A Love Story

It was the early nineties and the first time I saw Cortni, I was blown away. She had eyes like a cat with a regal aire that commanded the attention of the young men in the office. Carla, a co-worker, and I were across the room one day watching this phenomenon. She leaned over to me and whispered, “look at those wolves.” I turned to her and said “I’ll get her.” And I did. Three weeks and three days after our first date, we rode to the Jefferson Memorial on my motorcycle and I proposed to her on the steps amidst the cherry blossoms and white stone majesty of my favorite monument.

Three and a half years later it ended.

Because that’s not a love story. It’s a fairy tale. It’s believing marketers selling an idea as reality, the movies portraying starry eyed fantasies and commercials for diamonds. It’s believing there actually are white knights who can ride in with their trusty steeds and carry the princess off into the sunset. It’s thinking that reality can be sustained on the vaporous dreams of storybooks. But a stone doesn’t have magical power to keep the bonds of commitment strong. It’s a stone no matter how much was spent on it. What creates a real love story are the little things. Not grand gestures or superficial displays of affection. It’s not quality time. It’s Time.

A real love story is something wholly different, infinite and more there.

Diane was stunning and brilliant. She was the opposite of the everyone who had come before. She even intimidated me a little with her outgoing, carefree attitude. Before our first date she was moving a hundred miles an hour in her jean shorts and ripped Motley Crue t-shirt while I waited for her to get ready. But there was something compelling about her. Something underneath. The independence, the eyes-wide-open intelligence and the supreme confidence in who she was. No one could tell her who to be or how to act. She was who she was and she would never apologize for it. I was a goner.

Within a year, it was clear we wanted to spend a life together. Not because of fascination or infatuation, but because it just kinda made sense. We belonged together and everything we believed and how we saw the world matched. Not the same, but like two clues that fit to make a whole picture. As cliché as it sounds, she truly did complete me.

But this love story is not what comes to mind when you think about Valentine’s Day. It’s not flowers, chocolate and jewels. It’s not showing appreciation just one day a year because “you’re supposed to.” It’s kind of plain. This story is about being there any and every time she needs me. It’s making toast and poached eggs every single morning and bringing it to her in bed because for nine months those mornings were hard and she deserved every ounce of energy I could devote. It’s about supporting her when she’s afraid and trusting her when I am. It is a love story in which I make her laugh every day– even if it’s at me– and laughing right along with her. It’s a story about celebrating her triumphs– even if it’s just when the new dish she wanted to try turns out perfectly. It’s a story of listening. My love story is peppered with conversations about nothing or everything and being able to say anything in either kind. In the pages of my book, we are having these conversations still, after twenty-two years. My love story tells of believing with all my heart that this one person is the person I find comfort with today, tomorrow and onward. The theme is talking. The plot is small touches; like the tap on my nose to dissipate the static before kissing every time we leave each other’s side.

My love story is not unique, hopefully. And it’s not filled with poetic words. It’s simple. I love Diane with everything I am. Still, and forever. Not because someone tells me to or so I can put it on the bumper of my car. Not because I married her and that’s the way married people are supposed to be. It’s because she has been there for me in my darkest hour and during my greatest triumphs as I have been for her. We have participated in each other’s lives to the fullest; in the truest meaning of “for better or for worse.” We are constantly exploring and there is always so much to know and learn so we do it together.

Diane is my all, my everything. She is my journey and my destination. And after twnety-two years, as this story is still being written, whenever she walks into the room or I hear her voice as she approaches, I am breathless.

The Myth of Quality Time

_MG_0169About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Living the Hyperopic Life.   It was a dissertation on the ideas of balance, living for now, living on purpose and making sure, when you looked back at the end, you are certain in your heart that it was a life well-lived.  One part dealt with taking time and making it worth something.   Blocks of time, snippets of time, anything you could carve out between the important things and responsibilities you had.   These little bits of time, strung together, would weave the tapestry of your life.  The more meaningful the time spent, the tighter the weave.

If you could paint a picture of this tapestry, it would not be pretty.  It isn’t one of those neatly woven, ornate fabrics you see in stores.  The resemblance is more like a rag but with different kinds of thread and materials all woven together in a tangle of structure.  It has every color you could imagine (if you do it right) and all manner of materials; smooth velvets,  tough, yet solid and comforting denims, whimsical tassels, maybe even a few bits of aluminum foil here and there or splinters of wood stuck in the folds; whatever you fancy in your imagination could represent  whatever it is you did to create it.  This is your life and you add to that tapestry each time you took hold of and lived your life on purpose.

That’s what it should look like.   But take a moment to consider what all these bits and pieces of time mean?  Where are they and by what measure do you define them?

Every so often you’ll hear the phrase Quality Time.   The basic premise of this idea, as I understand it, is that if you do something really splendid with someone you care about, the time spent can be labeled Quality Time and that particular block of time will be worth more time than it actually took.  Bank enough Quality Time and you’ve got a whole lifetime in no time at all.   It seems that Quality Time evolved as people worked longer hours, both parents had to work or someone decided to work a whole lot now, so they could enjoy themselves later.  Quality Time gave permission to spend less time with  those people you really should be spending time with so you had more time to do the things you really wanted to do.   More me time, maybe?    Suddenly, there’s more time to chase the money, work late hours, disregard the children, take a vacation  and leave the kids at home (don’t get me started with that last one.)

I do not presume to know how people work out their lives.   Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own interpretation of what makes good time spent.  Who am I to tell them what to do and never would I presume to do that.   Each of us is different and if it’s really working for you, don’t stop.   Because it’s rare that we find that butter zone of being able to make it all work out right and it’s always good policy to ride that mellow when you find it.

A person has to be honest with themselves, though, in assessing whether it’s working or not.  You have to say it’s fat when it’s fat and don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s muscle.   Without that naked honesty, you won’t see if there’s something wrong or if you’re making excuses by using Quality Time as permission to neglect those people who should be occupying important moments in your life.

All the time you spend with someone has the same length and you can’t compress it like calories are compressed into high fructose corn syrup, sweetening the time you do with the hope of making it better somehow.  Time does not distill.  What matters is what you fill it with and how.  Whether you’re winging off to London to do the Europe thing or sitting at the kitchen bar telling them it’s OK to draw outside the lines if they want, the minutes are 60 seconds long and the days have 1440 minutes.  All day long.  You’re there, present either way, and that’s where the value is.

It seems to me, more often than not, Quality Time is what people use as an excuse not to do the little things.  “Oh, I spent some quality time earlier with Bill watching a movie so I’m going golfing with my buddies now.”  Quality Time is  a myth.  It’s cheating.

I truly believe it’s not Quality Time you want to shoot for, but time.  Just time.  If a particular moment  only lasts 20 minutes doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing or even a great thing. Maybe it lasts an hour and during that hour you only did a few things that didn’t amount to much.  Where was the focus?   On just the two of you?  Sounds to me like that’s all the quality you might need.  The world moves pretty fast these days.   Two minutes or two hours can really be just the same in terms of value as long as the focus has the purity of you wanting to be there and joy in just paying attention to each other.

Have you seen that movie, City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan?  Earlier in the movie Meg Ryan’s character had been frustrated by the fact that she and her doctor-boyfriend didn’t spend any real time together.  In one later scene, he comes into the locker room at the hospital and sits down opposite Ryan on a bench.   He stares meaningfully into her eyes and is silent.   She looks at him suspiciously and then asks “what are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m spending time with you.”   It’s a joke really.  Here he was trying to manufacture Quality Time.  Is the time you spend with people you care about like that?   An exercise out of a book or something you do out of obligation?   Pardon me for saying so, but if that’s the case, you’re doing it wrong.

Did you turn away from the tourist attraction and taste the light breeze that brings the scent of the ocean off Sydney Harbor?  Do you fully appreciate the serendipitous turn you took down a narrow alley that brought you to the tavern with the best bangers and mash you’d ever had (once you figured out what the hell bangers and mash were?)  Did you take a breath and recognize the fantastically special moment you just shared together whatever it may have been?

It’s this nuanced kind of existence that fills in all the little chinks and cracks that may otherwise undermine a good well-lived life.  And if you’ll forgive me the mixed metaphor, it’s this kind of living which creates the many-textured, multi-colored tapestry that is only best when it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve ever seen.  Pausing to hear the humming in the other room of a known or made up tune;  Listening to your son when he says, “I finally got the definition I wanted.”  Even if you ask, “In your life?” and he responds “No, in my arm muscles,” you get it and smile right at him.  He may not show it, but he’s paying attention and will always remember that.

We went to Hawaii this year on a very rare and special family vacation (the best kind.  It would not be the same if we went all the time.)  We tasted tropical delights, saw sunsets that made our hearts ache, swam with dolphins, giant sea turtles and the vast Pacific Ocean seeing tropical fish of any color you could imagine … It was fantastic.   A few months later, I asked my eldest son what the best part of the summer was.  I fully expected that rare kind of family vacation to be the answer.   But to my surprise and delight, he proclaimed it to be the building of a wooden airplane with grandpa.  Time.

The folks who are relying on the Myth of Quality Time as a measure of their parenting, brotherhood,           sisterhood, whatever-hood are missing it.   If we leave out the fun and the completeness of participating to the fullest in the lives of the people we care about, we’re straining and stretching the connections we as humans thrive on.  Those connections become more  gossamer and fragile; more vulnerable to any slight or misunderstanding.

It takes practice to get better at anything.   They say to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.  So, start with 10,000 minutes (about a week) of practice and maybe get in a really good minute.  Then go for two.  And suddenly, as you spend your lives together you may build such great emotional muscles and such a strong bond that the practice required starts to fall away and you have the well-trained, fine-tuned relationship you know you should.

Talking or being quiet.  Riding in the car to music lessons, celebrating an essay well-written, an song well-played, a joke that went over well with new friends in school.  All of it matters as much as – or perhaps more than – those big trips and expensive gifts.

Finally, consider music.  If you think about it, there is no music without the space between the notes.   Some would say music is the space between the notes.  So, too, is time.  Quality Time is not the big stuff.  It is the silence between the notes, the nuance of the phrasing in the music that is our lives.  Because although the notes themselves are great (trips and adventures), when the music stops, silence is all you have and then you need to be able to fill that silence (or not) with your thoughts and dreams and desires and hopes or whatever comes to mind.

What does your tapestry look like so far and how does the music it makes sound?

Santa Physics

A note about this essay: It’s not mine. And it’s been around for quite some time. If I recall correctly, I’ve known about this from the early 90s when email kinda first became main stream. But I haven’t seen it around lately, always liked it for its mix of serious physical principles and dry humor and so I thought I’d dredge it up and post it for anyone who might not have read it before (although that might not be possible with all the chain mail that has gone around over the last 15 odd years.) We’ll see. If you’ve read it…enjoy it again, if not, have fun.

No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
There are two billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t appear to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and

Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.
Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.
This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about

.78 miles per household, a total trip of 75^12 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.
This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
If every one of the 91.8 million homes with good children were to put out a single chocolate chip cookie and an 8 ounce glass of 2% milk, the total calories (needless to say other vitamins and minerals) would be approximately 225 calories (100 for the cookie, give or take, and 125 for the milk, give or take). Multiplying the number of calories per house by the number of homes (225 x 91.8 x 1000000), we get the total number of calories Santa consumes that night, which is 20,655,000,000 calories. To break it down further, 1 pound is equal to 3500 calories. Dividing our total number of calories by the number of calories in a pound (20655000000/3500) and we get the number of pounds Santa gains, 5901428.6, which is 2950.7 tons.

The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (two pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (see above) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload (not even counting the weight of the sleigh) to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth II . 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each.

In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

Santa Physics – A Rebuttal

Originally posited by Jim Mantle, Waterloo Maple Software

Come on, ya gotta believe! I mean, if you can handle flying furry animals, then it’s only a small step to the rest. For example:

  1. As admitted, it is possible that a flying reindeer can be found. I would agree that it would be quite an unusual find, but they might exist.
  2. You’ve relied on cascading assumptions. For example, you have assumed a uniform distribution of children across homes. Toronto/Yorkville, or Toronto/Cabbagetown, or other yuppie neighbourhoods, have probably less than the average (and don’t forget the DINK and SINK homes (Double Income No Kids, Single Income No Kids)), while the families with 748 starving children that they keep showing on Vision TV while trying to pick my pocket would skew that 15% of homes down a few percent.
  3. You’ve also assumed that each home that has kids would have at least one good kid. What if anti-selection applies, and homes with good kids tend to have more than their share of good kids, and other homes have nothing except terrorists in diapers? Let’s drop that number of homes down a few more percent.
  4. Santa would have to Fedex a number of packages ahead of time, since he would not be able to fly into Air Force Bases, or into tower-controlled areas near airports. He’s get shot at over certain sections of the Middle East, and the no-fly zones in Iraq, so he’d probably use DHL there. Subtract some more homes.
  5. I just barely passed Physics and only read Stephen Hawking’s book once, but I recall that there is some Einsteinian Theory that says time does strange things as you move faster. In fact, when you go faster than the speed of light time runs backward, if you do a straight line projection, connect the dots and just ignore any singularity you might find right at the speed of light. And don’t say you can’t go faster than the speed of light because I’ve seen it done on TV. Jean-Luc doesn’t have reindeer but he does have matter-antimatter warp engines and a holodeck and that’s good enough for me.So Santa could go faster than light, visit all the good children which are not uniformly distributed by either concentration in each home or by number of children per household, and get home before he left so he can digest all those stale cookies and warm milk yech.
  6. Aha, you say, Jean-Luc has matter-antimatter warp engines, Santa only has reindeer, where does he get the power to move that fast!

You calculated the answer! The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy. Per second. Each. This is an ample supply of energy for the maneuvering, acceleration, etc, that would be required of the loaded sleigh. The reindeer don’t evaporate or incinerate because of this energy, they accelerate. What do you think they have antlers for, fighting over females? Think of antlers as furry solar array panels.

  1. If that’s not enough, watch the news on the 24th at 11 o’clock. NORAD (which may be one of the few government agencies with more than 3 initials in it’s name and therefore it must be more trustworthy than the rest) tracks Santa every year and I’ve seen the radar shots of him approaching my house from the direction of the North Pole. They haven’t bombarded him yet, so they must believe too, right?

Additional considerations to the original Santa Physics theory

Author unknown

Several key points are overlooked by this callous, amateurish “study.”

  1. Flying reindeer: As is widely known (due to the excellent historical documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the flying reindeer are not a previously unknown species of reindeer, but were in fact given the power of flight due to eating magic acorns. As is conclusively proven in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (a no punches pulled look at life in Santa’s village), this ability has bred true in subsequent generations of reindeer, obviously the magic acorns imprinted their power on a dominant gene sequence within the reindeer DNA strand.
  2. Number of households: This figure overlooks two key facts. First of all, the first major schism in the Church split the Eastern Churches, centered in Byzantium, from the Western, which remained centered in Rome. This occurred prior to the Gregorian correction to the Julian calendar. The Eastern churches (currently called Orthodox Churches) do not recognize the Gregorian correction for liturgical events, and their Christmas is as a result several days after the Western Churches’. Santa gets two shots at delivering toys.Secondly, the figure of 3.5 children per household is based on the gross demographic average, which includes households with no children at all. The number of children per household, when figured as an average for households with children, would therefore have to be adjusted upward. Also, the largest single Christian denomination is Roman Catholic, who, as we all know, breed like rabbits. If you don’t believe me, ask my four brothers and two sisters, they’ll back me up. Due to the predominance of Catholics within Christian households, the total number of households containing Christian children would have to be adjusted downward to reflect the overloading of Catholics beyond a standard deviation from the median.Also, the assertion that each home would contain at least one good child would be reasonable enough if there were in fact an even 3.5 children per household. However, since the number of children per household is distributed integrally, there are a significant number (on the order of several million) of one child Christian households. Even though only children are notoriously spoiled and therefore disproportionately inclined towards being naughty, since it’s the holidays we’ll be generous and give them a fifty-fifty chance of being nice. This removes one half of the single child households from Santa’s delivery schedule, which has already been reduced by the removal of the Orthodox households from the first delivery run.
  3. Santa’s delivery run (speed, payload, etc.): These all suffer from the dubious supposition that there is only one Santa Claus. The name “Santa” is obviously either Spanish or Italian, two ethnic groups which are both overwhelmingly Catholic. The last name Claus suggests a joint German/Italian background. His beginnings, battling the Burgermeister Meisterburger, suggest he grew up in Bavaria (also predominantly Catholic). The Kaiser style helmets of the Burgermeister’s guards, coupled with the relative isolation of the village, suggest that his youth was at the very beginning of Prussian influence in Germany. Thus, Santa and Mrs. Claus have been together for well over one hundred years. If you think that after a hundred years of living at the North Pole with nights six months long that they remain childless, you either don’t know Catholics or are unaware of the failure rate of the rhythm method. There have therefore been over five generations of Clauses, breeding like Catholics for over one hundred years. Since they are Catholic, their exponential population increase would obviously have a gain higher than the world population as a whole. There have therefore been more than enough new Santas to overcome the population increase of the world. So in fact, Santa has an easier time of it now than he did when he first started out.

Santa dead, indeed; some people will twist any statistic to “prove” their cynical theory.

The Lottery

There is the old saw that says the lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math.  And, to be honest, that is the absolute truth, albeit a bit harsh.   Sure, people win.  But considering that most of the time it’s a single person and there are millions who play, those are pretty long odds.  Besides, it’s not about how many people play.   You knew that right?  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But there has been a recent uptick in the revenues that lotteries across the country are seeing.   It’s really no surprise with the economy in the tank like it is.   People just want a little of that magic to take away the sting of the headlines or that mortgage bill or the feeling that their retirement savings are just not going to cut it in the end.

But what about that math?

Wait, time out!  I know what you’re saying.  Here he goes off on some math thing again, but bare with me here.  And all you pro-lottery, “hey, I like playing and maybe I WILL win” people, read it all.  It’s not ALL math.

First, let’s consider the odds of winning the lottery.  And let’s use the big numbers because a) I like big numbers (especially the ones with dollar signs in front…ba dum dump) and b) it makes my point seem more important than some random essay on some blog somewhere.

In the big one, Powerball, the number of ways the 5 numbers on a given ticket can match the numbers drawn is figured out using the pre-calculus study of combinations and permutations., If the order of the numbers matters, it’s permutation we care about, if the order doesn’t matter, as in the lottery, it’s a combination.   The formula for this is:



A pretty innocuous looking thing isn’t it.   Two letters and a few exclamation points, a few horizontal lines … meh, what’s so taxing about that?  Well, it’s actually pretty powerful and the answer for increasing values of n and r gets pretty big, pretty fast.   What’s it mean?  Well, let’s say n is 4, the answer to 4! is 1x2x3x4=24.  Simple right? So whenever you see that ! notation, that means take all the numbers up to n and multiply them together.   n is the number of items in the group of things from which we’re choosing, which in the case of Powerball is 59 little white balls with numbers on them and r is the number of those balls we choose from those 59 (without duplicates, since once a ball is taken out of the blowing air it is not put back in).



In a spreadsheet, you could put that in as =FACT(59)/(FACT(5)*(FACT(59-5))).   Microsoft Excel has a nice function COMBIN() which you can use to figure the above as COMBIN(59,5).  You get the same results.  If you tried it you likely got 5,006,386.   So in lottery speak, that ‘s a 1 in 5,006,386 chance of winning.  This doesn’t quite match what the lottery says, but there’s a little more to the odds and that’s more math than you want and, hell, you may be beyond your limit already as it is.   So let’s just go with a little over 5 million.

