Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Personal Review of the Naughts

        Everyone seems to be making lists of the greatest good things, worst bad things, middling mediocre things, etc. of the decade, so I guess I may as well join the crowd. First I want to go on record as realizing that the first decade of the 21st century ends when 2010 ends, but nobody else seems to care, so why should I? Anyway, here is my list of the biggest personal events, several good and some not-so-good, that occurred during the decade of the naughts. Except for the last item, the list is arranged chronologically.
        I finally talked Barbara into retiring in 2000. It has been great having her home all the time! Also in 2000 we took the first of two cross country driving trips. We spent eight weeks on the road; actually six, because we spent two weeks in Manheim with Barbara’s mother. This time we went around the periphery of the country, eastbound through the northern states, down the east coast to Florida, then westbound through the southern states.
        In 2001 the bottom dropped out of the stock market, sending our investments into a tailspin. I wouldn’t say it was the fault of our new President, George Bush, but it was a big disappointment after the way stocks soared during the Clinton administration. Probably a coincidence.
        In 2002 I retired from my part time job of preparing income tax returns.
        We took our second cross country driving trip in 2003. On this one we toured the heartland for six weeks.
        In 2003 and 2004 I did free income tax returns at the Cerritos Senior Center. This was the last of the tax business for me!!
        Early in 2004 we decided to move to Pennsylvania, and by November we were settled in an apartment in Lititz. In retrospect it was a great idea, although I was a little leery of it at first – it meant leaving some good times and some good friends.
        In January, 2007, we moved to Luther Acres – our best idea of the decade.
        In 2009 the country breathed a collective sigh of relief as we emerged from the administration of George Bush. For us personally, 2009 started a recovery of the money we lost in 2001. It was Obama’s first year. Another coincidence?
        During the naughts Barbara lost her sister and her mother, and two good friends died in California. We miss them all.
        On the bright side, we were able to fan flames of friendship from embers that had been buried for 60 years, and also to make many new friends at Luther Acres. With the exception of advancing arthritis, balance problems and a few other things that keep happening to that old-looking gentleman in the mirror, the naughts treated us fairly well.

                          HAPPY NEW YEAR

Monday, December 28, 2009

Post-youth Listening Problems

I happened to be in the room this morning when Barbara was watching The View on TV. Kathy Griffin was the guest.
First let me say that she talks and talks – if I were around her all day she would drive me nuts. But that’s her style, it works for her, and she has lots of loyal fans, so who am I to complain?
But she illustrated a few problems some of us post-youths have when we are around young people. Notice I said we have problems – it is not necessarily the fault of the youngsters.
First, I get tired of hearing “ya know” before, during and after every sentence. If I know, you don’t have to tell me, and if I don’t know, then don’t tell me I do. Please just tell me what it is that I don’t know, then we will both know. Ya know.
Second, I don’t know if they are talking faster or if I am just listening more slowly, but they are often speaking two sentences ahead of the one I am hearing. I realize  young people are in a hurry, but believe me, the second-to-last place they are rushing to is (how shall I put this?) adult emeritus. Trust me – rushing means missing way too much along the way.
Third, they seem to leave all sense of punctuation behind in English class. It is not unusual to hear twenty or more sentences strung together with “and” as the connecting word, especially when a jock is doing the speaking. Here’s a thought: when you get to the end of a sentence, stop talking for an instant, then start a new one.
Fourth: it would be helpful if they would put some inflection into their speaking. Or perhaps they are doing that, and I am hearing a monotone. I doubt that, however, because I don’t have the problem when I listen to a post-youth speak.
I suppose I am being a crotchety old man, but it’s my blog, and I’ll say what I want to say. Come back tomorrow when I am in a better mood.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After Christmas

