Monday, October 1, 2007

Few Regrets

A Collection of Essays:

Regrets Start Early

Passionately Left Handed

Denise and Women's Lib

Doug, the Tax Man

The Prettiest Girl I Had Ever Seen

God's Grace

The Art Collector

All the Marbles

Under the Lens of World Politics

A Life Changed


The O.D. Williams Award

Suicide Bombers


The Game of Kings

Life and Death

The Legacy

The Antikythera Mechanism

Gerald R. Ford

The Vortex Engine

The Right Tool for the Right Job

The Fountain of Youth

Casualties of the Revolution

The Economics of War

A lost Childhood

What Do You See?


A Love Story

Life As Art

Angels of Death

Modern Health Care

Fortunately or unfortunately, I was born neither to left-handedness, nor to passion. I am not driven beyond the pale to win, or to make money, or to best my fellow man at doing whatever it is that my fellow man does. I am content to write a little, make music a little, paint a little, converse with my contemporaries a little and to have made an honorable and comfortable living selling whatever my brain knows how to do. That which I cannot sell, I freely give away.

Regrets Start Early

I recognized at an early age that I have a certain set of talents that would serve me well. I was smart enough and pretty much able to do anything that I thought I could do. I might not have done it well, but I could do it passably well and be satisfied. I was better at doing a lot of things than what I perceived my peers to be able to do. I could tie my shoelaces long before Johnny down the block, and I could tell time before my pal Dougie could. I could count to one hundred because I was able to figure out how “tens” worked. I knew I could count to a thousand because hundreds worked the same way. I just never had time to count to a thousand. And, I wasn’t five yet.

For the record, my first regret was not being five. I can remember thinking that it didn’t make sense for a four year old to put his hands on his hips. That was a grown up thing to do. One had to be five. At some family gathering, standing in a jungle of legs, I remember my older sister, who was just older than five at the time, catching my eye and shaking her head as I was picking my nose. She knew that I shouldn’t be picking my nose and she made me know it too. She didn’t say a word, but just by her look I understood. It would be great to be five and know these things already.

The older kids on the block would sometimes let us little kids play the big kid games. We played football, kickball, tag, jump rope, and a host of other kid games. It seemed like there was always a new game, and it always had new rules and a new vocabulary that was absolutely essential to know how to play properly. Sometimes I was overwhelmed with all this new stuff and thought that when I am five I will know what I need to know.

On blustery fall days when the wind whipped about and the trees sang their song, my sister and I would wander down the block to see if Joanne and Robin could play. It was easy to get sidetracked. Their yard was bounded by a low, two-rail fence. The posts probably stood two feet high. We would stand on top of the posts and the wind would tease us, tear at our clothes, and howl in our ears. The first one to be blown over lost. I knew that when I turned five I was going to win. Five was a magical age. It never occurred to me that I needed to find a four year old opponent, if I was going to have a chance.

I remember my sister going off to kindergarten. She was five. I could go to kindergarten when I was five. My first regret was not being five.

Passionately Left Handed

For a long time in my late adolescence, I was disappointed that I was not left-handed. I associated left handedness with both ambidexterity and with passion – not that the two are necessarily related. I had noticed that the people who I thought were really good at something tended to be left handed. I mistakenly thought that had I been left handed, things would have come easier for me. I would have been more coordinated. My fingers would have been able to work the keys of the saxophone better. I would have been able to organize my thoughts better. Draw better; paint better. Then I realized that people who are better at these things tend to work at them harder – spend more time practicing whatever it is. Lefthanders get that naturally just living in a right hand world.

Interest in practicing anything more than just a little bit was beyond me; after all, I was smart enough and pretty much able to do anything I thought I could do. I thought I could do these things without practicing them, and, so I could…just not well. I simply couldn’t focus on any one thing long enough, to practice it long enough, to work with it long enough to make anything better than just barely better. I decided that the discerning difference between me and people who were really good at something was that they had a passion for practicing. I realized some time later that the passion was not for the practice, but for the result. A passion for the result is what makes all the practice worthwhile. I regret not thinking more clearly about that passion thing earlier. Had I thought it through, I might have applied more practice to more things in my life…when I had the time to practice them.

I played at the saxophone for 8 years through elementary, junior high and high school. I played another couple of years in college and just ran out of steam being mediocre. Mediocre is just not fun to listen to. The saxophone sat in my closet for the next twenty years. I was just afraid to be mediocre any longer. I was too old not to be better at playing it and too mediocre to play it publicly. I finally reached a simple crossroads where the choices were black and white and there were only two. I could sell the horn or I could practice it like I meant it, but it could not stay in the closet any longer. My passion for just having the instrument became my passion for getting better at it.

I began to understand a couple of things about passion. It is a proper motivation for work, but it does not make the work any easier. The stronger the passion (that in itself is an oxymoron), the stronger is the motivation for accomplishment. Today I am a musician. I am a little sorry that I didn’t recognize my passion to be one when I had more time to practice. I am not sure at all that I regret not being left-handed.

Denise and Women’s Lib

For most of my growing up I was one of the tallest kids. I was taller than most of my peers and it was a feeling that I came to find comfort with. I liked being able to look over the tops of their heads. It did not make me feel superior, only comfortable. I grew to a height of 6’2” -- which is only middling tall, but tall enough to edge out most of the people I meet. To this day, I don’t like dealing with taller people. Maybe it’s because parents and authority figures were always tall. Maybe that’s just psychobabble. Taller people make me feel small, and “small” is not a feeling that I enjoy.

But there was always somebody who was taller. There always is somebody who is taller, or smarter, or faster, or prettier, or more handsome. If you are person who is strongly bothered by that then you might develop a passion for improving whatever you feel your deficit to be. If it doesn’t bother you too much, then you just get on with your life and note that despite what the history books say, we are not all created equal. And, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Some people never do accept not being the best at something. They develop passion. That passion drives them to run faster, or read more, or practice harder and longer than everybody else. For some, this passion gets spent too early and they flame out on soccer, or football, and are washed up by the time they get out of high school. Some develop wasted passions on watching cartoons on TV or playing video games. There is no point to improving talents that have no social value. Some choose more carefully and are propelled to great accomplishments. These people are wonderful assets to our culture. The rest of us, who just stop short of becoming the best, enjoy the talents of those who are.

Passion alone doesn’t always rise up to meet the challenge. You can have a lot of passion for height or beauty, but that is not going to make you taller. It might make you stand up straighter, or project a certain indefinable radiance, but it will not make you taller or more beautiful than God intended, or genetics allowed.

Before I developed these great theories on passion and height, there was Denise. Denise was the tallest person in my kindergarten and first grade classes. (By the time I got to the second grade Bruce had taken the honor.) I realized that no matter what I did, I was not going to be taller than Denise. There was also some other natural stratification going on. I noticed that there were some kids that were better at spelling, or better at dodge ball. I was not the king of “Four Square”, Scott was. Some kids got placed in a higher reading group than I did. There were differences in all the kids around me that seemed insurmountable. I was not going to be the tallest person in my class. I was not the smartest. I was not the best finger painter, or the best with clay. I was pretty good with all those things, just not the best. Even a few girls were better at some things than I was. Marilyn could spell better. Terry Richardson was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. For good or ill, I learned that I could live with not being the best...or the tallest. It was Denise’s fault.

It was also Denise’s fault that I could never reconcile the idea that women somehow were not equal in the workplace. The 1970’s gave rise to the women’s movement which promoted Bra Burning and the de-sexing of women in society. (This did not work by the way. Lycra spandex was invented about the same time and women just got sexier and sexier. The woman that thought that bra burning was a good idea to express how women should be unfettered by their own secondary sexual characteristics was obviously not aware of the impact that unrestrained breasts have on the American male.) I felt that there were some obvious jobs that most women should not do -- like garbage collection where sheer physical strength is an obvious asset – but, there were some women who were certainly strong enough and if their passion led them to garbage collection then, that was all right with me.

I had the same feelings about women in business. They could certainly do the math. There was nothing inherently different in their decision making ability that was somehow inferior to the way males approached the same problem. They did just as well in my college classes as I did. There was no reason that I could see that women couldn’t do the same job. So what was all the noise about? I think it has to do with small, noisy men whose passions couldn’t overcome their height. Maybe they never had a Denise in their class. I regret not being able to make more sense of it. I also regret that there was not a Denise in everyone’s kindergarten class. I have no regrets about Terry Richardson.

Doug, the Tax Man

Society is full of things that don’t make any sense to me. Dougie, my neighborhood friend down the street, used to have a black Pekingese dog. (This was the second of Dougie’s dogs. Dougie’s family had to get rid of their English sheep dog. The sheep dog could never overcome its instinct to chase down all the children in the neighborhood and herd them together. This proved a little too frightening to us children and our parents, so the sheep dog had to go. The Pekingese was much less threatening.) His dog loved him and liked to follow him to school. This was frowned on by school authorities, but the dog was persistent and didn’t understand it when Dougie told him to go home.

Dougie was often called out of class to retrieve his dog from the campus environs and return him home. No one liked this solution because Dougie walked to school and lived about a mile away. It took him nearly all day to take his dog home, and Dougie missed out on some important teaching time. It was always puzzling why Dougie’s parents never seemed to be able to retrieve the dog, or keep him chained up in the first place. It was never puzzling that it took almost all day for Dougie to take him home and get back to school. Dougie’s dad was a principal at another elementary school in town and ought to have known better. In some families, entitlement starts at home. Go figure.

Dougie’s dog was well known on our little elementary school campus. One day this dog was spotted under a car parked along side the school, and Dougie was dutifully called out of class to retrieve his dog. Dougie marched over to the car and called to his dog to come out. The dog understood this command as well as the one to go home, so it was no surprise that Dougie had to lie down on the street to reach under the car to grab a tail. The skunk that belonged to the tail was very surprised and upset at the intrusion. In no uncertain terms were Dougie and the Yard Monitor made aware of the nature of this indiscretion -- as were the rest of us at school.

Dougie had to undergo the indignity of a scrub down with tomato juice and a milk bath. His clothes were ceremoniously burned. His black Pekinese which was finally, and safely, installed behind the gate at home, normally would have been eager to greet him, but would have nothing to do with Dougie. I’m sure he looked the same, but the scent was no longer familiar. In fact, few people would have anything to do with Dougie for a few days.

Dougie grew up to be Doug, the taxman. He found a career as a bureaucrat with the state, working at the Franchise Tax Board. This was a safe occupation for Doug. No dogs allowed, nor skunks for that matter. It’s an occupation that doesn’t make sense to me for Doug, but I am not him and did not live his life.

I always thought that Doug was smarter than I. Sure he may not have been able to count as far as I could when we were both five, but he always seem to have better answers when the teacher called on him…on those rare occasions when he was not walking his dog back home. We were in the same classes through Junior High, but not in the same social circles. Doug was more likeable than I was and he hung out with the popular crowd. That’s the way it goes. I don’t regret not being popular. It has never been a passion of mine.

I lost track of him in high school. Doug was a guy who was smart and inventive with his time, who was not necessarily inclined to follow the rules. That may be why I lost track. The popular kids which never included me in their number, no longer included Doug either. While it was easy not to notice me, it was pretty easy to notice the popular kids. Doug wasn’t there. He just dropped off my radar.

But employment with the state taxing authority has no appeal aside from the paycheck. I worked for the state for almost 2 years out of college and with this intimate knowledge I could not imagine hell without its lobby filled with state tax workers. Tax work is work where rules are everything. It could not be very satisfying, particularly for a guy who was smart and inventive with his time, and who was not necessarily inclined to follow the rules.

When we were little, Dougie had a passion for football. He was always organizing the neighborhood for a game of front yard football. Four kids were enough for two teams. Six was better. If we could only muster five kids, Doug would quarterback both teams. He knew all the rules and taught us all how to play. He refereed the games too, making sure that penalties were imposed and fair. He quarterbacked his team and nearly always won. We all wanted to be on Dougie’s team.

In elementary school, when he was there, he would always organize the recess sports. He got somebody else to captain a team and we lined up and let the captains chose teams. The adults in our school lives weren’t nearly as concerned with our self esteem then, so they let us form our teams and play our own games. Yes, somebody was always chosen last. Ouch. One of the teams always lost. Ooh. We kept our own score. We had to count and keep track. Sometimes somebody felt cheated or disappointed in losing, but we went back to class and nobody seemed to harbor bad feelings. Tomorrow the captains would choose different teams. If your team lost too often, you didn’t get to be captain anymore. These were lessons for life played out on the playground. But there were other lessons to be learned.

Doug didn’t play football on the school team in high school. Doug didn’t hang out with the popular kids. Doug might not have even graduated high school for all I know, his passion for all things having long since dissipated. He was captain of nothing in high school. He did not participate in any clubs. Nobody wanted to be on his team. I never saw him. What had football become to him? Who was Doug anyway? I don’t really know, but I do know that now he is Doug, the taxman.

There is story for every life. I would love to be able to trace the beginnings of what makes people who they are, the ebbs and flows of their lives, the defining moments that brings them to the here and now. But that is not generally possible, and frankly, I am just not that interested. I am interested in those people who have left their impression on me for whatever reason that may have been. It is difficult to sort out their importance, or the weight of their contribution, but not their impact. We do not all have those succinctly defining moments that forge our lives, and indelibly ink them into the history books. No, life is much more obtuse than that. Doug was a leader and then he was not. There was a change and something caused it. I doubt if it was the skunk episode that initiated his slide into eventual ordinariness, but I regret that I’ll never know.

The Prettiest Girl I Had Ever Seen

I kissed Terry Richardson outside the door to our first grade classroom. It was a bright fall morning and a number of us were waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked. Our classroom was on an outside corridor that opened up to a southern exposure and the low morning sun was filtering through the fall leaves. The dappled shadows played across our faces. The sidewalk and classroom wall were calico. It was a windless, bright, and tepid day.

It was Mrs. Lidecks’ custom to enjoy her preparation time without benefit of her student’s help, so she had locked the classroom doors to the outside world. We first graders stood in the corridor, eagerly awaiting the bell, making small talk. I have no idea what the talk was about that day. I have no idea how I managed to or why I kissed her, but I did. She did not yell or scream, or try to get away. There was no whispering to her girlfriends. She simply smiled. The bell rang. The door opened. We filed inside and that was the end of our romantic entanglement. Life is busy for first graders and the opportunity never arose again.

Later on in college, I was talking to a new found friend, and, in the spirit of small talk, I mentioned where I was from. The conversation evolved from there into a discussion of how small a world it really was. It turns out that he knew a Terry Richardson. In fact, the Richardson’s had been family friends for years. They were from my home town. Since they did not live in the same area, he had never considered the option of dating her, but he admitted in a moment of candor that she was perhaps the prettiest girl he had ever seen. I nodded absently.

Quite some years later, I decided to take up oil painting. I enjoyed the quiet time and introspection it afforded. I also liked the technical problems painting presented, like coloration and how to load a brush for just the right effect. I learned how the use of composition in painting can create a sense of movement, or of peace. How brush strokes can create tension; how color can affect mood. I attempted a couple of paintings on my own, copies of the masters, to examine in detail how they managed to work the colors and layer the paint for a given outcome.

I took a night class once and did a study of a single element from Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” a wine glass on the table. It looks just like glass and yet, it is simply a white pigment brushed hastily over a dappled background. It took me several tries before I was able to make my attempts look even remotely like glass. There is a reason these artists are called masters.

I have always been drawn to this painting. The mood it evokes in me is unique, but I had been at a loss to understand what about it I liked so much. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see it up close at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. It is more striking in person than in any reproduction. I stared at it for a good half hour moving slightly from one spot to the next to see how the ambient light changed the look of the painting. That half hour wasn’t quite enough, but my thoughts coalesced there in the gallery. As the light played across the faces of the boating party, I remembered standing outside one bright fall morning when I was in the first grade. The dappled shadows played across our faces. I have no regrets about Terry Richardson.

God’s Grace

Jeanie was also in my first grade class. Jeanie was just like any of us in the first grade except she was shorter. She was the smallest first grader at our school and smaller than a lot of kindergarteners. That’s it. She was just short. She wore pretty dresses, her hair in curls, and had a nice smile. She wasn’t retarded and she didn’t misbehave. She was in a couple of my groups for working on projects. I liked Jeanie. She was OK.

She was short because one leg was shorter than the other, or because her back was almost completely hunched over, or because one arm didn’t move very well, or because she really couldn’t hold her head up very well. None of that stuff seemed to matter to any of us. Jeanie was just Jeanie.

Sometimes she had a little trouble getting in and out of her desk, but that didn’t slow her down. I don’t remember Mrs. Lideck singling her out in any way. There were no speeches about how Jeanie might be different, or require special assistance from any of us. To us, she was just Jeanie.

Maybe we were too young to be inconvenienced by the thought of someone who might be different. It didn’t seem to matter. We didn’t leave her out of any games. She knew how to laugh. She got Valentine’s cards, she got invited to birthday parties, and she got to do show and tell in front of the class just like everybody else. Maybe that’s because, in the first grade, she was just like anybody else.

Prejudice isn’t natural. It is not innate. We don’t seem to be born with it. We don’t start filtering people who aren’t like us out of our lives until we are taught how to do it by our teachers, or by our parents, or by our friends who think they know better. (That doesn’t happen until later, but it doesn’t take long for us to get good at it.) I don’t know how it is now, but back then kids generally didn’t start getting cruel to each other until sometime after the first grade.

Having accidents is rather common place both in kindergarten and in the first grade. Kids are always throwing up in class and the janitors have to be called in to sprinkle the deodorizing barf dust around and sweep it up. Some kids wet their pants. Stuff happens. Teachers handle this sort of thing as a matter of course. When they can, they are quick to get the rest of us out the room before the sympathetic queasiness starts to set in among the most sensitive and the vomiting becomes epidemic.

One day Jeanie had an accident. She was obviously in distress, but quietly and while still at her desk voided her bladder and bowels. This was not good for her. She sat there crying. Marilyn who sat next to Jeanie and was a little Miss Prissy raised her hand and announced that Jeanie had a problem. Accidents happen. No big deal, except maybe for James who had already been taught something the rest of us had been spared and found the situation funny. Mrs. Lideck looked more concerned with James than usual. James was promptly sent to the principal’s office. Mrs. Lideck got the janitors in quickly and took care of things. Jeanie’s mom came and took her home.

