for me, and for my family, no matter what.  I guess it must be obvious I was pretty proud of him, too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thoughts during my Saturday morning bike ride

I got in a 23 mile before-breakfast bike ride up Angeles Crest Highway yesterday morning.  Saturday morning is the one time during the week I can go for a long ride, during my wife's areobics class.  It has become my Saturday morning break-away.

So: Early morning ride, before breakfast, before coffee, didn't have time to make and drink my morning coffee first, but wanted my caffeine fix.  Solution:  Cold coffee in my water bottle.  Not bad, actually, compared to the city water lately.

The ride up Angeles Crest is a climb.  Just up, and up, and up.  About 2000 feet of climbing this morning, though there's lots more up, up there when I have time.  I ran out of time yesterday just short of 12 miles and had to turn around. And then, of course, 2000 feet of adrenalin rush descent.  The caffeine is only necessary for the first half.  The second half provides its own stimulant.

I love riding up into the mountain highways.  There is the challenge of pushing my limits going up, the views are great, there's the rush coming down, and the fact that most of the hard work is done in the first half of the route.  The second half is, literally and figuratively, all down hill.

I can tell that keeping up with that pair of guys ahead is going to be tough when they have shaved legs -  that's a dead giveway that they are serious cyclists.

I wasn't sure about the hand signals that guy was giving me behind his seat. Was he warning me of hazards ahead, making sure I wasn't going to bump his wheel, or just dispersing passed wind?

Just because the cyclist in front of me is wearing pink socks does not mean she is going to be easy to overtake.  Never did catch up.  I did rationalize this by noting that she had the calf muscles of a male athlete.  And yes, I think she had shaved legs too, but I never got close enough to tell for sure.

I did pass a number of other riders (queue Rocky theme music). The trouble with passing someone is that then pride requires that I stay ahead, so I have to make sure I can permanently drop them before I pass them.

Firing snot rockets during a 35 mph descent is risky.  The rocket must be launched with maximum force or it may get caught in the nose-tip wind vortex and blown back in my face. 

Wonder what they do about nose blowing in the professional peloton?  A couple of weeks ago, the guy who had quietly come up behind my left shoulder about to pass me was lucky I heard him shifting cogs at just the right time.

These "new" so-called "clip-less" pedals (the ones with cleats on the bottom of the shoe that clip into the pedals) are a HUGE improvement over the old toe clips and straps.  I wasn't sure I'd like them and it sounded scary to have my feet trapped in the pedals, but I got a used pair of clipless pedals and they are SO much easier to use than the old toe clips and make pedaling hugely more efficient.  I say "new" in quotes because they are new to me, but have been around for a decade or two.  I was just out of active cycling for most of  that time.

Cycling has really caught on since I used to commute on my bike over 25 years ago.  Back then, the few times I rode up Angeles Crest Highway, I had it all to myself.  Now there is a steady stream of cyclists on a Saturday morning.  Maybe it's the Lance Armstrong effect.  Whatever the reason, I think it's great.  It's nice that I'm no longer the only crazy person climbing that mountain. 

It's also nice that I can still pass a lot of much younger cyclists.  It's a little funny though when I notice that almost ALL of the others on the mountain are much younger.  I don't feel old.  I wonder if I look it.

Replacing my old Bell Biker helmet probably helps to disguise my age a little.  That old helmet, left over from the '70s, was certainly a giveaway of my age.

Lance Armstrong has in fact ridden (down) that same road, in the Tour of Califonia.  The T of C used the route across Angeles Forest Highway and down Angeles Crest Highway, and then on down to the Rose Bowl (where I went last week), several times.  Hard to imagine racing down that road.  Going down it alone is one thing, but racing down it in a group is hard to imagine, even though I watched them do it.

I keep trying to use the mapping app on my iphone to track my rides, but it rarely works right.  Today, it did map the route, sort of, but it thought I had gone twice as far as I actually did.  Last week, it clocked me at 52 mph on a flat ride, which was probably also double the reality.  The idea in using it was so my wife could tell where I was and be reaassured that I was OK.  Glad she didn't see that reading of 52 mph live or she would not have felt at all reassured.  The fact that the phone crashes so much makes it useless at reassuring her that I have not crashed.

Spinning class is good exercise, but it really doesn't compare to actually climbing a mountain.

Funny thing though:  I have estimated that Angeles Crest would rank as several category 2 climbs in professional cycling, but actually the toughest climb on the whole route is the first couple of miles in town, just getting from my house up to Foothill Blvd.  Nothing after that is as steep.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

She can't take him the way he is

By coincidence to my last blog “Take Me the Way I Am”, I got a phone call from a relative (I’ll call this relative Jill), complaining about her spouse (who I’ll call Jack). Jill just can’t take the way Jack is any more.  Jack has always been that way.  Almost certainly Jack always will be pretty much that way, with perhaps some minor peripheral improvement.  Jack has a significant flaw (don’t we all).  Jill wanted to hope she could somehow reason with Jack to get him to change.  I made it clear to Jill that Jack’s flaw is in fact a mental illness, which Jill cannot hope to change by reasoning with Jack.  By definition, Jack’s problem is irrational and unreasonable.  They have been married for many years.  It’s nothing new.  It has always driven Jill crazy (and quite rightly and understandably so). 

Jill, of course, has her own “issues,” and she is aware of that.  Jill says Jack once admitted that when they married, Jack thought he could change Jill.  Jill bitterly resents that.  She wants to be taken the way she is.  She knows she has problems, but she resents anyone else telling her she needs to change.  She, on the other hand, cannot take Jack the way he is.  She has decided, for what must be the 300th time, that she just can’t take his problem any more.  I can sympathize. I couldn't either.

So, what are the options.

Main principal of life:  You can’t change anyone but yourself.

Corollary:  You probably can’t much change yourself either.

If you decide you just can’t take the other person’s flaws any more, refer to Main principal.

People are who they are.  Personality transplants have yet to be perfected.  Therapists seem to have some degree of success in helping people make small improvements.  I’m not entirely sure how much they can accomplish.  I’ve tried it myself – quite a bit of it actually.  I’m still not sure how much it accomplishes.  Perhaps, some people’s personalities are more malleable than other’s.  Perhaps, some people are right on the cusp and a little nudge in the right direction can make a big difference.  I think the main thing I have learned from psychologists is about ways to learn acceptance of others; ways to adapt to the flaws of others; how to deal more cheerfully with what I cannot change.