I have just read an interesting book, My Stroke of Insight, written by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specializes in the postmortem investigation of the human brain. (Some people are turned on by the strangest things.)
On December 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor suffered a stroke caused by sudden bleeding from a birth defect in the left hemisphere of her brain.. As soon as she realized what was happening, she concentrated on trying to remember her thoughts and feelings. The book is a record of her impressions, beginning with the incidence of the stroke, and ending with the return of all her faculties eight years later. As a result of her experiences, Dr. Taylor also presents recommendations for stroke victims and their care givers.
The human brain has two hemispheres – it is as if we have two brains, each with different functions and personalities. Normally they work together in processing incoming data, creating a seamless view of the world.
But each hemisphere processes information in different ways. For the right brain, which controls the left half of the body, no time exists other than the present moment. As millions of bits of data stream into our brains at each instant, the right brain ties together sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings – tactile, emotional and intuitional – into one overall mosaic. This mosaic has no connection with either the previous moment, or the next. It is complete in itself.
Picture the cels which the Disney Company uses to represent one step in an animated cartoon. Each one contains a complete picture, and has no connection with either the preceding cel or the next one.
It is because of the ability of the right brain that we can remember very clearly certain outstanding events in our lives. Almost everyone remembers the moment they heard that Kennedy was shot, and older individuals can tell exactly what they were doing when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
The process of combining the incoming data with the past and the future is the responsibility of the left  brain. This is the reasoning area – it contains the ability to create speech, to understand speech, to understand the physical boundaries of time and space, to move and to sense the world. It is the area that continually talks to us and orients us in the world. It enables us to calculate the odds of success between alternate courses of action.
This is also the area that Dr. Taylor lost. In her words, “The harder I tried to concentrate, the  more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. In place of that constant chatter that had attached me to the details of my life, I felt enfolded by a blanket of tranquil euphoria…As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace In this void of higher cognition and details pertaining to my normal life, my consciousness soared into and all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will…I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana.”
It’s certainly possible that Nirvana, or any religious awakening or conversion,  can be attained by learning to “turn off” the chatter of the left hemisphere. William James’ book: The Varieties of Religious Experience is all about such sudden and often unexpected occasions of ”being at one” with the universe. But whether or not Dr. Taylor attained Nirvana, she certainly shattered any doubt that one’s relationship to the world can be dramatically altered by a change in the physiology of the brain.
At this point I wish to make two assumptions about the nervous system:

1.)    A change in the internal state of the brain affects the body.
2.)    The brain is part of a determined system, i.e. conditions affecting the body have a corresponding effect upon the state of the brain.

Dr. Taylor has provided adequate proof of the first assumption, and the effects of alcohol, drugs, sensory deprivation, even hunger upon the brain are well documented, and lead to the second assumption.
Which brings me to Ebenezer Scrooge. Could he have been correct when he said to the ghost, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato?” Could something like that have so affected his brain that it led to his complete personality change on Christmas morning? Was the change permanent? I know it’s only a story, but think about it.
Thought for Today: "I never could see why people were so happy about Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' because I never had any confidence that Scrooge was going to be different the next day." — Dr. Karl Menninger, American psychiatrist (1893-1990).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Q and Christmas

It has been over 150 years since Biblical scholars have begun examining certain writings in the New Testament. The basis of this activity has been the way the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke overlap.
Most scholars agree that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke used his writings as a common reference. About 45% of the writings of both Gospels repeat stories from Mark, using the same order and even the same words in many cases.
But in addition, approximately 25% of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels contain writings that agree with each other, but are not found in Mark. The implication is that there is some other document to which they referred. That document is simply called Q after the German word Quelle, or “source.”
First things first – why is it assumed that Mark’s Gospel precedes the other two? There are several reasons:

1.)                          It is shorter. It is more likely that Matthew and Luke added content to Mark than that Mark took their stories and deleted large chunks of them.
2.)                          It is less sophisticated. It is more likely that Matthew and Luke cleaned up Mark’s writings than that Mark “dumbed down” the writings of the other two.
3.)                          Mark included Aramaic quotes and translated them into Greek. Matthew and Luke did not.