That was the last time any of us saw Jeanie. We later heard rumors from some of our classmates that she was in the hospital -- something about kidneys. Jeanie was the topic of conversation for several days. We got to work individually at our desks to make get well soon cards for her. Then there was nothing.

Finally, someone remembered to ask, “Will Jeanie ever be coming back?”

Mrs. Lideck said, “No, Jeanie’s gone.” It was not a satisfying answer, but it was the only one she had.

Jeanie’s name comes from Hebrew. The root source is Yochana, from which was derived the later Latin variants of Joanna and Johanna. Those were taken by the old French and loosely pronounced “Jehanne.” The name means "God's grace," or alternately, “the Lord is Gracious.” Shakespeare felt that names were not particularly significant and had Juliet expound on names with “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But by any other name, she wouldn’t have been Jeanie.

The Art Collector

Mrs. Hartman taught third grade. She was perhaps the first teacher that I really liked -- liked in the sense of those crushes little boys have on their teachers. My mother facilitated our romance by giving me camellias off our bushes to take to her a couple of times a week. Mrs. Hartman seemed to appreciate them. I don’t think she thought much about it though because I only managed to bring her flowers when my mother was helping out in class. Things never really heated up between us. Besides, she was already married.

Third grade is when we got to practice our printing, do addition and subtraction tables, and learn about local government. Our highlighted project of the year was a giant map of our county that we drew on a roll of butcher paper. Onto this map we drew all the important things about which we knew. The map had fine drawings of the airport with a requisite plane, the museum and some representations of a few of the old buildings in Pioneer Village. (Pioneer Village, part of the Museum, was a unique historical park with many preserved buildings from our fine county’s early years.) There were pictures of oil derricks and movie theaters and the river and, of course, our school. Some of my classmates drew their own houses complete with their family cars parked out front. We had room for all of this detail because it was literally on a roll of butcher paper. While modern cartographers might applaud the effort, I doubt that they would be moved to praise its accuracy.

There were a couple things I learned while working on this mapping project, when I wasn’t trying to figure out why Bruce was taller than I was or why Jeanie was as crippled as she was. I had lost interest in Denise, and Terry Richardson had moved to the other third grade classroom. There were two really good drawers in our class. Both Mark and Cliff made drawings that looked like real things. Their pictures had detail, scale, and realism that are traditionally lacking in a third grade effort. For the rest of us, our attempts at drawing paled in comparison. Of course, most of us spent five minutes on our little scene and then we were done. We quickly found other things to do at our desks or outside at recess, but Mark and Cliff stayed at it and worked. Evidently, they had found their passion while the rest of us were still looking for somebody to play marbles with.

That they had found their true calling in the third grade is something that I have since been able to confirm. I know that they had found their true mission in life because they are both graphic artists today. They live three thousand miles apart and I doubt if they have even spoken to each other since. It is only through the magic of the internet that I know who and where they are. Whatever their recollection of me might be, they have survived all of their adult lives without any desire to refresh it. I don’t think that they would have much interest in how this little fragment of their lives contributed to my greater understanding of the world.

They both approached their drawing in two quite distinctly different ways. Mark drew in short redundant pencil strokes, back and forth, back and forth with a little more forth each time until he got to the end of his line. He often would pick up his pencil and start in a new place and bring all his lines together into the picture. They were both left handed. Maybe that was it. Cliff, on the other hand, rarely lifted his pencil. His lines were contour lines that outlined the objects and then filled in. Cliff would have been good on an Etch-a-Sketch. I was amazed at their differing techniques and thought that just technique might be the secret to good drawing. I tried my hand at both for awhile in my room at home, but “technique” didn’t seem to be the secret. I soon lost interest. I guess this lesson in left handed passion didn’t quite resonate yet. It would still be a couple of years before I took up the saxophone and got really confused about this passion thing.

Third grade passed without incident. After summer we reconvened in Mrs. Eckhardt’s fourth grade classroom. After a few weeks, I had occasion to go back to visit Mrs. Hartman to see if the flame still flickered, but when I got there, I realized that whatever magic she had held for me in the third grade simply had no appeal to an older, more mature fourth grader. I found myself suddenly without purpose, so I asked her about the County map we had all drawn. Surprisingly, she still had it and got it out for me to see. Once unrolled, the clarity of the Mark and Cliff contributions was startling compared to anything else on the paper. My own picture looked something a third grader would have drawn.

Mrs. Hartman offered to let me have the map, but I really had no more use for it than she did. It did remind me of how good Cliff and Mark could draw and I really wanted one of them to draw me a picture.

In the fourth grade we moved on to the study of cursive writing and early American history. The math got harder with multiplication and division added to the mix. Cliff was willing to sacrifice a little recess time. I asked him to copy for me a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that was printed in our history book. I liked the painting, we were studying American history and Cliff was willing. I was going to begin the first of my personal collection of great American artists with an original hand drawing by Cliff, a soon to be future great American artist.

There we sat, Cliff and I, during recess one day. I watched the drawing take shape. Cliff was so good and so fast that I was amazed at how he must look at a picture and break it down into outlines, shapes, contours, shadows and light.

At the end of recess, the drawing was almost done. Mrs. Eckhardt magically appeared over my shoulder and gasped and gushed over Cliff’s efforts. She heaped praise on his talents, and said that she simply must have that drawing to put up on the bulletin board for our history lessons. Before I knew it, my commission of Cliff’s drawing had been swept up from his desk and posted on the bulletin board for all to see. I was helpless to do anything about it. Cliff said nothing. For all intents and purposes, it was gone. Cliff wasn’t going to do another one for me and Mrs. Eckhardt wasn’t ever going to give it up. That drawing teased me from its special position on the board for several months before it just disappeared and a new poster on the finer arts of forming a capital cursive “G” appeared in its place.

I regret that somehow I didn't manage to keep that picture. I doubt that even if I had managed to keep Cliff’s drawing for myself, it would have survived in my possession to this day, having long been thrown away with everything else from elementary school. But, one never knows.

That one drawing could have been the foundation of a great collection of great works. It could have been the starting point to igniting my passion for appreciating the finer arts. If only Mrs. Eckhardt had not intervened, I might have had an earlier start on discovering my true self. Damn you, Mrs. Eckhardt.

All the Marbles

In the late fifties and early sixties, the playgrounds at Roosevelt Elementary School were freshly coated with oil a couple of weeks before the new school year began. The oil kept the dust down and prevented anything green from rising up from the soil. Back in my day, we did not have the lush green, grassy fields that comprise contemporary school playgrounds. We weren’t as smart then about the toxic nature of oil and its wondrous, cancer causing properties that has compelled many a school district in the years since into new bond issues.

I grew up just a few miles down the road from the site of the infamous “Tea Pot Dome” scandal that nearly brought down the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. With so many years past, this is a simple aside to toss about, but it will suffice to say the scandal involved money and oil, a pretty common theme even now. It is relevant only in this regard: back in the day, spreading oil over dirt to sterilize it from every living thing was cheaper than watering dirt to grow grass. It was a durable play surface and suitable for games of tag, dodge ball, duck duck goose, kickball, marbles and whatever else yard monitors, teachers, and kids could put to it. It was a little hard on school clothes, but we were too.

In early September, the sun was still high in the sky and the heat rose from the playground in waves that shimmered mirror-like in the distance. In the couple of weeks before school began as the playgrounds lay baking and quiet under their newly oiled topcoats, they became the playground of wasps and bees which were somehow drawn to the fresh oil. So, for our first days of class there were always the obligatory wasp stings in addition to the usual orderly chaos that was school.

The wasps generally weren’t interested in people however. They stayed low over the playground and rarely rose above knee level. Despite the fact that they were plentiful, they were not organized and were content to buzz out of the way. After a couple of days of kids, they found the environment altogether too inhospitable and left all the wonderful dirty oil to us.

It was my custom in the fourth grade to use my recesses in the great pastime of marbles. There were a number of us who would kneel in the oily dirt and shoot our marbles at each other’s marbles. There was a whole vernacular wrapped around the games we would play using “boulders” and “cat eyes” and “steelies.” We had games, rules, willing opponents, and we played for “keeps.” I excelled at marbles.

Monday morning I would start my day with freshly washed jeans with oil stained knees and put two marbles in my pocket. I would keep them quiet in my pocket for the first hour of class until recess started, and then we would bound out the door to the playground. I didn’t have a special “shooter.” I didn’t need one – any old marble would do. Any special marbles I had, I won from the other kids who had “special” marbles. We didn’t allow “subs.” You won or lost with the marble you started with. That was one of the rules. By Friday my pockets were full.

There are a number of techniques for shooting marbles. Some kids put their second knuckles on the ground and shoot the marble looking over the top of their hand. I did not find this method too accurate. You don’t get a good view of where the marble is going, only where it came from. The hand and wrist are held in a rather unnatural position and there was way too much wiggle room for the thumb as it propelled the marble forward. A lot of kids liked to use boulders as their shooting marble. They liked its larger size and thought that size forgave an inaccurate shooting technique. My Friday pockets were a testament to the wrongness of that philosophy.

I kept the back of my hand flat on the ground. I pressed it hard against the dirt to avoid any unnecessary movement. I kept my head back and low over my shooting hand. I caught my thumb just by the flesh of my middle finger and cradled the marble in the crook of my first finger. The release was swift and sure. I didn’t “fudge.” Some kids, to get more power, would jerk their hand forward as they were shooting to “fudge” the point at which their shooting marble had come to rest. This almost always screwed up their shot, but they didn’t realize that. In marbles, power is nothing; accuracy is everything.

When you are good at anything, you become a target of sorts. Perhaps you serve as an inspiration to those who hate to loose. There are some kids who just know they are better than you, but just don’t seem to have the luck when it counts. But, there is never a lack for competition when the skill seems so minor, so obvious, and the rules so simple. You are either better and win, or not, and loose.

Trent was a popular kid. He was athletic and stronger than most kids. Winning came to him easily. He watched me work for a couple of recess periods and thought that it would be easy to fleece me of a few marbles. “Easy pickin’s” he must have thought.

We talked at the end of recess and agreed to play for “all the marbles” at lunch when we would have more time. The bet was for 100 marbles to the winner. The game was “chase” – winner takes all. No subs. No boulders. “Taps” wouldn’t count; the target marble would have to move over two inches upon being struck by the shooter. The rules were agreed upon and witnessed by five or six kids who were interested in the big match.

I took my wooden school ruler to lunch in my back pocket. I sat on it uncomfortably, but it would be worth it. Taps didn’t count.

The game began tentatively enough. We shot in opposite directions, neither of us wanting to get too close to the other. We had to assess how accurate we both were. It was playful sparring. Neither of us got close enough to one another to even attempt a kill shot. We occupied this lunch hour and a couple of recesses just like it. The yard monitor checked on the activity once and awhile to see what this little clump of kids was doing.

I finally detected Trent’s fatal weakness; he was accurate enough, but his shot was not strong. I could tempt him at the edge of his range. If I put my marble in just the right spot he could hit to it, but his shooter would not have the energy to strike my marble with enough force to move it the required two inches. With my extra two or three foot range, I could attempt to hit his marble from the same range and hit a winner. If I missed, I still left myself a comfortable margin.

A popular kid travels with his entourage. They would offer Trent advice with every shot. They finally convinced him that my marble was a sitting duck.

His shot rolled past mine with the barest perceptible “tick” of glass on glass. The peanut gallery was quick to give the victory to Trent, but he had seen that ruler in my back pocket and knew what it was for. He made no protest when I squatted down to my marble and turned the hunted into the hunter. I knocked his marble an easy couple of feet.

For a popular kid, Trent didn’t know how to count very well. The next day he showed up with a small, paper lunch sack of marbles. There were only 96. I had cleaned him out. I got a couple of Chinese birdcages, a few cat eyes, some interesting boulders, and a couple of “aggies.” There were mostly just “puries,” the cheap, clear, single color “fish tank” marbles. I also got a reputation for being a pretty good marble player. My normal competition kind of dried up after that. Trent did not become my new best friend.

Even at the ripe old age of 9, I was impressed with how gentlemanly this contest had been. I didn’t know that popular kids could be fair, but Trent played by the rules. He was gracious in loosing and did not renege on the bet. I have no idea if my strategy was all that effective or I was just lucky – probably a little bit of both. But the thing that got me thinking the most was the fact that I had cleaned him out.

I was good at marbles. I won pockets full every week. I had six or seven hundred marbles in two marble sacks and a couple of old socks at home. I could easily loose 100 marbles and not feel too bad (although, I really would have felt terrible about it). But, if I only had one hundred marbles, I never would have bet them all, even though I knew my chances at winning were great -- even if I knew I could win a hundred more next week. There is always a chance to loose. Trent, on the other hand, only thought he had a hundred marbles. He didn’t even know for sure. For him, his wealth was in his confidence, not his marbles.

As a popular kid, he was unaccustomed to losing, but the consequence of loosing probably never even entered his consciousness. (This proved to be a great defect in Trent’s character which came to light as a sophomore in high school. Trent was not particularly bellicose, but he was athletic and strongly built. In the locker room after PE, he was upset with some kid who scuffled with him out on the field. Trent went over to “discuss” the matter, and this kid broke Trent’s jaw with one punch.)

In the study of life, I would call Trent a risk taker. He always thought that any consequence to losing was a small one, so he had no problem betting a hundred marbles, or an intact jaw, on the outcome. He knew that he was going to win most of the time. In a very real sense this gave Trent a freedom in his behavior that I frankly would never know. I was not a popular kid in elementary school because I never gave myself a chance to be popular.

In the study of Economics, I would call my behavior “risk averse.” I have never liked risking anything on chance. The emotional strain of losing is far more unpleasant that any feeling I get from winning. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to win, only that I don’t invest myself in the outcome. Being risk averse takes a certain joy out of playing the game.

I took a lot of statistics in college. I learned what they are, what they mean and how to compute them. I learned what the odds are at craps, roulette, and blackjack, but I find that placing the bet is all it takes to get my stomach tied up in knots. I know the difference between a good bet and a bad one. I know the odds of winning versus not winning. I can compute the statistical outcome. I can place the right bet at the right time, but I don’t even have to loose to feel bad about gambling. There is no pleasure in winning worth the emotional investment I have in the bet itself.

Gambling is just the most obvious example. We take chances everyday. Every time we climb behind the wheel of a car we flirt with statistics. Whether we decide to take this job or that one, shapes how we live our lives. Who we decide ask to the senior prom, or to marry is all about assessing risk and taking chances. We take our chances when we decide to have children – not only about whether it will be a boy or a girl, but will whatever gender it is turn out OK?

Fortunately, not all the risks we face in life are obvious, nor is the relationship to the various outcomes we experience always related to the risks we perceive. That is what makes life for me not only tolerable, but a wonderful and exciting journey. Even for a risk averse person like me it is easy to accept that not all the pitfalls in life are avoidable, and that the joy in living is in the playing and not in the bets we place.

I know that total risk aversion is irrational and I also know that a certain level of risk in financial planning is essential in surviving to retirement with some discretionary income. All of this makes sense to me and despite the label that most economists would give me, I am able to make constructive, rational decisions. But, I must admit that I regret not being just a little bit more like Trent. If I was, I probably would enjoy putting a quarter in a slot machine now and again.

Under the Lens of World Politics

I spent long hours of my childhood exploring those things that children explore: the little yellow butterflies that are drawn to marigolds in the summer sun; the worms that make their way through the loam; the ants that march busily; the endless variety of insects that buzz over the lawn. Occasionally I would witness great confrontations of life and death when a Praying Mantis met its prey. I noticed that flowers are all built differently. Our camellias were never quite as colorful as our neighbor’s roses. Calla Lilies were especially fun because the pollen was so abundant and so yellow. The Modesto Ashes in our front yard produced such a thick canopy that I could hide in their branches for hours and no one could see me. The alley behind my house was always revealing treasures of one sort or another. Sometimes I would find money, but most of the time I found BB’s or bits of chain or rusty nails – the odd nut or screw. My world was small in size, but big in discoveries.

When I tired of my normal perspective, I would get my dad’s big six inch magnifying glass and go hunting around the house for smaller worlds to conquer. I could see the weave of the fabric on our couches and curtains. My dad’s nose looked as frightening as my own did in the mirror, when spied through the glass. When I held it at arm’s length, the world turned upside down and I remember falling down when I couldn’t figure where to step next any more.

Outdoors, the magnifying glass made everything bigger and more menacing. The insects became monsters and movie stars. The summer was never at a loss for a bright, sunny day and I could burn a hole in a twig in just a couple of seconds. For awhile I kept a small collection of sticks with small round holes burned in them. I only kept the ones where the holes were evenly spaced and perfectly round. I did have my standards where perfection was required. When the fun of burning holes in sticks was depleted I turned to the ants. I became their worst enemy. I scoped out their path on the sidewalk and tried to anticipate their arrival by making the cement burning hot with the magnifying glass. Ants may not be possessed of superior intelligence, but like most living things, they avoid death whenever possible. They always walked around the hot spot I created. Then I tried to trap them within a circle of deadly heat as I moved the glass in a circular motion around the ant. The ant would always test and pull back. Then when I put the glass down to give my eyes a rest from the glare, the ant would find the coolest path and race across to safety.

I tired of this game easily enough and went straight for the kill. Finding the ant with the magnifying glass close, I watched it move, test, touch antenna with other ants. Occasionally, a larger ant would happen by and I considered these worthy opponents of the glass. I would start the glass in close, then move it upward toward the sun until the beam was so focused the ant snapped liked popped corn. This was cruel I now know, but at the time, it was just playtime and discovery. This behavior did not translate to dogs or other animals, just ants. I even tested this technique on the back of my hand with the most unpleasant result. It was after this proof of concept that I decided that there were other things to do to occupy my time.

It is not difficult to draw a direct inference from these experiences to the larger perspective of the world at large. That magnifying glass gave me absolute power over the world of the ant. If that feeling for power is tempting enough and is coupled with the right economic philosophy, dictators are born. The world is rife with trouble makers.

I had often thought that my experience with ants and the magnifying glass was a common one. In fact, almost every one I have ever talked to since is familiar with and guilty of the sun-induced cremation of ants. Not everyone carried the experiment to the back of their hand however, and that is the underlying problem. The world of the ant is a small thing -- inconsequential. Frying a few ants on the sidewalk did not materially impact my life in any way shape or form. I would never have cared about the ants had I not gone looking for them. Destroying one is a small thing unless it happens on the back of your hand. It is easy to be detached from your actions when the consequence occurs beneath your pain threshold. You cannot know the cruelty of the experience until you feel the thing yourself. If people who are driven by power were touched by the pain they inflict perhaps they would temper their choices. Perhaps not, but it is as good a wish as any.