While you may have some slight hope of changing yourself, trying to change someone else is pretty much futile.  They are who they are:  Deal with it. Except that, “dealing with it” implies changing yourself, which is really, really hard to do.  Learning to accept the (currently) unacceptable means changing what you can and cannot accept, which is not something anyone wants to do.  Change is hard enough when you really want to change: when you are seeking to acquire a virtue or an appealing or admirable quality, which seems really desirable and worth great effort to achieve. But, when change means accepting something undesirable, it is by definition something you don’t want to do.  And if you don’t want to change, you almost certainly aren’t going to.

So, what are Jill’s options?

1)  Accept the unacceptable.  Change herself to learn tolerance or to somehow draw boundaries.
2)  Take the option Jill has pursued for the last several decades, which is beating her head against the wall, trying to make Jack change, in the futile hope that the wall will yield instead of her head.  All she gets is a headache.
3)  Leave.  She’s tried that too.  It has pros and cons.  It could be viewed as the only solution, or it could be viewed as deciding there is no solution.  Trouble is, where ya gonna go?  Spouses can’t be traded in for a better model.  They usually get traded in for worse ones.  Singlehood has definite downsides.

You might well ask, where is Jack in all this?  Does Jack realize he has a problem?  Has Jack tried to change?  Yes, Jack knows he has a problem.  Yes Jack has tried to change. He’s spent decades trying in various ways, including therapy.   Jack has decided that having tried futilely to change for decades, that he can’t.  He is the way he is.  Take him the way he is, because he’s tried to change and he has decided that it just ain’t gonna happen.  He has pretty much given up trying to change. 

It is not clear just how Jack sees his problem – whether he sees himself as having a serious and debilitating mental illness, as just a little eccentric, or perhaps that his “problem” is only a problem because Jill and others think it is.  His view is probably a mixture of all of those, and probably varies from time to time.  I can tell you that he longs to be taken as he is, warts and all.  He would prefer to view his issue as a virtue rather than as a vice.  While he sees the downsides to his problem, he also finds a certain degree of happiness in it.  It is how he wishes he could be left alone to live.  Call his problem eccentricity.  Call it idiosyncrasy.  Call it idiocy.  Call it insanity, neurosis, psychosis, whatever. He is what he is; what he has always been; what he always will be.  Take him as he is, or don’t take him at all, those are the choices.

So, Jack and Jill have both fallen down and broken their crowns trying to change themselves and each other.  Take them the way they are.  Or leave them.  When it comes to trying to change another person, failure is not merely an option, it is pretty much inevitable.  That's not meant to seem defeatest or depressing.  It's about learning what can and cannot be changed and learning how to deal most happily with what cannot be changed.  Happiness is not about the external situations, but about how we deal with those situations.

I can tell you one thing, though:  It’s a heck of a lot easier to accept people the way they are if you don’t have to live with them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Take Me The Way I Am

A popular song that is one of my favorites right now is Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am"
If you were falling, then I would catch you.
You need a light, I'd find a match.

Cause I love the way you say good morning.
And you take me the way I am.

If you are chilly, here take my sweater.
Your head is aching, I'll make it better.

Cause I love the way you call me baby.
And you take me the way I am.

I'd buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair.
Sew on patches to all you tear.

Cause I love you more than I could ever promise.
And you take me the way I am.
You take me the way I am.
You take me the way I am.

The words strike a chord with me:  The concept of love being two people who take each other the way they are.  We want acceptance in spite of, or better yet because of, our faults.

The quirky line in that song, expressing the strangeness of modern romance:  "I'd buy you Rogaine . . . " shows that while we want to be accepted for what we are, part of the reason is that we actually aren't all that happy with how we are.  We don't truly accept ourselves The Way We Are.  We want to be different; and better (with more hair, at the very least).  We want someone who will love us, even when we don't quite like just how we are.  The only reason we would long for someone to accept us as we are, with all our faults, is that we recognize that we are far from perfect, and think we are perhaps difficult to love.

If I felt that being the way I am is perfectly OK, I would feel no need for acceptance of my faults.  It is because I myself do not accept myself the way I am that I wish for someone else who would accept those things about me that I don't like but have been unable to change.

Introspective people spend a lot of time looking at their own faults and trying to change them, almost always unsuccessfully. Changing personality or character is almost impossible.  We are what we are.  We may struggle with trying to improve in various ways, but most of us make little progress at it.  I lost a lot of weight, but the factors in my personality that caused me to gain weight in the first place are still there, struggling to put it back on.  I may have changed my body, but changing my mind and behavior is something else entirely.  I don't think I am now an inherently thin person.  I still am what I was - what I am.  Perhaps a "recovering" heavy person.

But if someone else could accept and love me with my faults, then it could make me feel better about those faults.  If they can accept those faults, then maybe so should I?  Which might relieve some of the guilt over my lack of success at self-improvement.

Can we change?  Is change impossible, or just very, very difficult?  Little changes are perhaps only a little difficult, but big changes may be so difficult as to be, for practical purposes, impossible.  Changing enough to be able to accept ourselves the way we are may be too much to ask.

Much of what makes Christianity both appealing, and unappealing, is its promise of acceptance, but also its promise to change us, and its demand that we change.  We long to be changed, because changing ourselves, well, we've tried.  Lord knows we've tried.  Must we change ourselves in order to be changed?  Lord, take me the way I am.  Will you really?  Because, if I need to have more faith, well, I have what I have.  If I need to be a better person to be saved, then well, I am what I am.  Is God alone allowed to refer to Himself by that title (I am what I am)?  Does God take us the way we are?  Did God in fact make us the way we are?  Does God demand that we change? Yes, Yes, and Yes.  The Bible seems conflicted about that.  Dear Lord, take me the way I am. And then change me.  But please don't ask me to change myself, because, well, that's just the way I am.  (At this point, please avoid digressing into theology, or argument about faith vs works).

Yet even as we wish for acceptance, we may try to hide the very things we wish could be accepted.  We want to be accepted for what we are but we dare not totally reveal it, because we don't accept it, and we don't think it can be accepted by anyone else either.  I won't tell you about those flaws I wish you could accept, because I think you would judge them, not accept them.  But I wish you could magically perceive throught the eyes of love the unlovable person I know I am, and yet love me and love my faults.

Often, I would like to say to someone:  "I do accept you the way you are, I just wish you could believe that and not be so defensive all the time!"  They don't think they are lovable that way, even if I do love them.  And I don't quite totally believe they could accept all of the flaws in me either, so I can understand.