People look at that and don’t really comprehend that that’s 1 divided by 5,006,386 which is 0.000000199745.  Try putting 1/5,006,386 into a spreadsheet it gives you 1.99745E-07 which is scientific notation telling you to move the decimal seven places left.   Seven!  But say you format the cell to a number with two decimal places, it changes to 0.00.   Sure, you could click the little decimal place icon so that it added zeros to the right of the decimal but you’d have to click it 5 times to get a number other than zero and that number is just a 2.   So let’s face it, 0.000000199745 might as well be 0.00 which kinda means the chances of matching those five balls is zero.

Moreover, to get the jackpot, the really big money, Powerball throws in that red ball, which adds color to all that white but maybe also makes you think that it’s got some kind of magic (it is powerball, after all) or that it improves your odds of winning.   That red ball is selected from 39 red balls, another combination multiplied by the five million number above.   If you do that math, you’re looking at 1 in 195,249,054 (COMBIN(59,5)*COMBIN(39,1) ) which makes your odds of winning even more zero than before.

The bottom line is to win the big jackpot in Powerball, your chances are zero, to win the next big one (matching just the 5 white balls for about $200k) your chances are zero and the next one are pretty much the same.  It gets a little better after that but not much.

But that’s only statistically speaking, isn’t it?  It doesn’t address the individual.  Statistics are funny things.   When I was studying math in college my statistics professor said, “you can make statistics mean anything you want.” And in most cases, that’s true.  Numbers have weight that has been ingrained in our psyche since we first learned to count…numbers are magic and if Harry Potter taught us anything, you can make magic do some serious stuff that shouldn’t be possible.  This manipulation of statistics is one of the very reasons people play the lottery.  We tend to talk ourselves into the idea that we’re going to win.  And then some wise guy comes along and tells you that you have a better chance of dying in an airplane (1 in 354,319),  getting struck by lightning (1 in 225,107) or even dying in a legal execution (1 in 3,441,325).

And yet…

It’s all just numbers and statistics and statistics can say anything you want.   Right?  Like, maybe they can also say “What if?”  What if I am the “1”.  And everyone else is the “in 195,249,053.”

Is it just about the numbers?  Is it just about plunking down your one dollar of hard earned cash (no credit cards excepted for purchase of lottery tickets, please) and then checking to see if you won?  I don’t think so.

For just a dollar, you can buy a dream.  It might last a day or a few days, but it’s there, tooling around the landscape of your mind tapping on things like that motorcycle you’ve been eyeing and the words “debt free” and the emotional satisfaction of helping out Mom or Dad; brother or sister.   Exploring the alleys where you don’t go where there are complete strangers that suddenly have smiles on their faces because you helped them out in just a small but significant way.  All because you pulled a dollar out of your wallet on a whim.  Following that dream around the byways of your head as you think about that little slip of paper in your wallet is kind of fun.   It’s a great way to take a little Dandelion Break.  You play the lottery and you get a little of that magic that numbers have.  Magic that can make you smile.

But there’s the reality of what that dollar goes to, also.   The money the state makes from the lottery (did you know they’ve been holding lotteries since the 1700s?) goes to things like open space, parks and recreation, state parks,  school health and safety programs and probably a bunch of other stuff I was too lazy to look up.  It’s kinda like giving a buck to a favorite charity.  A really big church auction only the church is right outside your door; a few blocks down and up the trail where that deer, elk or coyote happens to cross your path.

You think about the things you would by, the places you would go, the payoffs you want to make.  There’s also that fantasy of telling the boss to kiss off and making a really stellar exit.  Since I am my boss, that won’t work for me, but plenty of people have thought it.  I’ve told myself to go pound sand plenty of times already and I’m still here.

And then sometimes the philanthropy kicks in.  For me it’s wanting to satisfy my Superman complex and swoop in to save someone’s day.   At random.  On a whim.  Just like the act that got me to this point in the first place.  Settling some stranger’s debt, just to see them smile and then walking away without telling them who I am because it’s not about me.  It’s always about them and making someone’s life just a little (or a lot, if you can) better.

And finally, because dreaming is never a bad thing.  Whether it’s about the riches of the lottery or just the general run-of-the-mill fantasy of being able to stop and clear the decks to prepare for the next adventure.  Or perhaps, it’s that thought of making the hell out of someone’s day.  It’s just a break.   And we all need a break sometimes.

A Hard Lesson Learned

There is that saying that if it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger.   That’s what people say, anyway, right?  And if you learned from a bad experience, at least you got something out of it…yeah, that’s cool, but when you’re in the midst of that hard lesson and you DO nearly get killed, I’m not sure that’s in the forefront of your mind.

So, as experiences go, getting punched in the face is one of the more unpleasant ones and one of those times where you’re not thinking, “ah, can’t wait to find out what I learn from this.”

A punch in any general proximity to your head is fairly crappy and multiple hits takes it beyond horrible.   Your head’s hard and for a reason.  The brain is an important organ and needs a lot of protection.   Thus the up-armored nature of the skull bone.  I guess, too, that’s why it hurts a lot when you’re hit there.  A not so subtle message that you’re doing something wrong on the quest for survival.  Pain tends to be our body’s way of teaching us lessons, but it is up to the individual whether they learn from those lessons or not.

In my early twenties, I was feeling the invincibility that was left over from my late teens.   It had started to wear off as I contemplated being the responsible adult and making a living for myself.  But there was still that glow of power, the feeling of mastery of the world and the testosterone induced need to show people what’s under the hood.   It seems the norm in sports, business or really any opportunity that calls for demonstration of “maleness”;   Out of college, on one’s own and ready to take on the world.

And so it was that I found myself in one of those darker corners of human experience.  During a transitional period when I was finishing up a graduate level statistics course (yes, it was the boring hell the subject indicates it would be) at Villanova University for my degree in math and actually deciding what I was going to do with the newly minted sheep skin I would receive, I had a job renovating two floors of a Hilton Hotel in King of Prussia, PA.   I was part of a crew of guys who would gut a room, strip it to the bare walls and then remake it in a more appropriate late eighties decor.   On the other side, we’d put in new carpets, lamps, beds, and fixtures.  My job was the bathrooms (probably fitting for one who’d spent the last six months and would spend the following three being a complete tool.)

One particular week, a new team had come in to paint the walls and texture the ceilings and with them came the drugs.  One of the other summer employees, we’ll call him Harold, took to these folks.  He was fat and pasty and had coke bottle glasses.   A big guy with self-esteem issues he began hanging out with these guys regularly during the day.

I didn’t much take to drugs and laziness (I wasn’t that much of a tool) and got a little frustrated when I realized these guys weren’t pulling their weight.  Harold was happy not to do the labor, and would disappear into one of the rooms for stretches at a time.  The work was hard enough without all this going on.  The problem was, I was a cocky bastard.   So I wasn’t all that nice to Harold, looking upon him and treating him with disdain as if I had nothing more to learn.

One day, when finishing up putting fixture handles on sinks and tubs and ensuring the water feeds were turned on in a recently finished bathroom, Harold appeared in the doorway.   I say he appeared, but it was more like he filled it.  He asked me point blank,

“Do you have a problem with me?”  He had obviously caught my negative vibe.

“No,” I said, “I just don’t like the drugs on the work site.”

“You don’t know how badly I want to hit you right now,” was his reply.  I could see he was roiling just beneath the surface but unfortunately my flight or fight response had gone to lunch early and I didn’t really consider what that meant.

This was the point at which the road forked.   Here he was extremely agitated and I was certain that he had already partaken in some kind of illicit activity earlier in the morning.  Looking back, I could honestly say he seemed crazed in a controlled sort of way.  And there we stood with two paths from which to choose.

I could have taken the path of reason.  The proverbial high road.   I could have put up my hands , palms out, in a gesture of acquiescence, telling him I was sorry, I didn’t mean to offend him and that regardless of what I felt, what he did was none of my business.  But I didn’t do that.

I was twenty-three, arrogant and apparently not as bright as I’d believed.  Looking back now, I realize how very non-bright I was and it brings shudders.

So I said, “but you won’t.  Because you’ll be fired.”  And I didn’t say it matter-of-factly, no.   I said it with a slight air of arrogance, repeating myself a few times in response to one or two other threats he made.  An air like I knew what was going on and how things worked.  The air of a fool.

The rest is a little fuzzy because at that point a freight train named Haymaker slammed into the left side of my mouth.  It must have started in Detroit because the pain was exquisite and exploded through my  head with incredible volume.  I involuntarily spun away to my right but the sheer locomotive-like speed behind that meaty fist may also have had something to do with it.

It must have been only a split second but suddenly my left side was against the wall, I was bent over the commode and this psycho with the coke bottle glasses was hammering the back of my head.  Not the nice round part that’s hard and protective, but the soft muscles at the base of my skull.  It was all I could do to stay conscious or even say something.   But I was able to get out four words and I believe those four words are what might have saved my life.

“I’m down, I’m down!” I said, and the rain stopped.

He must have landed four of five solid hits.   The fact that I was still conscious, albeit barely, was a bit amazing and I am not exactly sure how that could have been, based on the lightning bolts and thunderous throbbing currently going on inside my head.  But I think those few words stopped him.  It took the life out of his fury as quickly as it has come, letting him know he’d “won” and he didn’t need to  prove anything more.

At that point, focus was limited to the immediate.  I no longer knew he was there but simply checked my face in the mirror, verified my teeth were all there (they were but my gums on the left side were slightly cut), and walked out of the room.

Looking back, I am really not sure how I found the others on the crew nor that the room I walked in to happen to have everyone in it.  But I simply turned the corner, poked my thumb over my shoulder and said “he just attacked me.”

At this point, I was barely hanging on.  I had just been severely beaten and that’s never really sat well with me.  It seemed (and still seems) so surreal since I had neither put myself into nor been a part of that kind of situation before or since (except when the cops drew down on me and a few others in Ocean City, NJ but that was a misunderstanding and mistaken identity…for another time).

Being that close to unconsciousness and still trying to function cognitively takes monumental effort.  As I stood there trying to relate what happened to the foreman and  the others standing around a little stunned, it became too much and the blackness began to close over me like a wet, sweet cloud full of corruption bubbling up from deep in my head.  That was the most terrifying because I was convinced that if I checked out, I might not come back.

I nearly fell backward, but, luckily a folded carpet roll was wedged in the doorway of the bathroom and I landed on that.  Putting my head down, the blood returned and my head cleared a little.   They asked if I was all right and I assured them I was not.  I never went to the hospital but knowing what I know now, I realize I probably had a grade three concussion and at the moment was doing pretty poorly so just sat there dazed and confused with my head hanging to my knees. We were told to head down to the maintenance shop and wait there and another co-worker was told to help me because of the challenge I was having standing up.

Then I did something that was strange under the circumstances but didn’t really surprise me.  I stood up slowly, got my bearings and stepped over to Harold.  I put out my hand and we shook.   It was a simple gesture, but I meant it.   I meant that there were no hard feelings, I was embarrassed by my own behavior, disappointed in his and somewhere in my scrambled brain I knew I’d pushed too far and we’d both been wrong.  I needed to at least try to be the adult I thought I was.  I didn’t care if the others in the room didn’t understand, nor if they thought it was a crazy thing to do.  I believed  it was the right thing to do.

The next day, Harold came in with an enormous bandage on his hand.   Aside from a monster headache that lasted about a week (yeah, a pretty bad concussion and I, to this day, kick myself for being and an idiot and not having a physician check me out) I was pretty well unscathed.   Apparently, you can get sepsis from hitting someone in the mouth if you cut your hand.  The human mouth is full of bad organisms that, once in the blood, can really ruin your day.   So I feel like he made out worse than I and have to admit that a small part of me hoped that he would at least get an infection that hung on a little longer than he liked.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t totally cured of my ignorance and hubris.

I probably could have tried to press charges but I didn’t and there were no witnesses, anyway.  I had egged the guy on so I clearly had to bear at part of the blame for what happened.   Unfortunately, the manager of the engineering department was such a milquetoast and so afraid of upper management (someone else with self-esteem issues) he couldn’t figure out what to do, nor act on it appropriately if he could, so he decided to take the easy way out and get rid of the problem by asking us both to resign.

I had no problem with that, really.   Summer was winding down, my class was ending, I wasn’t really digging on working there anymore and a friend of mine worked at a Steak & Ale down the street which seemed more fun anyway.   So I wrote my resignation letter, went upstairs to say goodbye to the guys I’d gotten to know.

One of the senior workers was a big guy named Mike.   He was a street wise, strong, tough single father and pretty much didn’t take any B.S. from anyone; couldn’t afford to.   But we had a mutual respect because he could see I cared about the work I did and wasn’t some panty-waste just passing through after college on the way to bigger things.  At that point I at least had an ethic that said if there is a job to be done, no matter what it is, it should be done right.  So I went up and said goodbye, but also told him I wanted to make sure he hadn’t lost any respect for me.  For some reason, this was important to me.

“No, man, I haven’t lost any respect for you.   But you shook my boy’s hand and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.”

Well, I am not completely certain I understand it fully either, but I was brought up to believe that you policed up your own stuff and sometimes you have to own the consequences of your thoughts and actions.   When you come to a fork in the road like that it’s always best to take the one that goes up.   If it takes eating a plateful of crow or downing a huge tanker of pride, fine.   Do it and get on with it, because without that choice and the knowledge of which is right, we aren’t much.

I have never been hit in the face since and I haven’t really had to choke down any feathers or drink that bitter, decaying glass of pride, either.   I like to think I was able to stay off the paths that even led to those forks.  Maybe, maybe not, but I will always remember that particular lesson I had to learn the hard way.

On Being Poisoned for Profit

realityThis is a bit of a rant, so if you’re one of those who takes things personally, or gets all hot and bothered by things people write, well, maybe just pass on this one.

I do a mental exercise every so often.  If  a commercial comes on while I’m watching TV, I try to put myself at a remove from it.   The goal here is to be more an observer than the passive participant that is often how we experience TV.  Doing this allows for evaluating the commercial more objectively and I can tease out the subtle message the marketers are trying to send.  Sometimes I do it for fun, sometimes to tell my kids so they understand that it is not reality, just marketing to separate people from their money.

One group who has mastered the ability to manipulate us by preying on the phobias, inadequacies and especially desires we all feel is food companies.  And fast food companies do it very well.  Cheap, tasty food (well, tasty is subjective) that just happens to contain the right mix of salt, sweetness and fat that our primordial brain craves.  Add some capering friends and smiles all around or the abundance one person purchased for a dollar next to the rip-off tiny meal the other one has and boy isn’t life grand.  They tempt our children at an early age with clowns (which are creepy as hell to me, but whatever), toys and games that hook their fancy and then reel them in with the food that is specifically designed (yes, designed.  Make no mistake.  This is not actually food, it’s a manufactured thing masquerading as food.) to elevate serotonin levels in the brain so people want more.  A recent study found a correlation between the response the brain feels to fatty foods and the same response derived from using cocaine or heroin.  Nice, right?  And people are feeding this to themselves and their kids on a regular basis … sometimes daily.

When my boys were in elementary school I was talking to the principal one day and he’d told us how frustrating it was manning the carpool lane.  Every morning the minivans would drive up, the doors would open and there would be fast food wrappers littering the floor at the feet of the kids.  It very much bothered him but he had no way of changing it.  In some way, it’s not even the parents’ fault (although, in the end, it is really, but I’m not accusing anyone of anything lest I be lambasted by someone who doesn’t get the point of this essay.)  Kids’ brains are no match for the tryptophan in the cheese, the salt, the sweetness and fat combinations that have been tweaked and tuned for over 50 years.  It’s by design.  And just take a look at the line for the drive through on any given morning (even Sunday) and you’ll kind of know what I mean.  “Hey, kids, before school, let’s stop for an eight ball at McTaco King.”

The addiction comes on slowly.  A progression from “oh, well, every so often isn’t going to hurt” to, “no time for a proper breakfast so we’ll just do what we usually do and drive through to get a quick bite.”  And before you know it you’re trying to score a double cheese something or other on the way home, too.

It’s no surprise this crap, dense with calories, so easily acquired and packed with things that make our brains go “Ooooooo,” is one of the most consumed types of food these days in the U.S.  But the odd thing is, it’s all kind of the same stuff.  Back in the late 70s, Steve Martin had a bit about fast food where he talks about “a vat of this stuff.”  Someone’s dipping into it, squish, “here are your fries,” squish, “here’s your shake,” squish, “here’s your change.”  The sad things is, he wasn’t so far off the mark.  The typical fast food meal, in most cases, is 60% corn.  Not corn-on-the-cob corn but #2 dent corn that is inedible off the cob.  It’s inedible until it’s been run through chemical baths and manufacturing processes that, once it comes out the other side is nothing close to what it started out as.  This kind of corn is basically raw material from which chemical companies create food.  Frankenfood.  Something way too far from its origins to actually have any nutritional benefit (which by definition is what food should have in some regard, right?)  Ever actually look at what’s in one of those disks of “chicken” you get in a little box?  Chemicals, and a lot of them (one of which is benzene … that’s lighter fluid, folks.)  Even the “flaky” chicken strips are not actual chicken but a processed item that is made to look like chicken meat.

I sometimes wonder if people look around and see 2 out of every 3 people who are overweight or obese and wonder what’s going on.  I wonder if they see children walking around that are 50% larger than they should be and feel scammed for profit.   Do they wonder about the clothing companies that, in order to protect their market, rename clothes sizes and adjust waste and length sizes to match the wider shorter person that seems more prevalent today than not?  They…are…not…helping.

I read the report (password is mohan) that the insurance companies have $1.8 billion invested in the fast food industry (with a similar report from about 10 years ago showing the same investment in tobacco companies that still exists today…but that’s another essay)  and wonder if they’re just hedging their bets; banking on the crap being peddled by Big Food driving people to an early grave or at least into a health care system that’s set up to make them a bunch of money.  Are we no longer capable of using our brains due to the constant bombardment and manipulation by the marketers?  It just feels like we’re being told how to think and that’s really not what we’re capable of is it?  They are in your head, and that sucks because only one person should be there.   You!

Look, I know this is a harsh indictment.  And I’m sure people will get all wadded up about some things I have written here, thinking me condescending or arrogant or whatever.  They’ll claim they lost weight eating only fast food or “hey, I like my Double Royale with Cheese, so STFU and let me eat what I want.”  Ok, sure, go ahead, I am not saying you can’t do what you want.   But make sure you are doing what you want and not something someone got you hooked on or has convinced you you should be doing by other subtle means.  Maybe I’m just being a food snob or something but this crap is bumming me out and what really gets me is I can’t help anyone or change it.  When I was deep in the nutrition industry in a former life, I was digging on getting fit, being fit and trying to give people advice (only when they asked because I know how annoying it is when someone decides they know everything and are all too happy to tell you about it … hmmm, is this essay like that?) on how to be that way too.   I was having fun, why not spread the joy.  Not a single person actually took my advice.   If they did get in shape, it was because they changed their minds but I know I didn’t change their minds for them.   That’s not possible.  You can’t tell anybody anything.   They have to come to it on their own.

It’s just frustrating that with all the reports of childhood obesity and now the emergence of breast cancer in girls as young as eleven and the onset of metabolic syndrome (coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes) sooner and sooner it just doesn’t seem to be changing.   These folks are still making obscene amounts of money and a lot of people are still making the same choices to help them do it.

We’re better than this.  I’m certain of it!   It kinds steams me when I hear a comment on a show on BBC that seems to indicate we are thought of across the pond as those fat ones (“You can’t be American, you’re too skinny.”  Crowd laughs knowingly.) It makes me wonder just what the hell is going on and who’s making money off taking this nation to a bad place.

There is a particular commercial that kind of illustrates the point (actually there are a lot but the message is the same.)  You’ve probably seen it.   It involved the message that high fructose corn syrup isn’t bad stuff.  Two women are at a kids’ party.  One offers the other some kind of sweetened and obviously non-fruit juice.  The person being offered the treat feigns offense by saying “oh, hey, how can you serve that,” or “don’t you care about me?” and the offering person says, with a knowledgeable, slightly arrogant air, that high fructose corn syrup isn’t bad;  After all, “everything in moderation.”