Like the ant, we strive in our society to be industrious, maybe even entrepreneurial. In our society, industry is rewarded with things associated with a good life – money, house, family. The American dream is a house with “…a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

But, I would offer a simple observation of our less fortunate brothers in societies less fortunate than our own. I make this gender specific for a distinct reason; it is the young men who lack industry, but not testosterone. Who lack employment, but not desire for something better. Who lack that something better, but not the power to take it from someone who has it. Nomadic people, who have long been at wander, now demand homelands that are only valuable because they are occupied by someone else who was more industrious, or less oppressed, or more politically astute, or prays to the same God with a different name. The grass is always greener and the sand is always sand, and it always will be.

Karl Marx was depressed and sick, tired of the gloomy London weather. There was no better time to compose a “Communist Manifesto.” He was very smart and he was much disenfranchised. The flaw in his perception of his own reality obscured his personal pain. He found comfort in his utopian ideas, but was not sensitive to the acute discomfort of a restless soul. Had he been able to bring the lens into focus on the back of his hand he might have recognized his authentic truth. He was tied to this planet, but he did not want to be.

His ideas were thrown into the political primordial goo that was Russia and the “other” great experiment was underway. As a boot strapping economic system, communism works great. When you are holding the magnifying glass on an ant, you don’t have to worry about all those pesky ethical questions that plague the rest of us. Unfortunately, Machiavelli had it right; that “…power corrupts absolutely.” And communism is destroyed by the very forces that it was meant to supplant, the human spirit, and the overwhelming desire to make something of the gift of life we are given. The industry of the ant and of man is ultimately indomitable.

In these current times there are geopolitical areas of strife where there is basic conflict in religious practice, and more importantly in economic systems. Not the systems themselves necessarily, but the lack of efficacy in their market places. We are not seeing the traditional excuses for strife brought into play here; the usual oppression by the “haves” of the “have nots,” but the very real manifestation of the utter failure of whole societies (or a communities without traditional political boundaries) that are impotent to provide for their own future without diminishing someone else’s. When that is the case, there are a lot of young, idle men with magnifying glasses and no industry with which to focus their dreams. The suicide bomber is born.

It is difficult to distinguish the rightness of one cause versus another and history is certainly more kind to those who survive to write it. More is the pity that the bomber only knows the worth of his life measured in the death he inflicts on others.

I think it safe to say that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet for today’s suicide bomber. His character ponders a much larger life.

“To be, or not to be: --- that is the question: ---

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? --- To die: --- to sleep; ---

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, --- 'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, --- to sleep; ---

To sleep! perchance to dream: --- ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.”

It is easy, in the essence of my reflection, to think that the magnifying lens was the key to open Pandora’s Box and let loose all the maladies of the world. However, the story of Pandora is always told as though the key was useful for only that purpose; but keys both lock and unlock. So, to the question of the absolute power of the magnifying glass, I say we would all be better off to have one time felt its heat. If, with that knowledge there are some who are still willing to unlock the box, the only comfort for the rest of us is to know that Hope has been locked in the box as well.

A life Changed

They had come for a little fun in the sun and ended up just south of the Santa Monica pier. It was a family outing with the two kids playing in the waves and building sand castles. They blended in perfectly with the thousands of other people who had come for the very same reason. It was no special day. It was a day at the beach just like any other that this stretch of beach had seen.

The late afternoon sun shone brightly, sparkling off the water. The sand was still blindingly white where you could still see it around the beach towels. The younger kids just squinted, but those in their young teens and early twenties flirted behind their stylish sun glasses. A lot of the young men were well muscled and tanned; they had just come from their work outs at Gold’s Gym, a local fixture. The girls wore bikinis and hunted men. It was a cosmopolitan mix of locals and tourists all enjoying the day in their own fashion.

This was the original Muscle Beach before it migrated even farther south to Venice. Most of the equipment had been dismantled by the early sixties, but it was still was a gathering place for the local body builders and volleyball players. Those that didn’t come to play came to watch – “look” would probably be the more appropriate description. The volleyball courts were laid out, the nets up, and there was a healthy game of two man volleyball ongoing.

Next to the volleyball courts were a couple of rinsing showers and some residual recreational playground equipment. There were still three posts sprouting from the sand and between them, a couple bars set at different heights; a higher bar for pull ups, and a lower bar for swinging and climbing and general kid play.

The sand was hot and dry and extended for miles along the beach. It was populated with thousands of swimmers, beachcombers, and sun bathers. Children played in the sand and swam in the surf. Mothers watched their children from their beach towels. The lifeguards gazed intently. The waves relentlessly pounded the sand at the water’s edge. A gentle breeze swept off the ocean and kept the day from being unbearably hot. Occasionally, the coco-nutty smell of Coppertone was detectable in the air. The ambient noise level was high, filled with the sounds of volleyball, the wind and the surf.

She was hanging from the lower bar, her hair almost brushing the sand below. She was maybe 14 years old -- long, lanky and brown in the late afternoon sun. She wore a floral print bikini that was mostly green. She had long brown hair that hung from her head as she hung by her knees over the bar. Her arms and legs were slick with suntan oil. She had a pretty smile and not a care in the world.

She was by herself at the bars -- probably a tourist that came with her family who were busy elsewhere. She was swinging around the bar, holding on to it with the backs of her knees and her hands. She would spin a couple of times and then just hang there and intently watch the sand from her ungainly perch, brushing the sand now and again with her fingers.

She tired of this and reached up to grab the bar with her hands so she could lift her knees off the bar. The suntan oil that had served so well to grease the bar and let her spin now made her fingers so slippery that they lost their grasp midway through her dismount. She dropped straight down from the bar, head first onto the sand. Her world went dark.

There was an unsettling crack as her vertebrae were crushed beneath her own weight.

The little boy was following his mother and sibling back to the car after a day at the beach. His skinned glowed with sunburn and he was burdened only by his towel and his flip-flops. They walked single file. He was last in the line. He was a reluctant duckling -- there were more discoveries to be made in the sand. He glanced over just in time to see this older girl awkwardly falling on her head and crumple unconsciously to the sand.

His reaction was as visceral as hers. He was paralyzed. He could not move. He could not speak or yell for help. He simply stopped, stood, and waited for time to move again.

There was, at that instant, a loss of continuum. At that instant, the world shifted; paths crossed and paths diverged. The world closed in. Time stopped. A volley ball hung suspended in mid air. There was nothing but silence. No noise existed beyond the echo of that sickening sound. That small click could just as well have been a cannon blast at his ear. For a moment, there was nothing in the world that existed, but an eight year old observer, and a rag doll on the sand.

Time moves so slowly for eight year olds. Every second is a large slice of life when there has been so little of it measured out. The words formed in his brain, but there was no action. His paralysis was no less severe than hers would be. “She’s dead.” “I should call for help.” “I should run to her…but, to do what?” “I should find an adult.” “She’s hurt.” “Somebody help her!” “She broke her neck!” These thoughts kept coming until someone finally noticed her on the sand and very matter-of-factly scooped her up and carried her away.

Time began to move again when his mother called for him to hurry up. Her voice cut through the silence. Suddenly there was noise; the waves pounded on the shore; the breeze blew gently once again; there was life and sounds and volleyball. The sand was hot on his feat. His legs could move again. He looked ahead and his mother and sister had not gone too far. He hurried to catch up.

They climbed up the stairs and crossed the street to the car. They knocked the sand off their feet and put their towels in the trunk. As they opened the car doors, the heated air inside burst onto their faces. For this family, life returned to normal. Everything was at it should have been.

As they drove off, he was quiet in the car, listening to the sound of a siren cutting through the afternoon air. He watched through the back window as the ambulance turned south at the pier and drove onto the sand.

I regret that I could not have lived this day in the first person. Maybe I could have done something.


The church was abuzz. Dr. John was the brand new preacher from Chicago. I had spent the whole of my youthful life in middling Bakersfield, but Chicago was a big city I had heard about. In fact, Chicago was a city just about as big as they come. Sure there were other big cities, but I didn’t actually ever get to see anyone from them. Chicago was as far removed from Bakersfield as I thought anybody could get. People from Chicago must be different somehow. I was excited to get to see him, this man from Chicago, who had come to our town to be our preacher.

The retiring patriarch of the First Baptist Church was a gentle rotund man who apparently liked kids because he always offered me and my sister a smile and small conversation. He had silver hair and was called doctor. All doctors were not always as frighteningly scary as those of the medical variety I supposed. He would stand at the pulpit every Sunday and speak gently and softly for about four hours at a time, or so it seemed. The adults seemed to like him and managed to sit without complaint for the twenty minutes that those four hours took. The pews were hard and uncomfortable and we had to bear them for at least one of the two Sunday services. The other service we could go to Sunday school. My parents were very disappointed that he decided he needed to retire.

My sister and I were church rats, especially in the summer, when school didn't occupy our time. We were always around the church -- two services every Sunday and often during the week when Mom went down to practice the massive pipe organ. We played hide and seek in and out of the building and found things to do while Mom played. For the most part, we weren’t destructive and the staff mostly left us alone except for vicarious parenting touches. We were generally unrestrained as we wandered the halls and made our discoveries in new hiding places.

We loved to play outside when the Japanese gardener was working. He would ignore us most of the time and then surprise us when we least expected it with a handful of grass clippings or some cleverly folded leaves. He had his things to do and we had ours, but when our worlds intersected it was always a happy occasion. He didn’t appear to speak much English, but he did speak the language of kids.

Being around the church so much one just couldn’t help but absorb some theology along the way. Some people who grow up without religion in the home find solace and comfort when they adopt faith as a response to whatever in their lives causes pain. In their religion, they are reborn. Even those who practiced it regularly, but never got around to formalizing and internalizing the “God” concept can experience this. Some people just grow up in their faith and there never is a conversion process. With us, we just picked up whatever Godly advice was offered our way. Believe me, hanging around a church, there’s lots of spare theology to go around.

The cleaning lady was older, portly, with few teeth and a face inopportunely graced with colorless moles. One morning she was clearly upset. John F. Kennedy had just delivered his stirring race to the Moon speech the previous day:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish...."

She was opining that if God had wanted us on the Moon, he would have put us there. She harrumphed about the church kitchen pushing a mop and muttering to me and any other odd passerby that “We shouldn’t even try. People are going to get killed. God wants no part of that.”

Most learned preacher types will quickly offer the scriptures with authority on any subject with which they are presented whether it applies directly or not. A few are exegetic and will attempt to lead the argument through an authoritative and critical review of the text, leaving the precise interpretation to their student. Church janitors generally do neither, but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent the Word. They do work at a church after all.

As a budding builder of model planes, and, avid reader of comic books, I saw no technical challenges to getting someone on the moon. You just build a rocket ship and go! I saw nothing wrong with that. Rocket ships were exciting. It didn’t seem to be morally confusing, nor did I think that Jesus was particularly worried about us getting ourselves to the Moon. He seemed to be more worried that we memorize the names of the first few books of the Bible, or have Noah save all the animals, or Samson grow out his hair after having his eyes poked out. (This latter touch was probably put in the story just to keep young boys interested in studying the Bible.) David wasn’t much older than me when he went up against Goliath with a sling shot. These were the important things we had to learn at church…oh, and, how to fold leaves, and where all the good hiding places were. I pondered why God would care one way or the other if we just flew to the Moon. This simple pondering became one of the greater theological questions of my youth. My Japanese gardener friend offered no help on the topic.

Even as a kid, I knew the difference in stature between a cleaning lady and a preacher who was a doctor. There were very few similarities to begin with, but the most striking difference was that the preacher almost always wore a tie. It wasn’t ever clear that their theology differed much or even aligned with the Bible stories we learned about. It was hard to find the point of a lot of those Bible stories anyway.

It was my first glimpse of Dr. John that provided me with another important piece to the theological puzzle. My parents had brought us kids along to a backyard barbeque with a bunch of church folks to meet their new pastor. Although. as a kid, one doesn’t exactly qualify to “meet.” It was a typically late hot afternoon, midsummer in Bakersfield, where hot is the only thing that really happens. Dr. John wasn’t scheduled to show up until late so we made do with food and talk until the appointed hour.

In the evening twilight Dr. John eventually made an appearance on the steps at the back porch, the only elevated spot in the backyard. He made a point of shedding his navy blue suit coat in the 100 heat and rolling up the long sleeves of his starched white shirt. Even though he was from Chicago, he was astute enough to know it was politic to dress down at a barbecue and try to blend in with his new flock. He was framed by the screen door behind him. There was a yellow bug light above his right shoulder. He was tall, he had perfect dark hair, he was from Chicago, and he had a yellow halo. He spoke his welcome remarks with a clear baritone. Surely, God didn’t make finer preachers than this.

I have no recollection of his small talk because my attention was drawn to an errant June bug that was blinded and burned by the bare bulb above Dr. John’s head. This poor June bug bounced into the bulb and off it onto Dr. John’s shoulder. Dr. John unremarkably glanced at this pitiful bug and in one unhurried, sweeping motion, brushed it from his shoulder onto the pavement below. That normally would have been enough for most folks, but Dr. John literally took the next step and sent this small pathetic bug to meet his maker – our maker! In fairness, this was not done with spite, merely with casual dispatch. There was no pretext, no forethought, just a simple motion that only one with a keen interest in bugs would have noticed at all.

I was appalled at such an understated disregard for life by a man in so high a station as doctor preacher. What did he know that I did not? When did it get to be alright to squish a bug when you were minister? Oh, sure, I fried ants with a magnifying glass in my spare time, but this was different.This was a man who spoke of loving your neighbor as yourself, of following the Ten Commandments, of Jesus feeding the five thousand with loaves and fishes, of healing paralyzed men and leprous women, of raising Lazarus from the dead, and many other biblical subjects that I could not recall. These were all high and lofty things. Somehow it becomes a little hollow when even a minister cannot practice what he preaches. The dichotomy of life as it is taught and life as it is lived was brought into sharp focus under the sole of Dr. John’s shoe.


My mother got better as the result of her lessons and practice on the church organ and with the retirement of the existing pastor making the time ripe for a clean break, she decided to pursue opportunities as an organist at other churches. We became for periods of time, Congregationalist, Methodist, and finally Presbyterian. None of the preachers of any of these churches made quite the impression on me that the bug squashing Dr. John had -- nor did their janitors or gardeners.

Half a lifetime later, I was having a conversation with a young woman we had visiting with us fromSouth Africa. The dialogue eventually turned to matters of faith and it turned out that her greatest religious influence was her second grade Sunday school teacher. My own youthful experience apparently was not so unusual.

It may not surprise the casual reader to know that Sunday school teachers are not educated as theologians. Sunday school teachers are usually parents who have been cajoled, coerced or otherwise arm-twisted into voluntary servitude for 1 hour a week. There is no training required, only a willingness to herd little kids through a brief lesson and then related handicraft time, such as cutting little loaves or fishes out of paper, or painting flowers with their name in the middle. To most Sunday school teachers, there is probably no longer minute ever lived than the minute before the church service lets out and parents come to retrieve their little cherubs.

As one who has taught Sunday school, it is a frightening thought that the ten to fifteen minutes (if that!) we spend preparing our lessons could result in the single most influential moment that any kid could ever have in their religious upbringing. That we could hold so much sway over these young minds is absolutely staggering. When I consider just how hard it was to teach my own children when to say please and thank you, and get them to do it consistently, I marvel at my own inefficiency in teaching the important stuff.

If only we knew when one of those teaching moments was going to happen, perhaps we would be more prepared. If Dr. John had been more aware of his audience he might have thought more about his message. Perhaps Dr. John should have thought twice, but I doubt that he even had any regrets about stepping on that June bug. Both the Japanese gardener and the Bible were silent on the subject.

The O.D. Williams Award

Miss Elliot was not our regular teacher. She was a substitute which we had seen often over the course of years at Roosevelt elementary school. This lent her an aura of familiarity, but not real, teacher level credence. Our regular teacher had left class before the end of the first semester for some promotional opportunity and Miss Elliot dutifully stepped in to fill the role. She did fill the role of a substitute, but to my mind, she stopped short of the real thing. I suppose she was an adequate substitute teacher, but because she was a mere substitute teacher and not our regular one, she was lacking in the corporate history of the class and the personal histories of her charges. This was an important thing for us sixth graders.

At the end of class late one afternoon, she asked me to stay for a couple of minutes. Mr. Strong, our principal, had wandered in at the tail end of the day and he stayed too. That he had appeared in our classroom was not unusual; he was an active principal and we often saw him in various classrooms. (He even knew most of us by name, not an inconsiderable feat, given the size of our school.) Even so, it was unusual for me to be called up after class when the principal was there. I was taken off balance and bewildered.

Mr. Strong handed me an envelope in the presence of Miss Elliot. He said, “I hope you can make it,” and “Congratulations.” He shook my hand. Miss Elliot said nothing and smiled. Mr. Strong offered nothing more. I mumbled a thank you and went home. I suppose that this little ceremony was meant to make me feel good, but I certainly didn’t understand what it might be for. The envelope had the words, “O.D. Williams Dinner” printed on the outside, but that was meaningless to me. I had no idea what or who O.D. Williams was, nor why I apparently had been invited to his birthday dinner.

There were two tickets in the envelope, one for me and one for my father. I was at a loss to explain it to my parents. They asked, “Well, what did your teacher say?” I recounted the circumstances of the presentation and shrugged my shoulders. They hadn’t ever heard of O.D. Williams either. It was a complete mystery. There was nothing to do except go.

It turns out that it wasn’t O.D. Williams’ birthday after all. He had died some years earlier and left the legacy of this annual awards banquet. There were three boys from each elementary school in the district chosen to receive this recognition. They (I suppose, we) were the best and the brightest, chosen for our leadership as well as academic qualities, so said the dinner program. I have no idea how or why I was chosen, but I thought that my real teacher could have explained it to me, if he had been around. What should have been a great honor for a sixth grader was to me a mystery with darn few clues. I didn’t get straight “A”s. I didn’t win as student body president. My older sister didn’t even have my sixth grade teacher when she went through. My mom wasn’t president of the PTA.