Could it be that we are not merely the person we are, but also, to some degree, we are the person we wish we were?  The fact that we have higher ideals than we are actually able to live up to, doesn't just having the ideals count for a great deal?  Perhaps I'm not really just "the way I am".  Perhaps, maybe, I am partly the ideals I admire, whether or not I manage to live that way.  I hope so.  Because I'm afraid you just have to take me the way I am.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cheating and whining

I suppose nearly everyone who gets a traffic citation thinks their ticket was unfair in some way. At least, I do.  Don't you?  It's just human nature to rationalize and excuse one's own misbehavior.  I was thinking about the irony last night of sort of semi-cheating on the on-line Traffic School course I was taking to make up for
"sort of semi-cheating" on a minor traffic nit-pick citation (or at least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it).

Actually, the "cheating" on the traffic school was just a matter of printing out each chapter, letting it run in the background until the required study time was up, and then using the print-out to take the exams "open book."  Nothing says that's illegal.  Besides, the questions are really nit-picky and tricky.  They purposely ask things you'd never be able to figure out without directly reading the sentence from the course text.  Do I feel guilty?  No.  I don't feel guilty about the citation either.  Mad, yes.  Guilty, no.  That's likely just my self-excusing, but that's the truth.  I'm not upset about doing the crime, just about getting caught.

The citation was from one of those stupid and corrupt red-light camera robotic thieving automatic citation machines.  Yes, I know, rationalizing and excusing myself.  But really, those things should be illegal.  This particular one was especially bad.  I didn't get the ticket for running the red light.  I got it for failing to come to a full stop on a red arrow before turning right in a dedicated right-turn lane.  It wasn't illegal to turn right on red.  It was just illegal to do it without coming to a stop first.  That's not really what those cameras are supposed to be catching.  The accidents caused by that behavior are not nearly as serious as those from people actually going straight through an intersection on red light.  But as it turns out, the right turn tickets are where they make almost all of their money.  And make no mistake, it's all about making money.  They only put them up at intersections where they can make money.  And they don't work.  They can't work.  If the cameras actually stop people from running red lights then they don't make money, and if they don't make money, they take them down.  So they only operate the cameras at intersections where they are pretty sure people will get caught unawares.  They are, as far as I'm concerned, cheating.  They justify the cameras based on the straight ahead red light running accidents, but then most of the tickets they give out are for something much less serious.  The system is a lie and a cheat.  And they know it.  If they really wanted to cut down on accidents, the simple and free way to do it is to introduce a time lag between when the light turns red in one direction and when the light then turns green in the other direction.  That works really well.  It just doesn't make any money.

The thing is, I actually have no way of knowing whether I actually ran the red light or not.  I was totally unaware of it at the time.  I did not knowingly run the light.  A month or so later I got the ticket mailed to me.  I was totally dumbfounded.  Did I really run the light, or is their equipment just set to make it look that way?  I have no way of knowing.  If I believe their equipment, then I did it.  Should I believe their equipment?  I don't know.  I know that law enforcement is often corrupt.  I know that machines often malfunction.  I know they would likely not admit it if they knew it was malfunctioning.  I know they have no scruples.  Did I really run the light?  I really don't know.  I'm not in the habit of doing it on purpose.  I go through that intersection every day, and they have had the equipment there for several years, so apparently I have never run that light before.  I may have done it that one time, but I can't really say one way or the other.

In the photo, I had the sun-visor down, because the sun was shining directly in my face.  I was coming down a hill and around a corner facing into the sun.  The red arrow is obscured by an overgrown tree at the bend until you get around the corner.  I had only a very brief time to see the red arrow, and there are lots of other things to be paying attention to:  Watching the car in front of me; Watching for pedestrians; Watching for cars coming from the left. 

The risk was nil.  The risks all had to do with the things I actually was watching for, not with the red arrow I apparently didn't see.

I seriously thought about fighting the ticket.  The code section cited on the ticket was somewhat dubious.  The tree obsuring the view of the light may have been a justification.  But in the end, I figured the traffic court commissioner has heard all the excuses a thousand times and isn't likely to be sympathetic.  They have a well-oiled system of extracting money from drivers, and that system pays their salaries.  They aren't going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  In the end, my whining would get me no where.  Their view would be that regardless of all that, it's my responsibility as the driver to find the light and obey it - end of story.

So, I paid the exhorbitant roughly $600 for the fine and traffic school, and did my time (or most of it).

I was counting up all the traffic tickets I have ever received.  It's more than I would have guessed.  I think I've gotten 6 tickets in 46 years of driving.  Oh, yeah, I also got one riding my bicycle back before I had a driver's license - riding my bike on the wrong side of the street - that was really nit-picking.  And then there was a jay-walking ticket.  Some of the auto tickets were legitimate (one speeding, one actual red light I didn't see).  Most were at best nit-picky (two red-light cameras - this one and one for being a fraction of a second late; one for being in the wrong lane with a trailer).  At least one was out and out corrupt on the part of the cop (a supposed failure to yield right-of-way that never actually happened).  On the other hand, I have probably gotten away with far worse things.

The reality is that most drivers could be cited for something nearly every time they get behind the wheel.  A defensive driving instructor in one class made that very point.  If a cop followed you around constantly, you could get a ticket every day.  It's kind of a strange system in which everyone is guilty, most of us quite frequently, but we get caught rarely, and when we do, it is often for minor nit-picks rather than for the probably far more serious things we should have gotten caught for.  Does that system end up producing safer traffic?  Not sure.  It's more like God and the prevalence of sin.  We are all guilty and live only on grace.  Should we whine when our guilt finally catches up to us?  Probably not, but we do anyway.

Monday, March 21, 2011

e-books (or are they now ebooks?)

With my new "Bob's Big Boy" library card hot in hand, and my new pin # ready to give me access to that great big wonderful world of public library e-books, I ventured over the digital divide into the great unknown vastness of the unexplored e-book world. 

So far, I am, of course, Bemused.

I quickly discovered several things:

A)  Why I quit going to the public library and went on Amazon instead:  It's because Amazon actually has what I want, when I want it (well, with only a few days wait for delivery).  The public library has what they have, which is not all that much to start with, and the books I really want are wanted by everyone else too, and so are already checked out and on a waiting list.  Get in line and take a number.

B)  What I didn't count on is that e-books get "checked out" just like paper ones.  Weird.  It's just a file on a server somewhere.  That file is still on the server.  Why can't I read it whenever I want to?  Oh, yeah, it's that copyright thing.  The library only owns the right to one copy, so only one person at a time is allowed to read it.  So, all the books I really want have waiting lists.