OK, yeah, I get that.  You don’t consume too much of a bad thing and your body has a nice ability to process it.   The body’s a pretty cool organism that way.  A healthy body is even better at doing that.  But here’s the thing.   Crap like high fructose corn syrup contains highly concentrated calories.   It is so highly processed that it interferes with the body’s ability to absorb water (such irony when the athlete in the commercial comes running off the field only to down that frosty bottle of cola or sugar bloated sports drink.  “Ahhhh!  Ready to score another goal coach.”)  Moreover, that high concentration of calories not only jacks with blood sugar levels but also changes how the body uses the calories it takes in.  We’re built to use the easy calories first which are sugars (probably due to way back when we either had to catch dinner or get away from becoming dinner and needed immediate energy to do both.)   What’s left behind?  Fat!  What do you get in a society that consumes obscene amounts of foods dense with sugars and fat?  Obesity.

Yes, I can understand drinking a can of soda or a fake fruit drink every so often or dipping fries in ranch dressing or catsup (how do you really spell that word?) at the restaurant.  Yummy!  But that’s not how it usually works.  High fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and hydrogenated oils are in everything.  Go ahead, take a little extra time in the store and read the labels.   Just about every bit of food that’s in some way processed has these things in it.  The corn fed beef that’s in the grocery store is 40% fattier than it used to be (and by the way, cows are made to eat plants, not corn, so corn fed beef is not a good thing.)  All the stuff in the middle isles of the store, the processed foods, are full of this poison that would probably be fine in moderation, but since it’s in just about everything, moderation goes out the window.

But that doesn’t stop the Corn Marketers Association from creating those commercials about HFCS.  And they are doing it to counter the attack that doctors and other health professionals are raining down on their cash cow.  This kind of tactic is called manufacturing doubt and if it doesn’t sound familiar, it should.   The tobacco companies did it for 30 years.

But I have hope.  I know Americans are strong people and most of them have brains and sense and when they get those collective minds around something good, they run with it.  Run hard!  They really do.  With just a little effort, I’m guessing the trend will stop, eventually.  As soon as people do that thing where they step back and, from a bit of a remove, really look at what’s passing their lips, things could start to change.   We can stop poisoning the children and ourselves and realize that eating good, whole, non-processed food is an excellent way to live…and live long.

I would love for more people to read Fast Food Nation (don’t watch the movie, it’s not even close to the same thing,) see Food, Inc or watch Supersize Me! I hope one scene in Supersize Me! sticks in their minds, too.   The scene in which Morgan Spurlock, after about two weeks of a month long experiment in eating a fast food-only diet, is feeling horrible at around 11pm.  He heads out and gets something to eat (fast food, of course, it’s the point of the movie). A few minutes later he feels excellent and immensely happy.  Smells like a physical addiction to me.

I hope more people will read The Omnivore’s Dilemna (a little more cerebral but a really excellent read) engaging their brains to realize that we are in a sense being poisoned by Big Food, slowly, and with our own tacit consent.  And then right on the heels of that understand that if we didn’t ask for it, they wouldn’t provide it.  Because it’s a basic law of economics; as long as someone asks for it, there is money to be made.

We are a visual species and food companies work very hard to make food look good and, in that, rob that food of nearly every shred of nutrients that actually means anything (buy the ugly tomatoes, they taste way better.)  Does that make anyone feel duped?

Companies try to convince us that there is an easier, quicker way to cook and eat.   If you’re not shortening the time it takes you to make a meal instead of deliberating consciously about what passes your lips, there must be something wrong with you.  And, oh, you can be doing so much more and packing so many other activities into your day if you just made mealtime faster.  How could you not be doing the best for your kids by actually cooking them something that didn’t come out of a box.  But they are not really trying to make our lives better, more convenient or provide inexpensive food that is good for you.   They are trying to make money … and a lot of it.  Do you get the idea I’m not big on money?  I realize I sound a bit shrill about this.  I don’t mean to preach but sometimes I just get a little p##ssed.  This country produces enough food for each woman, man and child to eat 3,500 calories a day!  And some people are actually doing that.

We have brains and we should use them.   Applied to this dilemma the world could be a better place … I’d be happy to see the U.S. actually be that better place … first.   And I am hoping it can start with something simple.   The realization that cooking real food is sometimes a great way to spend time thinking/praying/meditating, cooling out after a particularly hard day or chatting with friends or family.  Take my word for it, it’s pretty gratifying creating something that looks and tastes good and what’s in it is not a mystery.  It might take a little time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing…slowing down can be good for you, too.   And the best part of all is that a little good food can go a long way to curing what ails you.

I have hope that someday the tide will turn and kids will get disgusted with the businesses that are making money at their expense and get wise to the manipulation being heaped upon them.  And I have hope that more brains will engage and take to heart the words of Michael Polan from The Omnivore’s Dilemna:

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.

End of rant…

The Geek’s Creed

This is my computer. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My computer is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My computer, without me, is useless. Without my computer, I am useless. I must operate my computer true. I must code cleaner than my competition who is trying to eat my lunch. I must out-code him before he out-codes me. I will….

My computer and myself know that what counts in technology is not what it looks like, the marketing hype, nor the claims we make. We know that it is the code that counts. We will code…

My computer is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weakness, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its keyboard and its display. I will keep my computer clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…

Before the ever present electrons I swear this creed. My computer and myself are the defenders of my paycheck. We are the masters of our domain. We are the creators of interactivity. So be it, until the monitor goes dark and there is no more code, only Peace.

Kindness at Random

“Pay It Forward” is a movie in which a young boy, who believes in the basic goodness of people, decides to try to get as many as he can to do good.  Instead of paying a favor back, he asks them to pay it forward and, in that, do something for someone else.

A boy with a drum, wanting to give something to a very important person of his time, but having very little, decides all he can give is his music.  It is one of the best gifts.

“Seven Pounds” is a movie in which Will Smith stars as an IRS agent who, due to a haunting secret, decides to change the lives of seven people he does not know.

And, finally, there is the story of the young girl who gives her last peso to buy a cage for a bird with a broken wing.  A king comes to town.   People from miles around come to honor him with gifts, but the girl, in helping the bird, has left herself with very little.  She visits this king anyway, apologetically telling him she has nothing to give.   He simply asks her to open the door of the cage and out flies the bird.  It flies up to the rafters and from its throat issues a song for which there are no words.

History, literature and music are full of tales like this.  Sometimes trite, sometimes filled with irony (check out “Gift of the Magi”  by O. Henry), sometimes just a story for it’s own sake.  Someone decides to do a good deed to help someone or give a gift even if it requires giving something of themselves.  Self sacrifice for the betterment of another.  Regardless of whether or not these stories represent specific meaning or characters to you, they are heart-warming and a pleasure to know for anyone.

Unfortunately, what we hear and read about in the media and sometimes what we actually see with our own eyes during this time of year doesn‘t necessarily jibe with the pleasant emotions these stories make us feel.  In the reality of everyday life, we hear few stories of loving kindness and personal sacrifice compared to those of mayhem in stores, money spent or made, shootings, murder trials and pop stars’ transgressions.

We see trite signs admonishing others to remember the true meaning of a particular holiday.  Yet they are surrounded by plastic, over-sized candles and nylon blow-up Disney characters.   All the focus is on giving, but not in the way that goes deep and requires actual emotional work.  It’s giving as an afterthought.  It’s giving the way the marketers want it.  And when the marketers are in control, there’s something seriously janky going on.

Bah, humbug, right?  Wrong.  It’s out there.

I am an observer this time of year.   We celebrate a day/set of days that is different from most everyone else in December and so find ourselves a little on the outside looking in.  Speaking with a friend the other day about the holidays and how he celebrates with his family,  he related how he and his wife raise about a thousand dollars a year with which to purchase gift certificates for food. They take them down to the mission in the large city nearby and hand them out to the unfortunates.  Those folks that wait each day for the mission to open so they can once again get a hot meal, a warm place to rest, perhaps hear a kind word.

My friend has a secret, too.  A secret he has told few people.

Only until relatively recently I have always thought Black Friday meant a dark day in which people fought and jostled and set aside their character to buy, buy and buy some more.  It represented the side of the final days of a year that were unpleasant, cold and superficial.  A day when being friendly takes a back seat to being first.

Then I found out it was just about money.   Retailers getting into the black for the year.  A concept dating back to the forties just after the war had ended and the economy was in need of a boost.  Don’t misunderstand.  Commerce is important and store owners and their employees have to make a living, too.  For them Black Friday is something to look forward to (mostly).  But ignorance really is bliss sometimes and even though I now know, I will still think of that particular Friday as a dark day in the course of human events.

My friend, let’s call him Kris, is not well off in the practical sense.  He and his wife, in fact, have had their share of financial challenges in this economy.  He does, however, own a custom tailored Santa suit and that changes everything.

On a random night during the holidays, he wears that suit and heads out to drive around looking for people.  Not necessarily people down and out, just people.  Maybe someone’s pumping gas, buying groceries or a family is having a quiet dinner together in a restaurant.  It could be anyone, anywhere.  He’ll roll up in his Santa suit to buy all the groceries, ask the restaurant server to let him pay the bill for the family or even walk up and slide his card into the reader at the pump before the person getting out of their car can do it.

I do not know what the exact nature of the interactions are or what is said between this Samaritan and the recipients of his kindness.  It is theirs to know and there is a certain quiet privacy to such kindness and generosity.   That’s the beauty of it.  The purity.  What I do know is they both walk away with something more than they started.  When it comes down to it, isn’t that the stuff we all want a little more of?  I do.

As the days of 2009 ebb away and this year comes to a close, maybe if you’re standing in line, get the pastry for the person behind you or tell the person serving you to take their time, slow down.   Or don’t.   But imagine what it would feel like and amp that up some.   Get a little of that magic for yourself.  Give a smile instead of a scowl; a handshake instead of a cold shoulder.

No matter what you celebrate this time of year, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Solstice, the Yule or even just a year of health, happiness and success in business, slow down and enjoy the quiet moments; the soft breathing of the kids after lights out, the crispness of the air on a star-filled evening, the soft embrace of someone loved.  It matters, we all matter and the more of us who know that the better things could be.

It is a joy to ponder this kind of humanity.  What is present in most all of us that sometimes gets lost in all the expectations and “rules.”  I think about it and I believe.  The spirit of kindness that is so often associated with this time of year is there.  It just takes work to see it sometimes and a little extra effort to bring it out in ourselves.  I think I’m going to work on that.

The long dark days are coming to a close and the light will soon return to the world as the days begin getting longer.  I hope kindness and good fortune shine well and often upon you.  Really, I do.  Happy/Felis/Merry/Joyeux whatever-you-may-celebrate.

Living the Hyperopic Life

About fifteen years ago, in a former life, I worked with Josephine and Josephine had a plan.   She was driven by a single goal which was to work as hard as she could, climb the corporate ladder and make enough money so she and her husband could retire at forty-five and live the rest of their days in relaxed splendor.

Jasmine planned to begin working part time about two years ago.   In her mid forties, she felt it time to spend more time with the kids who had, up to this point, been brought up by nannies.   She was considering going freelance and starting her own consulting business.  Her  time would become her own and she’d made enough money that she and her family were pretty well off.

Hunter has worked extremely hard for the last several years trying to grow his company and build a solid nest egg.   He and his family live in a large house, they drive new, higher-end cars and on the surface all is going according to plan even though he works long hours.  A stranger passing the house in the late evening might see him, a solo figure in the room at the top of the house, working in the only window lit in the house.  But it is worth it because later they will all enjoy the fruits of this labor when it is time to stop.


John Steinbeck, in Of Mice and Men, wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.”  In other words, reality has a way of stepping in and stirring up your nest and often does.

The large telecommunications company Josephine worked for went bankrupt when the CEO, who is now serving 25 years in prison, decided to use the company as his own personal bank account.  There is a very real possibility Josephine lost everything.

Jasmine never did go part time and although her hours were shortened she still worked the same amount of time and is now back at full salary.  Making great money, sure, but never stuck to the plan and her kids are still with the nanny.  Just recently she told me “why not make the money while I can.”  I just congratulated her quietly and a little sad.

Hunter has worked himself into poor health, obesity, seemingly perpetual fatigue and seems not as happy as he really could or should be.

From the guy who worked three jobs at twenty-three in order to retire to the redwood forests of California with his wife when they reached forty-five to the high-powered executive who’d done nothing but work and was now planning his early retirement, no one can predict the future or what the reality of life will toss their way.  Because the twenty-three-year-old couldn’t know that the house in the redwoods would be lost to an earthquake and the executive would never foresee losing his life in the accident that happened while he was engrossed in an early morning conference call on the drive in to work.


When someone needs glasses because they can’t see at close range, it’s called hyperopia and living your life only focused on what will be and not what is now is living a hyperopic life.  And that’s no way to live.

It is everywhere around us.  People looking to the future while they close that one last deal; placing that one last bet, that never seems to actually be the last, in order to get that payoff; chasing the money because they can’t seem to let go of the power and wealth to enjoy what they’ve worked so hard for.

But in all that time and while they are spending it focused on later, they forget to put on their glasses for today, missing their kids growing up, the beautiful turn of their young wife’s  jawline, the particular way the sunlight strikes the glass of tea perched on the deck railing, a quiet moment of reflection on a warm summer day and yes, even the successes that can be had on a work day well done.  The clichés of missing something in their life in order to set themselves up for later are legion and, unfortunately, true.

Back when I worked with Josephine, the cube farms were just an numerous as they are now and we all felt the pull to get to work and stay as long as it took.   Working late nights because we felt “it was the right thing to do.”  If you left before anyone else, you’d be thought, and sometimes called, a slacker.  You’d be ridiculed in jest and some would look askance at your departing back with the quiet accusation that you weren’t pulling your weight.  From what I can tell, nothing changed for the most part.   That environment still exists in a lot of places and some would say we’re no better off, nor more secure or happier.  Where does all that get you if you haven’t found the moments of joy and thrill?

A professor of business at Columbia University named Ran Kivetz theorized a paradox in human behavior.  When we put our responsibilities ahead of pleasures, done long enough, we are often left unhappy down the road.

Did you have those times in the past when you went for a beer and a bagel at O’Toole’s instead of studying for that Econ test?  She was cute and you just wanted to be around her.  You quit writing that term paper  a little earlier than you’d planned to go hang out and watch the popular TV show of the day with friends.  (It was so much more fun.) You went out after the softball game with new colleagues instead of getting home early so you could be well rested for work the next day.  Later in life, the lawn got a little longer in favor of heading over to the neighbor’s to watch the game or going out back to play soccer with your son.  Work was good and could be fulfilling, but so was having fun.

Then there are those times at the start of falling in love when everything took a back seat and being irresponsible was the responsibility.  It was so easy to favor the brief moments of pleasure and joy over the responsibilities because time could be made up later.  It would all get done, and perhaps the work would be a little more intense when you got to it, but it would get done.   It always did because here you are, reading this and you’re not living in a tent. You’re still alive and you’ve found a moment to relax.   A moment of your own.  Now.  But I’m guessing for a lot of people, these moments of ease and taking time out for themselves are fewer and farther between.   And that’s a shame.  Because indulging in the simple pleasures of life is, in the end, what makes life so great.

In some faiths the Present is the only real thing (I won’t go in to how that’s not even real because that’s for another time).  It’s the whole notion of living in the “now,” being in the present, yesterday’s gone and tomorrow’s not here so why worry about any of it.

Of course, realistically, you have to think somewhat of the future and responsibilities certainly are greater as we get older.  Hedonism can be just as dangerous as a bullheaded drive to work harder.  But, instead of going back to work after lunch, wouldn’t taking the left into the theater to see the matinee feel pretty good?  What about calling in sick one day so you can go on a hike with your new significant other or because you needed to cut the grass.  Then afterward, sitting back with a cold glass of something and enjoying the sweet smell of that freshly cut lawn, the birdsong and warm sun on your skin made you realize the real reason you called in.  We take these moments for granted but it’s these moments that create our lives.  String a bunch together and weave them throughout those things you really must get done and I bet it makes everything balanced, smoother, nicer to live in.  I called in sick from the Albuquerque airport once  when a buddy and I decided to spend the weekend and part of the next week hanging out in Taos, Santa Fe and Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.  It seemed like it was just kind of the right thing to do.  And being bad sometimes feels pretty good.  We all need to do more of that, don’t you think?

As we get older and the responsibilities of a more important job or children or a new business grow, we lose this ability to throw caution to the wind every so often.   I’m not advocating professional anarchy or anything.  I’m more talking about balance.  It’s like the old saying “take care of the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves.”  If you cast off the little things, the simple pleasures, you risk looking back in ten or twenty years and wishing you’d kept more pennies in hand.   Yes, the “dollars” in life are important and they always will be.  However, without the nuance of a well-lived life – the pennies – all the money or possessions in the world won’t salve the ache of regret over having not flown to Seattle to meet the girl you called Boomer for dinner with her parents in the Space Needle.   It won’t turn back the clock so you could go to the Balerics with your mates where the people are beautiful and the cuisine exquisite.  And you won’t be able to say “because I could” more often than not when asked why you did it.

I read or heard a story recently, I’m not even sure where, about a man who, on his walk to work every day, passed his favorite bakery.  He’d stop occasionally but knew stopping a lot would be trouble in a lot of ways.   On one particular day, he was a little late for work so passed by.  But the smell was enticing and seemed to call to him all the way to his office building.  He was at the door to his building when he just decided to indulge himself, turn around and walk back to the bakery.  He decided to keep the “pennies” and give in to the impulse, putting off the responsibility for just a moment longer.  Because he could, he did.  His life changed that day because his building was Number Two World Trade Center and the date was September 11th, 2001.

We all have choices and each moment is our chance to make the choices that will help us look back later and think, “yep, I did it all pretty well.”  So, next time someone calls you up and says they have tickets to the game, or you’re sitting around the dinner table and you and your spouse and kids suddenly decide you want to take next week and go to Yosemite, maybe don’t think of what you have to do that week, just go.   Live your life on purpose!  Not only will you have fun now but you’ll be able to tell the tales and smile when you reflect later.  It seems like we’d all be so much the better if we trusted ourselves to balance the responsibilities with a bit of fun now and then.

Make it a life well-lived.

Driving Drunk with Both Hands on the Wheel

I wonder what the woman was thinking as she sat on her motorcycle at a stoplight in suburban Chicago a few weekends ago. She might have been thinking of her kids, where she was headed or maybe nothing at all. No one knows but I bet it wasn’t about the car coming up behind her, at speed, as it plowed in and took her life.

The woman who hit her was putting nail polish on.

The forty six passengers who were hurt on Boston’s green line when the trolleys they were riding in collided weren’t expecting to have to be attended to by medical personnel. They were just riding the trolley home on the evening commute. They were thinking, for the most part, what they think about every day on that ride.

The twenty-four year old driver of the trolley that caused the accident was texting.

I saw an accident a few weeks back. It was one of those strange ones. Traffic was typical of rush hour but otherwise it was a bright, normally dry Colorado morning. Yet, there they were, a pickup truck and a very expensive BMW pulled on to the left side of the northbound lanes of I-25 and it appeared the BMW had tried to eat the back bumper of the pickup. Expensive car, expensive bodywork. The truck was pretty much fine.

Was the driver of the BMW on an important conference call paying only partial attention to driving? When I see a $90,000 automobile, I can’t help but ponder the cliché (unfairly, probably) that the owner spends too much time at work. That kind of money had to come from somewhere. Was spending too much time thinking or doing work the case this time? Was he working while driving (or was it driving while working)?