Oddly, in all of the speeches that night, they didn’t really say what the dinner was about, as if it were a forgone conclusion and everybody already knew. I was hoping to get some positive reinforcement about why I was there, but it was as if everybody was already in on the joke. In fact, I remember being quite uncomfortable because some boys were asked to get up and speak to the hundred or so gathered there in the cafeteria. I was afraid they were going to call on me. I was sweating bullets. Surely, there had been some mistake. What should have been the crowning moment of my academic career was little more than a haze of befuddlement. What should have been a great boost to my self-esteem shook what little confidence I had. For what should have been a triumph to me, I felt betrayed by my teacher for his absence. It was as if everyone already knew how to swim, and I was being swept away.

For one man to care so much for the promise of youth and performance, Mr. Williams must be commended. He set in motion a wonderful forum to recognize that potential and launch the best and brightest of our youth on the path to realizing America’s dream. I am sure that in most cases, this is correctly perceived as the honor it truly is. In my case, with the very oddest of circumstances, it precipitated the very antithesis of leadership and confidence. Miss Elliot had no history, no personal relationship, nor any reason to choose me. The fact that she was unable to offer comment or feedback certainly spoke more strongly than words. Mr. Strong wrongfully assumed that I knew what this was about. The hosts of the dinner simply assumed that we knew why we were there. The dinner had no context for me except to give me a feeling of guilt for being wrongly invited.

The remaining few weeks at school were riddled with reminders of how now I must be possessed of great redeeming qualities that had somehow gone unnoticed before. I was chosen to represent the class at various functions. I was asked to lead a PTA meeting in opening with the Pledge of Allegiance. If I misbehaved in class I was scolded with a look that meant that I should have known better – that I should be setting an example and I was letting the class down. Teachers I didn’t know now said hello to me in the hallway. It was Hell. Summer vacation would be a welcome relief.

Actually, it was more like Dante’s hell. I was on the third ring and descending into seventh grade.

More than one 12 year old has succumbed to the cruel coincidence of puberty, new reading glasses, and seventh grade. Seventh grade was made for awkward social moments and serves in many cases to reinforce the natural differences in the herd. To the swift go the spoils and the slow get eaten alive.

An administrative screw up prevented the class assignments for some of the new junior high students. During the summer, while other kids on my block were getting their schedules, I didn’t get mine. My mom called the office, but she got nowhere. Apparently, the kids that were assigned to the GATE (gifted and Talented) program had not been mailed their schedules, but that was not the reason I was given for not getting mine. I had not been in the rapid learner program in elementary school and there was little reason for me to be moved up to it now despite my O.D. Williams award. I wasn’t even in the “blue” reading group. So it was quite a shock to me on my first day at junior high that my name was on the list posted to the door of Room 2, the GATE room.

Once again I was placed in a position of uncertainty. Surely another mistake had been made. I knew some of the kids in my class and they were smart. There were several feeder schools to my junior high so there were a lot of new kids too. Some of them were popular. I could just tell. Where did I fit in among all these smart, popular kids?

As philosophically dreadful as this all sounds, in junior high it still all gets sorted out at recess. In these first weeks of school, everybody finds their niche. To the swift go the spoils. Dave, with the Greek last name, was in the eighth grade and shaving already. The girls swooned when he walked by. He knew it. They knew it. Dave was pretty spoiled. Thirty years later he would be a fat, bald, dumpy insurance salesman, but right now, the world was his oyster. Alex, short for Alexandra, was filling out her training bra and looking pretty good. Any guy she talked to gave her his undivided attention. Sandy was Miss Prissy and never missed an answer on a quiz or an opportunity to raise her hand in class.

And then there were the others; the kids that never could figure it out. As lacking as I seemed to be in my own sense of belonging, there were many, many kids that were worse off than me. They were the ones that were afraid of their own shadow and no amount of coaxing could get them into the light of reason. Debby was like a doll that somebody had put together with pencils and leftover string. Her mom made her dress up for back to school night, in hose that bagged in rolls at her ankles. She probably only weighed forty pounds and nothing fit her quite right. Randy was always acting like a big shot, but failed all his tests and had to be removed to another classroom. There was plenty of room at the bottom of the food chain and it was filled with kids that really deserved to be there. I began to feel pretty good about where I was in this whole mess.

I wouldn’t say that junior high was the most fun I ever had, but it was nice to realize that despite my own discomfort at being twelve, and feeling out of place, there were lots of other twelve year olds that were more out of place than I was. I may never know why I was selected for the prestigious O.D. Williams Award, and I may never feel like I really deserved it, but I knew that I was good enough to survive junior high hiding somewhere in the great big hump of a bell curve.

I regret that I will never get to say a personal thank you to Mr. O.D. for my crisis in confidence.

Suicide Bombers

This news item appeared in a local paper in 2001:

HILLSDALE, N.Y. (April 18, 2001) -- A 38-year-old garage owner was killed and a 19-year-old employee injured March 27 when a steel radial truck tire they were inflating exploded in a possible "zipper" rupture, leaving a 23-inch gash in the tire’s sidewall.

George R. Stalker Sr., owner of George’s Auto & Truck Repair on Route 22 in Hillsdale, died en route to a nearby hospital after being struck in the chest and abdomen by the blast. An employee, John Zigon, who along with Mr. Stalker’s son, George Jr., was helping to inflate the tire, also suffered injuries to the face and leg but later was released from the hospital.

George Stalker Jr. said the explosion "sounded like a bomb" going off. He said air from the blast hurled Mr. Stalker from five to eight feet.” (

And this one in 2004:

On October 16, 2003, a 42-year-old male laborer (the victim) was fatally injured while inflating a front-end loader's tire mounted on a multi-piece rim. The loader's front left tire had gone completely flat preventing the loader from being moved out of the garage location where it was parked. The victim was sitting in a chair approximately 12 inches from the tire's sidewall while inflating the tire when increased air pressure caused the tire tube to explode. The explosion knocked the victim backwards. A tractor-trailer driver, waiting to access the garage, heard the explosion, found the victim on the ground, and informed the company of the incident. (

I could probably find dozens of examples of this type of accident if I wanted to look for them. It might be a little dramatic to say that it happens all the time, but it happens often enough. After all, there are tire assassins hiding under every vehicle. Death by any means is never a good thing, but death by tire is particularly heinous.

Inner tubes always seemed so harmless. We played with them in the swimming pool. We floated on them. We dove through them. They were easier to sit on than old used tires for tire swings. James, my neighbor friend across the street even had a giant tractor inner tube that we could sit in and be rolled around the yard. In the winter we would go up to the snow and slide down the hill on them. These things were all great fun. There was no malice in inner tubes. Yet, when confined inside a tire, they became surly.

I lived almost a mile from my elementary school and just under two miles from my junior high. We lived just close enough to avoid school bus coverage and just far enough away to dissuade us from walking any more often than we absolutely had to. (Although, there was a great taco stand on the foot route home from junior high. If your energy was flagging at the half way mark, you just might stop and buy a couple of taquitos for a quarter.) At the beginning of the sixth grade for my eleventh birthday, I received a deep metallic blue Italian ten speed bicycle, a considerable upgrade to my red, garage sale one speed that I had ridden for the previous couple of years. It was important to be equipped with the most modern of bicycles if one lived where I lived.

My parents were disinclined to drive us to school because it wasn’t particularly convenient, nor particularly necessary. Despite the horror stories we hear about in the news today, the late fifties and early sixties were still reflecting the innocence of their times. I was walking to school, or riding my bike by the second grade. Kids weren’t being assaulted on the street by all manner of rapists and pedophiles as is apparently happening in every city in America everyday by all accounts. Today’s parents think that they are fulfilling their parental duties and protecting their children by arranging car pools and driving them down the block to their schools. Car pools and the Gym are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s bridge parties and barbeques; the neighborhood social outlet.

My blue ten speed itself was a veritable playground. At the tender age of eleven I was just awakening to the world of model cars, erector sets and all things mechanical. It was fun to fiddle with the levers and twist the nuts on and off under the guise of being thorough in my cleaning. I practiced with my dad’s tools and dismantled that bike a couple of times over the course of the year. It probably didn’t need to be quite so clean. The bearings probably didn’t need to be repacked more than once a year. I probably didn’t need to spend every Saturday morning twiddling the spoke wrench to make my wheels perfectly straight. (Although, I have discovered in my own son, that what appears to be straight to an eleven year old, may not quite hold true to the practiced eye.)

It was a fine summer’s day. The morning chores were finished up. The lawn was mowed while there was still some cool to the day. Lunch had been served. The sun was bright, the skies clear, a perfect day for a ride. Who knows where? It was a day without regrets. There are no bad destinations when you’re eleven. The pavement beckoned. To have the wind in my face and nothing else to do until my stomach told me it was hungry again was just about the most perfect feeling there was.

I set up my tools and my bike in the front yard under the shade of our big Modesto Ash and proceeded to tweak and twiddle until I had achieved the perfect level of “tune.” The only thing left was to walk my bike down to the corner gas station to top off the tires and then I would be on my way. This was not an uncommon task for me. I frequently filled my tires at this station. They had a gas pump and service island off to the side of the garage where there was little auto traffic. It was normally a simple process to unscrew the valve cover, and apply the air hose. The most trouble I had ever had was finding the valve cover after I set it down.

I was eager to try out a tire gage I found in Dad’s tool box. “Feel” worked pretty well most of the time because rarely did I have a tire gage at my disposal. I was not going to rely just on “feel” this time. I put a little air in the tire until it felt rock hard…what I guessed was about 85 or 90 pounds of pressure -- as was printed on the outside of the tire. It may have been a little more firm than usual, but I would know in a minute after I checked it with the gage. The gage was lying on the payment behind me and I turned to pick it up. That’s when the attempt on my life was made.

The tire blew. I was squatting on the pavement, twisted around to pick the tire gage when the explosion occurred. My back was to the tire and the percussion knocked me off balance. My ears rang, and all around me was silence. I picked myself up to survey the damage…and, of course, looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to my supremely embarrassing moment. Eleven year olds only like calling attention to themselves in what they consider controlled moments. This was not one of those.

I was stunned. I could not hear anything. My tire was a shredded mess. I checked my fingers to make sure they were all there. I looked for blood. There was none. All clear. I continued to look for people to come to my rescue, but there was nobody interested. There was a guy in the open door of the tire shop across the street who glanced up from his work long enough to see me standing up on my own, then he went back to work. The gas station attendant was just laughing to himself. I observed these two men in total silence; cars passed on the street, but there was no sound.

I picked up my tire gage and rolled my bike back to the shade of that Modesto Ash. With every step, my hearing started to return with the sounds of the day. First a rush of white noise, then every sound began to sharpen up and finally returned to normal. I kept checking my fingers. I had just let go of that tire to find the tire gage. My face had been within inches. If I had rolled the wheel down the block by itself instead of the whole bicycle, I would have been straddling the tire while I was working on it. All these gory possibilities played again and again in my thoughts. I dropped the tire gage in the tool box and decided that I would have to test it out on another day. Perhaps today was not the best day for a bike ride after all.

The old adage goes, “Timing is everything.” This is as true in life as in murder attempts. If that sad tube had waited until I was well down the road, flying on the shadows of the afternoon sun, it could have thrown me from my bike onto unforgiving payment with an uncertain outcome. If its weakness had been slightly more pronounced, it could have exploded a second earlier and blown my fingers off or my eyes out of their sockets. It could have done worse as the news stories will attest. My story could have been added to the litany of tire homicides, but my tire missed and simply didn’t have the guts for another try.


[1956+Bel+Air.jpg] In the late 50’s and early 60’s cars were something to take for granted. The prosperity that was abundant after World War II manifest itself in gloriously ostentatious displays of societal wealth and material comforts for the new middle class. There was a proliferation of young men home from the war that demanded new housing in growing suburbs. There were automobiles with longer and longer tail fins driving down every street. While Henry Ford had done a lot to create affordable cars in the decades preceding the war, GM did him one better. Through the application of our new found production prowess and a fresh supply of youthful labor home from the war, GM became the largest car producer in the world in the 1950’s and 60’s. Everybody seemed to be in on this new world affluence. Cars not only seemed to be a symbol of wealth, but also of a general ebullience in our outlook on the future. Our family had two. We had one for the family and a pickup truck that my dad used to drive himself to work. I never thought much about them except that everybody appeared to have one or more. There were commercials on TV for them all the time. We sang about them: “See the USA, in a Chevrolet” went the catchy commercial ditty. Cars were parked at every curb. They were a part of who we were.

Some of my friends had older brothers or sisters who had their own cars. They used them for transportation, to look cool, and to get themselves into trouble mostly. Little Johnny was modestly famous because his older brother crashed the family car across town from the library where he had told his parents he was going. Burleigh Smith, our local newsman, was there for the event. He broadcast the story on the six o’clock news, complete with black and white film of the wrecked car and the two boys involved. Burleigh’s rich baritone voice over was dark and ominous as was demanded of any legitimate broadcast journalist of the day. Johnny’s parents were not happy about this. Johnny was famous because his older brother was on TV and that was pretty cool.

I had a toy car that was modeled on a 1955 Porsche that I put batteries in, flipped the on/off switch (cleverly disguised as the air vent on the back) and watched it bump into the legs of the kitchen table, bounce back, turn slightly and try again. However much fun this would appear to be it did not serve as endless hours of enjoyment to me. One set of batteries and it was retired into the toy box. It was still nice to have and it was comforting in some small degree to know it was there. I, however, did not live my youth dreaming of driving around in a Porsche, and I have successfully suppressed any desire to do so as an adult.

I also had a small collection of “match box” cars, small die cast models of cars that were painted smartly and had wheels that allowed them to roll. These were fun to push across the kitchen floor, but only good for rainy days, or when my friends came over and we were tired of looking for other trouble to get into. My favorite was a yellow tractor with an operable scoop bucket in front, but even that had serious limitations in the fun department. There was only so much debris or dust bunnies on the kitchen floor that was actually interesting enough to scoop up. Frankly, after a while, I think everyone gets tired of spitting on themselves or getting dizzy trying to make the requisite tractor noises.

I graduated to building plastic car models when plastic airplane models stopped providing a challenge. Airplanes just didn’t have enough parts to make model building fun. Model cars had the added incentive of more parts and the possibility of real paint instead of the World War II decals that came with the planes. So, for a year or so I tried my hand at building model cars until I realized that none of these model sets seemed to have parts that were very well made. They just didn’t fit quite right regardless of my ability to shave them down, build them up, or tweak them however they needed to be tweaked. It is a sad note that real car building really hasn’t come very far in solving this problem. Given real car builder’s notorious quality problems these days, I would bet most of their design engineers began their careers by building these very same plastic model kits. Their experience has served them well.

My older sister, like most California sixteen year olds in the sixties, was duly trained and practiced in the finer arts of driving. Sometime after she was granted a license, our dad brought home a 1956 Chevy. It was a Bel Air; a green and white two tone with three on the tree and a straight six. The interior was big enough to play croquet in. It was ten years old when we got it and the paint had a dull oxidized finished that a little rubbing compound and a lot of elbow grease was finally able to dispel. It sat at the curb, gleaming in the sun, and waited like a trusty steed – 3400 pounds of steel with 140 horses under the hood.

It wasn’t like Randy’s car. Randy was another older brother type who lived just down the block. He was a few years older and he had a little Corvair. It was about the same age as the Chevy, but much smaller and lighter. Randy was quite the mechanic and he tinkered with his car all the time. Rather than fuss with it out on the street, he would drive it up on his lawn under his shady mulberry tree and, with the help of his younger brother, turn it over on its side so he could work on the undercarriage standing up. In addition to this being a little unorthodox, it was also unwise and perhaps not the best for the car, but it suited Randy just fine. He actually survived to adulthood without a Corvair logo or door handle imprinted on his chest. Clearly, our Chevy just wasn’t a candidate for these kinds of mechanical tricks.

It also was not a convertible. Janine lived next door to Randy and was about the same age. She was pretty good looking for a neighbor. Her dad was a sign painter and they owned the block’s only convertible. I don’t know what kind of car it was. I don’t remember anything about it except that one day Janine came flying down the street with her hair blowing wild and free. The tunes on the radio died away as she parked in front of her house. She got out of the car and stepped into my dreams – a nice twist on the lyric to “You’re Sixteen.” The back of her dress was tucked neatly into her panty hose. That scene was indelibly etched in my mind and set up rather unreasonable expectations for convertibles in general. For a long time, I thought convertibles were pretty special.

My sister endured her inaugural test drive in the Bel Air with Dad as copilot. She was pronounced safe enough to be entrusted with the daily transport of herself and, reluctantly, me to high school. At first, it was just us two, then, as our parents gained confidence, we were allowed to pick up various friends along the way to school. Thus began the carefree and short lived days of cruisin’ around in the “bomb.”

The Bel Air had one drawback that we discovered only in the winter months. There was some sort of coolant leak into the defroster system. When the defroster was engaged the windshield immediately fogged up and no amount of fan would clean the windshield’s interior. The car became quite impossible to drive without my sister sticking her head out the window. This was not only inconvenient, but something our mother really frowned on. There were several loud discussions regarding possible courses of action, but there really was only one alternative. At Mother’s prompting, my dad sold our Bel Air. The days of “cool” were over.

It has been my regret that our ’56 Bel Air didn’t last long enough for me to get to drive it; to cruise the strip in it; to flirt with the girls in it; to drive it to the bowling alley. I could have been cool. “I coulda been a contender.”

No, a couple of years later, I ended up with a ’61 Comet, a sky blue, three on the tree, straight 6. It wasn’t quite the babe magnet that I envisioned the Bel Air to be. And, it wasn’t a convertible.

The Game of Kings

Tennis is a grand game. It is the game of Kings. When I was in junior high, my parents signed me up with the Parks and Recreation Department to take tennis lessons from one Esther Foley. She was a famous tennis player of some note I was told. She seemed pretty good, but I didn’t know how famous she could have been -- after all, this was the golden empire of the lower San Joaquin Valley, known for little else than onion, cotton, and oil fields, and perhaps Buck Owens. We did not produce tennis players.