C) That I tend to write in lists.  I'm never going to become a novelist writing in lists.  Computer programmer, maybe, but novelist, not so much.

D) That reading a novel on my i-phone (or is that iphone) is not nearly as pleasant as reading a real book.  Among other things, it's a lot like trying to read a novel written by a kindergartner on that paper with the big wide lines:  You get about ten words on a page, and have to keep turning pages constantly.

OK, forget the list format.  Let's talk (or write).

The really funny thing is that after going through the few novels the public library site had available, looking for one that was not checked out that I actually want to read, the one I ended up with is "Innocent" by Scott Turow, from his (wait for it) . . .   "Kindle County" series.  e-book. Kindle County. Get it?  That just can't be coincidence, can it?  Was the Amazon Kindle named after his novels?  Did he promise to publish his books digitally if Amazon named their Kindle after his series?  Did he publish his books on the competing e-pub format for revenge because they stole his word?  A brief googling of that subject did not turn up the answer.

Getting back to the main subject, the other irritating thing about reading a book in digital format, which became particularly evident with this particular novel, is trying to flip back and forth to check something earlier in the book.  The first chapter starts off with a date, which is not very memorable.  When each future chapter starts with other dates, I need to check back on the date on the previous chapters to understand the sequence of events.  Paging back and forth, one page at a time, is painful. 

On the other hand, it is certainly handy to have a novel in my pocket any time I have my cell phone on me and a little time to kill (was that a Grisham novel?  No, not quite).

And as for this new e-dict (oops edict) by some style manual, that e-mail is now spelled email, I'm not so sure that's a good ide-a.  More likely it should be "e mail" (two words).  Or at least e'mail, like a contraction.  Is the old slow paper alternative to email now spelled "smail"?

I have long noticed that reading anything on a computer screen longer than what fits on one page is not pleasant.  In fact, I notice that any e-mail longer than one page just doesn't get read.  I start it, then set it aside to finish later, and never do.  I think it has something to do with TV induced attention deficit disorder.  Except, it's not nearly as true of things printed on paper.  There's something about a digital screen that makes it hard to turn the page.  To read a longer e-mail, I print it out, then I can read it - just not on the screen.

Maybe if I had an actual Kindle instead of an i-phone, reading an e-book might be more pleasant, but I'm thinking that so far, I still prefer hard copy books.  Maybe books aren't yet obsolete after all.

And by the way, those notes at the bottom of e-mails saying to consider the environment before printing the message:  I don't buy the theory that printing it out is more harmful to the environment than the energy wasted running your computer when you could have turned it off and read it on paper instead.  And paper is actually a "sequestered" form of carbon.  Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere to make cellulose.  The tree gets turned into paper, and the paper gets stored (on my desk) for decades.  To save the earth, print out this blog and turn off your computer.  Oops, too late, you already read it on screen.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Checking out the Library

I went to the Library last night.

That sentence wouldn't used to have been worth writing.  I used to spend lots and lots of time at libraries.  I remember a junior high school English class essay assignment I had to write on the subject of "My Favorite Teacher."  I dodged the delicate question of whether to insult or suck up to that English teacher by writing an essay saying that my favorite teacher was the Library.  That was probably true, too.  I was then and am still a voracious book reader.  Going to the library was truly a favorite thing to do, and I have learned more from reading library books than from any other teacher.

We used to go there as a family with the kids when they were young, and come home with great huge stacks of books.

But I haven't been to the Library in so many years that my card with no expiration date had finally expired anyway.  I knew that only because I tried to log onto the library website and was denied access.  My card was literally disintegrating.  I just haven't gone to the library in many years, even though it's less than a mile straight down my own street.

So last night, I finally managed to get there and got a new library card.  They offered me my choice of picture cards.  I got the one with the photo of Bob's Big Boy on it.  Actually, it's a photo of Glendale's 2002 Rose Parade Float that had a giant Big Boy statue, almost like the Statue of Liberty, except holding up not the torch of Liberty but the Hamburger of Obesity.  In Glendale times have changed only somewhat - the library is going digital, but the photo on the card looks back to the previous century.  Us oldies remember cruising Bob's drive-in on Friday nights, but those drive-ins have all gone now, replaced by drive-thrus.

I think what most bemused me though is thinking about why I have been away from the library so long (and, oh, by the way, they said I have 80 cents in overdue fines that have been on my account for many years).  Why did I quit going to the library?

Sadly, one reason is that with all the government fiscal problems over the last 30 years, they have kept cutting back on hours until it is rarely open when I am around.  I did try to go there a few times, but every time I tried, it was closed.  It is open 'til 8 only a few nights a week.  Most nights, it closes before I get home from work.

Another reason is that combination hero/villain of the book world, Amazon.  Buying a novel didn't used to seem like a reasonable thing.  Why buy a book I was only likely to read once and then have no use for?  Still true, but it's just easier to order and have it arrive magically a couple days later, and really, I LIKE owning books.  And besides, looking at books on Amazon is surprisingly fun and convenient.  No, this is not a plug for Amazon.  I was really sad that two bookstores in Westwood went out of business in the last three months, mostly due to internet competition.  But I have admit that I buy more books on line than I ever did in stores, and for more reasons than just price.

Which gets back around to the irony of what actually got me to the library this time:  To get a pin # so I could download e-books from the public library website.  In other words:  I went to the library so won't have to go to the library any more.  I went there only to get free access to the ephemeral digital replacement for books.  We got our daughter a Kindle for her birthday - even Amazon is putting itself out of the book business.  I'm still clinging to paper books, but I think their days are fading.

I get the feeling the library, and the books it stores, are about to go the way of the Bob's Big Boy on my library card - nostalgic memories. I heard someone say recently that owning shelves of books used to make one look educated; now it just makes you look old. 

I will lament the demise of the library even though I hadn't gone in years. My grandchildren know what a library is. My grandson said going to the school library was one his best days ever. Their children may see libraries only as museums for those antique paper things.  Should we feel sad about that, or happy?  In the end, isn't progress is about gain, not about loss?  Aren't we happy that technology progresses, from carvings on clay, to handwriting on scrolls, to manual printing presses, to automated presses that mass produce easily affordable books; from typewriters to word processors, from handwritten snail mail to internet blogs;  from the shelf of Encyclopedia Brittanica, to the limitless expanse of the Internet, instantly updated?  We may recall with fondness things we used to enjoy, but that doesn't mean we really want to go back to them.  I have this nagging sense of something extremely valuable being lost, but I think the reality is that it is going away only because it has been replaced by something much better.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts at a funeral

Some thoughts at a funeral today:

Wise King Solomon wrote:
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)

But we seemed to have managed to combine the house of mourning with the houses of feasting and mirth, all in the same occasion.  I guess doing all three at the same time should be pretty good too. 