Driving, by its very nature is a participation activity. It seems to me that if someone is driving a car and doing anything else, they might as well be driving drunk. Some informal studies (we’re talking Mythbusters informal) have shown a significant decrease in driving skill when talking on the phone. It seems to me this is merely common sense. I don’t care how smart someone thinks they are or how good of a driver they think they are. Neither a big ego nor a a big brain will protect them if they fail to maintain proper control. It doesn’t matter what kind of job they have or how much money they make, either. Jobs and money don’t drive safely. People do.

I am constantly amazed that there is not more vehicular carnage on the roads with all the distractions that now exist. Vehicles these days have TVs, video game consoles in the back, MP3 player displays and GPSs all serving to distract the occupants including the driver. If you go to an auto show, you will likely see a whole lot more features that aim to get drivers’ attention. Lexus has ads on TV at the moment that tout the new XS, complete with color screen and console mounted trackball. It also has all kinds of “safety” features that are supposed to predict for the driver if danger is imminent. Does it protect a driver or make them more complacent; distancing them from something to which they may be better off being intimately connected? For whatever reason, the priorities of driving a car seem to be getting all changed around. I am pretty certain a driver’s attention is not something from which we want to get market share.

It seems often the case where the act of driving a car is an afterthought to all the other stuff we do or could be doing. I imagine some people hear about these accidents and read about the increasing numbers of proponents of cell phone bans while driving and still think, “oh well, that doesn’t apply to me. ” Don’t bet on it. The law of averages says differently.

We’re humans and our brains, as different as they seem can only process so much stimuli at a time. Driving a ton and a half of highly energized metal does require full time attention and it’s worrisome that, increasingly, some don’t think it does. Because everything may be fine now, but what about down the road when someone slams on their brakes, there’s a patch of ice, a bicyclist swerves to avoid a gap in the road or a young boy runs between cars into the street. Do you want to be the person who wasn’t paying attention and has to say that you didn’t even see him only to realize that, yes, you were searching your bag for your cellphone?

The commercials talk about traction control, headlights that adjust to illuminate the corner into which the car is headed, heads-up displays that show infrared images of a deer or other obstruction up ahead and automatic breaking if the car gets too close to the one in front. There’s even a commercial where time freezes on an imminent collision between a semi and an expensive sedan. Guardian engineers come and adjust the driver and move the semi so the accident that would have occurred never does when time starts again. Guardian engineers don’t exist, of course, and this commercial is just to get you to buy the car. But the message is clear. Buy our car and you’ll be safer, but it doesn’t matter if you buy that car or some other. In the end, the driver is ultimately responsible for the safety of themselves and anyone else with them. And by extension the other people in cars around them. If they are doing something else, safety is compromised. That compromises my safety and now “we” have a problem.

Watch sometime. Watch someone who seems to be deep in conversation when they are driving in front of you. You may notice that they are driving as if they were drunk. Slowing down for no reason or driving slower than the posted limit, weaving in the lane, weaving out of the lane, speeding, hard braking in traffic, even locking up the tires in a particularly close call because they didn’t realize the traffic up ahead was completely stopped. They were too busy figuring out where everyone was going to meet for lunch and listening to how to get there, working on a really big deal or troubleshooting a particularly nasty problem with the distribution center in St. Louis.

I once was on a call while driving back from a client’s in Golden. When I’d gotten to my destination, I reflected briefly on the drive and realized I couldn’t really remember it. It was a little freaky. I don’t “talk and drive” anymore. I’m on the wagon. The phone is just not that important. My thinking is any call I get can wait the 15 or 20 or 50 minutes it takes to get to my destination. If not, I’ll pull over and focus on that. Not both.

Recently, legislation has been making its way through the Colorado House of Representatives that would have required hands free devices while driving and using a cell phone. I’m thinking someone needs to create an even more stringent law that prohibits cell phone use while driving entirely. Just requiring hands free misses the point and is really just a waste of taxpayer’s money (unless it’s a stepping stone for more hard-nosed legislation.) Requiring hands-free devices for talking on a cell while driving is like requiring hands free stick shifts. It’s silly. The concern is not having both hands on the wheel. It’s paying attention and using your brain.

In aviation there are the concepts of situational awareness and cockpit management. Being “ahead of the airplane” at all times ensuring that if something comes up, you can anticipate what’s next and act accordingly. In motorcycle training courses they use SIPDE which stands for Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute. It’s not a huge leap to think that either of these can also apply to driving. If you can’t scan because you’re looking down at your muffin, or you can’t predict because you are engrossed in a call, suddenly, you’re behind the car and that’s a bad place to be. To be sure, there’s not that little matter of falling out of the sky and you have two additional wheels but drivers are still operating something in which there is a lot of energy. It’s moving at a relatively high speed most of the time and it is always a good idea to be mindful of that.

They say five links in a given chain of events can break before disaster is imminent. Life is a chain of events. If five things go wrong in close time proximity to each other, it might be a good idea to pay attention because chances are getting better that something unpleasant is about to happen. A person is talking on the cell phone and they’ve already used up one link. Balancing a sandwich on their thigh? A second link that could potentially break. Drinking a coffee or soda? Three. Reading a book? Four (yes, I have seen this.) They’ve got one more slot. Do they think they can control what uses that last one? Maybe, maybe not. They’ve had one hand on the wheel the whole time but they still only have half their brain in the car. That remaining “chance” could disappear fast.

A Number Beyond Imagination

I am a numbers person. Having studied math in college, I have always found all different manner of numbers, equations and formulas fascinating. There have been a lot of big numbers bandied about lately — usually with dollar signs bolted on to the front — and I got to thinking about how big those numbers are.

During all the talk about the $700 billion dollar bailout package, I wrote about
how big the number one billion is, what a billion dollars could buy and a few ways you could use to visualize such a number. Half that money has been spent (on what, no one seems to be quite sure) and the rest, $350 billion, is now being distributed with anyone and everyone slithering in to try to get a piece of it. I’m not so sure Gordon Gecko was right in the movie Wall Street. So far, greed has not proven to be all that good. At least not for the U.S.

Now we have The Stimulus Package; the $780 billion that’s meant to pull our collective a$$es out of the fire in which we find ourselves since the complete implosion of the economy. Combine that with the $350 billion and you get a number just north of one trillion dollars. But, what is a trillion? Most know it’s “a lot” but the number is so big most people can’t really comprehend it. Here are some things I found that give some sense of just how big this number is. Hint: It’s a whole lot bigger than even the billion I wrote about earlier.

Consider the humble dollar bill. It’s 2 ½ inches wide and 6 inches long and roughly as thick as a piece of paper. I have ten of them in my wallet at the moment and if I laid them together so they made a rectangle, they’d be about the size of a decent non-stick cookie sheet from amazon.com. I could buy six muffins down at The Coffee Stop on South Wilcox, a little over five gallons of gas or three medium drinks at Crowfoot Valley Coffee on Perry Street. Not a bad deal.

Let’s make the gargantuan leap to a trillion. What would a trillion dollars look like?

Considering that a ream of paper contains 500 sheets, if we had a ream of our cookie sheet sized rectangles we’d have $5,000 — Sweet! I could use that. To cover an American football field we’d need 44,400 of our stacks (I’ll let you do the math on the European football pitch of you’re a “soccer” fan.) That makes $222,000,000 — Even better, “hey, boss, I quit!” But let’s say we’re looking down at that football field covered with all that money, the looters haven’t come yet and we really want to get to a trillion dollars. (Incidentally, it’s only a trillion in the U.S. Most other places call it 1000 billion. We just insist on being different with our billions, trillions and funky systems of measurement) Since a ream of paper is 2 inches thick, to get to our goal, we’d have to add another 4,504 layers. You’d be looking at a stack of money the size of the football field
and as tall as a 19 story building. You’d be looking up.

A trillion seconds ago, some cave dwellers were painting on the walls at Chauvet Pont-d’Arc in France. These are the oldest known cave paintings. All they had to worry about was eating and staying alive…ah, the simple life.

It’s the 23rd of February, 2009. If you spent $1,000,000 a day from day zero of the Gregorian calendar, you’d still have 731 years, 6 months and 25 days to go before you spent a trillion dollars. In other words, you’d actually have to spend almost $1.4 million a day to spend your last dollar of $1 trillion today.

My home town of Castle Rock, CO is around 31.6 square miles in size. If I wanted to haul in a trillion marshmallows and spread them around, I’d be able to cover
all of Castle Rock — all of it, not just Castle Rock proper, but Castle Pines, Castle Pines Village, Founders, The Meadows…everything — in almost 8 inches of marshmallows. A trillion marshmallows would cover Denver, CO in two inches of puffed sugary goodness. Break out the chocolate and graham crackers and start a really big fire.

Whether there’s a dollar sign in front or not, a one with twelve zeros after it is a huge number. A billion is a large number. But 1000 billion? It’s really hard to imagine. Regardless of political leanings, I’m thinking we all need to hope like hell that it works.

I am a Human Tesla Coil

It happens every year. As we descend into shorter days and longer nights. As the earth’s axis tilts the northern hemisphere away from the sun and the light and radiant heat strike the U.S. at a more oblique angle, things change. The air cools, water condenses and when the temperature gets cold enough, it freezes and floats to the ground robbing the air of moisture and humidity. Dryer means more static electricity. And more static electricity means more getting lit up any time you touch a remotely conductive surface.

Albert Einstein once posited that if we evolved properly we would eventually exist as pure energy. Imagine that, all of us just blobs of light or sparkling spheres floating around. The fashionistas would certainly figure out a way for us to change our colors and we wouldn’t need to drive any more, we’d just float to where we needed to go. Or better yet, we could probably use the theory of quantum mechanics and simple just appear there using super position and time travel. We wouldn’t need to eat (my guess is we could subsist on sunshine), we wouldn’t need our fancy cars or the gas to run them (if we did need cars, we could just jack in and run them ourselves) and we wouldn’t need anything else but energy. So as long as that big fat red giant was shining, we’d be good. No need to work or do anything else, really since the evolutionary process would take us beyond needing to understand the universe, since we’d now be a part of it. We would be everything and everything would be us. Kind of like we are now, but we’d actually be aware of it. We’d just float around, interacting with each other as energy. Some would simply pulse and flash in some kind of highly advance conversation and some would interact as Steve Gutenberg and Tahnee Welch did in Cocoon. That would be interesting.

However, as fascinating as that mental exercise is, that’s not the way it is now. We’re still bags of bones, our skin still gets dry and papery, we itch and turning on the lights becomes a new adventure coming up with all manner of turning on the lights. The back of the hand, a hip, an elbow, anything. Anything to prevent the static shock from striking at the point on where some of the most sensitive nerves exist. I hit the light with my knuckle and try to swipe quickly by, thinking I’ll beat the electricity before it gets out of the thing I’m touching. But that’s folly since my hand is not going to be traveling at the speed of light any time soon. Not until I am a ball of energy anyway. So, as Winter progresses, reaching toward anything remotely electrical is a tentative, apprehension laden affair.

Even though our skin seems as if it’s made of paper during this time of year, the inside is still about 80% water. The dryness in the air makes it harder for electrical build up to disperse and within that paper sack that’s 80% water are the same salts that are in sports drinks. Electrolytes. There’s a reason they’re called that. High school chemistry class taught us that when NaCl (erm, salt) is put in water, the Na and Cl separate leaving the Cl part with a negative charge and the Na part with a positive charge. We all happen to be electrically charged because there are a whole bunch of other salts that do the same thing and they are in there, too. This makes us all really excellent conductors of electricity. And because of that we’re pretty good at collecting that electricity up. The more charge we have, the more that charge wants to get out. What better way than to jump from us to something connected to the giant battery we call earth. Zap!

When I was a kid, I liked to mess with electronics. Mostly it was pulling things apart and looking at all the miniature cities rising out of the circuit boards. But I learned some things, too. I learned was that capacitors were components that store up certain amounts of electrical charge. They are often what make a light blink, releasing energy each time they becomes charged to some specific limit before charging up again. I watched a friend use a pair of pliers to cross the two leads on a capacitor that was the size of a soda can. They spot welded to it! Capacitors store energy. Lesson learned.

My friend and I also figured out that if we carried a capacitor around the house holding one lead, shuffled our feet and then touched the other lead to a lamp or other grounded metal, the static shock would go into the capacitor, not us. After a few times doing this, depending on the size of the capacitor (and never with one the size of a soda can), the capacitor would start crackling which we correctly assumed meant it was “full”. But that charge had nowhere to go since the two leads weren’t connected up to anything. At least not yet.

That’s where my sister came in. Or when we weren’t feeling ornery, we’d have a duel. Like a knife fight with the leads of a tiny electrical component as the knife. Once both leads made contact with skin all the electricity we’d stored in it would be released and all the tiny static shocks would become one big shock. SNAP! It would light a person up or just make a cool blue light. Electricity is fun, Mr. Wizard! Here, hold this.

So I am a giant capacitor. And in these cooler, darker days we ourselves become more efficient capacitors, storing up energy in our electrolyte ridden bodies. Storing it up for when we reach to turn on a lamp or switch on an overhead light.

Since I’m not leaving the beautiful, but dry, climes of Colorado any time soon, I have resigned myself to swinging my hand quickly by a light switch (like a fool), leaning my leg against the bead on the corner of two walls (the paint, texture and my pants leg seem to lessen the blow) or simply gutting it out and going for it, watching to see how big the blue light it this time. I have resigned myself to being an excellent conductor of electricity. I have resigned myself to being a human Tesla coil.

Void the Warranty

I’m not a big fan of branding. I have a tendency to try to remove, cover or otherwise erase the brand names and logos that appear on the things I have, wear or buy. I’m not a big fan of items that do just one thing either. What if that one thing is something you only do once in a while. That appliance or tool or whatever is just taking up space the rest of the time. Seems a waste to me.

So, there are very few items in our kitchen that do just one thing (despite all those infomercials telling me I need this or that that does just this one thing, allegedly, the best and only way it can be done.) I remove the little plastic plate or sticker that has the car dealer’s name on it. I remove the license plate frame the dealer automatically puts on my car. I’m not being paid to advertise for them, why would I do it for free. I have also removed all the branding (except the stuff etched into the plastic cover) on my cell phone. I hacked into it and changed it so it did what I wanted it to do, not what they told me it should do.

I have not read the fine print on my phone so am not totally sure, but it seems right that I can mess with my phone and if I “brick” it, well, that’s my problem isn’t it. My little borg ear piece I used on another phone now works, I can download images from it and upload my own rings tones to it without having to go through their systems and paying for the data usage. And I like it that way. My boys’ had the first Nintendo DS systems before the light was put in a later model. They couldn’t be played in the car if it was dark outside. So, we put one in ourselves from a small kit we got online. Why? Because we could.

After all it’s mine right? Possession is nine tenths of the law. Isn’t it? Some would argue that I don’t really own that phone since its use is dependent on the network to which it connects which I definitely do not own. Intuit once told me I don’t own the Quickbooks software I use for my business. I begged to differ and offered for the nice customer service rep to come and try to get it from me.

It’s that kind of corporate “arrogance” (they don’t mean it) that makes me want to do whatever I like with whatever I have paid good money for. Why not? It may say “warranty void if opened/modified/unscrewed” but if it still works afterward and I don’t mess with the stuff they have control of, why not? It’s kind of fun stepping outside the comfort zone of the instruction manual and admonishments you find in the front of it.

Yes, usually, there are rules for a reason. After all, anarchy doesn’t usually end well. But sometimes being “bad” feels pretty good (if it keeps you up nights, you took it too far.) Sometimes making something do what you truly need it to do — above and beyond what the company you got it from says they want it to do; usually so they can make a profit on the “other” things it actually can do once you buy the add ons — is something many feel they should be able to take on.

Have you ever broken the rules? Not broken the law, just broken the rules; actually taken the adage that “rules were meant to be broken” and gone ahead and done it. Maybe you’ve taken a photo where it says no photography. Or maybe you’ve torn the tag off a mattress or pillow (ok, that’s not really a rule, but with all that legalese on those tags it feels a little criminal doesn’t it.) Or maybe you’ve applied Jailbreak to your iPhone (I don’t own one so don’t know about this particular hack but it sounds liberating).

The manual with my heart rate monitor watch says the battery shouldn’t be changed by anyone other than a “qualified technician.” I did it anyway. The outside of some electronics say “no serviceable parts.” Servicable? No. Modifiable? There’s only one way to find out. Look at the first five to ten pages of anything that plugs in, has sensitive parts, is sharp and moves fast or is otherwise associated with electricity, technology or building materials. These pages are usually diatribes of legal spew that were most likely created to discourage the morons who use their vacuum cleaner as a hair brush or their blow dryer as a cooking utensil from suing the maker into the ground.

But what about us regular folks? Those with brains and a penchant for questioning everything, or at least wondering how that hell that thing over there on the counter works?

I say, make it yours. Make it do what you want it to do or additional things beyond that for which it was intended. If it’s safe (for the love of pete, use a fry pan for those eggs) then I say go ahead. Give it a shot. I can tell you first hand, doing so gives you the feeling that you have control of things in your world. It’s a karmic slap in the faces of the marketers and corporate lawyers and whomever else feels the need to dictate what you do, how you think and what you do with your possessions. Make that cell phone do your bidding, take apart something and use those parts to make or fix something else. Or search on the net, find a DIY site and pick something that looks interesting to do. Then do it with just what you have around the house.

There is in fact a whole group of people who do this kind of thing. A relatively new magazine called Make is targeted to those who want to find new ways to use old stuff, or DIY ways of making things only big companies have the resources to make (anything from robots to a wallet made of duct tape…really.) And it’s not really about taking control and being “bad”. It’s more about tinkering and creating and feeling happy in the end that you took that journey to make something with your own two hands. And even if that thing becomes a “sculpture” instead of an automated toaster, it’s really the journey that matters and the success of getting to the end, anyway.

There’s also a website called instructables.com where folks like this congregate. It’s like a catalog of “things to do on a rainy day.” It is full of ideas of how to make stuff out of other stuff. I have made two different kinds of video camera stablizers (one a “steady cam” type apparatus and one a version of something called a “Fig Rig“) out of copper pipe and PVC. They cost me about $30 when professional equipment of the same sort of thing costs a hundred times more. My boys and I once made a model of a light saber out of plumming supplies and posted it on Instructables.com. We had the best time making it and they love them. They cost about $33 a piece which isn’t the $15 you can spend on a cheaper plastic one in the toy store. The way we did it just feels better. (full disclosure: The light saber project was published recently in a book called The Best of Instructables by O’Reilly in a joint venture with Make and Instructables.com. I do not, however, make any money off the sale of Make subscriptions or the book. I just happened to think they’re really cool.)

So if you need something done around the house for which you could easily buy the solution. If you have a few hours to maybe do it yourself, then see if there’s something around that you can modify, open, take apart, rework or combine with something else to do the same thing. You might save money, you might have a lot of fun doing it and you might have a scuplture for the family room. But there’s a good chance you will have fun doing it, whatever it is.

A Question of Faith

Steve is a boy of six. He is a nice boy by all accounts and isn’t one to get into trouble. I don’t know him. I just know someone who does. But who he is isn’t important. What happened is.

It was after school on a typical Spring afternoon. Steve was finishing up his day and getting ready to go. Looking at the clock he realized it was later than he’d thought. He was going to miss his bus, so he darted out of the school toward the bus loop. Just as he arrived, he saw his bus pulling out of the parking lot. Worry stole over him because he knew his mother would be mad if he was late coming home. She might even be mad he’d missed the bus even if it was an honest mistake.

His only alternative was to get home on foot and get there fast. So he took off running heading for the corner at the end of the street. All he could think about was that he was late. Plus he didn’t want to get in trouble, so he dashed into the street. At the same time, a pickup truck was turning onto the same street. Steve was struck and dragged under the truck for thirty feet.