But is there any evidence that Matthew and Luke actually copied from a common document rather than just repeating orally transmitted accounts from actual witnesses to Jesus’ ministry? Indeed there is. Some of the stories are repeated in both Gospels, usually in the same order and using the identically same words. The odds against the writers having picked up the stories word for word from eye-witnesses are astronomical.
Although Q has never been found, it appears to consist primarily of Jesus’ sayings and teachings. If Q actually existed, it seems to have been written by contemporaries of Jesus. If so, it is remarkable that no miracles or other supernatural beliefs were mentioned; there is no mention of virgin birth, miracles, salvation, speakin g in tongues, apostles, heaven, hell and many other topics that are a staple of 21st century Christianity.
However, many parables have been attributed to Q, among which are the following:
The Beatitudes, Love your enemies, The Golden Rule; Judge not, lest ye be judged; The Test of a Good Person, The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Wedding Feast, The Parable of the Talents, The Parable of the Leaven, The Parable of the blind leading the blind, The Lord's Prayer, Expounding of the Law, The Birds of Heaven and The Lilies in the Field.

The existence or non-existence of Q is of no importance to conservative Christians; God told the writers what to write, and that explains any similarities or coincidences between them.
Liberal Christians, however, take a different view. In the 50s and 60s Paul wrote his various epistles, and theological as they were, they contained very little material on Jesus’ actual sayings and activities.
Q gives some idea of pre-Pauline Christianity. Many 21st century beliefs were unknown to his early followers – among others, the concept of the Trinity was foreign to them. God was the God of the Hebrews.
Without a coherent theology the fledgling movement would probably not have continued to exist after the original followers had expired. Saint Paul provided that theology. After that appeared, Q was appropriated into the Gospels, and the original document was superfluous. Eventually it disappeared.
If Q were found tomorrow, would it make any difference to modern believers? I don’t think it should. As with any other organizations, religions evolve and change. With certain exceptions, e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition and certain very conservative interpretations, Christianity has been good for humanity. Offsetting the dark periods mentioned above, it has provided hospitals, universities and good works of all kinds.
Above all, it has provided hope, a much needed commodity today as throughout the ages. The religion would not exist if it had not undergone the Pauline interpretation and the stories, true or not, of the gospel writers. Later church fathers provided further rites and beliefs which the religion carries to this day.
Although the true date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, the celebration of His birth is a time of goodwill and generosity unequaled by any other world event. Even if a whole alphabet of Qs were found, it would not change the central message of Christianity: Jesus Christ is born today! Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Moravian Lovefeast

This past Sunday evening Barbara and I, along with another couple, attended the Lovefeast and Candle Service at the Moravian church in Lititz. This beautiful old church was built in 1787. Music has always been important to the Moravian congregation; in colonial America the best place to hear Bach, Mozart and Haydn was not New York or Philadelphia, but at a Moravian church. The musical tradition continues today.
The Lovefeast follows the practice of the early Christians, who shared a meal together whenever they gathered for worship. In the modern version, the meal consists of a sweet bun and decaffeinated coffee or chocolate milk. As the bulletin described it, "The lovefeast is an opportunity to signify our unity in the love of Christ as a family of sisters and brothers in the Lord."
A small but excellent Chamber Orchestra and a fine chancel choir performed classical selections as a prelude to the service.
A large, unlighted Moravian Star was suspended from the ceiling over the altar. During the Prelude, the sanctuary lights were dimmed, and the interior lighting of the star was gradually increased so that the congregation was illuminated by a soft glow. It was beautiful.
The prelude was followed by the reading of the Christmas story as recorded in Luke 2.
Then it was the congregation's turn to perform several unfamiliar (at least to us) carols, although they were very easy to follow. Interspersed among the carols were a few selections performed by the Junior Choir, and the taking of the offering was accompanied by more orchestral selections.
After a brief homily, the congregation sang a few more carols, and then the rolls and drinks were served. Simultaneously balancing a roll and a cup of coffee turned out to be quite a feat for me.
Following this the handmade beeswax candles were passed out, and since the congregation numbered around 600 people, it was quite an impressive sight. Barbara was sure I was going to set the music on fire, but all's well that ends well!
As we left, a Trombone Choir of approximately 12 members was performing in the churchyard.
It was a beautiful service; the music was wonderful and the sweet buns were delicious! The Moravian ladies are great bakers.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This And That