That of course was very wrong. Dennis Ralston, a Bakersfield native, was a professional tennis player who was as successful a player as most of them get. After his playing career he became the very successful coach of the Davis Cup team for 14 years. He went to our church. He looked just like an ordinary guy. He acted like an ordinary guy. He was easily disassociated from fame. A little harder to ignore was a classmate of mine who when he graduated actually became a professional tennis player. Hank Pfister was ranked as high as number 19 in the world and stayed in the top 100 for several years. That may not sound like the greatest, but he made an awfully good living playing tennis. Dennis and Hank probably knew each other. If they ever knew me, they’ve forgotten it by now.

Esther Foley was athletic and her skin showed a deep history of a life in the sun. She was leathery and brown, well passed middle age, or so it seemed from the vantage of a 12 year old. She could hit the ball anywhere she wanted to. I was often reminded of Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield fence he was going to hit the ball over, except Mrs. Foley would have somebody mark a circle on the other side of the court and she would put a ball in it from the baseline. She could do that with her backhand too. She was pretty good.

There were perhaps 12 or 15 of us out there on the courts trying to learn the game, starting, of course, with the fundamentals: “Shake hands with the racquet.” “Keep your elbow straight.” And the ubiquitous to all sports, “Keep your eye on the ball!” We would all line up on the baseline and practice our strokes under the watchful eye of Esther Foley. She would watch us, correct us and provide demonstrations of how it was supposed to be done. She wanted to make sure we learned her sport and gave it the respect it deserved.

These lessons were a ticket into a whole new world -- a world of relationships and socialization that had hitherto been unknown to me. I could now make my own “play dates” as it were. I could find friends interested in playing tennis and we could go off on our own with a couple of racquets and a can of balls to the tennis courts. I moved up a rung on my dad’s social calendar as well. He typically played tennis on most Saturday mornings with his friends, but occasionally one of them couldn’t make it and I became a substitute for a doubles partner.

I met Byron in Junior high school. He became one of my best friends for the next several years as we grew up, into and out of adolescence. Byron was always the more sociable of the two of us. I admired his easy way with the popular kids, and yet he seemed content to spend the majority of his time with us ordinary folk. To my complete amazement he managed to slip in and out of both circles with absolute ease. I could never grasp the concept of how to do that successfully, so I admired his easy transitions and his ability to stay untainted by his association with the riffraff.

It just so happened that Byron played tennis too. We became tennis partners. We would trundle off on our bikes to play tennis at the local park and while away the summer time mornings or evenings with the grand game. He would win as often as I would, so the game stayed enjoyable for us both. We were like most of the kids who take up the game though. We lacked a passion to master it. We played at the local park, had fun, and enjoyed ourselves, without the crushing weight of carrying the game on our shoulders.

When we came home from college that first summer, common ground was first established on the tennis court. Since I didn’t play at all my freshman year, my skills were rough and rusty. Byron began to pull away from me as a player. He started to win more often and that not only diminished my enjoyment of the game, but also brought me to realize that with some things: just a little bit of practice won’t make up the deficit in a basic lack of skills. It is the compounded effect of many hours of practice spread out over long periods of time that reap the most benefit. I noticed too that Byron had taken up weight lifting and the change in his physique was strikingly noticeable. Using myself as the measuring stick, these were palpable, real changes; evidence of real differences in how people use their time to better themselves.

As a brand new tennis player, I would play singles with my dad every once and awhile. He was very frustrating to play against because he never played the way Mrs. Foley taught us to play. He was the king of junk tennis. His friends called him “Bas the Ace.” He would put so much spin on the ball it would bounce back over the net before I could get to it, or, it would bounce to the right or the left instead of straight. He was all flat footed and bent elbows.

It is true that in tennis, you have a much better chance to win if you hit the ball away from your opponent, but I just didn’t think that it was fair. In my mind, the object of the game was to hit the ball as many times as you could and keep it in play, not necessarily to win. I found that this philosophy was in basic conflict with the rest of my fellow man and tennis partners. Everybody wanted to win. I just wasn’t born with that “killer” instinct. To me, winning was not everything, participation was. Only half the participants can win, but everybody can play. I even wrote my personal essay on my college applications about that very topic.

That essay was good enough to get me into college, and while I was there, I thought that I could get good enough to beat Dad at tennis. This, of course, was after the first summer home when I saw the fruits of applied labor that Byron had exemplified. So, over the next year I played more tennis with better opponents and tried to increase my paltry basket of skills at the game. Winning did not come easily, but after a little more practice, I tended to make fewer mistakes and my opponents more. But, there is more to the game (any game for that matter) than just the basic skill set. Not only do you have to want to win, you have to want to feel good about it.

Although my skills eventually increased, my operating philosophy had not. I still enjoyed hitting the ball to my opponent instead of away. I almost always avoided the “kill” shot. Overhead slams were mostly for practice, not for putting the ball away. I steeled myself against these thoughts when I readied myself for the big match with Dad. I was going to win. I was going to beat him at his own game; spin the ball off the court, hit it where he ain’t, stuff him with my serve. At least, this was my strategic design for the big match.

Now to be perfectly honest, my father did not know of my plan. He did not know that all the tennis matches we played over the years had put me in such a contrary state of mind. He nearly always won when we played together and we both seemed to have a good time, so I’m sure that he thought nothing of it. I, on the other hand, was in turmoil about these circumstances. I didn’t like losing when it happened all the time and I knew that it didn’t have to be that way. I knew I could beat him. I just needed to prove it to myself. This time, I was prepared to win. I just wasn’t prepared for what that meant.

We were on the tennis courts one summer evening at Beale Park. I was full of confidence with my new found skills and I won every point for the first four games. With each additional point won I could see my dad thinking twice as hard for every shot. He was trying for extra spin on every hit; putting all his strength into returns. There were glimpses of panic. I saw fallibility where I had never seen it before. Where once I saw confidence, I saw real concern. I saw a man who was seeing his relationship with his son changing. It was a haunting realization for me that with a victory here, our relationship would change forever. It would never be the same. In his eyes, I would not be his little boy; I would be an athletic rival. I could see it now with every stroke of the ball. I would be on equal footing for all things physical, all things manly. Ours was a relationship that was not built on winning and losing. It was much more subtle than that. And, winning was never about the score.

Dad won the first set 7-5, and the second 6-4. I had proven that my skills could serve me well. I hit every shot exactly where I wanted the ball to go. That’s all I needed. As hard as it was to accept, I thought that my dad needed this victory more than I did. Sometimes, just holding on to what you have is more important than what you have to gain with a win.

My dad never knew what the stakes were in this game. I am sure that he thought nothing of it. It had been just another tennis match with his son and the outcome was just the same. I have not ever spoken to him about this pivotal tennis match. We didn’t play much after that. My tennis skills have all but disappeared with time. I doubt that he would even remember an otherwise unremarkable warm summer evening where we played tennis at Beale Park.

Dad won the match but, there were two victors that day. There was nothing to regret.

Life and Death

My Aunt Cleeda had cystic fibrosis. We were not close. She lived with my grandmother and I saw them a couple of times a year as I was growing up. Less often as I found my own way in the world. As a youngster, whenever I saw her, I was anxious about her, well, not her exactly, but my own inadequacy at not being able to interact with her very well. But, it was always fun to go visit Grandma and Aunt Cleeda.

Little kids are always afraid of things that they don’t understand and I certainly didn’t understand her very well. She was an adult and required respect. She could make herself understood (better than I could I thought), but she could not talk. She had a wheel chair that helped her get from place to place, but she would rather get out of it and sit in a regular chair whenever she could. She looked amused when my sister and I played in her wheelchair. She could walk with help and my dad would always help her and take her on walks when we would visit. I usually went along, but was not able to contribute to the process – and, it was a process.

She was one of seven surviving children born to my grandparents. This generation was born in the decade beginning before World War I and extending into the 1920’s. There is no doubt that life was hard raising a bunch of kids in the Great Depression. My grandma was a strong woman who made things happen. Like a lot of good men in that era, her husband was able and willing, but that was seldom enough to sustain a family living in the dust bowl of the early thirties. As a family they moved from Missouri, to Nebraska, to Colorado, chasing work. My grandfather died from some respiratory disorder sometime long before I was born, felled by a virus as unrelenting as the economy.

Despite the uncertainty of their day to day existence, they were not so unlike so many other families in the 1930’s. They were uprooted and displaced by the fortunes of time and place, tossed about by the economic winds that swirled and eddied in the great plains of the Midwest. As these conditions persisted, this family found a way to exist and thrive. The children were all productive, cheerful and despite their circumstance were all well educated.

Of course, Cleeda had special problems that may have prevented her from participating to the same degree as the other kids, but otherwise she was treated no differently. Her brothers showed her no mercy. They were unmerciful in neither their demands, nor their good natured chiding and Cleeda gave as good as she took. She was not stupid, just trapped in a body that wouldn’t cooperate. She was expected to do her chores just like everybody else, but, just like everybody else she got to play just as hard.

The brothers all used to wear denim overalls, those one piece pants with bib and suspenders. Cleeda used to latch onto the straps in back of one of the boy’s overalls and she became his shadow. She would run behind in tow, laughing all the while. Her smile was undeniable and ever present. It was good to be a child in this family, even one with cystic fibrosis.

When Cleeda began to creep into my consciousness, I was a kid and she was middle aged --whatever that was, perhaps a year younger than my dad. Her smile had faded and been changed by her disease and the weight of her years into a grimace of sorts. It was not frightening by any means, but it lacked the innocence of youth and bespoke of a life of broken promises. Despite whatever hardships she endured in her life, there was no malice in her smile. Once I began to understand her, I realized that her sense of humor was rich and clever. Her laughter was always bountiful and genuine. She lived with my grandmother and they were strongly bound, the way only a mother and daughter could be.

Cleeda’s older sister had married a farmer and stayed close. In the tradition of her era she had a multitude of children. All of my cousins were comfortable and welcomed in my grandmother’s home. They all grew up with Cleeda and introduced her to their friends. As they grew up and got married, Cleeda’s circle simply widened. She was just like a second mom to many of them. When Cleeda scolded you, you knew exactly what you had done wrong and you never did it again in her presence. When other people around you were laughing, but you felt like you didn’t get something, you could bet that you had just become the butt of one of Cleeda’s jokes.

Grandma and Cleeda lived across the street from a small two room church. For many summers we held our family reunions there in the social hall. Our reunions were not particularly interesting if you weren’t a family member, but often they were visited by the pastor and neighbors who were invested in these two women, and because of them, us.

In our summer visits, I would often have time to roam the neighborhood and play with whomever was out. They were always friendly to those who visited Grandma’s house. Visitors were always “good people.” One of the neighbor boys, Verne, with whom I played marbles in the fine dirt in front of the garage across the street, eventually became the pastor of that little church.

There came a time when Grandma at the age of almost 80 could no longer take care of Cleeda. It was a sad day when Cleeda had to go live in an assisted living environment. It was a small facility, not too far from Grandma’s, but since Grandma didn’t drive she was dependent on others for help to visit. There were always enough friends, relatives and church family willing to volunteer for the drive over. Nobody wanted to miss a visit with Cleeda.

Cleeda was the perfect resident at her new home. They enjoyed her sense of humor and willingness to help to whatever extent she could. They could sense her optimism in life and yet her frustration with its constraints.

It was a tradition in my father’s family that each sibling would write a letter to the family and mail it to the next sibling. That brother or sister would write their letter and include it in the envelope along with the others and send it along the line. When the envelope came around again, the previous contribution was replaced by the newest. These family letters were the source of great entertainment to Cleeda and the rest of the home. Everybody who had time was invited to sit with Cleeda and to read her the family letters again. As they learned about her family, they learned about us.

Grandma just couldn’t take care of the house anymore. After 4 or 5 years on her own, Cleeda was joined by Grandma at the same facility. Through a stroke of luck, fate, or God’s almighty hand, they were once again united as roommates.

I hail from hardy stock. Grandma lived until just a few months shy of her hundredth birthday; Aunt Cleeda was in her eighties when she died. All her siblings survived well into their eighties and nineties – except for the one smoker in the bunch. He was the youngest and the first to go.

Time catches up to all of us. There is no one strong enough to resist it. One by one her siblings, my aunts and uncles, began to die off. With the youngest, the smoker, Cleeda was saddened not only by the fact that his choice to smoke had shortened his life, but that she could not go in his place. When Grandma died, Cleeda’s cry was “Why not me?” When her older sister died, again she asked, “Why not me?” Cleeda was 80 when death knocked at her door and she welcomed him in.

Cleeda was not obsessed with death. If anything, she was obsessed with life. Her buoyancy in the face of the very real hurdles that beset her in just trying to live her own moments drew people to her like no other thing could. In life Cleeda was a true winner, in death she was unbound.

Her funeral was stately. The church was full. Most remarkably, her assisted care facility had to hire extra nurses that day because the entire staff came to her service. Verne officiated. Since he had grown up with Cleeda as his second mom his remarks were particularly poignant. If anything, I regret that she could not have experienced the freedom in life that she found in death.

The Great Depression shaped a great many lives. Albert Brumley was born to a cotton farmer in Oklahoma in 1905. He wrote this tune in 1929 and it became widely popular almost immediately as a Baptist Hymn. It was sung in churches and front porches from one corner of our nation to the next. It is an optimistic song about life after death that echoed the emotional despair that many in the depression were trying to escape. Cleeda had a special affinity for this hymn. It was sung at her funeral.

I'll Fly Away

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, O Glory, I'll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I'll fly away.

When the shadows of this life have flown,
I'll fly away.
Like a bird thrown, driven by the storm,
I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, O Glory, I'll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I'll fly away.

Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away.
To a land where joy shall never end,
I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, O Glory,
I'll fly
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye,
I'll fly away.

And so she did.

The Legacy

It was our custom to take a big vacation every two years. My Dad’s business had been good to him in 1964 and we planned the biggest vacation ever. We flew first class to Detroit, bought a car right out of the showroom. We piled into our brand new metallic blue Chevrolet Malibu replete with that extra special new car smell and drove on to Niagara Falls, New York City, Washington D.C., and home across eleven states and almost 3000 thousand miles of Interstate 80. Wasn’t life grand! This was America, land of opportunity, home of the brave, land of the free – a place where you can literally drive for days and everybody still speaks English.

Back in the early sixties, air travel was not all that common for middle class folks. It was common, however, for passengers to dress nicely and look pretty (in homage to the respect that the airline industry so richly deserved?). That’s what my parents said, so that’s what we did. My mother dispensed with the gloves that she normally wore to tour big cities like San Francisco and New York City, but I had to wear a tie just to go on an airplane. Times have changed.

Because we flew first class, my sister and I got our run of the first class section. Our parents kept us separated however, because we had shown some tendency to misbehave on the ride in to the airport. The seats were big and wide and comfortable, but view was outside and that’s were I wanted to look. These big, wide seats were not conducive to comfortable viewing out the little oval windows that were probably about a third the size of airplane windows today. When the sun was just right I could make out the reflection of it off the cars traveling on roads six miles beneath me.

In one of my adventures up and down the aisle I tripped over the foot of the man who was sitting in the seat across from me. As I was mumbling my apology, He laughed and said that it didn’t matter, that he tripped over it all the time, that it was a wooden leg. Well, that wasn’t particularly comforting to me. I looked at that leg for the longest time trying to imagine how it must look under the shoe, sock, and pant leg. After I decided that it simply wasn’t polite anymore, I traded seats with my sister who was across the aisle ostensibly so I could look out that side of the plane.

This itinerary marked the quintessential family trip for junior high and high school bound children as my sister and I were. We would get exposed to all those historical places that we had been learning about. We would see the Lincoln Memorial. We would tour our nation’s capitol. My parents arranged with our congressman for us to get tickets to the gallery so we could observe congress in action. Even from the eyes of an eleven year old, there is no action in congress.

We would get to see New York City, the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in the world) and go see a show at the Radio City Music Hall, the home of the Rockettes. We saw a movie there, The Chalk Garden starring Deborah Kerr, pronounced “car.” I have no clue what it was about, but the Rockettes were pretty.

I can tell you now that our nation’s public buildings are great places to play Hide and Seek. Much to the chagrin of our mother who thought, and perhaps rightly so, that these monuments and places should command reverence, my sister and I hid behind pillars and marble columns at every turn. We were able to sneak about and hide in the very cracks of history. It was a glorious time to be an American.

Standing at the banks of the Potomac near Mount Vernon, where it was rumored that George Washington threw a silver dollar across its great expanse, I could see the other side, but there was no way anybody was going to throw a silver dollar that far…nor waste a silver dollar even trying. The Potomac is nearly a mile wide at this point. People who spread these rumors are idiots.

The very official sounding Bureau of International Expositions, or Bureau des Expositions as it is known in France, is the governing body that oversees and sanctions World’s Fairs. This organization has been producing World’s Fairs since the first one in London in 1851. Very often these fairs produce some byproduct of lasting value that later become attractions in and of themselves. The Crystal Palace from this first World’s Fair was moved to a permanent location and stood proudly, and profitably, until destroyed by fire 85 years later. The French Exposition Universelle in 1889 produced the Eiffel Tower. The Space Needle in Seattle was also born from a world’s fair in 1962.

In 1964 it was New York City’s turn and because they refused to follow the explicit rules of the august body of Exposition Bureau-crats this was an unsanctioned world’s fair. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I bet it has something to do with money. No matter. They had the fair anyway and it was a smashing success. Damn the French.

We went to that World’s Fair. As Californians, we had been to Disneyland many times, and this fair seemed to have a very Disney like feel to it. As it turns out, this exposition was used by Disney as a part of a proof of concept for Disney’s Epcot Center that was later developed in Orlando, Florida. Many of the same rides and pavilions made the big move to Florida. In fact, in one Disney exhibit, there was a video phone that you could use to talk to and see the people you were talking to at Disneyland three thousand miles away. There were kids there just like me. That was big stuff in 1964.

That site of the world’s fair in Flushing, New York, is now the home of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament. Most, if not all of the buildings are gone, but I enjoy seeing the sculpture of the globe at its entrance whenever the Open is telecast. Interestingly, the French don’t often fair well in this tournament.

After all this great east coast touring, we piled into the car (pronounced “car” and spelled that way too) and headed west. West is a pretty broad term when you are on the east coast. There are lots of choices and destinations, but as long as we stayed on Interstate 80 there was a good chance that, at the end of forever, we eventually would end up in California. Most of our relatives had long abandoned states to the right of California, except for one branch of the family in Colorado. That was our next immediate destination.