Maybe having 1000 wives and concubines, as Solomon did, would make any man wish for the day of his death.

The wise man of baseball, Yogi Berra, said: "Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't go to yours"  I don't think I'll care if anyone goes to mine, though.

Another baseball manager, Chuck Tanner, who coincidentally died Friday said:  "You can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.”  Not actually sure that's true.  He lived in New Castle, Pennsylvania, so I expect the weather will not be good for his funeral.  Lots of people will probably go anyway.

After the congregation stumbled and mumbled torturously through the four long verses of a very long  hymn sung in a variety of keys to an organ accompaniment too soft to be heard despite the hesitant singing, except at the beginning of each verse where we could hear just enough of the organ to prove that we were off key, and it was impossible to find the bass part anywhere, the first two words of the opening prayer expressed my sentiments exactly:  "Merciful God!"

I never cease to be amazed at how much I learn about a person, who I have known all my life, at their funeral: all the things I never knew about them until they died.  Seems a shame.  All those things I'd have talked to them about if I knew it before.  Wouldn't it be better if you all posted your funeral notes someplace like your Facebook Wall well ahead of time, so I wouldn't have to wait for your funeral to learn all that interesting stuff about you?

For instance:  I had no idea she collected tea cups, like my wife.  The family brought her collection to the dinner after the funeral and used them as table decorations (with chocolate kissses in them).

If you like to collect something, make sure at least one of your children appreciates them.

I always feel a little guilty going to someone's funeral when I haven't spoken to them for several years before that.  Seems like they might have preferred me taking the time to visit before they died instead of waiting 'til afterwards.  On the other hand, it is a lot less awkward - I don't have to figure out what to say to them.

The deceased's two son's in law eulogized her.  My mother in law asked if I was making notes for her funeral.  Cleo, there is just no way I will be able to get any words out at your funeral.  I will be too choked up.  I would say wonderful things about you if I could talk, but I'm sure I won't be able to.  I'll just have to tell you now instead that I love you too much to be able to say so at your funeral.

Walking around the cemetary, I saw some husband-and-wife combined headstones where one spouse was buried but the other still has a blank for the date of their yet future death.  Seems a bit morbid seeing the headstone just waiting to have the date of your death filled in.  I suppose though that it is reality:  Whether we have commissioned it yet or not, somewhere there is a piece of stone just waiting to have each of our dates of death engraved on it.  Puts things in perspective.  But still, I'd rather they waited 'til I was dead to have my headstone made up.

Actually, I'm thinking about donating my body to UCLA medical school.  I've already donated 14 gallons of my blood to them, so they might as well get the rest of me to go with it.  We did buy funeral plots once, about 35 years ago, when a salesman persuaded us it was just good planning.  But we cancelled the deal the next day when we came to our senses.  Don't think I want to buy any more funeral plots.  If I'm going to buy land, I want to be able to reside on it while I'm alive.

The last line on this headstone was pretty helpful - yep, those Seagoes.

There were a lot of other Seagoes lined up there too.  Without this one to identify them, I wouldn't have been sure it was the same family I know.  I guess the engravers charge by the letter.  Too bad.  It would be nice if more gravestones had more information on them about the person underneath, instead of just the dates of birth and death.  Come on, expand a bit on that hyphen in between.

Funny why the grave diggers nowdays wait for everyone to leave before they lower the coffin and fill in the grave.  I like it better when you can watch.  The idea of going off and leaving the coffin still sitting out there seems sort of, unfinished business.

Still haven't figured out what to do with the programs from funerals.  I find it hard to throw out the last memento of a person.  Some people collect them. Not sure I want to do that either.  Pretty sure my children won't appreciate the collection when I'm dead.  Pretty sure I won't care by then.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Indianappeals, IN

Strange.  I never would have imagined that events in Indianapolis would have any direct affect on my life.  But that's how it's turning out.  Two appeals of two quite different types were held in Indianapolis the last two months.  The outcome of USC's appeal at NCAA headquarters two weeks ago will have a huge effect on the football team I root for.  More directly, the Indiana Supreme Court in December heard oral arguments on a case that will decide whether we will continue to be allowed to rent out our house in Northwest Indiana, which would have a significant impact on our income. I found that Indianapolis had more appeal to me when I was there to see the museums and the zoo and when we ran in their half-marathon than it does as a venue for legal appeals.

Regarding USC's appeal to the NCAA, I have two words:  Fight On!

About the case in the Indiana Supreme Court, it is the only time I can recall any court case actually having a direct personal affect on me.  Like most people, my contact with the courts is generally limited to the occasional traffic citation and periodic calls for jury service.  Neither of those has ever inspired much trust in the court system.  I do not call it the "legal" system or the "justice" system, because law and justice seem to have little relevance to the outcomes.

Some people in the town where I own a vacation house decided they didn't like vacation rentals and got the town to sue another owner (Siwinski) who was renting out his house, despite the fact that vacation rentals have always been common there, the town ordinances make no mention of rentals of any sort, and there was no previous history of them ever attempting to enforce this interpretation.  In truth, it was really a feud between Siwinski and his neighbor, an attorney who has a law office in her house.  It was a personal feud that got out of hand and got blown all out of proportion; where the town took sides in what should have been a private dispute.  The town got lucky with an incompetent local judge.  That ruling was overturned in favor of Siwinski by the Indiana Appeals Court.  The town appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which should have refused to even hear the case, but accepted it for some incomprehensible reason.

If you are curious or masochistic, you can see video of the oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court here:  Personally, I thought both attorneys and most of the Supreme Court justices appeared incompetent and ignorant both of the case and of relevant law.

I really never wanted to go to court, and now that a case there directly affects me, I am more convinced than ever that going to court is a baaaaad idea. My personal involvement was in trying to keep both parties out of court.  I pleaded with both sides to find a way to work together to solve the real problems rather than both wasting time and money in court.  Besides, I am convinced that is the only Christian thing to do.  I talked to Siwinski and other rental owners and I talked to the town council and several officials.  I told both sides that the only people who win in court are the attorneys and that there are better ways to work out differences.  Neither side would listen.  4 years and about $150,000 later, I think that point has been proven.  There will be no winners.  Any useful result could have been better achieved in a different way.