I don’t often read Charles Krauthammer’s column, but for some reason I read it today. As usual, I didn’t agree with most of it, but he had a metaphor for writing a daily column that I think applies neatly to writing a blog. He said, “…is like being married to a nymphomaniac ― as soon as you’re done, you’ve got to do it again.” I consider that a good excuse for skipping a day or two now and then.
Where shall I start today? Important stuff first. It’s 2:00 pm and our driveway has not been cleared of the nine inches of snow we had yesterday and last night. This is very unusual; normally the snow is cleared early in the morning. I called and left a message, but it’s Sunday, so who knows when it will be delivered?
Now for the unimportant(?) stuff. Among other things, politics has been defined as the art of the possible. Obama got two huge lessons in pragmatism in the past three days: first at Copenhagen, where he salvaged an agreement to agree, but little else. He almost wound up with nothing, and nothing is what it may yet turn out to be. He had to shuffle more than a professional poker player.
His second lesson came at the hands of Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska (as if Joe Lieberman weren’t enough). The Senate bill gave up too much, but hopefully some of the good stuff will be restored in the upcoming months of negotiations between the House and the Senate.
Barack is learning what works in Washington. Not much.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Big Numbers

Lately we have been hearing some very large numbers bandied about – so large, in fact, that I am not sure we understand just how large they really are. Some examples: Bill Gates’ net worth is $40 billion, the population of China is 1.17 billion people, the U.S. national debt is limited to $12.1 trillion, etc. How can one picture that much of anything?
Let’s imagine we have a machine which can take us back in time as far as we want to go. We can set it for any amount of time we choose, go back that far, and see where we land.
Suppose we start with one billion seconds. Will we open the door on last week, last month, five years ago – When? Close the door, set the dial, push the button, and when the shaking stops, open the door.
Welcome to April, 1977! Jimmy Carter became president in January, Star Wars will open next month, a gallon of gas will set you back 64 cents, and Elvis has about four months to live.
Suppose we set the dial for one billion minutes and try again. Will we meet George Washington, talk to Shakespeare or join the Crusades? Push the button…
And we are in 106 C.E. Trajan has just defeated the Dacians, and 10,000 of them have been sent to Rome to die as gladiators in the arena. Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch has written a letter to the Christians in Smyrna, in which he used the term “Catholic Church” for the first time. The crucifixion occurred about 70 years ago, and Mohammed will be born in another 465 years. Let’s see what happened one billion hours ago. The button, please.
Welcome to 112,000 B.C.E.: the Pleistocene era. Flowering plants, insects, birds and mammals are not much different from those of today, although some, e.g. mammoths and mastodons will eventually become extinct. Neanderthals are the reigning humanoid species – modern homo sapiens is a small minority; a deficiency to be overcome in the next 50,000 years. Let’s try one more trip. Button again, please.
There is not much that we would recognize in the Mesoproterozoic era. Living organisms consist mostly of bacteria, although some cells with a nucleus, eukaryotes, are also showing up. Stable continents appeared some time prior to this, although 700 or 800 million  years from now the Australian and American continents will begin to drift away from the super-continent: Pangea. Let’s go home.
It is impossible to illustrate one trillion on a time scale, because a trillion years is 75 times as long as the universe has existed. We can get some idea of its magnitude by realizing that if scientists were to discover 155 planets with a population similar to earth’s, that would add up to one trillion people.
So when we begin to grasp some idea of the scope of the huge numbers kicked around in Washington, we have to agree with a comment attributed to the late Senator Everett Dirksen, " A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Joe