Any of you who have made such a trip by automobile know that the human animal can only drive so fast and only so far in a single day. I don’t care how pretty the scenery is, 50 or 60 hours in one car with just me and my sister in the back seat is as close to Hell as I ever want to be. There are only so many songs you can sing; only so much radio you can listen to; only so much “auto bingo” or license plate games you can play, before the novelty disappears and morphs into overt hostility. Mom can only say, “Keep your hands to yourself,” so many times. Sleeping all day just isn’t an option when another motel room is what you have to face at the end of the day.

This experience or ones similar to it play out across America every summer.

Eleven years later, comparing notes in one of those “getting to know you” conversations with Anne, the woman that was eventually to be my wife, I learned that her family had taken almost identical trips the same summers that my family had. We were both in Seattle in ’62. We had both toured the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia that same year where her father had captured her having a fit on 8 millimeter film. (This evidence has proved an interesting, entertaining and useful artifact in later years.) We were both in Washington D.C. at the same time and we were both in New York City at the World’s Fair.

Not every World’s Fair leaves a legacy. I suppose that one could point to Disney’s Epcot Center as the sole institution that carries the banner of this World’s Fair, but in only twenty years Epcot has lost its focus and is aging without grace. It will probably not stand the test of time. It is interesting to note that the only enduring byproduct of this World’s Fair was not a Crystal Palace, a Space Needle or an Eiffel Tower, but a comparably smallish, unassuming sculpture that dresses the entrance to a tennis club for the richer New York elite. It is but a small reminder.

It is also possible that in the crowded frenzy of people attending that fair that Anne and I met -- long before we really met to fall in love. It is possible that we were eating at the same pavilion. It is possible that we rode the same rides, sat in the same seat, or perhaps waited next to each other in the same line. We could have shared a smile. Perhaps her father and mine exchanged polite “excuse me’s” as they herded their families passed each other. All these things are possible – not very likely, but possible. Despite the unlikely nature of such an occurrence, I would like to think that the one enduring byproduct of that World’s Fair is my marriage to Anne.

Not that it matters, but we can connect the dots of time and place. This we know. We can recognize the similarities in family values. We can identify points of contention that thrived between her and her siblings and me and mine as we spent the interminable hours in the back seats of our cars. We can trace the routes our cars took, what we saw, and what we experienced, the games we played to while away the time. We can do all of this, but we can never know. I regret the fact that we can never know.

The Antikythera Mechanism

My latest regret is the sad fact that politics and pride get in the way of scientific inquiry much too often. Appearing in the newspaper this last Sunday was the report of the ancient Greek find, the Anitkythera Mechanism. While I read this article with interest, I don’t know why it just appeared in the paper because this device was actually brought to the surface from 200 feet below the sea in 1901. After decades of study, it is believed to be the most technologically advanced device originating from antiquity. The shipwreck it was found with dates from approximately 200 years B.C. Before this device was dredged from the depths, it was thought that such technological sophistication did not exist at that time, nor could have existed, for another thousand years.

The purpose of this “mechanism,” which is probably the most accurate adjective used to describe it, is unknown, but thought to be some sort of Astrolabe, or computing device to help determine the position of the sun, moon, and stars. Some scientists even hold out for it to predict the placement of planets in the sky. It has fine gears and comes complete with inscriptions which supposedly have been translated to a large extent, but due to scientific politics, have not been released. We do not know what the inscriptions mean. That’s a little like me telling you that sure I can transcribe ancient Greek, but I’m just not going to tell you what I know. I remember being in the third grade, but I don’t remember any of us wearing lab coats and pretending to be serious.

Apparently these ancient Greeks had enough time to smelt a little bronze in between their Socratic chats. Plato had been dead about 200 years when this thing was supposedly made, but there were probably enough people standing around the poor fellow who was working on it asking, “How’s it going?” “What’cha doin’ now?” and perhaps, “Hey, when you finish grinding those cogs, do you want to get a slurpy?”

I also find it curious that the zeal with which “Science” wants to promote the relatively ancient nature of this device ignores probably one of astronomy’s most important people. Ol’ Ptolemy (as those of us on a last name basis like to refer to him) was a most important figure in ancient times. He was a mathematician AND enjoyed whiling away his midnight hours gazing at the heavens. By the way, glass had not yet been invented, so there were no telescopes. Ptolemy had unusually acute vision and he was able to discern the rings around Saturn with his naked eye. He is widely considered the father of the math of modern astronomy. According to the timeline ascribed to this device, it went down with the ship some 100 years before Ptolemy was born. That alone is not enough to discredit its provenance however, because there was another damn Greek named Hipparchus who did work out the orbits of the sun and the moon that the more modern renaissance Italians found so troubling with Copernicus and later with that hooligan, Galileo, who insisted that the Sun, not the earth was the center of the Universe. (Church people just didn’t have anything better to do than gossip even then.)

I guess that I am just troubled with the contemporary state of ancient technology to be able to produce such a mechanism at that point in time. I have an alternate theory. It is not particularly special, but it makes more sense than just assuming that this incredible device existed before incredible devices were supposed to exist. The Greeks were pretty bright folks, and they might have enjoyed pretty good weather and a delectable wine now and again after a hard day’s work putting up the Parthenon, but there are limits to just how magical these people were.

It is pretty well known that the Greeks were pretty good at math even way back when. Plato and Archimedes and even Hipparchus were versed on basic trigonometry. They could work out triangles, ellipses, and circles. Hipparchus, an insomniac, was pretty good at looking at the big objects in the night sky, but other than mapping some of the points of light he could see, he did not recognize that some of them moved faster than others across the seasonal sky. He wasn’t too big on planets. This, to the modern observer, is troubling.

Archimedes was pretty sophisticated by even today’s standards. His work on hydrostatics, math and physics were ground breaking. He made “Eureka” famous. He made advanced engines of war, which no doubt aided Greek society in maintaining its lifestyle on the backs on the conquered, but even his thoughts and inventions were bound by the technology available at the time. The same was true of Da Vinci a thousand years later. He invented the helicopter, but he couldn’t build one.

It turns out that not only does one have to understand the math, which is no small feat in and of itself, but one also has to know how to apply it, coupled with the astute observation of the night skies, all without the use of a telescope. These factors alone are not sufficient to produce the Antikythera mechanism. No, one also has to be a metallurgist and a craftsman with the requisite knowledge to work the metal on the bench. It also would behoove the craftsman to work during daylight hours to put enough light on the subject to see the fine cuts that must be made to produce the cogs. Work all day, watch all night. Hmmm. Now, it could be said that this is a specious argument because the night sky does not change all that rapidly and the weather is mostly temperate in that neck of the woods. It would be easy to doze off in the midst of night gazing to leave one fresh for a day at the work bench. Thank God, somebody else is growing food somewhere or fishing because I don’t think that Hipparchus’ patrons patronized everybody.

But suppose that Hipparchus just observed and set down his specifications for the craftsman to work to. Wouldn’t then the craftsman also have to have a depth of understanding of the mathematical principles that Hipparchus used to explain his theories? That means a somewhat formal education, but wouldn’t a metallurgist first learn his craft working on horseshoes and weapons? There were those pesky wars that Archimedes kept designing and building his war engines for. .No time for extra study there. Not everyone could read and write, let alone understand trigonometry.

It is a simple observation that holds true even today, that not everybody can be a brain surgeon, or a watch maker. Some people are disposed to work with their hands, some with the bodies, some work the land, some sit and think. It is clear that Hipparchus was one of the later and though his predisposition was to the stars, his eyes were not sufficiently acute to produce the work that Ptolemy was able to some three hundred years later. Ptolemys just don’t come along everyday.

My theory is less likely in some respects, but makes a lot more sense in others. Those Greeks and later the Romans were always shipping themselves from one island to the next, and from one or the other of the newest community to be absorbed by the Roman Empire. This went on for fifteen hundred years. Trade was robust and shipping traffic in the Mediterranean was heavy throughout this period. They were not always very careful on these voyages and perhaps this little artifact slipped overboard while in transit some long time after the Cilician pirates had laid waste to the Kytherian ship that settled at that same spot on the ocean floor that our curious mechanism came to rest. Stranger coincidences have been known to occur.

It sure makes more sense than the prideful Greek scientists today who shelter us from the knowledge of the transcriptions and claim that their forefathers were even better than we all know them to be. This is a pretty poor attempt to make up for a glorious past that shines no more. The next thing you know, some Russian will pop up and claim that it was in the great Soviet Union that the Parthenon was first put together and later shipped to Greece in the first millennium. Such is the pride of nations.

Gerald R. Ford

I have been tickled this week by the commentary surrounding the passing of our 38th President, Gerald R. Ford. It seems that Ford was well respected and, “the right man for the times.” The eulogists praised his goodness and honesty. They tried to right the common misconception of his renown clumsiness by painting him as a student athlete instead of the “deer in the headlights” Ford that Chevy Chase made us all know and love on Saturday Night Live. Almost all the political pundits say that his pardon of Richard Nixon cost him the rightful election to the presidency, but I bet Chevy Chase can take the real credit for creating for the electorate the picture of a man who could not walk and chew gum at the same time. Impressions were important to us Baby Boomers. Nixon was important too, but all politicians are fickle, and we expect that, but we don’t expect to be represented by someone who can’t seem to walk straight.

The Ford presidency will be known for just two things: 1) the pardon of Richard Nixon, and 2) the fact that Ford was the only man who served in, but who was never elected to the two highest offices in the land. As a member of the House, he first replaced Spiro Agnew as Vice President, then Richard Nixon as President.

There is no purpose served by rehashing a 30 year old decision -- that was made in the context of the immediacy of the times. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the pardon of Richard Nixon was a carefully considered decision made by the only man who could have done it. The result and aftermath were his burden to bear. By the way, the constitution allowed him to serve his country in exactly that manner. The fact that you or I may disagree with Ford's decision for whatever reasons can be debated until the cows come home, but history has already taken its course. The constitutional elements have never been questioned, either in the definition of the crimes that led to the moment, nor in their ultimate legal resolution in his pardon.

Oddly enough, this pardon was considered the pivot point in Mr. Ford’s Presidency. I say oddly enough because the pardon came at about the 30 day mark. There were about two years left in this presidential term. The Campaign for the Whitehouse had already begun.

Ford was a man beyond reproach who was roundly cheered by both houses of congress upon his nomination to the office. He was widely respected for his clear thinking and fundamental sense of right and wrong. He had many friends on Capitol Hill in both political parties, and he earned them all with his unwillingness to compromise on the issues that mattered and his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. In his own inestimable opinion, he felt that though the country had been significantly damaged by Nixon during his tenure, there was nothing to be gained by a lynching party and/or impeachment proceedings which would monopolize the country’s time and resources, and distract it from the healing process that he felt was needed.

The announcement of the pardon was accompanied by a collective, loud, ear-popping sigh that was heard on both sides of the aisle. It was not well received. There were accusations of a “secret” deal; that Gerry Ford had sold his soul to the devil to gain the presidency; that there was no honesty in politics anymore. With it, the door was opened for Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer and governor of Georgia, to sweep the republicans out of office and a new regime of democrats to take the helm. The election was close, but Ford could never overcome the pardon. Jimmy Carter rode to office on a wave of change.

Thirty two years later, upon the occasion of his death, the pundits come out of the woodwork again to surface their current views of Nixon’s Pardon and the impact it had on the subsequent election and Gerald Ford’s Presidency. Some of the commentary has actually attempted to make the connection between Ford’s time in the office and the current republican administration. Sighting various members of the Nixon administration that still survive in government service today, they try to tie them to failed policies of Viet Nam, or Nixon’s dishonesty, or some other tenuous linkages to the current events of today.

I find this sort of thing, not only distasteful, but also hardly useful in analyzing anything of relevance. To those who, after more than thirty years are still unable to "get over it" and who are still looking for boogie men in the closets of Whitehouse administrations, they have indeed squandered the one opportunity Ford gave this country of ours. It seems that the only lesson they have taken from history is that just about half the voting public appear to be idiots every election we have no matter who wins...that does not bode well for the "moderation, bipartisanship, and national humility" of which almost all politicians of both stripes speak today. Party lines are being painted firmly with a most indelicate brush.

My one regret in the passing of Gerald R. Ford is that his penchant for personal thought on which direction “forward” was, is not more of an example to our current crop of politicians, who seem to be more partisan than I’ve seen in all my 50+ years and nine different administrations.

The Vortex Engine

I was in my spa contemplating the smoke that was intermingling with the steam and rising into the night sky. It was a rare and quiet moment of hedonistic pleasure -- me, a good cigar and a glass of fine cabernet. I don’t have cigars often; in fact, practically never. This was my fourth in 55 years, but my second in the last six months and, truth be told, I could make cigars a habit if I was in need of another bad one. Thinking of nothing in particular and everything at once, with no problems to solve and a perfectly healthy outlook on the weekend ahead, I watched the smoke diffuse the starlight in an otherwise crystalline night.

I thought fleetingly of a portion of my ill spent youth when I was fascinated with smoke and fire and all its many forms. I dabbled in fireworks, firecrackers, firepower, and fires in general with probably a little too much interest and much too little self control. Before I caught up to the more scientific, fire-through-chemistry approach discovered by the Chinese a thousand years before, I had already nearly burned down the house. (I unwittingly set the weeds in the side yard to smoldering with a magnifying glass and left to do other more pressing things in the house. My mom asked me to empty the trash and on my way out to the trash cans, I spotted the side yard totally engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the hose was handy.) I doused the flames and spent the rest of the afternoon digging up the evidence so that I would not get into trouble. My parents praised me for my industriousness and unprompted gardening.

I finally gave my pyrotechnics up for good when my last great experiment released energy in such abundance that I thought I might be unable to ever hear again. It occurred to me that I was fortunate to have escaped with all my limbs and eyes intact with little noticeable damage to my immediate surroundings. I was a senior in high school and I was very, very lucky. This I know. At that moment I realized the extent of the grace afforded me. In fact, that may have been the last risky behavior I’ve indulged in prior to this cigar.

In raising my boys, there have been many times when their own curiosity has led them to question, and me to provide anecdotes of my adventures, but I have always steered these inquiring conversations away from the how and why and into more acceptable pursuits. If they die prematurely of a foolishness of their own making, it will not be because I gave them the means, the wherewithal and the desire to reproduce some grand effect that their father had once told them about or showed them how to do. I would rather they worry about The Red Ripe Strawberry and The Big Hungry Bear, or Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

The sad fact is that this avoidance of all things combustible has left them without a single demonstration of one of the greatest marvels of modern science, the vortex engine – and its best known product, the smoke ring. The confluence of time, place and stillness never seemed to be perfect and their mother always seemed to have something else much more worthwhile for us to do. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Although stillness is not a strict requirement, it helps when the weather cooperates.

Weather is a fickle thing. Normally, air becomes cooler as the elevation increases. As the air is heated by the earth’s surface it generally rises and displaces cooler air that falls downward only to be heated by the earth’s surface once again. This cooling effect is very gradual and typically very consistent. There are occasions when this phenomenon gets disrupted, usually when there is some variation in humidity in the atmosphere above us which causes the air to hold its heat and become warmer than the air that is rising from the surface. This is called an inversion layer.

There are a view times in the seasonal cycle that you can witness the dramatic nature of a temperature inversion and its impact on the weather. The most common occurrence of this is a fog bank that nestles into a depression between two hills. We’ve all seen this. It is less common to see inversions when they help create clouds.

I can remember days in the late spring when the rice farmers to the north would burn their bestubbled fields after the harvest. From my vantage point the sky was big and the horizon stretched as far as I could see. The farmlands checker boarded their way up the state. On rare days, I could see a few fields set ablaze and watch the smoke rise until it hit a very definite inversion layer. At that point, the grayish smoke splayed out horizontally or curled downward, and above, the humidity allowed puffy pure white clouds to form over the burn. The sight was pretty dramatic. I’ve also seen it on a larger scale when I’ve been close to a forest fire when the conditions were just perfect. I think that the effect goes unnoticed for most people because the scientific curiosity is just not there to observe that the smoke and the clouds differ in texture, color and nature.

Generally, inversions can occur at essentially any altitude, but they are only observable when there is some catalyzing event that betrays their presence, like fog or a large fire that causes some atmospheric turmoil. Occasionally, such events do not have to be on a large scale at all.

As I soaked in the spa I attempted to blow a smoke ring or two as if the height of decadence and self satisfaction was measured in such things. I’ve seen people do it with such precision and with a certain smugness that in other circumstances I would find contemptible. (But, since it was just me, I let that feeling pass.) I am a hopeless smoke ring blower. My attempts were rather buffoonish and it was not a skill in which I intended to invest any time or effort perfecting. But, I did manage in those moments to transport myself back to a time when I was the king of smoke rings.

It was summer of my fifteenth year. It was a hot afternoon – too hot to play inside. I had become the proud owner of a simple cardboard box. How I came to own the box is not important. Not big enough to crawl into. A little too big to just jump on and destroy. Not too small to ignore. It was just perfect.

I set the box in the middle of the backyard. I cut about a 4 inch hole into the top of the box. I spirited some matches from the kitchen and lit the edge of the hole to flame. I blew the fire out and the cardboard began to smolder and smoke as cardboard does. The box filled with smoke. By tapping the sides of the box I could force perfect smoke rings out of the hole. By pounding the sides of the box I could send smoke rings speeding into the sky. I could send smoke rings through other smoke rings, which, if you haven’t ever done this, is one the most interesting physical phenomenon you will ever witness. The slower ring actually expands to allow the faster ring through.

So fascinated by the output of my vortex engine, I failed to notice that just above the house sat an inversion layer. The smoke rings rose to a certain height and then either stayed there or began to settle back down to the ground. After about 20 minutes of smoke ring play my backyard was thick with the fog of smoke. It had not dissipated even a little bit before my mother looked out the back window and was shocked and frightened at the sight of the backyard full of smoke. She started yelling indiscriminately for me. To her eyes, I was lost and must be found before she called the fire department. That motherly instinct saved us a call to the fire department as I quickly emerged from my reverie and from behind my smoke screen. I tried to quiet the situation by stating that I had everything under control. My mother argued this fact with me in no uncertain terms, thus putting an end to my experimentation for the time being.

When the smoke finally cleared, my vortex engine privileges had been revoked. I was cautioned again not to play with matches. I was lectured on responsibility. I was restricted to the more tame and mundane uses of my time. I was thoroughly chastised, but secretly unrepentant.