The biggest loser of all though is justice itself.  What I have learned is that the government can ruin you in court without having any legal basis.  Even if they lose (as they should) just making Siwinski defend himself has cost him more than the fine and the profits he was making.  If you are accused of a crime, simply the accusation alone can ruin you, even if you are completely innocent.  Being found "not guilty" (and innocence is no guarantee of that) will be a hollow victory after your finances and reputation have been ruined in the process of defending yourself.  In reality, it made no sense for Siwinski to defend himself in court. He could and should have settled.  The cost was more than it's worth.  The reason he is fighting seems to be that he can afford to and hates to lose to the neighbor.

What I find frightening and depressing is finding that although the law itself was very, very, clearly in Siwinski's favor, it gets interpreted by judges who might as well be flipping coins or examing their magic 8-balls when they make their decisions.  The outcome is virtually random.  Any connection between a court verdict and actual truth or justice is only slightly better than coincidence (maybe worse).  Worse yet, in Indiana, the local judge runs for election and has to curry favor with local voters, so a case between a local town and an owner from out of state is not going to get her unbiased judgment.

Defenders of American institutions would like to claim that the ability of the system to make corrections in the appeals system is proof that it works.  The Indiana Supreme Court hasn't yet ruled and might possibly even make the right decision.  But even if they do, justice that takes four years and $100,000 to defend against what is not even a misdemeanor is not justice at all.  The function of the courts in the American system is not merely to punish the guilty, but perhaps more importantly to protect the innocent against abuse by tyrannical governmernt (and all government tends to tyranny if it can get away with it).  The local judge totally failed in that duty in this case.  Seeing the court system up close and personal has been very disappointing and disillusioning. 
I guess, in a way, I should be glad that the "wheels of justice" have ground so slowly, because in the meantime, I have been able to continue renting my house for the last four years while the town fights with Siwinski.  Siwinski's neighbor obviously doesn't feel that way though.  And Siwinski has his house listed for sale and just wants out of the whole thing.

I try to maintain a philosphic or religious outlook on this.  It's only money.  My life is not about money.  If I put my trust in God, none of this matters at all.  It's a good lesson about not putting my trust in the material things of this world, which can be snatched away at any time on any whim of those in power.  The fact that I have two houses means I'm obviously not poverty stricken.  It seems pretty spoiled of me to worry about having two houses when most people would be happy to have just one to worry about.  I will not go broke either way.  And of course, it most definitely reinforced my basic religious viewpoint that going to law is not the Christian thing to do if there is any way to avoid it.  But still, I can't help but feel a gut wrenching churn of injustice being done.

Indy, I loved running your half-marathon, but right now, you are not on my happy list.

Oh, and USC:  Sorry, but your season ticket prices have gotten too high anyway.  You'll have to fight on without me.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


1.Confused: puzzled, bewildered.

2. To have one's attention occupied: Distracted, absorbed.

3. Having feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.

I'm Bemused. Sometimes confused; often puzzled; sometimes bewildered; frequently distracted by the things I find inexplicable - like, for example, people in general, for whom I attempt to maintain feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.

People are crazy.

Not just some people - all people: Me, you, everybody.

Eveyone is crazy, in various ways. I have come to the conclusion that everyone, even the most seemingly rational or analytical engineers or scientists (or maybe especially them) for the most part think and act out of emotion rather than logic. Human thought does not normally process data by deductive logic. In general, people come to a conclusion without much, if any, rational reasoning at all, and then, if forced to defend their conclusion, they seek to use some form of supposedly logical analysis to rationalize whatever conclusion they have already become emotionally attached to.

The so-called "scientific method" in fact starts with a hypothesis. But where did the hypothesis come from?  The hypothesis comes magically, springing from the genius, the imagination, the inexplicable creative mind.  It comes from the creative, irrational imagination that makes us human: sometimes endearingly, and sometimes maddeningly, human.  It is what separates us from computers and robots.  The supposedly rational scientific examination of the hypothesis comes afterwards, after the scientist already has an emotional attachment to his hypothesis.  But that is often rationalization over rationale.

I cannot prove this theory about the way people think so irrationally. I could use logical reasoning to defend it, but it would be irrational to do so, since I would be defending the theory that my defense is in fact merely an irrational attempt to rationalize conclusions I am actually defending for emotional rather than rational reasons.  Proving rationally that I am irrational would not make a lot of sense. Bewildered yet? Bemused?

If I am convinced that we are irrational, but for irrational reasons, does that then, by the double negative, actually make me rational? No.

So we end up with the fact that people hold to some particular position with great emotion and tenacity, but without any real reason. They create reasons, but they could (and would) just as easily create opposite reasons should they for whatever reason have seized upon the opposite point of view.

There are Ford people, Chevy people, Toyota people, Honda people, Volvo people (that last one is virtual proof of irrationally - but that's just my irrational opinion): for whatever reasons, they have developed an attachment to a particular make of car and find reasons to feel that their chosen make is in some way superior.

There are PC (Windows) people and Mac people. Both of them view the others with amused superiority. "Objectively," each has pros and cons, but try to get a Mac true believer to admit that. And then there are the geeks and nerds who are convinced that Linux (or something else most of us have never heard of) is the only rational operating system.

Note that when I say "objectively," all I am really saying is that my own (possibly irrational) opinion is (to me) obviously correct.

There are Democrats and there are Republicans. Each think the country is going to hell because of the other. Both are probably right correct. In spite of the fact that "objectively" all political parties have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not possess any solutions that will create peace, prosperity, justice, balance the budget, run good schools, or even fill potholes or catch stray dogs, still people passionately believe that their chosen party getting elected would hugely improve the country or the world. Apparently, whatever party there might be of which that is true has never won an election. There are many adherents to those minor parties that never win elections who are absolutely convinced that is true. We call them crackpots.  They think everybody else is crazy.  They are correct, but they are also crazy.

There are USC fans, and UCLA fans. I am a USC fan, even though I have worked for UCLA for the last 25 years. Once a Trojan, always a Trojan. Why? Because I caught the fanatacism going to school there and playing in the marching band. I'm not saying there is any better reason for being a UCLA fan. Far from it. That would be just as irrational, except that it could be in my own self interest to have my employer making lots of money off a successful football team (fat chance). I could give you lots of seemingly rational reasons for being a USC fan (starting with, they can actually, sometimes, win football games) but that would really just be rationalization, not rationale.  And anyway, what is at all rational about sports?