The World Series of 1919 between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds generated 50% more revenue than any prior series. It was such a big event, with so much money flowing around, that if someone could actually know the outcome beforehand, they could make a pretty tidy profit .
Enter the gamblers. They approached White Sox players, Pitcher Ed Cicotte and First Baseman Arnold "Chick" Gandil, about fixing the Series. After talking to a few other players, Cicotte and Gandil managed to enlist six other players in their scheme to make Cincinnati the winner.
Among those approached was left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the best hitters to play the game. “Shoeless” Joe finished with a .356 career average (third all time), and in the .last years before Babe Ruth took over the sport, he was arguably the most popular player ever. A sure-fire Hall-of-Famer.
While reportedly "Acknowledging that he had let up in key situations," Jackson’s performance during the Series seems to belie that; he hit a robust .375 while setting a major league World Series record with 12 hits, one of which was the only home run hit during the entire Series. Does that sound like the type of performance one trying to lose would have?
However, he admitted receiving $5,000 for his part in the scheme. While acquitted at trial, all eight of the participants, dubbed the Black Sox, were banned from baseball. Legend has it that as Jackson was leaving the courthouse during the trial, a young boy begged of him, "Say it ain't so, Joe," and that Joe did not respond.
Now to the main subject of this blog: Joe Lieberman. In 2006 he lost his bid to be the Senate Democratic candidate in the primary election, but won as an “Independent Democrat” in the general election. Because there are only 59 “real” Democrats in the Senate, the party needs Lieberman’s vote in order to pass most legislation. He has voted against his former party several times, and I considered him to be a man who voted his principles rather than kowtow to the party line. But now I’m not so sure.
Lieberman has been generally receptive to reforming the healthcare system, however, he has stated that he will vote against the Senate bill because of a provision that would allow individuals 55 years of age and older to buy into Medicare. He says that he is worried about the impact such a provision would have on existing Medicare patients: it may result in budget cuts that are detrimental to their quality of care.
On Monday, a video surfaced of an interview Lieberman conducted just three months ago with the Connecticut Post in which he specifically endorsed expanding Medicare to those as young as 55. When confronted with the video, Lieberman claimed he had forgotten about it until he was reminded of it by Democratic Party leaders, but in any event he is still against the provision.
So why the flip-flop? One possible explanation is that Lieberman was reminded by the insurance industry of the $1.04 million dollars of campaign funds he has received during his career. Another is that he is getting back at the party for not supporting him during the 2006 election.
Whatever the reason, it appears that Lieberman has scuttled any type of public option in the Senate version.
History really does repeat itself. Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lead Us Not Into Temptation - Please

At one time I worked with a man who had been a big league pitcher. For the few years he was in the game, he had accumulated a very impressive record. With two World Series rings to his credit, the future looked bright, until one night his arm gave out in the middle of an inning. This was before the days of “Tommy John” surgery, and while he made a few more starts, his career was over.
During his time in baseball, he had acquired a heavy drinking habit. When I knew him he was deeply into a process which he will need to continue for the rest of his life: recovery.
He talked freely about his illness. At one point I asked him how he had started his drinking career. His story is that starting professional baseball players are often kids not long out of high school. They are away from home for weeks and months at a time, have lots of money in their pockets, and lots of time on their hands. On the road they stay in hotels which have bars; sensing money, young women are easily available. My friend was into the bar scene – the women, not so much.
All of this is no excuse for giving in to temptation, but it does make it somewhat understandable. Although my friend didn’t get a second chance in baseball, he did take advantage of his chance to make amends. I applaud him for that.
For “baseball” substitute “golf,” and for my anonymous coworker substitute “Tiger Woods.” Time will tell if he will pull himself out of the rough. Let us give him the chance to try.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Horse May Know The Way Home, But...