Even though I do not apologize for providing my sons with an upbringing devoid of recreational fire, I do regret that I could not have them duplicate the youthful joy that comes with doing really stupid things and surviving. On second thought, my guess is that they have plenty of those adventures stored up on their own without my contributions. I am sure that these will slowly be revealed when there is no longer a consequence in their retelling. Which of these experiences will they shield from their own children? I guess we’ll never know.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

I learned how to untie knots at the foot of my father. I remember sitting with Dad around the kitchen table trying to untie a knotted string. Dad had this magnifying visor and these great big grownup fingers and they just weren’t delicate enough for this kind of job. I knew I could do it when I got the chance. Dad wasn’t eager to give up those chances very often, but I finally got to give it a try. He even let me try on the visor, but I could see well enough without it. My fingers were just right. I was very good at knot untying.

I thought from that point forward that if I just watched my fingers everyday, I could keep them from becoming those great big indelicate grownup fingers that my Dad had. I was diligent. I checked them frequently and they were always small and capable of great miracles with knots. I even practiced knotting and untying knots often just to be sure. When you’re small, the world is a big place, diversions are many and I soon forgot my mission.

I remembered a year or so later, but it was too late. The damage had been done. I was shocked that my fingers had grown big and clumsy. Today, knots could take over the world if they were so inclined.

My father was always quiet, much like he raised his son. He liked puzzling out problems, but not necessarily step by step. It was always more important to get to a solution than it was to work it from beginning to end. He once told me of how when he was a kid, he had made a whistle out of a willow branch by separating the bark from the underlying wood and notching it just so. Naturally, I implored him to make one for me; to show me how to make a whistle out of a willow branch. The problem was that there were no willow trees anywhere handy, so we used the next best thing -- a neighbor’s mulberry tree. I guess that some trees are interchangeable when it comes to whistles.My dad was good with that sort of thing. Not the whistle making necessarily, but the getting along with the wrong tree when the right one is not handy.

And so it was with my math homework. When I was trying to learn math, my dad was a very frustrating tutor. He always had an answer that matched the problem in the book, but he could not put the steps together so that I could comprehend them. I grew to understand later that it was because he actually left most of the problem solving steps out. It was that willow versus mulberry thing; for him, it was the whistle that was important, not the tree. This was very frustrating and confusing to a youngster who got more points for trying to solve problems the “right” way than for getting the answer right. Some Math teachers are funny that way.

The one area where my dad didn’t cut corners was tools. He always seemed to have the right tool for the right job. Our garage was full of odd shaped, double hinged, levered, spring loaded, wooden handled, metal thingamajigs for performing the most obscure tasks. Perhaps my favorite was this special tool. I have included a picture here so that you too can marvel at the wondrous things man hath wrought.

It has heft. It looks like it should be familiar, but on closer examination, it really makes no sense.What appear to be handles are really too skinny and small to apply much pressure without bruising the palm of your hands. The ends of the handles have odd shapes to them and the pincher type device on the other end really doesn’t pinch anything.

I watched my dad use it once. I marveled at its ingenuity. Those among you who are auto mechanics may have intimate knowledge of its usefulness. This tool has no practical function outside the world of automobile brakes. It can’t be used it for anything else, and if I had never seen it in action, I couldn’t even imagine how to hold it, let alone use it.

Well after I was grown, I once found one in the middle of the street. I stopped the car. I had to have it. I knew exactly what it was and exactly what it was for. It made me feel youthful and helpful inside, just like when I was sitting at my father’s knee watching him work on the car. I have kept this tool in my tool box for 20 years now even though new technology has long rendered it moot for my cars. All my children have enquired about it through the years. After I explain a little about what it is for, I say wisely and with a tinge of nostalgia that it is helpful to have the right tool for the right job. My children nod thoughtfully and then go back to play on their computer.

Occasionally, my boys would come to me for help with a project or with homework and I would try to be helpful. For homework, I immediately referred them to their mother. I realized early on that I had been taught well. My impatience with logical progression and providing the foundational steps for problem solving are virtually non-existent just like my dad. I am nearly useless as a teacher of all things academic requiring more than two steps. This is something that I fully recognized and acknowledged in myself in my early twenties, and to overcome these weaknesses, I married well. My wife is exceptional at this sort of thing and managed to be very helpful to our children’s succession up the scholastic ladder.

But, projects were different. I always considered any project a good opportunity for bonding, where we worked one on one to build something. I would always start these projects with a little dissertation on needing and knowing how to use the right tools. My boys were usually tolerant of these discussions, but I could sometimes detect some eye rolling impatience while they humored me. I made sure that they knew how to use the tools properly and safely, then I got out of the way. Of course, I remained in near proximity to answer questions and work out the problems that would arise, but otherwise let them discover the satisfaction in the results of their own work.

From the perspective of my inexperienced youth, I learned the lesson of the tools. I had always thought that my dad used the right tool for the right job, but with the wisdom found in my own maturity, I keep thinking about that mulberry tree whistle and working on my math homework. I know that the most important thing for my dad was to solve the problem, not how to solve it right way or the most elegantly. I suspect that my father may have cheated on his tool axiom once or twice and not let on. I know I have.

The Fountain of Youth

Computers and the internet are wonderful things. The combination allows me to pay my bills on line, without benefit of stamps. It allows me to listen to practically any radio station I want, anywhere I want. I could watch movies from the comfort of my desk chair if I was so inclined. I can get news updated instantly. I can trade stocks, or obsess about my retirement funds. I can manage my bank accounts. I can write books, create music, or play games. I can send greeting cards. I can order food, books, toys and flowers to be delivered right to my doorstep. I could live the entire rest of my life without seeing the sun shine or interacting with real people. Sad to say, there are some social misfits who live just like this. I am just happy that it can help me do my taxes. It allows me to compute my taxes and pay them without actually putting pencil to paper. It is a miracle of modern technology.

TurboTax is God’s gift to man. For those of us who do our own taxes, TurboTax makes life much easier. Thanks to TurboTax, what used to take me hours, now only takes me hours, but fewer of them to be sure. And, at the end of my session, I push the button and away my taxes go, flying wonderfully through the ether, to my grateful government. I don’t think about them again until next year. It is as good as magic.

Thanks to the fine reputation of TurboTax and its flawless ability to add and subtract my dollars accurately, its clearly printed forms, and swift transportation of my dollars from my possession to theirs, my government believes my numbers and hasn’t ever deemed it appropriate to question me further. This may not be entirely accurate, but it appears as though, thanks to TurboTax, there is less government in my life. Thanks to TurboTax, I am a grateful tax payer. Also thanks to TurboTax and a quirky by product of governmental efficiency, I am, according to my Uncle Sam, a year younger than I know myself to be.

It is a curious thing. I can account for almost all of my 55 years. I have to go through all of my fingers and toes more than a couple of times, but I know for a fact that I am as old as I am. I have documents to prove it. Separate documents that prove it time and time again – my birth certificate, my social security card, my passport, my baby book, photographic records, birth announcements all proclaiming the same thing. And yet, my government wouldn’t believe me. In fact, my government wouldn’t even let me pay my taxes because they wouldn’t believe me.

To pay taxes online, one of the checks in place to prove that you are the person you say you are is for the IRS to quickly match your birth date and your social security number with their records. If you can’t pass this simple test, you must be someone else, and therefore, your money is not acceptable. It is an odd concept that our government would actually refuse money, but that’s what they do. If they would just absolve me of my obligation to pay when they refuse to take my money, then I would really be on to something.

As it turns out, in order for the IRS to leap into the 21st century and allow us poor taxpayers the privilege of paying our taxes without actually writing a check, not only did they have to convert all of their paper records to digital ones, but so did the rest of the government. The Social Security Administration, the keeper of all things social and orderly, did not have completely computerized records until a scant 6 or 7 years ago. The paper record of my social security number may have been accurate, but it was not digital. It was not “in the computer.”

I can imagine in the great halls of government, in huge offices devoid of character and even cubicles, sat thousands of government workers sitting at keyboards, inputting every known piece of data that the government uses to identify us as us. In the deafening rush to digitize the hundreds of millions of social security numbers our government maintains on us (and the identity thieves who steal them), they somehow managed to incorrectly input my birthday. With the single stroke of a single keyboard key, in the midst of billions of keystrokes, my birth year was changed. I lost a year just like that.

Not that losing a year is any big deal. Women and men have been shaving from or adding to their stated ages since time immemorial. Jack Benny was perpetually thirty-nine. College kids routinely carry fake identification cards to add a year or two so they can drink with the majority. Liz Taylor has never been as old as she is right now, and never will be as long as she is still alive. I would have been content to live it all over again if I could, but the fact that I lost my ability to pay my taxes on line was too steep a price to pay for my regained youth.

For several years I was able to pay my taxes on line and then, suddenly I wasn’t. There was an event that occurred in the hallowed halls of government that changed the world for me and I didn’t even know it. Then, in the year of the time warp, I tried to enjoy one of the unique pleasures afforded me by TurboTax and my good humor came to an abrupt halt. The clock stopped. Hell had frozen over. The government had refused my money -- money that was rightfully theirs!

I try to keep my dealings with the government at arms length. I never do in person what I can do through the mail or over the internet. There are occasions and circumstances that sometimes require a personal touch. Oddly enough, people who might steal my social security information are not required to prove that they are not me, but the burden of proving that I am who I say I am and when I actually became that person, requires a full blown assault on our government.

I used the internet to download the appropriate forms. I made a personal trip to the Social Security Administration office to recapture my lost year. I was very disturbed at the depth of depersonalization at the very agency that is supposed to maintain and safeguard our most personal information. This is the sight that confronted me as I walked in the front door: A grocery store sized room with a central waiting area. Surrounding the back half of the waiting area were walk up windows. Each window opened up on a desk with a government analyst sitting patiently ready to give us all the personal care that we deserve and expect from our government. The entire facility was painted with a depressing pastel green color that has been so popular in jails and elementary schools because of its known calming effect. The waiting area was populated with a hundred or so cheap metal framed chairs all facing the door I came in. Many of these chairs were occupied with not a cross section of society as you might expect, but only the dregs of society, suspicious newcomers that spoke little English, and the ancient. There were no businessmen, or women, like myself. There was no art on the walls; there was nothing to look at except for an electronic display hung a couple inches from the ceiling against the front wall. Just inside the front door was a ticket machine with color coded, sequentially numbered tickets labeled A through D. I decoded the instructions, grabbed my ticket and proceeded to blend in.

An interesting addition to the office was the guard seated at the desk behind the ticket machine. He was well armed with an automatic handgun and the haughty air of authority. He was a take charge kind of fellow who deflected questions from the uninitiated about where to go and what to do by pointing to the first window under the sign that said “Information.” Apparently, answering questions was not in his job description. He felt that the sign attached to the ticket machine was informative enough. It said, “Take a Number” in four different languages.

It was a little disconcerting to note the weapon on our guard’s belt. The Social Security office is not a hotbed for controversy or job stress. It is not the Post Office for goodness sakes. The majority of people that actually go to the Social Security office are there so that our government can simply give them money. What the Social Security office does when not safeguarding our birthdates and social security numbers is to freely dispense our tax money. Having the office guarded by someone with a gun struck me as rather pointless. One needs to just ask for the money and they’ll give it up without a fight. There is no need for foul play, or nefarious acts. Leave that to congress.

My number was D97. The number displayed on the electronic display was A5. I settled into my seat. Even with a bureaucracy as efficient as this one, there was going to be a wait involved.

When at last I was called to a window, my special analyst was very helpful. I had previously filled out my change form. I had with me all the necessary documents that indisputably set my birth in the correct year. My analyst was able to see the error of the computer’s ways and make it right. I made her show me the change so that I knew it had happened. All of this transpired within a couple of minutes. I felt suddenly more wise and another year older.

It is bittersweet that I had to give up that extra year of my life. The government giveth and the government taketh away. One faceless bureaucrat changed my life with a single keystroke and another unwound the clock. With my taxes, I pay for both of them to do whatever it is that they do. I regret that my tax money paid for the one and I regret that I couldn’t pay the other one more. I don’t regret that I must wait almost a whole year to pay my taxes again.

Casualties of the Revolution

There are few instances in life where we can recognize a specific event, action, product, new idea, or thing that could ultimately change the world. It seems that the best we can do is to look back over the past and connect the dots from then to now. Patterns emerge and sometimes there are precipitating events that we can recognize, but by and large, it is a landscape that consists of gradual reform, not distinct pivot points. In the world of politics we see a lot of reformers, but few revolutionaries. It is only when these events foment such radical change that it cannot be ignored any longer that we are swept into the history books as giving witness to a meaningful time and a place. History books are full of examples of revolutionaries, but in fact, they are few in number, and even radical change takes time and the use of an historical lens to bring it into focus. When the change doesn’t involve war or politics it is even harder to pinpoint an origin. But, it always starts with an idea.

Karl Marx had the idea, Lenin had the hammer. Rarely do time, place, and management expertise conspire to aid in the adoption of a radical idea. Even more rare is the individual who has a revolutionary idea and the expertise to capitalize on it. There have been many more good ideas thought up than implemented. Of course, there were people like Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Edison who created new ideas, or managed existing ideas and made them real, but again these are very few and very far between. Only their unique vision propelled them forward in the face of skepticism and failure and an inert society.

There is money to be made for the person who turns lead into gold, but for most good ideas there must be the confluence of special circumstances to make them a reality. First and foremost, there has to recognition of the practicality of a good idea in the first place. Alexander Fleming is given credit for the discovery of Penicillin, but he was not the first to have his bacterial cultures decimated by contaminating mold, only the first to think that this finding was important. Every good idea needs a champion to recognize its worth and potential contribution.

Second, the idea has to be able to be applied in a way that saves time or money, or creates ways to save time or make money. It has to be useful to society in which it is introduced. Chinese invented black powder and used it solely for entertainment, but later, it was adopted as gun powder by societies that were much more aggressive and saw the competitive advantage of guns over swords.

Third, it must be widely acknowledged and adopted by society. The third ingredient is not a given. Many a good idea has floundered when somebody was not ready to adopt it, and many a non-adopter left behind. The Decca Recording Company turned down the Beatles just before they became the biggest selling music group of all time. Thomas Watson, then Chairman of IBM, was sure that then entire market for computers consisted of 4 or 5 clients. This is why the idea that is owned by persistent champion is so important to its ultimate acceptance.

Junior high and high school science projects are typically born less of creativity than of the more tried and true. They are not particularly good places to find new ideas. Budding student scientists strive to duplicate the experiments that they find in their science texts, on the internet, or from the nostalgic reminiscences of their parents. If you have ever been to a local school science fair you have seen them all laid out on tables – the practical expression of the hypotheses printed in block letters on the threefold poster board background. Explanatory text printed with photos of the experiment in progress pasted to the board, and then the results in real life sitting in the foreground. These are proud moments for parents as they stand among the bean plants, copper wire, and solar panels, but few would think that any one of these experiments will change their lives.

The projects in any science fair represents literally hundreds of hours of family dynamics played out at the dinner table and on whatever work surfaces are handy as parents and kids work to bring this kind of study to life. These projects tend to be cooperative efforts, either with the parents helping their children gather material, or ideas, or framing the hypothesis, or more routinely arguing about exactly who needs to stay out of who’s way. There has been more than one mother who had to make a place in the refrigerator for a bean plant that had to be kept in the dark and cold, perhaps another on the kitchen counter to bask in the window light.

My family was no different. My sister conducted two of these science projects. The first was a routine Bean Plant Experiment that encroached on the family’s health and cleanliness by placing a potted plant in the refrigerator for a week or two of dark and cold. (A by product of her experiment was to actually prove that the refrigerator light goes out when the door is closed.) A couple of years later, she did a second science project that actually changed the world as we know it today. The year was 1966.

The project was unassuming, but only slightly more clever than routine. It was not the idea that ended up being used outright, but the catalyst for what ultimately came about. Her experiment was on thermocouples. A simple experiment that measured the fluctuation in voltage when a couple of lengths of dissimilar metal wires were twisted together and their joints either heated or cooled, or in the absence of external heating or cooling, when a current was applied to the device the points would become hot or cold and the differences could be measured.

Thermocouples had been around a long time. My dad came up with the idea for her, but it was Kathy’s project and she researched and put it together. It was fun to do and fairly unique in that not many kids ever thought to test a thermocouple hypothesis. She earned an A.

The revolution began innocently enough. Soon after the science fair, Dad’s boyhood friend, Max, came to visit. Like my dad, Max was an entrepreneur. A self-sufficient product of the depression who knew hard work and was familiar with his own bootstraps. Max was in the Hospital identification band business. He manufactured, sold and distributed ID bands for hospital patients and was sensitive to the needs of the modern medical profession.

They got to talking as old friends do; comparing notes on family happenings and Kathy’s science project came up. Max had never seen a thermocouple work before and in a few minutes they were recreating Kathy’s science project in the kitchen. Max wondered aloud if they could use this technology for taking temperatures. Hospitals and Doctors waste a lot of time waiting for temperatures to registers on glass thermometers. There was a little spark between the two of them as they talked. Sure, this would be possible. How fast could they get a thermocouple to register a correct temperature? They experimented with wire, matches, and ice to test their theories. With their crude apparatus, they determined that it would take less than a minute. Max got more excited. He started to think this through. That shaved a least a couple of minutes off the use of a glass thermometer. It would still have to be used under the tongue. (That was familiar.) It also meant that the device would have to be stored in an antiseptic solution, wiped down, or used with some sort of disposable sleeve. It would also require more storage space than traditional thermometers. This could create certain problems with waste, supplies, office routine, perhaps creating barriers to adoption that might be difficult to overcome.

They had latched onto this idea with a fury akin to a dog on a pant cuff. They just couldn’t let go of its potential. They sat down at the kitchen table and kicked around more thoughts. Is under the tongue the only place you could get an accurate temperature reading? Why? Because it is close to an artery? Was there any other location they could they use? How about, one of them postulated, in the ear? It is close to the carotid artery; there was little air movement and the temperature had to be fairly constant in the ear. But, how could they do that? A thermocouple required close contact to bring it to the temperature of its surroundings. It would take too long and be too uncomfortable for the patient. No, a thermocouple would not work. “How about an infrared reader,” my dad suggested. The years of his subscription to Popular Mechanics was paying off.