Thankfully, Steve is fine. He spent a few weeks in the hospital and there was concern there would be nerve damage in his pelvic region, but there’s not. I have heard nothing else, but the indication last I did hear was that he would make a full recovery. What a great thing the human body. How incredible it is the power it has to heal itself when those on the outside think it can’t.

During his hospital stay and when things were touch and go, a lot of people began to wonder why or how this could happen. And then someone said something that struck me as a little bit odd. Referring to the news that Steve would be OK and would recover, he said “Someone was looking out for him.” Being a fairly religious person, obviously, he meant that someone to be God.

But I suddenly found myself perplexed. If someone was looking out for him, where was that someone when the driver was picking up his keys? Couldn’t He have made the driver drop his keys, or forget where he put them? It would have only needed to be a few seconds of delay. Couldn’t He have created a confusion that caused the driver to return to the house to check the stove. Something subtle. Or remember something else he needed to bring? Why look after Steve *after* he’d be rendered nearly dead? And if subtlty wasn’t necessary, maybe just stop the truck cold a few feet from Steve, the front end crumpling against an unseen force.

It was such a strange thing to me. To hear someone say this and feeling, knowing, that I completely didn’t buy that thought process. That little boy got very badly hurt and no matter how you look at it, it was not at all good. It was a bad thing. Very bad, and no good can come out of it (other than Steve thanking his lucky stars when, later, having more wisdom he can reflect on how lucky he was.) And I also think no one healed Steve but Steve. He wasn’t done coloring. He wasn’t done riding his bike and he wasn’t done dreaming about playing football for the Broncos. Steve deep down was watching out for himself and Steve repaired Steve. That’s what I think.

The next week, more news came of recovery and someone told of speculation by one of Steve’s relatives that the mother was being punished because Steve had been “unplanned” and she didn’t treat him very well. She loved him, but with a young son like that when she thought “she was done”, it was posited that maybe she felt trapped. Who knows, I don’t even know the whole of any part of their lives or story, let alone the inner workings of Steve’s mother’s mind. So I am more speculating than not and simply rummaging around in my own mind to reconcile something unreconcilable. I don’t judge anything…just wonder.

But it was shocking that the conjecture was that Steve was some pawn in a scheme to get the mother to straighten up and fly right. How can this be? Who would use an innocent six-year-old to teach some mother a lesson? That’s just sick!

I asked a friend about this dilemna and she said it’s important to have faith that all things happen for a reason. And in that faith, the reason doesn’t need to be presented immediately or ever. Some might say horrible events like this are tests of faith. Maybe. But it still doesn’t sit well. And I may never know, but I do know all things are connected. Thinking in a vacuum can be a sketchy proposition. It seems folly to just look at a single event and say it happened on it’s own as a singularity. Time is not made up of discrete parts that can be broken up and held out on their own. It is a smooth ribbon of events all flowing into each other. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It just doesn’t. If it’s thought to, reasons tend to get overlaid upon tragic events that don’t make sense in the continuum of time and logic. And for various reasons mostly psychological and based on my own life experiences, I tend to ask a lot of questions and continually evaluate what I’m looking at to make sure I am seeing it as it truly is. Call it situational awareness, to use the vernacular of aviation.

A friend died when some moron flew his plane into the Pentagon and my brother died when I was four due to a hill, a truck and a faulty or unset parking break. No one has ever been able to tell me why. Because sometimes there is no reason. We are not actually bullet proof and ten feet tall, things just are and sometimes those things just suck.

Whether you call it fate, faith, belief, accepting, putting it on His hands, Karma or whatever else, for me (and this is my thought and mine alone), I prefer reasons and processes and cause and effect relationships whenever I can get ’em. Even if they amount to life just handing me a steaming pile. Some would actually call that faith. So I guess that’s my faith and I will ask questions of everything to understand better.

I suppose all of the explaining and reasoning and rationalization is just a way for us to feel like we’re in control or someone’s at the helm (even if it’s only our own self-conscious.) Because if no one’s driving this train, where’s it going and what, by the way, I am doing on it?

Sex, Violence and the Imbalance of It All

You’re watching TV. An attractive couple lies in a bed breathless and obviously happy. They hold each other and whisper sweet nothings. Planting a quick kiss on her lover’s cheek, the woman says she’ll be right back, pulls to comforter to cover her nakedness and slides out of bed. On the way out of the room the comforter slips revealing her bare backside.

People are up in arms.

Two performers are singing a song with subtle erotic intent. It is a song about a man desiring the woman and promising her they’ll be together before the song finishes. With the final assertion that he’ll have her naked by the end of it, he reaches over and strips away part of her bodice to reveal a bare breast, a star covers her nipple.

People lose their freakin’ minds!

A man is being chased by the evil doppleganger of a female character. He has information that she needs to become more powerful. The gap closes and the man with the briefcase is eventually cornered amongst the desks and file cabinets of a dimly lit office building. The event of his death is hinted at just before the commercial break. The next scene is a shot of him lying face up, eyes open. His feet are up by his head because he has been cut in half and he lies in a very red and disturbingly large pool of blood.

No one says a thing.

Jack Bauer chases the badies each week. He gets them every time. Each 24 hour period we see him consistently save the country from becoming a smoking hole. And in the pursuit of that justice he must employ any means necessary. In fact, on a single season of “24” there were 57 graphic depictions of torture.

Barely a peep.

Let’s be clear people. We, as animals, are here for only two things at our core. To survive and to make more of us. The first makes us eat, breath, sense trouble and scamper away or fight back if we get in a jam. The second makes us make love and desire that act in order to further the species (granted this is all an over simplification but it furthers my thesis, it’s my story and I’m sticking with it.)

All the rest, the cars, money, power, possessions, clothes, power ties, titles and perceived influence over others is all window dressing. If someone kills another person simply to gain something that person has, it is not because of the two reasons above, it is something that is many degrees removed (although might be tracable to, say, survival in some way). But that’s the story that leads on the local evening news.

So tell me, why is it OK for TV to have depictions of violence, very disturbing violence, but not OK for depictions of love and kindness and gentle intimacy? People absolutely love watching boxing or Mixed Martial Arts (and they pay huge sums of money to do it) in which two people go at it with no holds barred, bare-fisted pummeling of each other. Every Sunday we watch as giants slam into each other and slam each other to the ground in order for one team to take the other’s land away (George Carlin posited, once, that it was simply a weekly reenactment of the white man’s treatment of the Indians.) My wife and I have speculated that it is only a matter of time before the days of the gladiators are brought back. And MMA is pretty close as it is. Such hostility, such anger and such seeming hatred.

Where does this come from? A romantic comedy about two friends who are in love but don’t know it yet, and decide the only way to get out of the financial hole their in is to make an erotic movie gets an “NC-17” rating (Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Oooh, it has porno in the title and shows naked people.) A movie, the fifth in a wildly popular series, about a guy who wears someone else’s facial skin as a mask and tortures people in a serial rampage gets a rating of “R” (Saw V. No questions asked.)

Does anyone else see the madness in this? The sheer and absolutely stunning imbalance? Last time I checked no one was walking around in tall hats with buckles on their shoes, but holy moly it seems the puritans have come home to roost. As if the crusades were OK, but making love to someone is, oh heavens me, something to cover up, close a door on and make sure you never discuss in public. Just last night we saw three ads for video games that were rated M and had quite a bit of violence. One actually showed an image of a hand with only a bloody stump where the thumb used to be. All before 9 pm. I saw no naked butts though. My land o’ Goshen, no.

We are all naked under our clothes and we all grow up wanting (needing?) to make love with someone. But we are not all serial killers, torturers and violent to our core. I, for one, would much rather see someone naked on television than see a man cut in half in a pool of his own blood. And I would definitely prefer that over watching two guys beat each other to a bloody pulp for sport. OK, full frontal nudity might be taking it too far, especially if it’s a guy, because, face it fellas, women have the upper hand on this one. And too, it could be disturbing to young children so some decorum and logic are necessary here. But come on. What’s the appeal of all this violence?

There is enough violence in the world in reality and enough people willing to use that violence or the threat of it to bend the “people” to their will. Despite all that, for some reason, people love to go see more of it in fantasy. And when Cher says “F**k ’em” about the critics who said she wouldn’t last (a case currently before the Supreme Court) or a naked breast is shown for but a second and then quickly covered, people lose their minds, the FCC is all up in arms and the telephones at the complaints departments light up. Lawsuits are filed and there’s all this tut tuting about how offensive a word or naked body part is. And a bloody thumbless hand isn’t?

Who has instilled this fear of love and sex in our society? Who has decided that the very thing that makes us human is a disagreeable thing? It’s not! Who felt it necessary to cover up something so magnificent and wonderous and lovely as the human body while allowing violence, rage, hatred and anger to flood our senses unabated?

We live in a society where it’s shocking when a rich heiress is seen naked and sexual on a video tape (but oh, how the networks love to show snippets and how people love to search the internet for it. That’s for another blog maybe) but it’s not shocking that Blockbuster displays incredibly disturbing DVD covers throughout its stores. DVD covers for the Saw series and other violent horror films. Images of a girl being tortured, realistic dead people or knives with copious amounts of blood dripping from them. Images of pale hands with broken and bloodied finger nails. Images that, when seen by a young boy of 9, produce nightmares for a week. We don’t sit in wonderment when those DVD covers are willingly displayed, but covers of DVDs that depict a lot of naked people are relegated to the back room or not carried at all. And while we’re at it, I am not sure if it’s more disturbing that it’s being shown or that there is someone in the world who is capable of actually thinking this stuff up.

Let me pause here and say that 99% of adult videos take it way too far, are fantastically unrealistic and have a tendency to debase the actors or treat both the men and women as simple objects and not humans. And they’re kind of silly, but this is not what I’m talking about here, and although I have not seen many of them, it doesn’t take a genius to see a pattern. This particular genre is a study unto itself.

There is a story about an anthropologist who goes to visit a tribe of Indians in an arid part of the southwest. Every morning the shaman goes out to the rim of the canyon and sings to water. Without fail, as the sun rises, his songs in praise of water drift out over the vast expanse. Every song is different. The anthropologist thinks this a bit odd so asks the shaman why there are so many songs about water. The shaman answers that it is the thing they would miss the most if they were without it. It is the one thing they most need in their lives but have very little of. The shaman also mentions that he’s noticed a lot of the songs in America are about love and that seems odd to him.

So if we crave the affections of others and need love and tenderness so badly that we create song after song after song about it; if we work so hard to connect with others and connect with that special person with whom we wish to share the joys of intimacy; if we step back a second and realize that physical intimacy tends to be the underpinning of many of the things we see around us, how is it there is such a celebration and popularity of the violent, the angry, the visceral. Why are horror movies given a rating of “R” without a thought but when a movie depicts a little more than general nudity, anguished decision making, wringing of hands and arguing between the director and MPAA ensue? Movies are boycotted even. Kids are taught that sex and intimacy are dirty and are things to be embarrassed about. That the human body should not be celebrated but covered up and hidden. It just seems all so skewed to me. So out of balance.

Would that our songs could be about water…

After 30 Years, I Finally Understand

There are some things in life that you experience young but only fully understand when the wisdom of age has layered enough of it’s dust upon your heart. Over the past decade, there have been more than just a few times which, for me, bear this consideration out. One such instance has to do with newspapers, AT&T, a money changer and a 12-year-old, toe-headed boy who was just not aware enough because he just wasn’t old enough.

From the time I sold newspapers at the old AT&T building in downtown Wayne, PA until now in my current self-employment and business ownership, I have only been fired once. And it was from that paper selling job (I wouldn’t call it a paper route because I just stood there and sold papers, no route to follow.) Of the 15-20 positions I have held, I have always kept myself to a standard of decency, hard work and integrity that has been a pretty fine way to operate. ( Well, mostly anyway…there was that one time, but that’s, perhaps, another story.) This paper selling job was no different.

I would practice making change with one of those metal change holders you hook to your belt with the cool levers that shot coins out the bottom. I’d pretend someone handed me a five or a one and would whip out the proper change; quickly subtracting thirty-five cents and making up the difference from the stacks of coins in the tubes just large enough to hold quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies. I would practice folding the paper in a tri-fold as quickly as I could and pretend to hand it off as I made change. While standing there when I saw them come out from around the corner, I would see if I could tell what money they were carrying so I could get a head start on making change. And although I sometimes got distracted by counting the cars on the train that occasionally passed across the street and on the other side of the parking lot, I’d be attentive and serious about my job.

And so it went and I loved my job. It was simple, it was indoors in the lobby of the red brick building with the tall tower. A tower so high you could see if from just about everywhere in town. The red brick building that had darker brick squares on the lower floors because of a spate of smoke bombings some years before (I was never really sure why that happened…too young, but I knew the best parts of the story…smoke and bombs.)

And every day there would be a stack of papers waiting for me when I rode up on my bike. I would sell just every one, most days, but sometimes I would have a few left over. That was OK. I had a procedure for that. I’d ask the guard from Pinkerton to pull out his little card with the commission conversion chart on it and I’d take what was mine. Then I’d put the rest in my other pocket, ride down to Rexall Drug and walk to the back of the store. There, I’d put the driver’s money into a white envelope, wrap the envelope up and put it into a mortar and pestle that was on top of the back shelves behind the pharmacist’s counter. The extra papers (if I had any) would go below than on another shelf at the bottom. And out I would go…a few dollars richer and proud to be doing what I was asked to do. Doing it right as rain every single time.

So, I could never understand why every once in a while, the driver would say I shorted him some money. Every once in a while, he’d say there weren’t enough papers left for the money I’d left in that envelope in the mortar and pestle. And I was sure I’d counted right. I began counting twice and it was right. But I kept being told I was short.

Then one day, the paper called my mom and said they no longer needed me. I cried and was sad for a while. I was so proud of my job. And I had always thought they let me go because they didn’t need to sell papers there any more. The Philadelphia Bulletin folded not too many years later so maybe it was because they were trying to cut costs. After all, I was only making them maybe ten or fifteen bucks a day…nothing really. And eventually, it faded into the dark reaches of memory. It became an insignificant time that had very little meaning other than being one of those books on the shelves of your mind.

But then one day a few years ago, it occurred to me what might have happened. I don’t know what made me think of it, nor could I even begin to think of why it mattered. It was just there.

I will never have any proof but I became convinced that the nice man behind the counter (he was probably 25, maybe 30 years old), was taking papers and perhaps others were too. After all, they were sitting there in the back out in the open and the papers the store sold were up front.

What’s to stop someone from just putting one into their stuff to take home. But, then again, anyone could have come along and made the mistake of thinking they were for sale, too. And maybe that’s what happened. Maybe the nice man behind the counter wasn’t being mean and stealing my papers. I will never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter. And maybe it’s not resolved all that much. But I felt better when I thought of those possibilities. Maybe honest mistake, maybe theft, maybe my mind fabricating something that never was. I was relieved to think that my diligence wasn’t for naught and I had done everything right and I had counted properly.

Connecting the dots of a past uncertainty with newly found wisdom of age may not always quite solve a mystery, vindicate a wrong or suddenly bring clarity to something that has always caused confusion. But it can still tie up a loose end, or close the book on a chapter that is long overdue of being finished. Wisdom is a funny thing. Sometimes it can make you smart and sometimes, it can simply perform a little piece of historical magic.

Like Alfredo? Eat This!

My 11-year-old has taken a keen interest in cooking and one day announced he wanted to make fettuccini alfredo (these pronouncements have come often of late..always something new.) So we did. What we didn’t expect was how incredibly delicious it would be. It is, by far, the best I have ever had and this coming from someone who in younger years actively sought out a better and better source of fettuccini alfredo…some search for ribs, for me it’s flat pasta in cheesy cream sauce.

And it’s finally here. At last we can get that silence which comes with the main stream media looking around and asking themselves, “what now?” And as you watch the returns or if you are reading this after things have been written in stone, I have something for you. It is a symphony for your tongue, a celebration of flavor, a soothing of the soul. If your man won, this will add that much more, or if your man didn’t quite pull it out, this will make you feel better.

Because, food is a powerful thing. To deny ourselves the pleasure of eating is to deny one of the very things that makes us human. Some eat for health, some eat to dull the pain and the rest are somewhere in between. Since the dawn of time, coming together and sharing food has always been at the heart of family and a constant in human’s lives.

I have heard it said that if it’s good to you, it ain’t good for you and with this we’re in a whole lotta big bad trouble here. So if you’re looking for something for dinner tonight, give this one a try. But if you’re looking for something healthy, maybe try scrambled eggs whites with Gimme Lean mixed in because you won’t find that here.

Here’s our (actually, my son’s) little contribution to any gathering you might have, whether a party of one or a group of many. (full disclosure: this is our own remastering of a recipe at recipezaar.com. Never leave a recipe un-touched. Take nothing at face value. Question everything. Void the warranty.)

6 Tbls sweet unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups heavy cream (see? good to ya, not so good for ya)
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 1/2 cups shredded parmasean cheese
2 cups shredded five italian cheese blend
1 or 2 boxes of whole grain pasta (any kind, it doesn’t have to be fettuccini and at least there is this to cancel out some of the that above)

Put some water on to boil for the pasta.

Melt the butter in a medum sauce pan over medium to low heat.

Add garlic, cream, white pepper and bring it all to a simmer. Not a boil, a simmer. Stir often.

Add the parmesan cheese and simmer sauce for 8-10 minutes or until sauce has thickened. *don’t let it get too hot* it will get too thick and clumpy and that’s no good. Think smooth. Think silk. Think aaaaaah.

Add the mozzarella cheese and stir this until also smooth, stir frequently and, I can’t stress this enough, don’t let it get too hot.

While the sauce cooks a little longer on medium to low (You’re erring on the side of low, right?) boil the pasta for 3-5 minutes.

Now, dish it up, park yourself on the couch and feel good no matter what happens. Want something health, toos some spices and parmesan cheese with broccoli. Or just go with the garlic bread (you can never have enough garlic). And then tomorrow hit the gym and be happy with the world or that the world didn’t end.

Buon Appetito

Without Our Memory, We Don’t Really Exist

I brush my teeth with my right hand. I eat with my right hand. I shave with my right hand. I am considering writing with my right hand and I am left-handed.

In Buddhism, part of the belief system centers around the precept of the present. They speak about being in the moment, focusing on the present, being present. The present is all there is since the future hasn’t come and the past has been left behind.

In the movie Momento, the protagonist has no long term memory due to an accident, but knows his wife was killed. His entire existence is focused on finding who took his wife from him. The only way he can remember the facts he finds is to tattoo them on his body (presumably he couldn’t remember where he put that piece of paper he’d written them on and at some point came up with another…erm…option) and continually he is piecing his life’s narrative together, reviewing the tattoos all over his body, to tease out the next clue that might lead him to the killer.

I am not certain that those who speak of living in the moment literally mean from the perspective of one’s own timeline. I believe it’s more about enjoying each moment as fully as the human mind, body and spirit can. Savoring each passing minute or hour and each sensory experience. Because once they pass, they are gone. It’s been spoken about enough that it is almost cliche, and of course, the marketers have beat it to death.

But suppose, like the character in Momento, you didn’t have the choice? What if memories were fading on their own and you couldn’t stop that process? What if you really started to lose your memory? How would it feel? What would that be like?

I am afraid of very little. But someone close to me has Alzheimer’s Disease and as I watch her slowly fade, it hurts to the core and frightens the daylights out of me that a beast looms just around the corner for me, as well. I may never get it. But there’s a chance. A better chance for me. As with anything I see others go through, I very much want to understand what they are experiencing. How it feels. So I understand them better. Like knowing a room in the house, so when you call while away, you can picture where the person you’re talking to is sitting. She doesn’t know what’s happening and if you bring it up, the conversation is soon gone. What would that be like? Would I know? The lasting long term memories becoming like books on a shelf. Not really memories, just vignettes of what once was because they are no longer connected to what is happening now..