Obviously this applies to religion, but that's a whole 'nother blog.

What never ceases to amaze me is how hard it is to get this point across to people. They may get the idea in some way, but when it comes to applying it their particular pet theories, they just can't see any possibility whatsoever that they might not have the whole truth about it.  That people are so unable to recognize their own irrationality is the perfect demonstration of their irrationality.

I think that the more people can recognize their insanity, the more sane they actually might be. The truly insane are the ones with absolutely no doubts: who are convinced that they are perfectly sane and everybody else is crazy. Or, as a good friend of mine is fond if saying: "When you decide that you are sane and everybody else is crazy, don't tell anyone."

Now many readers (if there are any) may be thinking, well, yes, we all do some crazy things at times, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.  I don't think so.  We are not just crazy once in a while.  Fundamentally, our entire lives at their very root are driven by passions, obsessions, mania, assumptions, presumptions, prejudices, lusts, desires, neuroses, wishes, dreams, and delusions that have no rational basis.  Just because psychologists ignore those forms of insanity that don't overly affect one's ability to survive does not make the rest of us truly sane or rational.  Everything about your life is based on choices for which the rational basis is at best highly disputable, if not absent entirely.  While our conclusions do occasionally follow logically from our irrational assumptions, that does not make us rational or sane. It takes logical thinking to play Soduko, but there is no logical reason to play it at all.  It is just "for fun."  The terrorist who blows people up, and the physician who patches them up, may both act out of conclusions that may indeed follow logically from their different basic assumptions.

Rationality, and sanity, may  truly be over-rated. 

Life is irrational.  I can see no rational reason in science or religion for life to exist, except that possibly, God got lonely.  Would that have been rational of God?

Love is totally irrational, but Love is the greatest thing of all.  At least, a lot of people think so.  But then who's rational enough to truly say?

The best things in life: love, joy, beauty, music, sex, chocolate, are all emotional, not rational.  What is beauty anyway?  It is "in the eye of the beholder."  Often, the best parts of life are the irrational parts that we call "play," while the the worst are the rational parts we call "work."

But carrying this to the "logical" conclusion (ha!) one would conclude that there is nothing we can be totally sure of, nothing we can totally believe in, nothing we can have absolute faith in, nothing worth being passionate about: It causes me to tend to stand aside as a bemused bystander, unengaged in any cause; seeing the irrationality all around me, and unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to anything. The safest position to take is no position because I can never be wrong. But then, I also can never be right.  Except, of course, when I get emotionally (i.e. irrationally) involved in a position of some sort. Then it's different!

Perhaps instead of being unsure of everything, it's better just to choose something, anything, and get passionate about it, even if you can't "objectively" prove that it is going to improve the world. Maybe being passionate about a lost cause or wrong cause is a happier way of life than having no cause or purpose at all. Perhaps Don Quixote was actually happier insanely tilting at windmills than his sane servant Sancho. I find that idea attractive in certain ways, but hard to adopt whole heartedly, because obviously, that's the way I am: Indecisive, bewildered, bemused; and it is hard to pretend to myself that I have no doubts about something when I do.  Many people get passionate about things that they fundamentally know are useless: Hobbies, collections, games, sports, Facebook.  Just pick a passion and go with it.

I long ago concluded that decisiveness requires the ability to come to a conclusion and then ignore all evidence to the contrary. That seems objectively like a bad thing, but in fact, those people get way more stuff accomplished than those like me who can't put on the blinders as easily. It is safer to stay detached and uncommitted than to plunge ahead knowing you could be going the wrong way. That same friend I mentioned also likes to say "Do something, even if it's wrong." Or as my elementary school orchestra teacher said: "If you're going to make a mistake, make a good one!" In many cases, it is probably better to just pick a direction and go that way. At least, you will have an adventure getting lost, and at least you will get somewhere, even if it wasn't where you thought you wanted to go.  But rational?  Not.

Rationally, blogging doesn't make a lot of sense. But who cares? Nothing in life is really all that rational anyway. I'm plunging ahead with this, just for the adventure.  Or whatever.

So, there you have me in a nutshell (or nut house). Bemused. Taking a viewpoint of tolerant amusement while pretending to a position of superior rationality, but knowing I must be just as irrational as everybody else.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rowing the Life Boat Ashore (Hallelujah)

The week got better. Thanks in part to the many of you who related good experiences with chemotherapy, and in part to Lyn talking to her oncology “team” members and hearing that the side effects were unlikely to be anywhere near as bad as the warning pamphlet made them sound, we had the life boat back on an even keel and got to rowing.

I think those warning leaflets need a warning label on them: “Caution – Reading This Information Could Be Hazardous To Your Mental Health. Read only under a doctor’s supervision.” I wonder how many people read the drug warning stuff and decide cyanide might be quicker and less painful. First you go meet with all the professionals who are very reassuring and going out of their way to make sure you are optimistic and expecting a good outcome, and then at home you read the warning label on the medication and that undoes hours and hours of counseling. I think the warning label trend may have gone too far.

Warning: Getting out of bed is hazardous. Staying in bed is more hazardous. Deal with it. (Do not remove this tag under penalty of some other hazard). And by the way, this mattress is either highly flammable and hazardous, or has been treated with fire retardant chemicals that could be hazardous. So much for getting any sleep. Maybe that justifies why we actually sleep on a waterbed: less flammable. Sleeping is hazardous. Not sleeping is worse. The news had a report last week that sleeping with pets is hazardous. Probably not nearly as hazardous as sleeping with people. I suspect the bigger hazard from the pet is tripping over the stupid cat on the way to the bathroom.

So, she took the first batch of chemotherapy pills this morning at breakfast. I kept waiting for her to break out in hives, her hands and feet to swell up and for her to run desperately for the bathroom, but nothing happened. The scariest thing that happened at breakfast was reading the Times. No guarantees that there won’t be side effects later on, but, as the guy falling from the skyscraper kept saying on the way down: “OK so far.” (Sorry. I’m trying to stay upbeat here, but my natural inclination to irony has to get out somehow).