If you live in certain areas of the United States I am sure you are familiar with the following situation. If you have never had this experience, try to picture it.
You are driving along a country road at night, when you see a bright orange triangle and two flashing red lights ahead of you. You quickly realize that you have come upon a  horse and buggy. Your opportunity to pass is dependent upon 1.) the existence of a straightaway ahead (which you cannot see – it’s dark, remember), and 2.) there is no oncoming traffic. Finally you take a chance and speed around the vehicle.
Now let me change the picture a bit. A cop is driving along a country road at  night, and sees a bright orange triangle and two flashing red lights ahead. In this case the horse is meandering slowly down the center line. There is no opportunity to pass.
It happened recently in Lancaster County. While his passenger stopped the horse and held it, the officer approached the buggy and found the driver slumped over and asleep at the wheel… excuse me, the reins. He eventually awoke as the cop pounded on the door. The buggy driver’s eyes were bloodshot and watery, and there was a strong smell of alcohol on his breath. A breathalyzer test registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent. Pennsylvania residents are legally drunk if their blood-alcohol content is 0.08 of above.
Although not officially sanctioned by the church, rumspringa, “running around” in English, is practiced by some Amish youths. An Amish youngster is considered an adult on his 16th birthday – not at 15 years and 364 days or 16 years and one day. At that point, some (very few) will go into town for a night, may have a transistor radio under their buggy seat, may change into non-Amish clothes and may sneak into a movie theater. Almost 99 percent of them get over it and return to the Amish way of life.
The buggy jockey in our story was 22 years old – well past the normal rumspringa age, but as with any large group of people, some do not grow up as soon as one might expect.
I suppose the moral of the story is that the temptations are out there for everyone. The degree of acceptance runs from total resistance to total immersion. Of course, most people fall somewhere between the extremes. But as my late mother-in-law used to say, “Nothing surprises me anymore.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Day That Changed The World

The first Sunday in December was warm for the season. Our family had planned for it to be a special day, but little did we know just how special it would turn out to be.
We were having one of our occasional family gatherings at my Grandparents’ farm. Since we got together only a few times a year, this would be a very exciting day. My parents and I didn’t often get to see Uncle Ross and his family, Uncle Ralph, and Aunt Dorothy and her family (cousin Dale was only a toddler, a little over two years old).
As usual, Grandma had made far too much food, including a roast turkey and a baked ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, corn, peas, green beans, a sour salad (Grandpa always liked something sour with every meal), and pie and cake for dessert. The wonderful odors alone literally made my mouth water. As the saying goes, the table was groaning with all the food, and by the time the meal was finished, so was everyone at the table.
There was no running water in the house, but the kettle had been put on the coal stove before we sat down, and by the time the table was cleared, the water was hot, so Grandma set out the dish pan and the ladies quickly finished the cleaning up of the dishes, pots and pans.
The men sat around talking and joking until my father turned to the radio sitting between the door to the summer kitchen, and the window overlooking the now dead looking flower garden.
The radio was one of the new floor models with not only AM (regular) broadcast bands, but also several short wave bands, through which we could listen, but not talk, to police and airline calls as well as amateur radio operators throughout the world. For some reason that was not too clearly understood at that time, these bands usually worked best at night, but on this day they were working very well during the daylight hours.
We had listened to some amateurs for only a few minutes when a lady’s voice broke in very excitedly, saying, “Will you please get off the air! This is an emergency! The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor!”
As the grownups all gathered around, we quickly switched to the AM broadcasts in order to get the latest news. My father said, “This means we are at war.”
Since I was only twelve years old, I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, although I knew something important was happening. The next day I listened to the radio as president Roosevelt addressed the Congress. I can still hear him say, “I shall ask the Congress to declah that a state of wah has existed between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan.”
December 7, 1941 – It was truly the day that changed the world. Let us never forget it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The First Snowfall of the Season