I watch as she covers for her lapses wondering if it’s some primordial survival mechanism. An artifact from long ago, once needed to prevent predators from seeing the vulnerability. I imagine it’s a similar experience to when you’re sleeping and someone calls, or comes into the room. Often the immediate instinct is to say “no, it’s OK, I wasn’t sleeping” and I have always thought that a little strange – even though I have done that myself. I have pondered if it’s indeed an instinctual reaction…you know, “never let them see you sweat.”

There is a certain innocence to being with someone who can’t remember things from one moment to the next. The focus, by nature, becomes the present because that’s what seems more readily handled, it’s real and there. But that too begins to get sliced up and disjointed. Like little time-lettes that aren’t connected or if they are by only the slightest of gossamer threads. Easily broken.

As the conversation expands beyond the present a little, every so often the confusion descends. It’s almost a thing you can see. A shadow cast by a high cloud or that darkening of a room as a nearby cloud covers only part of the sun. I watch as the vibrant personality of the person who could carry the world on her shoulders while running slowly fades and changes. It’s heartbreaking.

So I care and respect and honor. Because regardless of anyone’s infirmities they are still a human being and deserve all the respect due that station.

But too, I worry. The worry steals over me as I travel back here to Colorado. Will I be next? Could this also happen to me? What will it feel like? Will it feel like anything at all. I am not filled with dread. Just curious wonder that has one edge that’s a little darker than the rest. An edge you see but can’t really tell all of what’s there. And as I read, everything I find out about that could prevent me from getting Alzheimer’s (true or not) I try. To bring light to that darker edge. Knowing for sure monsters are there is often better than not knowing but wondering if there are.

So I exercise for all I’m worth. I take EFA’s and vitamins. I eat well and clean. I see my doctor regularly and get things straight. I read voraciously, I am constantly learning, I brush my teeth with my right hand. I eat with my right hand. I shave with my right hand. I am considering writing with my right hand and I am left-handed.

Damage III

In the end, it’s all about either making yourself better or stronger or more fit or just more of something than you were. All that means is staying around a little or a lot longer because when it come down to it, we’re here to either make more of us, survive or both. All the rest is just window dressing. And don’t be fooled. It’s not the person who dies with the most toys who wins, it’s the person who dies last.

So we join health clubs, buy home gyms, make buckets of money for those morons who stick two aluminum poles together, rivet a braided steel cable to it and call it “the greatest weight loss machine eva.” To what end? Lighter bank accounts and larger bellies. But sometimes a person will hit upon something that works, something they can both feel the passion for and actually manage to get fit, stay fit and be stronger. When passion exceeds logic, you get damage.

Such was the case with martial arts. I had met someone smart, beautiful, strong and independent. She was her own person and I loved that about her. She didn’t do the usual softball games after work (I’d met her when I myself was on an after work indoor soccer team). Having recently gone through a time where the carpet, or more aptly the world, was yanked out from underneath me resulting in my landing very hard on my head, I was feeling like I wasn’t all that up for being in crowds either, nor following, so different was good and different was what we did.

And it worked. Through martial arts, we found something we could get excited about. But after a time, with anything involving humans, there is at least one person who wants more power than they can get and politics started rearing an ugly head in the school. As we saw the life begin to drain out of our passion, we knew it was time to depart.

After a few years, we gave it another shot. It was Tae Kwon Do as before and it was better, it was doing for us what we needed it to do. But, alas, despite a consuming passion for the martial arts and a commitment and dedication to the school, the politics and internal bickering amongst the leaders and the small skirmishes for power amongst the high ranks finally took a toll as well. It became like that relationship in college you cling to over the summer, hanging on to it because it’s all you’ve got. Then someone shows you the pipe dream you’re living, and the poor treatment you’re enduring. The bubble bursts leaving behind nothing but the air it held which is quickly carried away on the wind. It was goodbye again but what had revealed the pipe dream was something altogether different. The same world, but vastly different environment of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu is a hard, exhausting art. It was one of the best ways we had found to move our bodies, make them do what we needed and get the benefit of becoming much stronger and much more healthy. Mentally and physically it changed us and made us better people. We gave as much passion to it as anything we’d ever done. But if you’re passionate about something long enough, sometimes you miss the signs that you’re getting in too deep. Miss those and there will be damage.

It was an honor being asked to begin training in Iron Palm. It became every day, day in and day out, for what turned out, in that first part, to be 6 months. Grueling, mind numbing training that was both physical but also mental. There were deprivations in order to keep my chi full and clear. Training exercises to build more chi, chi gong meditations for building even more. I had all that chi and no place to put it.

Anything that requires the striking of a body part against an unforgiving surface, requires that skin and bone be conditioned to take the impact. Done properly it neither hurts nor causes any damage. But there is change, or what some might consider damage. Because the skin thickens and there are micro fractures in the bone that make bone more dense when they heal, filling in any holes that could make it weak during high velocity strikes.

After months of thousands of full force strikes against a leather pillow filled with copper BBs, after enduring the mental anguish of wanting that which I needed to deprive myself of in order to reach that level of mental strength, I broke two cement landscaping cap stones with each of my bare hands. The accompanying rush was astounding.

When you jump out of an airplane, take a class 5 rapids in a kayak, or maybe take a sport bike around a turn and actually touch your knee puck to the pavement, the rush of adrenaline is, by all accounts, like nothing else. I can say that the rush of adrenaline one feels after snapping two inches of concrete with a body part probably comes pretty close. And the buzz lasts for a couple of hours.

But that buzz is dangerous. Like anything else that makes a person feel more alive than they had before, they sometimes want more. They go further for it. They demand more of themselves before they are ready or have done enough mental preparation in order to ensure they will do what they endeavor. It was in that zone when I was doing a more difficult break with a right knife edge. I wanted so badly to make it I lost my focus. At the moment of impact, my wrist came down on the edge of the stone between the knobby wrist bone and the fleshy part of the edge of my palm. The blocks broke, but I would never break with that hand again.

Toward the end of my breaking “career” I was too driven, holding on too tight and not paying attention to what my body was telling me. The liniment I used for conditioning was drying out my skin. It was starting to crack and with the thousands of training hits I was doing each week, the crack grew. Finally, having paid it no mind, I ended up with a hole in my left wrist a quarter inch deep. It hurt a lot and bled each time I trained. What was this insanity? Just what exactly was I trying to prove? It may have been at that point I realized it was too much. There was too much going on for me to be focused enough to control my desire to excel. And I realized I was cutting corners to get to that buzz quicker, see the crumbled concrete between the cinder block stand. One last break, three blocks this time and it was over. I watched the video over and over, seeing the less than perfect form, seeing that it was more brute force than the finesse and focus it should have been. The bricks broke, it didn’t hurt and the roar of the audience sucked me into that vortex of adrenaline just the same, but that wasn’t what it was all about. It had to be about me, the chi, the focus, the art. But that was slipping.

And in the end, as I stepped back further from what had become my obsession, I saw another result of my practice in Iron Palm. The last two fingers on my left hand were starting to spontaneously go numb. Depending on how I slept, I would wake up and the outsides of my hands would be numb and cool. This couldn’t be right and doubt had me wondering if I had done something wrong in training or the training itself was not as benign as I had originally thought. I was at the end, and it became easier and easier to walk away. I realized that damage was done. And while it was a beautiful thing while I was in it, I had turned away knowing I couldn’t go back. It might have been that I was not mentally as strong as I had hoped. Or maybe I was fooling myself into thinking I was doing everything I needed to do properly, not cutting any corners. Like the rider who’s dragged his knee puck but nearly high sided and gone off a cliff, I was glad to have done it, but I wouldn’t be doing it again.

Foot Traffic

Imagine this! You’re walking North on Wilcox heading to dinner at the Castle Cafe, or maybe breakfast at B&B. About half way down the block a new business is setting up shop. They have boxes and equipment outside up against the front of their store. It’s mostly moved out of the way, but there’s a lot there so it’s kind of crowded. Because the sidewalk is not very wide and there are parking meters at the curb, the path to get by has become just wide enough for one person. The pedestrian traffic is not all that heavy, but there are a few people on the walkway.

As you approach the narrowing of the sidewalk you move to your left to pass the store front and avoid running into their stuff, you suddenly sense a presence off your left shoulder and before you can think, someone has cut in front of you and is quickly making his way through the narrowed walkway. You have to slow your pace to avoid now running into him lest you veer and crash into the boxes strewn about.

How about this? You’re waiting on a street corner for the light to change. Just as it changes you drop the book you were holding in your hand. The crowd around you begins to move as you stoop to pick it up but the person behind you has to wait briefly before he can proceed across the street.

“Come on, buddy, move it,” he says behind you as you stand again. Stepping out into the street, you notice the man behind you suddenly pick up the pace and jostle you to get by. He passes and waves just a single finger at you. Hopefully, in this instance, although the urge to respond might be high, you hold your tongue and your temper and continue one your way.

One more. Again walking down the street, this time there is light foot traffic and you are moving along nicely with them. A guy turns in front of you so you have to slow a little quickly to let him pass. From behind you you hear a “whoa!” as the person who was following you too close pulls up short and has to stop himself from knocking you down.

Next thing you know, he has sped around you but instead of continuing on he stops dead in his tracks and you crash into him.

I would think any of these events, especially on a busy city street, would lead to additional physical contact or at least the exchange of harsh words. I don’t think anone reading this could imagine actually doing that.

So what gives? People do these very same things in cars…every day. Something that might significantly increase the chance of getting the living snot beat outta someone on the street, is practiced every day as if the cloak of a car is enough to make you anonymous.

They give you angry looks, flip you the bird, zoom around you and slam on the breaks and whatever else they can do to let you know they are the “king of the road”, you are in “their house” and you’d better get out of the way, because what they have to do and where they are going is far more important than anything you might be up to.

Just after college, I lived in Annandale, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. One weekend evening, on the way to Georgetown, a friend and I were driving on I-325 through Alexandria. Already amped up at the prospects for the evening, we “got into it” with some fool (or at least at the time, we thought him the fool) who eventually did end up zooming in front of us and slamming on the breaks.

Being an inexperienced and overzealous 23-year-old behind the wheel, I hit the breaks a little too hard and in the middle of a 6-lane highway did a complete 180, complete with smoking rubber and squealing tires.

When it was over a few seconds later, I was facing a phalanx of oncoming headlights, the acrid smell of burnt rubber was in my nose and all I could says was “far out.” As nonchalantly as you might expect an inexperienced 23-year-old hopped up on testosterone might say it. These days, with the wisdom of time, I ask myself, who was the fool.

At the time, it was “cool”. We had a great night and I think my roommate even met a beautiful red-haired flight attendant. But it could have turned out very differently. I could be dead and you wouldn’t be reading this.

I don’t do that any more. I and my wife like it that way. So, when the guy in the trailer won’t let me merge and then has the nerve to point his fat finger at me like a gun and “pull the trigger”, I just let him go by. He has to live with himself, not me. When the silly lady speeding up the road weaving in and out of traffic appears in my rear view, I make room. She’s going to screw up one day and end up seeing how quickly two tons of steel can come apart at 70 miles an hour. But I’m not going to be the one she takes with her. And yesterday, when I watch a guy in a pickup swerves from the hammer lane, across two lanes of traffic, to the far right lane and then back just missing my front bumper (I was in the center lane), only to waggle that single fingered hello with vigor at the horse trailer that was impeding his progress, I just shake my head and give a sad smile.

I guess in a way, we all try to hammer out our own space in the world. We try to feel like we have ownership of something. And so we try to buy the bigger house, plant the greener expanse of lawn, own the biggest car or truck and take ownership of the hundred or so feet of road around us. But if we’re all doing that, it leaves no room for anyone so I will never be sure of the logic in it. I just know it grows tiresome and uses more energy than I want to give to such trivial and unproductive endeavors.

There seems to be a lot of negative emotion in the world these days. Some days it feels like it’s poisoning the air and choking out reason. There is animosity and fear. Many people are fighting over power, oil, land, territory, money or whatever. In some cases it has consumed them. Even if they have already lost, they won’t give up until there is “victory” as if that will make any real difference.

All human emotion is there for a reason. We are built the way we’re built and there’s not all that much we can do about it. But as we coexist with the varied and diverse other humans that walk the planet, those emotions that bring us together are always the ones that take the most work to build. Compassion, respect, honesty and loving kindness are luckily not in short supply (they never really are), but through the storms in the news, they are sometimes hard to find.

So the next time you’re trying to hammer out more space for yourself, see if you can stop and ask yourself what you’re doing it for. Is the reason really that important? Wouldn’t it be better to just let him merge in front of you, take a moment to hold the door for someone at the post office, let the young, uniquely-pierced teen laden with items go ahead of you in the grocery line?

It may be human nature to try to gather to yourself all you can. A survival mechanism that kicks in when things get a little wonky in our world. Whether it’s the intangibles of power or respect, or the solid physical presence of material items or money, it sometimes feels that the more we have, the more we can cloak and protect ourselves from the fear that makes us feel so out of control.

In the end, we’re all part of the same thing. As Carl Sagen once said, ” that’s here, that’s home, that’s us”. I firmly believe It is less important to be a part of a collection of things as it is to be a part of humanity. Besides, you really don’t own anything, anyway. You’re just borrowing it while you here.

Damage II

after2.jpgYou can recover mostly from trashing yourself skiing. Or at least after taking down a few pin up calendars from the wall; but sometimes things just keep coming back once you’re to that place called Damage. The human shoulder, for example, is the one joint in the body that moves the most. It is mandatory that it be flexible enough to handle the wide range of motion required of it. The compromise price we pay is the large number of problems not faced by other joints such as the hip (that just blows out and requires replacement later on down the road).

A little more than a decade after the mountain shook me loose and a decade before my hands went partially numb (what?…later), I worked at a sports supplement company. It was the company in the industry at the time and known as the gold standard of product lines that could pump you up, boost your athletic abilities, make you stronger, make you more powerful, smarter and better looking Well, ok, maybe not those last two but a lot of people thought that; and there were a lot of pretty good looking people milling around. I wasn’t one of them but they were there. It was the closest thing to a cult I had ever been exposed to and you could find plenty of people drinking the cool-aide in the building. As far as cults go the company had quite a distance to go before dying a fiery death as the sheriffs bare down on them with armored personnel carriers, but there were most definitely some pretty rabid fans and employees. There were people who would actually travel to the building from all over the country just to have their picture taken in front of the sign out front. The sign. Really! “I seen ’em do it!”

The result of this popularity was a cash flow that was like drinking from a fire hose, and one (of many) results of that was a state of the art gym with everything you’d need to achieve one or all of the above physical improvements. It was not a big leap to understand that if you got enough testosterone in that gym, grunts, shouts, screams and the gnashing of teeth would soon follow as the volume of Sports Center got turned up and the heat was on to “go big or go home”. Sheesh, it was a little much sometimes. When the CEO is a well known body builder, that just kinda goes with the deal, I guess.

It was usually the case in the mornings when my friend, Jeff, and I would go for our morning workout. He’d spot me, I’d spot him and it all worked out pretty well. The big boys around us would be doing their thing, busting out the reps with three 45s on each side…call me a sissy, but I was never going to get there and I could live with that. I got to looking like that silly fellow in his underwear at the top of the page (very silly!! But you should have seen the before…eeek…that wasn’t silly, that was just scary.) Feeling fit is a good thing. Being fit is even better. I was not as satisfied as I would have liked back then, but, of course, at that time being as satisfied as I wanted to be would have required dabbling in nutrients of an injectable nature which, thankfully, I did not pursue. Ah, to be relatively young, still mostly bullet proof and thinking stupid thoughts.

Then things kinda went sideways.

I don’t know if it was the heavy weight, improper form or just physiology, but my left shoulder started to go. First, it was just sore, then it grew to be really sore, and then it was painful enough to prevent any kind of heavy lifting or really much of anything day to day with the exception of typing software code. That was OK (as least I could keep my job), but the residual effect was being unable to lift my arm above head height and every once in a while finding an ice pick had been driven into it from the top.

So now, 10 years later and with much learning having been gained, I lament the beatings Jeff and I used to visit upon our bodies. The dips that went too far down so we could get that “extra burn”, the one last rep of the military press beyond what we were really capable of and all the other things I did to make sure the most flexible joint in my body remained out of balance and pain remained just on the other side of the door marked “just one more”.

The net result of that and all my exploits using my arms- like way back in the days in Alexandria, Virginia, I remember wanting to get that softball to home plate from the outfield. Not just get it there, but get it straight there, no bounce. That was an exercise in checking how far my left shoulder joint would go before it popped out. And it hurt like hell!- and every once in a while my shoulder will turn to me and make sure I understand that I am not the boss of it and if there is any question, there might need to be a reinforcement class next time I decide I want to lift an eight by eight pressure treated timber on to it.

We are never really in complete control, are we?

Damage I

When you’re young, you do whatever you feel like. You are ten feet tall and bulletproof and nothing can stop or touch you. At least that’s the perception…and maybe it was just my perception. I haven’t taken a poll but from what I have observed, I am not the only one who rowed that boat.

So you go out and drink a lot, eat very spicy food as much as you want, play any sport that strikes your fancy and generally do things that tend to put you on your backside every so often. But back then, you could dust yourself off and go chase down the mutt who knocked you flat for a little payback. All in good fun and sport. There are few second thoughts about what effects these things might have on you later. Whether consciously or not you believe your physical endeavors aren’t supposed to have an effect because the human body has an incredible capacity to heal itself, right? Besides, up to that point, for most of us, there’s no evidence that healing wouldn’t happen. So you continue, and when you hit 40, your the mutt and your body is the one coming for payback.

I submit the following for your consideration.

I went skiing for the first time as a sophomore in college; went to upstate New York with my roommate and another friend to some ski resort that was more of a bump than a mountain (my inner Colorado snob coming out, having been spoiled by our ever-present, vast and towering peaks.) I had never skied, and never really thought about it until my buddies brought it up that day. Prior to that, I had only watched a TV show for 10 minutes on how to ski. It was one I had just happened upon when surfing the channels during a moment of college boredom (as much as one could surf back then).

So we went, and I had been doing well all afternoon, but on one particular run, I came around a right turn way too hot. My friends were waiting about half way down that segment of the hill and saw me blur around the corner three times faster than than was probably prudent. Immediately they called for me to slow down, so I eased my skis sideways, doing that parallel edging thing, whatever you call that (still green after all these years), and started digging into the slope.

But we were in the East. The slope was not 153 inches of packed powder. It was 3 inches of packed powder on top of 10 inches of solid ice. In some areas, those 3 inches had been scraped away by fools who take right turns way too hot and as I began to slow, I hit some ice where I may have actually sped up a bit. Then, once again, I was back into the snow pack and that’s when this mountain-lette decided to shake itself free of yet another moron.

Hitting that second section of snow after the ice sheet was like riding a bike on road and then heading up onto the grass, or maybe more like heading onto the beach…but at 30 miles per hour. You kinda have a tendency to slow down. But even better, it was what you’d call a high-side.

When I was riding motorcycles I’d sometimes “drag a knee” when I was on the sport bikes (not touching down of course lest there be Damage in the form of leaving my patella behind half way through the turn) and drag the kick stand when I was on the cruisers. Thought I was cool. But that’s another Damage story. Thinking you’re cool is usually the start on the path to Damage.