She gets irradiated this afternoon. Funny that radiation is both a major cause of cancer and also a major way of curing it. Sounds kind of homeopathic (and ironic). Like, they don’t want her to take vitamins during the treatment because vitamins are too healthful: The anti-oxidents might counteract the effect of the chemotherapy, which is intended to kill unwanted parts of her body. For the next 9 months or so, the doctor is prescribing junk food (well, sort of). The diet that was supposed to prevent the cancer is not at all the diet that is supposed to help treat it. And they don’t want her to lose any weight. How often does a doctor tell you that? Eat white bread, potatoes, white rice and ice cream, skip the fruits and veggies and don’t lose any weight. Now that’s my kind of doctor!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Complaining about the life boat

Yesterday was not a good day. Lyn received the prescribed chemotherapy pills in the mail. Finding this package on the front porch wasn't nearly as exciting as mail order deliveries usually are. But the worst part was inside: The warning sheet that went with the pills sounded really awful. The bad side effects, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, sores, and all sorts of other possible bad things sounded way more likely than the doctors made them sound.

The warning sheet was all about how to minimize the effects or cope with them, not just warn about the possibility. I don't know what to say / think / do. One day at a time is OK until you have to take a poison pill. That's just a hard pill to swallow. It also brought home the seriousness of the problem. If the cure is that bad, it tells you how bad the disease could be.

I wish the doctors could be more clear in predicting the likely situation, but doctors don't like to make predictions. Your mileage (or nausea) may vary. Makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. Lyn was upset, and there wasn't really anything I could say that was the least bit helpful. It was just a real downer.

Should we hope for the best, or, as I usually say, the key to happiness is low expectations? Smile, things could be worse? At least there's a cure. Rather than feel bad about the side effects, we should happy that the medicine exists and works, right? At least there is the expectation of coming out on the other side of it, even if it's tough for a while. There are lots of cheerful ways of looking at this. It isn't that hard to say those cheerful things, but it isn't that easy to truly feel cheerful about it.

Grumping about the side effects sounds like complaining about the discomfort of the life boat instead of being thankful there was a life boat, even if we're hanging over the side of the boat puking up seaweed. But, we don't know. We can't tell how it's going to be next week. This week, we are still OK. No use being miserable this week, just because of the possibility of misery next week.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where the sun don't shine

I've thought for years about starting a blog. The thing that has stopped me is that so much of my bemusement tends to be dark or cynical. I'm pretty much a Dilbert. Some of my favorite little one liners:

They said, "Smile. Things could be worse." So, I smiled, and sure enough, things got worse.

The key to happiness is low expectations.

I'm thinking that bringing you down is not going to keep you coming back eager to read more. As all politicians know, to sell yourself, you have to tell people what they want to hear.

So, what did you want to hear? The wisdom that comes with experience? The meaning of life? A more optimistic key to happiness? Funny pet antics?

Anyway, I'm just gonna start writing. Here goes:

My wife has cancer. There. I said it. I don't like to put it that way, because it has such a awful ring to it: A connotation of incurability. The doctor (one of many doctors on her "team") says he can surgically remove it, after chemo and radiation, with more chemo afterwards, and lots of other unattractive junk along the way. But just saying: "She has cancer" is just too daunting. It seems better to just call it a tumor. Yes, it is a "malignant" tumor. Still, I just don't like using the word cancer.

This particular cancer is in a particularly un-nice place, a place sometimes referred to as "where the sun don't shine." OK, have you heard the song about the colorectal surgeon? If not, ask me to send it to you. That's about as funny as anything having the word "colorectal" in it could be.

I don't feel real jokey about this at all. I'm trying to decide the best strategy among denial, ignorance, prayer, or the "one-day-at-a-time" philosophy recommended by her "Colorectal Team." Only thing about the one-day-at-a-time thing is, are they saying that because there's no use worrying about things you can't control, or are they saying that because there may not be a whole lot more days to worry about? I'm going to trust that it's the former.

If you ever wanted to be a member of a "team" I'll bet it sure wasn't this kind of a team. Softball team, volleyball, soccer, bowling, something like that, yes. Colorectal cancer team, no. If I'd known this team was choosing up sides, I'd have hid in the locker room longer that day. I'm not really all that much into team sports anyway.

The Colorectal Team includes a GP, a gastroenterologist, a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiaton oncologist, a nutritionist, various nursing specialists, a "navigator" to try to help us maneuver among all those, and potentially even an acupuncturist. I would never have guessed that my needle-paranoid wife would voluntarily pay to get stuck with needles, but she does.

The information on colorectal cancer gives a list of "risk factors," of which she basically has none. They also say that something like 75% of people with colorectal cancer have none of the risk factors, which means that really, they haven't got a clue what the real risk factors are. I don't like trusting people to predict the future who were demonstrably unable to predict the past - it's like all these economists who totally missed the signs of the "recession" we are now in giving their predictions of the what the economy is likely to do over the next few years. If they were that far off on the last recession, they probably haven't a clue what's going to happen next either. But I digress.

We met the various Colorectal Team members this week. All were really nice and helpful, but to be perfectly honest, I'd rather not have had the need to meet them. We had three hours of meetings with them on Monday, and it was exhausting. The doctors were very reassuring, and seemingly confident that (no pun intended) in the end they will put Lyn back together functioning nearly as before. I hope that is not just telling us what we want to hear. If the truth were different would they tell us? Again, I'm going to trust their reassurances.

The big problem with their recommended one-day-at-a-time philosophy is that it is pretty unemotional. The advantage to it also is that it is pretty unemotional. You just do what you have to do, one step at a time; one day at a time; you don't stop to get worried, afraid, upset, angry, depressed, whatever. Don't ruminate too much. Just keep plugging along. But in the back of my mind, there's this lurking feeling. I guess there's no use going there, but it is there.

My inherent bemusement and indecisiveness may be a good thing, as it tends to work well with one-day-at-a-time. In the main, my feeling is that the word "cancer" is too inherently loaded with emotion. It tends to define your life. Lance Armstrong is defined by it, as much as he is defined by winning the Tour de France. But he has defined himself by it as a survivor of it, not as patient in current treatment. I'm not sure I want our life to be defined by Lyn's cancer. I think not. I think it is better to have a life aside from the disease. On the other hand, I don't want to be in denial about the extent to which it does affect us both.

I don't really know what to think about all of this. I can't sort out my feelings. So, I thought, well, maybe I could write it down. Maybe even someone else might find my bewildered ramblings helpful in their situation (not sure how, but who knows?). Or, maybe it's just a way of venting, of unloading the junk that's running around in my head.

So, this may or may not be a good reason to start a blog, but it's the reason I happen to have, so I'm going with it. Take it or leave it. I think my thoughts are going to be more scattered and dis-jointed than usual, but that's what you get reading free stuff on the internet.