This morning the grass was covered in white – the first snowfall of the season. Actually it started as a rain/snow mixture late yesterday afternoon, and accumulated only an inch or two on the non-paved areas. Not too bad – it eases us gradually into winter. You may have guessed that I am not a big fan of cold weather.
It may seem strange, but the first thing I think of when I see new-fallen snow is the Claude Thornhill recording of his theme, "Snowfall."Although I like his version, the Manhattan Transfer version is my favorite. I don’t know why, but for some reason, perhaps it’s the harmony, I tend to puddle up when I hear it. Somehow it brings back, not particular memories, but emotions of days long, long, lonnnggg ago.
After the emotions, the memories flood in: sledding on the hill northwest of the farm where I lived with my grandparents, followed by putting my cold feet up on the warm part of the old coal stove; my first and only venture onto skis; the Christmas eve in Manheim when someone threw a snowball at me and I ducked, allowing it to break one of the small windows in our front door. (I doubt if I could duck it like that today, but at least the window would be saved.) My father didn’t seem to approve of my agility on that occasion.
I think of Christmas’s on the farm: setting up the tree in a bucket of coal, stringing the lights (my grandmother always liked all blue ones), trying to find the bad light when the string went out, listening to Santa read my letter on the radio, and the big family dinners on Christmas day.
I remember when I was on KP at Fort Knox, and finding out in the middle of the afternoon that I had been on furlough since noon. I rushed home, arriving on Christmas eve. What a wonderful Christmas that was.
I remember assembling toys until 4:00 am when I had two small boys in the  house. It was a great relief when they no longer believed in Santa Claus.
These are a few of the things that come to mind when I see the first snowfall. If you live in a cold climate, what do you think of? If you don’t see snow in your area, what does it take to get you reminiscing?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

They Grow Them Big Today

Last night my old high school football team won the championship of their division for the 16th time. Of course, I feel very good about this, but team statistics raised a question for me: Why are these guys so big?
When I went to high school many years ago, we had one or two people in our class who were six feet tall. Only a few students, who were considered to be “fat,” weighed 200 pounds.
Compare this with the current football team’s statistics. There are several boys on the team who are 6’4” or 6’5” tall. Almost all the players are close to 6’. As to weight, the five linemen from tackle to tackle average 270 pounds. 270 pounds! Two of them, 6’4” tall, tip the scales at 310 pounds. And they do not look fat. Many college teams would love to field a line that size. Why the difference?

According to my online investigation, there are three factors:

1.)                          Demographics. The boys live in an area where the population density is low compared to the resources: food, sanitation, clean air, etc. Studies indicate that as the population density of Europe increased or decreased in relation to resources, humans grew shorter or taller in an inverse relationship. The modern European, in fact the average westerner, is a few inches taller than his ancestors were a few generations ago. The same logic applies to his weight.
2.)                          Genetics. There is an inherited component in height. The genes which affect tallness are dominant, and characteristics based upon them spread rapidly through a population.
3.)                          Nutrition. Regardless of demographics and genetics, the allocation of resources that results in proper nutrition (including protein for muscle and calcium for bone density) has been a major factor in the growth spurt that humanity has enjoyed for the last century and a half. For the last half of the 20th century, Americans, with a bountiful supply of food and best health care, were the tallest people in the world, regardless of genetic heritage or how crowded the city they inhabited.
4.)                          Hormones. Some people suspect that hormones fed to livestock are  finding their way into humans through the food chain, and causing unusual growth. I could not find any scientific evidence to support this claim, but it seems logical.

The foregoing may help explain why people are getting taller, but it does not necessarily explain the increase in weight. Normally a 300 pound man would be considered overweight no matter what his height, but these boys do not look fat in any sense of the word. I know they spend many hours, both in and out of football season, lifting weights; although their body mass index is high, they tend to have a surplus of lean muscle. Lean muscle is considerably heavier than fat, and these boys are extremely strong. I am only guessing here, but I believe their devotion to weight training goes a long way toward explaining their weight.
Whatever the reason, I salute the winners. We did not have a football team when I was in school, but I am sure that if our biggest boys had played against them, the mercy rule would have been called five minutes into the game.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid

I have been elected to the post of treasurer of the Residents’ Council at Luther Acres. It will be my job to keep track of the receipts and disbursements of the council’s funds. Each month I will also be expected to report to the council on the financial activities for the prior period.
I have already received some feedback on the format of the monthly report; the gist of it is that it is too complicated. The residents say they are old people, inexperienced in financial terminology, and as a result I need to keep it simple.
What complicates matters is that the Executive Committee of the Council needs to see where they are in relation to the budget which is set up at the beginning of the year. And it seems to be the budget that is confusing the main council.
I have some ideas about what to do, and I shall try them out, first at the Executive Committee meeting, and if approved there, at the general council meeting.
As so many things seem to do lately, this situation appears, at least to me, to be a metaphor and a prescription for a productive life. Although we need to be aware of the underlying detail of a given situation, we need to try to simplify it. Use only the tools you need for the job at hand.
I direct this conclusion to those, and I know several, who can take any situation and reduce it to its most complicated form. It’s a waste of time and resources, and can lead to frustration, disappointment, and a host of other psychological effects that are extremely unpleasant.
There is no need to buy a Cadillac if you are only driving around the block.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Evening's Entertainment

Last night I attended a program performed by the Barynya Russian Dance Ensemble. Because I am not really into Russian music and dancing, I was not expecting too much, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the whole performance.
Of course the music was stereotypically Russian: almost all was in the minor key, and much of it, particularly the accompaniment for the dance routines started slowly and gradually picked up tempo.
The dances also were typical, with much strutting, stomping, high kicking and deep knee bending – enough to make a post-youth sigh with envy. And among the ladies there was also the usual high-kicking and full-skirt swirling. I can’t help but appreciate the talent, strength and stamina of the performers.
The costumes, both men’s and women’s were gorgeous – bright colors in all kinds of combinations and designs.
For me the highlight of the evening was the balalaika playing of Lina Karokhina, originally from Saint Petersburg, but now living in Boston. The balalaika is a three-stringed instrument (EEA), but in Lina’s hands it sounded like ten strings played by twenty fingers. In addition to playing in the ensemble, Ms. Karokhina also performed a solo classical number, demonstrating that the hands of a talented musician can bring forth music of great feeling and sensitivity from the instrument.
 I came away from the evening with a new appreciation for the talent and originality that goes into Russian music.
With each of these concerts, particularly those featuring performers from different cultures, I am constantly being amazed at the huge variety of musical arts that exist around the world. No matter how primitive the culture, music breaks out. Man is not only a thinking animal – a questionable proposition at best – he is also a musical animal.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nobody Is Wrong All The Time

Huzzah! My book is finally the way I want it, and is available. If you are interested, please check out the sidebar on the right. Perhaps I can now get back to normal blogging.

I am going to do something that all respectable conservatives, and unfortunately many liberals, think is a no-no: accept some arguments from the other (conservative) side. While I still think a single payer plan would be the way to go on healthcare, the chances of getting that through the legislature are slim to none. (By the way, why do “slim” chance and “fat” chance mean the same thing: practically “zero” chance? Should not they be opposites?) But I digress.
So in order to keep from letting “perfect” be the enemy of “good,” I need to wrap my head around the 2,000+ pages now being debated in the Senate. But I think that the right has some suggestions that should be included in the bill:

1.)                          Tort reform. A victim of malpractice should receive full reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses, but I am not convinced that the amount of pain and suffering is inversely proportional to the amount of cash received. Why not limit the “pain and suffering” award to some reasonable amount, say, $500,000. This would hold down the costs of malpractice suits, and doctors would not have to run needless tests in order to keep their insurance premiums at a reasonable level.
2.)                          If we are going to have insurance, allow insurance purchasers to buy across state lines. If I live in Pennsylvania, and I prefer to buy insurance from a New York company, allow me to do so. Under the capitalistic system competition is good for everybody.
3.)                          If an employer pays health insurance premiums for the employees, include the premiums in the employees’ taxable income. Payment of insurance premiums by an employer is in lieu of higher wages, and should be taxed as if the insurance were dropped and the savings put into wages.

I really need to stop reading those conservative writers. What do you think?