In taking turns this tight, there was always that risk of high-siding. (putting on a pseudo scientific affect) This occurs when the angular momentum of the turn/curve is replaced by tangential motion along the direction of travel (centrifugal force no longer having an effect) out of the arc, in a straight line, no more curve. It’s a physics thing. The bike stops dead in its tracks for a brief moment and you don’t. Then suddenly you are the participant in a demonstration of rotational inertia. You go sailing out of the arc of the curve and if you’re lucky, leave the bike to do its own thing hoping it won’t fly up and come down on top of you (an riding instructor once told me he saw an accident in which an eight hundred pound Goldwing flew 150 feet after a high-side). Think of a string with a ball on the end. You’re the ball, where the tires meet the road is the string in your hand. How much faster is the ball going than the part that’s closer to your hand…get the idea? But as sixty miles per hour, gravity tends to mean less and, thus, the flying part.

This is sort of what came next in my attempt to stop using ice and then making a transition to something fairly less slick. When I hit the softer snow, I was slowed suddenly enough that I high-sided and launched myself, or more aptly “was launched,” into the air – I am under no illusions that I was actually in control. With the angle of the mountain, my speed and my downhill direction of travel, I possibly flew 40 feet over the ground. There was that sudden silent, frictionless and vibration-free sensation of no longer being in contact with the ground. In the end, as they say in aviation, take off is optional but landing is mandatory.

In skiing you have the “yard sale” where everything not nailed to your body comes off and ends up somewhere within a 10 foot radius of the twisted wreckage you’ve become. With a sudden thump and the scrapping sound of snow, I executed my yard sale in fine style and then there was nothing. Silence. I just lay there taking an inventory of myself to make sure first, that everything was still attached and, second, to make sure the attachments fit and weren’t broken. They did and they weren’t but my left knee was pretty banged up (how I didn’t tear my ACL is still a mystery to me.) And that leads me to my point.

That one ski outing by a young bullet proof college student was possibly the start of what has evolved into a regular routine of icing down my knees after working out. But you couldn’t have told me then that I’d pay for not treating my joints a little more nicely. You learn from your mistakes, but sometimes the lessons come when you already know the material, or it’s too late to act on the sage advice.

Do You Really Know What a Billion Looks Like?

Unless you live under a rock you’ve no doubt heard of the work the U.S. government is doing to stop the bleeding in the financial system. The number most bandied about is seven hundred billion which everyone knows is a large number. But do we really understand how very large that number is? It seems it starts sounding like 200 billion or 800 billion or 500 billion. All those zeros kind of run together in one’s mind.

A few weeks back I wrote a piece about having everything and nothing in which I mentioned the odds of winning the lottery. Those odds pretty much approached zero which is a really small number. That’s not hard to conceptualize. You have some money, it gets syphoned off by greedy executives running some company, you have zero dollars. Simple. Hey, Bernie Ebbers, prison going ok for you? No? Good!

But what about the other end of the numbering spectrum? Infinity can be imagined, but it can’t be comprehended. It’s an incomprehensible number by definition. So what about a billion? Most people are familiar with it and know what it means in practice; 1 x 10(9), 1,000,000,000, The big B (I made that up). But can you visualize what it means? Can you look around and say, “oh, yeah, a billion is this, or a billion compares to that”? Most can’t…I can’t…so here are a few examples of billions of things that might assist you in grasping what they are talking about in Washington a little more clearly.

If you wanted to make a book with a billion dollar signs, printed 1,000 per page with pages printed on both sides, your book would be 500,000 pages long. A very long, boring book, to which you know the ending!

If you hopped in your time machine (you do have one, don’t you?) and went back in time a billion seconds, you’d end up somewhere in the neighborhood of January 11, 1977. Gerald Ford is your president and Carter comes in 9 days, Apple Computer just incorporated a few days ago and the iPod is almost 30 years away, Fleetwood Mac hasn’t yet released Rumors, Star Wars (you know, that first one with Luke The Bad-Haired Boy) won’t be released for another four and a half months.

If you decided to count to a billion, and you averaged 1 second per number, you’d be a little more than 31 years, 259 days older by the time you finished. Some who tried it would not make it.

A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

A tightly-packed stack of new $1,000 bills totaling $1 billion would be 63 miles high. Airliners fly mostly between about 5.7 and 7.6 miles high.

If you wanted to spend a billion dollars (let alone $700 billion) in just a single year, you’d have to spend almost $32 a second…every second. Even when you were asleep. Bill gates would have to spend about $1792 if he wanted to get rid of his (approx.) $56 billion.

So what about the $700,000,000,000 they’re talking about on the East coast? Well, try this:

If you needed to spend that much in a single year, you’d have to spend almost $80,000 every hour to do it…24/7/365.

For each man woman and child, it’s the equivalent of what a person, on average, spent over the entire year of 2006 for gas.

It’s 12 Bill Gates.

It’s about half of the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 richest people.

James Cameron would have to make 381 movies as successful as Titanic in order to gross seven hundred billion dollars.

In today’s dollars, The Marshal Plan, the program back in 1944 developed to finance the recovery of Western Europe after World War II, would need to be multiplied seven time in order to bail us out now.

It is 9 times the amount spent on education in 2007.

You could buy 641,407,430 Big Macs every day for a year. Say ‘hello’ to obesity!

It is more zeros than are allowed on the dashboard calculator of the MacBook this is being written on.

According to some estimates, it is three times what it would cost, over 10 years, to reduce oil dependency by 20%.

It’s over twice the amount of all money given to all charitable organizations in the United States in any given year.

It is more than $100 for every person in the world.

If you had $700,000,000,000, were traveling in space and it cost you $1 a mile, you’d only have spent a little over half your money by the time you got to Pluto (I still think of it as a planet no matter what they say).

A big number right? And a shame. Because no one’s going to jail for putting us into a situation where we even have to be talking about $700,000,000,000. There are and will be some folks who will walk away (slink away?) and keep all the zeros in their bank accounts. Even though those bank accounts hold some of your money.

And don’t be fooled, when there is that much money in a single place, you can bet that there will be folks who will be slithering in with hoses that go to their banks. And they will do all they can to hook them up to that bucket of money. Don’t believe it? Just watch.

Who Knew? A Tale of Irony and Coincidence

I didn’t know him at all, but from what I have heard, life for Joseph John Janson was not all that kind to him. But before he was married. Before he had two sons. Before he tragically slipped and fell in a bathtub, drowning at the age of 57 and before life had thrown its curveballs, he was just a young man of 22 years, living his life when he took to the open road.

I grew up in an old Victorian house on the Main Line of Eastern Pennsylvania. It was the “wrong side of the tracks” but it was still a nice big house with lots of cool places to hide. A few years ago, I was rummaging around in the third floor storage room and I happened upon three old black journals. They were the kind that were flimsy and bound with thin, black leather. About the size of large paper back books, they were crumbly and dusty and had the scent of old mildew, dust and time. And only now, reading over them, do I realize that our paths had crossed…78 years apart.

Inside I found accounts of driving trips taken by a young Joseph Janson back in the late 20s and early 30s. Most trips were to northern New York but in August of 1930 he and friends, Lloyd and Wes, embarked on a trip to the west coast.

It began passing through Chambersburg, PA, the northern tip of West Virginia on the way to Ohio and stops in Ohio at Medina and Toledo; a stop at the Moline Municipal Camp in Illinois, then further west, through Davenport and Des Moines, IA (“Very nice city, and a – er – Oh, well! There it goes – it’s gone.”). They stopped in Oakland, IA staying in the Oakland Hotel. They had dinner in Nebraska with the engineer and fireman of the Pacific Limited No 19 – Misters E. A. Beach and A. E. Nielson – and saw a movie in Lexington, NE. where they stayed at Desky’s Hotel. And finally, their trip took them into Denver. I let my grandfather, before he was my grandfather, tell you in his own words written 78 years ago:

August 15, 1930

9:00 AM Hooray!! We won’t have to lay over. The sun is out bright and hot, which means we can make a break to get through to Denver, Colorado. Same old story during the day – more prairies – more mud, though considerably less. The roads were much better today.

1:40 PM In Denver Wes decided to have the car greased, washed, refueled and brakes tested. Oooh!! How that car needed a wash! We were very much impressed with Denver – in fact the nicest city on our route so far. In a few hours we bid Denver farewell and were off again, headed for Colorado Springs. The trip from Denver to Colorado Springs was very beautiful. We had a range of mountains to our right all the way in. The sun was just setting over the mountain tops – creating some very beautiful scenes, with the rays shooting up through the breaks in the clouds. Guess what! The people here have a Castle Rock, too! A real Castle Rock, with a small town named after It. Situated on top of a very high hill, there is a huge rock – flat on top and all four sides practically vertical. It really looks like a huge castle. I would say it was about ten storied high, one block long and about one quarter block wide.

Before we reached Castle Rock, we had the rare treat of seeing where a rainbow actually started. The sun shining through a light rain, formed the most vivid colored beautiful rainbow that we had ever seen. It was a perfect semi-circle of beautiful colors, shooting away up into the sky. The colors were so intense that for a while I was tempted to try a snapshot of it. It seemed to rise from a small green clearing between two mountains, and we could easily see the exact spot where it started – the grass around it seemed almost yellow. We didn’t see a pot of gold, though. Maybe the grass was too high.

After we had dinner in Colorado Springs, we met a tourist car driver, whom people called “Happy Mercer” – and he was just that. He showed us where to find a nice room – and when we began to talk about the trip – why, he almost changed our whole route, so that it would cost us less and we would also see more.

We couldn’t see much of Old Pike for the upper half was completely hidden in clouds.

9:15 AM Location – out in the middle of the main street in Colorado Springs – puttin’ the camera sights on Old Pike. Just look at that – ain’t that a purty sight! Pikes Peak towering away above everything, right into those snow white clouds. Looks so close you’d think you could hit it with a stone – but really, it’s about twenty miles away – airline distance, too.

10:45 AM We’re off! Here we are at the entrance now, and eighteen miles of steep, steep going ahead of us.

11:55 AM We made it!! Pikes Peak, in an hour and ten minutes. Oh, boy! What a day!! We actually lived a complete year in about three short hours. What a climb it was we thought we’d never get there.

As we started up, things looked very ordinary. You know, green trees, grass, little stream of water now and then – nothing unusual. But, soon the trees began to thin out and the grass seemed to have a sickly looking color – what little you could see of it. After a few more miles of climb, trees were as scarce as level land – course there were some around, but they all looked like a cyclone had hit ’em, bare trunk, jacked branches, no leaves or bark at all. As for grass – pooie! Grass doesn’t grow on rocks.

Finally after we had covered about fifteen miles, not so much as a speck of plant life could be seen. Not a sign of any kind of life – just plain rock – and plenty of it. What a swell place to pick a fight! A couple hundred feet more of altitude later, we were a bit surprised to see a flock of hideous looking crows that were as big as turkeys. We thought it would be quite cold up there when we reached the top – it wasn’t so bad, though. Only forty-six degrees – so we didn’t bother much – just ran around in our shirts. We had a great time climbing all over the place and trying to see everything all at once – not realizing that the real fun was just about to start.

We noticed, quite suddenly, that the air was growing colder by the minute, and that the little dark cloud, off in the distance, had grown to all kinds of sizes. What concerned us most was the fact that the thing was heading straight for us, in a terrible hurry. You should have seen the colors in it – all black! It wasn’t very long before the sun was hidden and the wind began to blow like it was looking for trouble. Well, we thought we’d seen about everything, we’d better be going. We had hardly gotten the motor started when all of a sudden the very heavens seemed to break loose. Down came snow, hail, thunder and lightning, all at once. Everything around us was hidden in a pale grey mist. Soon the clouds were hogging everything – you couldn’t see twenty feet ahead. The wind was blowing harder all the time – the temperature dropped like a ton of lead – it must have been zero. By this time it was hailing chunks as big as marbles, and the thunder doing its little part to help the party along. For a while we enjoyed it immensely, we were in our sweat shirts and slickers, having a wild time – but all good things must come to an end, you know. I was running around dodging the moth balls trying to take pictures. By the time I got to the fourth snapshot, my hands were so frozen I hardly had strength enough to press the bulb. Wes was leaning out of the car yelling for me to hurry up before he froze to death, and I standing out there with my hands shaking the camera so that I couldn’t half see what I was taking. While I was out there I noticed a peculiar sizzling, sort of burning sensation on my head, across the shoulders and on the legs. Whenever I came closer to the car, the sizzling became louder, and I could feel the sting even more – especially across the top of my head. It fairly cracked out loud. It suddenly dawned on me that it was the electricity in the clouds that was doing all the funny tickling. It seemed funny to have hail and snow pouring down in zero weather and lightning flying around so close you could stick out a pan and fry eggs.

The trip down seemed even longer than going up. We could hardly see ahead, and the road was slippery, making the going slower than a snail’s pace. As we came down, the hail turned to snow and the snow gradually turned into rain. It was slowly growing warmer and soon the rain stopped falling, the clouds cleared away, and once more the sun was shining bright as ever – and there was Pikes Peak, high in the sky, with a beautiful new coat of snow and ice, that shone and glittered in the sun.

6:30 PM We started back for Denver – I wanted to get a snap of the Castle Rock, but it was too late in the evening when we reached there. We went right on through Denver, Loveland, and into Fort Collins, where we spent the night. Oh, yeah! In a hotel of course!

Mileage for the day – 191 miles
Weather – clear and cool.

I never knew my grandfather, but there is something peaceful and serene in knowing that he and I have shared some of the same experiences and that those constants, Castle Rock, Pikes Peak, the cities in which they stand, are always there…watching over us.

Having Everything and Having Nothing

We were passing through Vail the other day on the way to a camping trip and stopped off at a 7-Eleven to stretch our legs and see what the big 7 had to offer (not much). On a whim, while purchasing a few comics for the boys, I threw two dollars on the counter and said “two, quick picks.” This is a silly but entertaining thing I do maybe once every 2 years. Part teaching opportunity, part mental exercise, the purchase of a lottery ticket always sparks conversations that evolve in interesting ways.

This year, with the hurricane in Texas, I was able to think in two realms. Having a lot and having nothing.

Having a Lot

Being able to buy anything you want is always — or at least most times — the fantasy of those purchasing lottery tickets. I would venture to say most people aren’t walking away from the counter pondering how great it would be to win that money so they could sock it away and not touch it for 30 years. Certainly, you could do this wool gathering any time, ticket or not. But with a ticket in hand, it feels closer and so you ask yourself, “what would I do if I won that money” with a little more seriousness. And, I would suppose, a little more hope.

The interesting thing this time was I actually thought putting it away as the best option. Sure, I’d pay off some debt, use a little to get a motorcycle again, but beyond that, I wanted to put it away to grow so it would be there for my boys. College is approaching and, although I am not worried so much about paying for it, it would certainly be nice to be able to know for certain that things will be all right. Because isn’t that what we look for? It’s not *really* the money itself, but the freedom, certainty, the known or expected.

Culling ideas down to what is most most important to us is usually the end result. It’s kind of the essence of going through this process. You suddenly bring your priorities into sharp clarity. In the beginning our thoughts are frivolous and irresponsible, but inevitably, they become more reasoned and self-disciplined.

The conversation also often turns to those who have actually won the jackpot. Or at least the ones that make the news by letting the money destroy their lives and are in jail, destitute or find themselves in some other unpleasant end result. “Oh, now, I wouldn’t let that happen to me” we all say, but do you really know? Instant wealth, in a capitalist society, is a strange and unpredictable thing. On the periphery of my thoughts, I always wonder who would come knocking with their hand out. No doubt there would be many.

A man I know became extremely wealthy by working hard and being in the right place at the right time in his industry. While the rise wasn’t fast, it was fast enough and the company was wildly successful until he sold it. I saw over time that there was a constant stream of people who tried to get “close” to him. I also realized that those people weren’t really out to be his friend or make the company better (some were, but very few), they were hoping that either some of it would rub off or he’d toss them a large wad of bills over his shoulder.

None of this happened of course, reality just doesn’t work that way. A few tried to get lightening to strike twice by doing what he did after they’d left the company. They all failed. The reality was that the wealth doesn’t trickle down, instant money doesn’t exist and there’s no such thing as being able to hook up a money hose to your bank account. Except when you win the lottery.

But can you win the lottery? Well, some obviously do, but there is the wisdom that says the lottery is just a tax on those who don’t understand math. I studied math in college and each time I buy the ticket I know I am paying that tax. Think about it. The chance of winning is about .000000192%. That’s an exceedingly small number. In some of my math classes, we would call that zero. And so can you.

You actually have a better chance of becoming a billionaire; about .00001%, that’s 1 in 1,000,000. Still pretty close to zero, but better than 1 in 5,200,000 wouldn’t you say? And how many of us really think we’re going to become billionaires. But don’t let that stop you from purchasing a ticket every so often. Go ahead, waste a buck then run through the mental exercise of what you would do. It has a way of clarifying what’s really important in life…and you may find it isn’t money.

Having nothing

The news is coming in about hurricane Ike and it’s bad behavior down in Texas. It sounds like it’s pretty awful for many. Some were spared, some lost everything and I don’t care who you are. If you are human, when you hear of someone losing everything, you feel it.

There is a certain giddy joy a person feels when thinking about winning the lottery, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, what would it be like to return to a house that had become a pile of splintered lumber. Would I have packed everything in my car that I really needed? Were my decisions the right ones for what to take and what to leave? Seeing the devastation and the random nature by which houses were selected for destruction, it’s hard to imagine it at all and it’s just as hard, as with the lottery, to really know how it would truly effect you.

A friend lives in San Diego whose neighborhood was hit by the wild fires last year. Of just seven houses that didn’t burn in the neighborhood, his was one of them. Imagine the relief at having been spared mingling with the pain of seeing your neighbors’ houses reduced to cinders.

This mental exercise is surely easier to do without anything like a lottery ticket to bring it on. We hear of disasters where someone loses everything in just a few hours and we by nature put ourselves in their place. What would I do, how quickly could I figure out what to bring.

Often homeowners are advised to make video of all belongings, make a list of important documents, prioritize what you would take at a moment’s notice and make a plan for what you would do in the aftermath. How many of us really do that? I suspect not many.

Coming on the heals of this thought one might imagine selling, giving away or throwing out all but the essentials by choice. What would that be like? There was a friend of mine a few years ago who was moving to the upper Northwest. The plan was to spend time in Washington and Canada skiing during the winter, and in the summers they would head to Hawaii to surf on the beaches of The Big Island and Oahu. So that’s what they did….and they’ve been doing it for the last three years.

On their way out of town, they stopped by my house to drop off a few last things they had saved for us. Every belonging they had to their name was in the back of their Ford Explorer. Everything. Looking out the door at the packed car, I felt a little envious. Not necessarily at the thought of being able to go anywhere without a tether to someplace else (although that did appeal to me on some level.) It was more a longing to have my priorities in such alignment that I knew just the few things I really needed in life and the rest was just window dressing.

I think people know deep down, what makes a person special is not what they wear, how much their car cost or how big their bank account is. And even though the marketers would like to keep you believing that you really need a device that holds 20,000 songs, even though most probably don’t even own 20,000 songs (let alone good ones), it boils down to what you hold most dear.

On the matter of material things, what are those few items that, if they were gone, would rend your world asunder. If you can think of just 100 things, or you can fit it all into the back of a Ford Explorer, perhaps you’ve done something special.

The plight of the people in Texas is saddening. It’s hard enough sometimes with all the bad news we are inundated with on a daily basis. Someone, today, has to also endeavor to keep going even though their house and everything in it is gone.

Having everything taken unexpectedly is one of the worst things I can imagine. Wouldn’t it be interesting, before that happens, to figure out what I don’t need? What attachments to things I can let go of? How much could I reduce the footprint of my stuff? After all, we are only borrowing it while we’re here anyway.

A Victim of the Murderous Mob

“Dear Father,

I don’t know that the sun will ever rise and set for me again, but I trust in God and his mercy. At eight o’clock, I sit in court. The mob have me under guard. There is no cowardice in me, Father. I am worthy of you in this respect. I am, in this one respect, like Him who died for all: I die, if die I must, for law, order, and principle; and too, I stand alone.”

My family and I, one Saturday when we were looking for something different to do, decided to head to the cemetery on Wolfensberger Road. It seemed a peculiar thing to me, the whole burial ritual being a bit of a mystery, but my boys had heard about people doing rubbings of epitaphs on markers and having just acquired sketch pads, they wanted to give it a try. So it was off to the cemetery.

Cemeteries are interesting places really. They are, in a way, the only places where notions of death and life live in peace and harmony. At least it seems so when standing amongst the pines drinking in the freshness of the loamy soil as it mixes with the scent of the trees. As we walked, the serenity of the area enveloped us as we got in to the spirit (pardon the pun) of our endeavor.

One of the last head stones we came across was toward the Wolfensberger Road side. It was a small stone, but not too small. Not just a square on the ground. But not a huge monolith either. A nice, but worn, stone–with a mysterious epitaph:

A victim of the murderous mob ruling in Lake County. I trust in God
and his mercy. At 8 ‘o clock I sit in court, the mob have me under
guard. I die for law, order and principle.

It seems that back in 1875 there was a man named Gibbs, Elijah Gibbs. He was well liked in the area but there was talk he’d formed a group with his brother called The Regulators. These were tough hombres who, rumor had it, were planning to rustle cattle, jump claims, take over ranches and other illegal shenanigans.

Mr. Gibbs was drawing water from nearby Brown’s Creek and maybe it was that or something else, but on June 16, 1874, he got into an argument with his neighbor George Harrington. That night, some of George’s outbuildings were set on fire and when he ran to put out the flames, George was shot and killed.

There were no witnesses and no proof, but Elijah Gibbs, although known to be a good citizen amonst the townsfolk (no one knew of the clandestine Regulators) was looked upon with suspicion due to the earlier argument. No shrinking willows, the men of those times. Who needs a lawyer when a nice piece of hickory or a rope was handy. They formed a lynch mob to go after Gibbs but when they arrived at the house, Gibbs’ friends (these gents were possibly part of The Regulators) stood by his side and the standoff prevented any bloodshed. Eventually, everyone agreed to let justice take its course.

Due to the unusual amount of rancor within the town of Nathrop and surrounding area, the trial was moved to Denver where Elijah Gibbs was found innocent and he returned to his farm. It had been about 7 months since the death of Harrington and the not guilty verdict still angered the Harrington supporters. They still believed Gibbs murdered their friend so they again went to his house on a cold night in January and demanded he come out.

Not the stupid fool, Gibbs refused (memories of the lynch mob no doubt fresh in his mind still after even seven months). The angry mob was not to be turned away though. They started piling brush and wood against the Gibbs house. As they began to light it, Gibbs fired shots into the crowd hitting brothers Sam and Dave Boone. As one of the mortally wounded brothers fell (it’s not clear which) his gun discharged and killed their uncle Finley Kane. Remember, guns don’t kill people, bullets do and three men lost their lives that night.

This tragedy dispersed the crowd and the next morning Elijah Gibbs turned himself in.

This time Justice A. B. Cowen of Brown’s Creek found Gibbs had acted in self defense but fearing the animosity toward him was too great,Gibbs fled to Denver where he felt he would be safer. That still left Gibbs’ supporters in Nothrop and a Committee of Safety was formed to “cleanse” the area around Lake Country of those still taking his side. In addition to that, Sheriff John Weldon was sent to Denver by The Committee to collect Elijah Gibbs and bring him back. He never caught up with him and word spread that he was arrested for public drunkenness.

Back in Lake County Gibbs’ supporters were rounded up and brought before the Committee of Safety. Charles Nachtrieb’s flour mill was the headquarters where rough “interviews” were held,a noose hanging behind to questioners’ table.

Enter Judge Elias F. Dyer. He was brought before The Committee during atrial where he stated that he believed Gibbs to be innocent on all counts. The Committee accused Dyer of protecting a cattle rustler and of “believing Gibbs to be innocent of the murder of Harrington; giving false testimony during the trial in Denver … being pompous … and last, being a Republican and securing his election in a Democratic county.”**

Dyer left town but returned shortly thereafter when acting govenor John Jenkins sent an investigator who returned a report that everything, strangely, was fine.

Returning to the country seat in Granite, CO, Judge Dyer issued warrants for the arrest of members of The Committee and secured the testimony of a man named Jesse Marion–who’d had a run in with The Committee before.

At the start of trial a mob of about 30 went down to the courthouse and surrounded it. Moreover,Marion didn’t show up. He’d seen the mob outside anddecided it best to stay away. So Judge Dyer was on his own and having no witness ajourned court for the next morning. But he didn’t leave the courthouse fearing the mob and that night, he penned the letter above to his father.

The next morning, Dyer reconvened and dismissed the case due to lack of evidence. Still fearful of the mob outside, Judge Dyer lingered while the gallery cleared. Seeing their chance, the mob rushed up the back stairs to the empty court room shooting and killing Judge Elias F. Dyer.

As the thrill of silver in Leadville took hold, the furor of what came to be know as the Lake County War died out. And Judge Dyer was buried in Granite. But in 1878, he was moved the Castle Rock where his epitaph tells of an angry mob and to this day intrigues those who happen upon it.

** story mostly derived from Colorado Central Magazine, Ed Quillen, 1997.

Laundry Forensics

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about what happens to the missing socks in the laundry. They had to go somewhere right? That’s the law of conservation of matter and energy. But for some reason, they disappear. Never to be seen again.

We have a bundle of socks tied together in our laundry basket. It rides along every time the laundry is done and never does anything but sit there. The intention is to, at some point in the future, match them up with their mates once they come home to roost, but that hope is never realized. So what is there for this lonely bundle of singles to do? No matches to any of the socks exist. But there are close to 10 of them in there that have accumulated over the last few years. My question is, why do we keep ’em?

Shouldn’t there be, maybe, someplace where they can all go to be together with other partner-less socks. Perhaps long lost sock pairs can be reunited after many years apart. Threadbare, with a little sock cane, wrapping what’s left of their elastic around each other and crying lint tears. Or maybe two different socks can fall in love and have footies or a completely new kind of sock. Maybe, just maybe, two socks that are very similar, but not a pair, can get together. Nothing wrong with that. Every sock needs another sock. It just seems unfair that they should just be bundled together, forgotten in the bottom of the laundry basket with all those hangers.

One day, I saw that bundle and it got me thinking. I wasn’t thinking about the loneliness of being a single sock but more about the science of laundry. This science isn’t the chemicals used to clean, proportions or fluid dynamics and how finely tuned the agitator has to be to make sure the clothes get exposed to the proper mix of water and soap. And I’m not talking about finding that long lost sock, although that could be a specialty branch of the broader field of investigative laundering.

What I pondered was the study and evaluation, the piecing together, and finding the origins of the things you find mixed in the laundry — The non-textiles, if you will. If you have kids, you have to be very specialized in this field with a certain number of years of studying the detritus of laundry loads before going out on your own to tackle the harder cases.

Consider the evidence at the scene of a laundry load:

Stones – This is pretty easy. A kid is walking down the street, sees a stone, picks it up and puts it in their pocket. It doesn’t have to be a particularly interesting stone at all. Not to anyone else anyway. But it will make it into the dryer and you’ll know it by the sound.

String and lint – Simple enough. Found or left over from the last load of laundry.

Streaks on the side of the dryer
– blue or black, it’s pen. Uh oh, check the other garments, we could have an epidemic on our hands.

Stones over the course of many loads – Serial finder or stone enthusiast. Perhaps a future geologist.

Many stones at once
– This is a little more difficult. Were there many interesting specimens on the road during the nature walk with class? Or was there a particularly aggressive game of tag going on that induced the players and the suspect in question to slide through the pea gravel, turning his pockets into mini front end loaders? Only careful questioning and delicate dissection of the facts will figure this one out.

Rubber bands – Another one that looks simple at the outset – took the rubber band off a stack of 3×5 cards and stuck it in their pocket – but could be more complex than that. They could have found it on the road during that nature walk, or traded it for something else…rubber bands can be currency. Things are not always as they seem.

Bits of metal – if they haven’t rusted (other tasks in life necessitated leaving the load in the washer for longer than anticipated) and stain the garment in which they were found causing the finder to gruffly throw away the evidence before it could be evaluated, these will come in many forms. Most from the male suspects: Bottle caps, flat bars, coins, wire, partial pieces of die cast metals, pop tops. The possibilities are numerous. This was likely something unearthed during a session on the playground or, again, on that nature walk.

And then there is the last bit of evidence that one might find. One that taunts the investigator, haunting the very best. Will they be good enough this time? Can they crack the hardest of all laundry cases?

The white or sometimes multicolored wad is the brass ring of laundry CSI. It was once paper which could be of varying weights. The harder the wad the heavier the starting weight. But however it started, it is a wad. Just a mysterious lump that tells no tales.

What makes this particular find challenging is the deconstruction. These are important laundry artifacts and this is what will challenge the most seasoned laundry forensic examiner. Why? Because this could be a permission slip, a note from the teacher, homework or even the drawing someone made that you’d really like to see. Worst case, it’s the phone number of the cute girl with dimples that if lost will close the book just as the first chapter was being written.

A delicate touch is needed for teasing out the secrets of the wad; first at the obvious cracks along the outer surface, then with more precision within the inner layers where the individual edges of the paper can be seen. Decisions sometimes have to be made to sacrifice one section to tearing in order to get at and discover another seemingly more important section. Is that an edge where there probably isn’t any writing? Or is it a fold in the middle of the page on the other side of which could be the Rosetta Stone?

Prying, lifting, tweezing, the investigator must carefully weigh each movement and each path they find. Using a practiced eye to determining if they are on course to revealing the secrets within or are they going to rend the entire wad asunder.

There are times, when no amount of careful dissection can uncover these secrets. Soft paper that has melded around and into itself, thin paper that is nearly dissolved. Even the impatient hands of the examiner can destroy the piece and forever keep the mysteries hidden.

But sometimes there is that moment, when the folds suddenly bloom, and the paper parts, letting go of its hold like the final moments of solving a wooden puzzle. This is the payoff: Springing the lock and getting to the heart of the precious contents within. It doesn’t matter if it is just a phone number, or a name or nothing at all. In the end, the satisfaction of knowing that once again the code has been cracked brings the most joy. After that, one can go on confident in the fact that when faced with another artifact of the laundry, they will again be able master it.

The fact remains, however, that every Laundry Examiner’s nemesis has always been, and will always be, the socks.

Busy Signals

I heard a busy signal the other day for the first time in, well, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s been a while. Until I heard it, I hadn’t realized that it was a dying thing. Something that now seems superfluous. It occurred the other day when calling a business. I don’t think this is a common thing. I think it is on its way out and is gasping for its last breath.

I miss the busy signal. It is virtually disappearing. You can make a call now and have someone answer. Someone, something, voicemail, ACDs, VRUs, recordings, whatever. No more, or at least rarely, do you get the burnk, burnk, burnk letting you know it’s the end of the line. You’re not going anywhere until the line is free. Without the busy signal, no more do you feel the finality of being denied access. Voice mail, call waiting, call forwarding, music on hold, all those services and features you can add to your home and business lines. They have killed the busy signal.

When you used to be able to get a busy signal, indicating that someone was on the line you were calling, at least you knew where you stood. Now? You don’t know whether the person is watching for you and deciding not to pick up (caller ID), simply not answering the phone (voice mail), there but in the other electronic room with someone more important (call waiting) or indeed away from their desk (as so many say they are when one is dropped unceremoniously into their voice mailbox.)

And what about that voice mailbox thing. Don’t you kind of feel dropped into it? It’s that kind of end-of-the-line feeling. Sure you could press 0 and speak to the operator (“your call is being transferred,” she tells a million people a day) hoping that maybe, first, a person will answer, and second that they will know where the person is to whom you wish to speak. Like some sage front desk person who tracks the movement of everyone in the building.

You could press 1 for other options, but were you really looking for other options? You were looking for Pat to see if he was going to hockey practice after work. Being dropped into voicemail, you got to where you wanted to go and now there is nothing left to do. You don’t want more options; you want to talk to Pat.

If you think about it, it’s kind of lonely there at the end of the line. Maybe another option would be a little therapeutic. Perhaps to dial another extension but who are you going to call. And how long will the option lady wait until you decide to dial another extension or while you look that other extension up. Maybe she could just say, “While your deciding on what to do, here’s a little gentle, soothing music to settle your nerves…please take your time.”

If you dialed that other extension, what would you say? “Hi, I just dialed your extension because I just didn’t want to feel like the voice message I left for Pat was the end of the line. I wanted options and took the one that would give me a person.” The men in white coats would surely be at your door a short time later with that wrap around suit jacket.

And then there is the dread you would feel as you select that next extension, tapping it out with hope and longing. Longing for that human voice, the one that’s not recorded but spontaneous, real. You dial the last digit and off you go into the ring tone; booooop, booooop. And then there it is again, voicemail…an answering machine. The wondering. There? Out? Screening calls? And you are back “in the box”. This could go on for days if there was no one there…or at least until you realized it was a holiday. Life can be hard these days with all this technology.

With the busy tone, you knew there was someone there, or most likely was unless an ornery cat knocked the receiver off the cradle. But most times, you knew. You could feel it and it was a simple matter of calling back periodically to see if they were through with their call. Some phone companies now offer (“for an additional 95 cents”) to call periodically for you. Now, that’s a good service. But is it really worth $.95? Shoot, I can dial a phone. I don’t need to spend $.95 for something like that. That’s silly.

And what about dialing. Dialing is boring. Just punching buttons. Soft rubber buttons, hard plastic buttons, a plastic pad with numbers on it, a glass screen with electronic numbers behind it.

Remember those phones with the rotary dial. You can still use them, although I don’t think the phone companies like them much…too analog. Not 21st century enough. As that little dial progresses around it’s axis, it sends out a series of clicks. One click for each number. That’s why in older movies you see people repeatedly punching at the hook switch…they’re not trying to get a line, they just want to dial as quickly as possible and they don’t want to wait for that lazy rotor to finish it’s circuit. Punch more than ten times and what do you get? 10. Or to the phone company, that’s zero. “Hello, operator, get me the police, I was taking a shower and there was a man with a knife by my window.” And then the line goes dead.

Those old rotary phones were cool because you could let your finger ride along as it returned to the zero state. And, oh, wasn’t it great when a number you were calling had a zero on it. You zipped the dial all the way around with a practiced flip of your wrist and then you could ride all day. Like being on a Farris wheel for hands and not having to give another ticket for an extended ride. You just stayed on and rode it home.

I never liked the telephone numbers with a 1 in them, such a short ride and it was almost as if you just thought the number one and it would dial. Nothing to do there. Imagine if there were rotary dials on cell phones. I bet there wouldn’t be too many people making their power calls on the lightrail. Programming your auto dial numbers might be a little problematic…but an interesting visual nonetheless.

But, alas, now the busy signal is dead and the rotary phone with the great finger amusement park is pretty much gone too.

If you’re nostalgic, find a rotary and grab it. Make it work, enjoy that ride. Don’t give in to the phones that look like rotary phones. They have buttons in the shape of a rotary dial. Like that’s going to fool us.

I saw one of those old wooden phone boxes a while ago that had the pick up ear piece and the horn that sticks out the front to speak into. But you open it up and there are those hideous buttons. Hey, what’re you trying to do, give me hope that those cool phones still exist and then yank the carpet from beneath my feet. You can still find the real ones in antique shops sometimes. I always wanted one but they were $300 any time I found one. Sometimes, you can find them on eBay. And sometime, maybe, you might find one for a song. Can’t write a song, they probably take cashier’s check or PayPal.

But you won’t be able to buy the busy signal on eBay. But sometimes, you can get it for free. Find a phone that doesn’t have voice mail provided by the phone company and call its number. Then call yourself. There has to be the right phone system for it, you will probably find it at home although some work phone systems will allow you to do it. A small trick that can provide that subversive feeling of pulling something off that big telecom doesn’t want you to do. In this connected world, everyone thinks that you want to talk to someone. Electronic or not. Well, for this phone user, that’s not necessarily so. Sometimes I just want to know that I can’t get through, I’m out of options and I just have to hang up the phone and be patient.

So give it a try. Call yourself, get that busy signal fix. Enjoy the simple pleasure of not having to continue and not having to select another option. The final choice is to hang up. So do it. Then go to the window and turn your face up into the warm sunshine.

You don’t have to wait if you really don’t want to. Just pick up your cell phone, or another line on the phone system and call yourself again. Then you will get an answer and you can tell yourself about stealing a little bit of busy signal for yourself and how while you were waiting to call back, you looked out the window and enjoyed watching a jetliner draw it’s chalk line in the sky. And you had a few minutes to wonder and be fascinated at the possibilities of where all those people in that plane were going. I miss my busy signal…

Dandelion Break

Way back in the 80s there was a cartoon call Bloom County. And one of the ideas they came up with was the Dandelion Break. It essentially consisted of Milo Bloom, Opus and any number of other characters heading out to the meadow to sit amongst the dandelions.

We all need a break, here are 13 or so minutes of Dandelion Break. A recorded Colorado thunderstorm fresh off the Rocky Mountains in June of 2007.

With Music: right click to “save as…”

Just nature: right click to “save as…”

Load it on your mp3 player, sit back and just imagine being somewhere else.


Over the years, for most birthdays the boys are asked what they’d like the theme to be. In lieu of extravagant decorations, the cake is the focus. We’ve collected a bit of a gallery of those cakes and boy are they good…and good looking. Diane is a master. The absolute best one was the bulldozer, but this year’s pyramid (for Wesley’s birthday just this past weekend), was giving it a run for it’s money simply on taste alone. Home made frosting has become the standard…yummy. So here is some mouth-watering goodness for you. Wish I could include a download of a piece, but technology hasn’t come far enough that the wire wouldn’t get stuck in your teeth…

Useless Information I

This is kind of weird/interesting.

Obviously, there is a need to be able to type backwards for languages like those in the middle east or in the east. But you can do it with YOUR keyboard layout, too.

Just copy the symbol below and then start typing anything with your cursor on the left of it. Everything you type will be backwards.

This symbol –> ‫‬‭‮‪‫‬‭‮҉‫

See watch this

Now everything I type is backwards.

Muddy Buddy

Went to Boulder this last weekend to race in something called the Muddy Buddy (watch the video in the info section…you’ll see.) It’s basically a two person 10K where one person rides while the other runs (or in my case runs and walks part of the way, and rides like a demon on the riding parts to make up for it). An added twist is at the transition points for running/riding where there are obstacles (not your Fort Carson type obstacles, but some lightweight climbing walls and balance beam type things) to surmount before continuing on. Oh, yeah, and there was that thigh deep, 100 yard wide river we crossed (with me carrying.) And then…at the end…there was the mud pit. Thick gooey mud with flags over top that only allow for…what?…crawling. Hence the name of the whole thing.

Diane did awesome, she is so fit and so strong and I wish I could run like her. Me? Well, I can ride, but running with these tree trunks attached to my hips is a bit hard. So we finished and that is a good thing. Here’s a little slide show break before you read on.

It was both harder than we expected but also kinda fun. Not sure if we’ll do it again, but we might next year and try to beat our shitty time from this year which was 1:01 (about) and 25th place. “Twenty Fifth!” you say, admiration gleaming in your eyes as you realize there were 900 teams…yeah, well, considering that there were 32 people in our division, you might want to rethink that.

So we completed it, got really, really muddy and had a good time in Boulder just the same. Went to a great place called VGBurger which is a completely “green” store with all electricity used being wind power and all the utensils, cups and paper being compostable materials. Excellent, excellent food too. I would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Boulder on 28th Street about two blocks North of Pearl. The boys also got to go ride go-karts and play miniature golf and grandpa took them shopping at McGucken’s hardware which it seems was a highlight.