Max was even more curious. They had nothing to test this theorem. We didn’t just happen to have any infrared devices lying around the house to experiment with. But, Dad pulled out the encyclopedia and old copies of Popular Science and they studied at the kitchen table until they were both satisfied that this was the way to go. It would revolutionize modern medicine. They would build a thermometer that looked just like an otoscope. It would look into the patient’s ear and within a few seconds register the patient’s temperature. Doctors were already used to using such a device to diagnose earaches. No antiseptics would be required. There was no potential for cross patient contamination. The temperature would more accurate than any glass thermometer because the patient’s reading could be controlled. Kids could talk all they wanted to and their reading would still be correct. It would work for animals too! That would open up the veterinary market to their product. Their concept was perfect, but was it practical?

Max had the contacts and they both had a little seed money. Dad had his own business to manage and Max was already in the medical supply business. It was only logical that Max take point. Max took the concept around to some engineering firms and found one that could make it happen. He negotiated design and development contracts with the company, and by late 1971, I held in my hand a battery powered infrared thermometer – the very first of its kind. It was revolutionary.

Of course, there was still work to be done. It needed a few refinements and lots of testing to insure accuracy. It needed be smarter so that it would not be “blinded” by very high temperatures. It needed to have some internal controls so that it would only measure temperatures within a certain range instead of anything and everything. Just a little more tweaking before it was ready for market.

As any of you who have worked on building a house know, that after the foundation, the walls and roofing are the first things to go up and the house looks nearly finished. The fact is that it’s only about 10 percent done and all the finish works takes the other 90 percent of the effort. Product development is no different, and the “tweaking” that was required to get this infrared thermometer to market was enormous. The partnership soon ran out of money. Venture capital was not nearly as easy to find in the early 1970’s as it was in the boom years of high tech and the internet in the mid to late ‘90s.

Without money, the miracle product began to slip away. In a shortsighted effort to preserve their small capital stake, Max had not patented the idea -- he had let the engineering company do that. The rights to the product reverted to them when Max and Dad were not able to meet the demand for payment for the additional required work. He had not consulted an attorney to guide him through the business processes and his own legal rights. Perhaps, Max let his optimism blind him to the finer points of practicality. Whatever the circumstances, the story turned ugly, hopeless, despairing, and Max ended up taking his own life. Perhaps there were other things going on in Max’s life that I was not privy to, but seeing his excitement around the kitchen table that one afternoon, this would have been enough.

The infrared thermometer languished for another twelve years before someone again recognized the potential of a good idea. In 1983, this thermometer finally hit the medical market with an enormous impact. It helped revolutionize health care in the United States and the world. Six million units sold almost overnight. Within months, they were in every doctor’s office, every hospital, every grocery and drugstore. In the last twenty years the cost and size have both been driven down so that this product is nearly ubiquitous with many more millions of units sold. Even the idea they had originally rejected, the thermocouple thermometer, made its way into the market place, and has been even more successful because the technology it was based on was not so demanding. Fortunes made, fortunes lost.

Revolutions always begin with indefatigable promise and they are what we make them. Someone must pay the piper as the harbinger of change to come. Sometimes there is a good idea. Sometimes we recognize it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can do something about it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it catches on like wildfire, sometimes it doesn’t. But, one thing is true; revolutions are not without their casualties. If we are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, we can see it all happen and be satisfied. I regret only that Max could not sit around our kitchen table one more time to start another one.

The Economics of War

With the growing worldly unrest, the clear provocations that Hitler was foisting on Europe, and with the country still enjoying its “splendid isolation,” President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. With a single stroke of his pen he created the country's first peacetime draft and formally established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency.

With this act, Congress had declared that an “adequate armed strength must be achieved and maintained to insure the security of this Nation.” Secondly, that in a “free society the obligations and privileges of serving in the armed forces and the reserve components thereof should be shared generally, in accordance with a system of selection which is fair and just, and which is consistent with the maintenance of an effective national economy.” The wheels were set in motion for the United States to defend the world against the opponents of civilized thought, life and humanity.

This Act, more commonly known as The Military Selective Service Act created the obligation of a man of eighteen years to register for subsequent conscription into military service. Thirty years after Roosevelt affixed his signature to the law, I affixed mine to my draft card, but I was far from ready to defend anybody from anything. The most immanent threat to my life was the pending acceptance to college.

A few months before FDR signed this act into law, and half a world away, Hitler completed the “Great Polish Defensive War” and began the occupation of Poland along with the Soviet Union. Mass expulsions started in various parts of the country. Some 100,000 Jews were expelled from Polish territory during this period. In fact, more than 50 Jewish communities were deported wholly or in part.

Germany pursued its own official policy of "Selection" in which able-bodied men, aged 14 and over, were sent to labor camps which had been established in the Lublin and Kielce areas of Poland. Women, children, and old men were deported in sealed freight cars and covered cattle cars. Upon arrival at their destination, some of the deportees were dead, others nearly frozen, or otherwise seriously ill. The survivors were bereft of clothing, food, and money. A few found refuge with relatives or friends, but most of them perished even before subsequent mass deportations began.

A young boy about 11 stood with his mother in the falling snow, herded by the occupying forces with several hundred others onto the train into several cattle cars. He was burdened with all that he owned in a tattered carpetbag and his mother’s suitcase. There was no room to sit as he stared through the slats. It was bitterly cold and the snow drifted horizontally as the train slid out of the station.

My first year of eligibility for the draft was 1971. The Selective Service Department randomly picked birthdays and draft order. We were all assigned a number from 1 to 366, indicating the order in which we would be called up. There was no escape for those born in a leap year. In 1969 all numbers through 195 were called. In 1970, numbers through 125 were called to serve. Vietnam had an insatiable hunger for young lives, and kept demanding more and more of them. In our continuing role as the defender of the free world and defender against all things evil, our draft boards very efficiently processed enough human capital to fill coffers and coffins alike.

The war for the hearts and minds of America’s stout hearted boys had long been lost. The sails that had billowed under the threat of the Communists and the Domino Theory were now empty of the wind that had propelled them. The country had no more fortitude for war. The war machine may not have been ready to stop, but we had swallowed the poison pill by turning the guns on our own children at Kent State where four young students died in a clash with the National Guard and nine more were wounded.

I was assigned my lottery number in August of 1971. It was 104. Even though I had obtained a student deferment to complete my college degree, it was quite disquieting to contemplate a life quite different from my current one. While I loved my country and all the freedoms that I enjoyed as one of its fortunate citizens, Vietnam had turned the country’s stomach to acid. Defending freedom just didn’t have the same patriotic ring to it that it did when I was in the fourth grade when the whole mess was just beginning...nor many years earlier when that young Pole stepped onto the train.

In the fall of my junior year, Vietnam was finally beginning to wind down. Richard M. Nixon had been swept once again into office this time with a “Secret Plan” to end the war. With his democratic opponent winning only the state of Massachusetts, this was taken by the administration as a clear mandate to end the war in a manner of its own choosing.

The drafting had slowed. Fewer and fewer numbers were being called each month. By mid December the draft board had called up to 95 and there were rumors that there would not be an additional call. I watched the news as intently as I could to try and ferret out the hidden meanings in the reports about the war and the draft. On December 21st I wrote a letter to my local draft office releasing my student deferment. I waited out that last week in December, fully eligible to be called to war and heavily burdened with even the merest possibility of it.

The world somehow became a brighter place when in a couple of weeks I received my new draft designation from the Selective Service. Spring came just a little bit earlier that winter. I had ridden out my eligibility requirement and was now truly free to breathe again – to buckle down and find new purpose. I changed my major to economics and launched into a course of study that would get me out of college at the end of four years. At least this war was behind me.

There were still young men dying in Vietnam, and this would continue for two more years -- until April 1975, the official end to the war. Perhaps not the worst of it, but at least the bulk of the dying was done. This had been the prolonged struggle between nationalist forces attempting to unify the country of Vietnam under a communist government and first the French and then the United States (with the aid of the South Vietnamese) attempting to prevent the spread of communism. There was a tremendous cost in human life and re-assimilation into society for those who fought and survived.

A memorial to this war was dedicated in November of 1984. The social cost of warring against an ideology is almost insufferable. Many survivors today are still troubled by their experience and only marginally functional contributors and participants in their own life. The Vietnam War Memorial lists the dead. Men still cry at its walls.

In the spring I took a class in Macroeconomics, a branch of economics that deals with the performance, structure, and behavior of national economies. Its purpose is to seek to understand the interplay of aggregate trends in an economy with particular focus on national income, unemployment, inflation, investment, international trade and international finance. A course in macroeconomics looks at different types of economic systems and how they function. With our own economic system as a benchmark it was fascinating to see the efficiencies of Communism vs. Capitalism and the interaction of social policies and philosophical thought.

Our Professor led us through discussions and debates on which systems were more efficient and why. In our sterile class room, the consensus was that communism was more efficient for bootstrapping countries that were clearly third world, but that once a certain level of vibrancy and economic self sufficiency was obtained then communism became too burdened with the human element. There were some who disagreed and thought that it could work forever if people would just buy into the concept of working for the greater good.

It was Dr. Brzeski’s position that communism, as it was implemented in Russia's 5 year plans, become too complicated to track and perform against, and socialism saps the initiative of the human spirit. It had to collapse of its own accord – but there was no empirical evidence that it would. The experiment of communism was too young and our enemies didn’t run away just because we threw our blood at them.

As is true of many college campuses, the liberal leaning holds sway over the classroom and public forums. Many a conservative is shouted down at free speech rallies and the establishment is something to rail against rather than to appreciate for the freedom it allows us.

Likewise, college classrooms are isolated from the realities of life. Utopian ideas abound and fresh young minds grasp at the possibilities and potentials of a perfect world. In economics, the world is reduced to supply and demand curves with homage to interest rates and money supply. The pain of the loss of a family member rarely plays a part in a discussion of an investment frontier in which “guns or butter” is the most typical example of the concept of economic choice. Dr. Andrzej Brzeski did his best to instill in us some sense of reality when at the end of his course he told us about getting on that train.

I was long gone from the university when the USSR collapsed in December of 1991. I was the father of three boys and hoping that they too could survive without the touch of war that narrowly missed me. I am not proud of not serving, I am merely thankful that some of us did and only remotely aware of the true cost. It had been twenty years since I first met Dr. Brzeski and had thought of him only rarely in the intervening years. I was not an outstanding student. He would not have remembered me. But, I remembered him and I regret that I could not have said, “You told us so.”

A Lost Childhood

Most people have figured out their right from left by the time they're five. At fifty two, I was a little overdue, so I looked it up on the internet. I appear to be dyslexic. I think I’ll probably be able to survive this diagnosis, but it is a shock to find it out now after I’ve wasted my first fifty years in the sorry, but redeemable state of disability. I could have spent my life with a label that would have made me unique, or made me use special glasses, or made me spend lots more time in remedial English.

I never had a major problem with reading or writing, or learning in general. Addition and subtraction had never seemed to be a problem either. I could do the problems in my head alright, but when it came time to looking at problems on paper, it was the simple ones I had the difficulty with…you know, the stacked addition problems or the subtraction problems. I never paid much attention to those pesky little “+” or “-“ signs. I was always okay on the timed tables that we were tested on because they were all the same kind of problem. A whole page of addition or subtraction was easy, but I always messed up a lot of answers on those kinds of tests where the problems were mixed. It never occurred to me that this was odd. It was easy to ignore and it was far from debilitating. (For me of course, it is Anne who doesn’t particularly like my efforts at balancing the check book register.)

While reading and writing were never a serious problem either, I was, however, painfully slow at reading. I had to re-read paragraphs over and over for them to make sense. As an early reader, reading was no fun. It wasn’t until I took a speed reading course as a freshman in high school and learned a trick about maintaining progress down the page did I resolve that difficulty. That trick seemed to clear it up. At least I could read at a normal speed and have some comprehension.

But, the oddest thing was that I could never pronounce the names of any of the characters I was reading about. Whenever I was asked about what I was reading, I stumbled all over myself trying to pronounce the names of any of the characters. I had never heard them in my head. I always thought that this was a little odd, but again, not debilitating and fairly easy to overcome. I always thought that I just couldn’t remember very well, but that was a pretty inconsistent explanation, because plot and context came to mind easily.

Writing was darn near impossible because none of the ideas came in an orderly fashion and all the organizing tricks they tried to teach us never worked very well for me. I could make all the notes I wanted to. I could sort all the note cards I could fill out, but I could never seem to get them in the right order for my paragraphs to make any sense. And, like a lot of people, I just didn’t have the patience for multiple drafts of writing anything. I followed these simple rules of paragraph composition: topic sentence, supporting sentence, summary sentence. I was quite the king of three sentence paragraphs. I got better and better at it, but it wasn’t until the advent of “word processing” that writing finally became enjoyable. I could now put down my ideas in any order and rearrange them on the fly. Oooh, and automatic spell check!!!

But the most serious consequence of this whole thing is that I have never really mastered the art of direction. High School marching band was hell because of all the “Right Face,” “Left Face” stuff. I was never good at that and always nervous whenever we were going to have to march somewhere. When I was a Junior I bought myself a class ring. Class rings were worn on the right hand. This was a very helpful clue. I could now process the right and leftness of my hands because of that ring. (This worked fine until I got married. For the first four or five months I wore both a class ring and my wedding ring. I was confused almost constantly. I finally had to take the class ring off.)

Most people didn’t seem to be plagued by these same issues. I turned to the internet for answers. The internet can provide some comfort, but the knowledge part is always suspect. This is what I learned from (The highlighting is mine.)

What is dyslexia?

'Dyslexia' literally means 'difficulty with the written word'.

It is a complex condition, usually present from birth, which prevents someone from accessing printed or written material in a normal way. So, although many dyslexics are highly intelligent, they require 'extra time' to process text that they read or write.


What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

The symptoms of dyslexia are wide-ranging, from directional confusion to the knock-on effect of depression resulting from frustration, alienation, and low self-esteem.

Common symptoms include:

tendency to confuse letters such as 'b' and 'd', 'u' and 'n'

sometimes thinks '+' means '-'

struggles to read and write with fluency and enjoyment (I'm past this one and the next.)

continual errors in work

poor memory for remembering mistakes

needs help with numeracy (especially times tables, telling the time, division, fractions, percentages and conversions)

poor memory and concentration span

This site also recommended Analog watches. I always had trouble with digital ones, but I never knew why. They were great for telling what time it was right now, but no good for lapsed time or future appointments. Now I know why.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my difficulties never achieved notice of my parents, teachers, or society in general. I certainly didn’t have the typical symptomatic manifestations of common dyslexia, but I sure fit all the other stuff they attribute to it now. It is kind of like reading one’s horoscope. Every astrological sign fits most people.

I think that, by today’s standards, I must have been really disadvantaged. How ever did I survive my childhood? I think the “experts” have managed to categorize most functional / sociological / anti-sociological symptoms so that most people fall into some categorization of illness or dysfunction.

So now I know. I am defective. I regret the fact that I never was able to capitalize on my disability. I have a label. And, while I can probably over come this affliction with therapeutic exercises and lots of hard work -- to rise above the sad and disadvantageous station that I was born to in life -- I think that I will probably die without having mastered the difference between my right and left hands.

What Do You See?

There are a few great men and women who see in their mind’s eye what the rest of us cannot. They see the world as oddly deficient; lacking in that one thing that would make life simpler, better, more tolerable, or esthetically more pleasing. They not only see what’s missing, they try to make the world whole. Some are successful, some are not, but the ones that do manage to fill the gap actually affect change in the world.

Some of this change is not recognized immediately. The arts are particularly notorious for not recognizing the worth of its contributors until after their passing. Van Gough’s genius was not well received until after his death. The price of his passion is well known. For many painters, their notoriety and fame only come with the “death premium.” There are a few masters, Rembrandt for example – Bach & Mozart for others, that receive accolades, wealth and fame for their work, but even they could not anticipate the profound impact of their contribution on generations to come. This is not so unusual for the arts because despite the tangible nature of what is produced, the impact on society is very intangible. Defining how the arts might lift the quality of life itself is not an easy concept to grasp.

There are other more direct examples of filling the gap that are no less profound, but that are far more literal and contribute both to the esthetic as well as the practical. Joseph B. Strauss, standing at the northernmost point of San Francisco watching the robust ferry traffic traversing the bay, envisioned a different solution. He had completed hundreds of small drawbridges before he lobbied for and was selected to be the primary engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge -- a project that imbued him with enough passion to take it from conception to completion and all the political folderol that comes with it. Each of his earlier bridges may have earnestly impacted local transportation and commerce while uniting communities, but none had more impact on society than the Golden Gate Bridge. So utterly deep was the homage paid to this project that it is considered the eighth wonder of the world.

Imagine yourself as Joseph Strauss on May 27, 1937 striding deliberately over that bridge on opening day, confident that with each step you had just changed the world. In my one tenuous link with history, my own father-in-Law was caught up in the product of Strauss’s imagination as he walked down the center of the Golden Gate Bridge along with over 200,000 other people celebrating the completion of a modern marvel.

Alexander Graham Bell was devoted to his wife and his mother, both of whom were deaf. In an effort to make the world a more inclusive place he invented the telephone in 1876. Within ten years, telephones were in over 150,000 homes and businesses and adoption continued just as fast as they could string wire and produce phone sets. Bell’s company became the wildly successful forbearer of America’s largest communication company and hundreds of smaller enterprises that now bear his name.

Oddly enough, as the telephone became ubiquitous, Bell refused to have one in his office, laboratory or home. He didn’t like to be interrupted and resented the intrusion. Even more unusual, he insisted that his wife not be coddled with sign language, that she learn to get along and function in a hearing world. Bell saw how his invention had changed the world perhaps more objectively than anyone, and knew precisely to what extent he would allow it to change how he lived in it.

Most of us don’t think about these life-altering leaps of change that swirl about us. We simply accept them as common place without further thought to how the world was before. We just accept it as it is today without recognizing that yesterday the world wasn’t quite like this.

There were times when I am certain my own mother wished she were deaf. As is typical of young siblings growing up in the same household, my sister and I, on more than one occasion disagreed with each other. This of course is a polite euphemism for fighting. More often than not, we wanted to play with the same toys at the same time or sit in the same chair…at the same time. Our arguments nearly always raised the ambient noise level in the house to unacceptable levels. These less than serious transgressions were almost always dealt with in the same manner. We were sent to our rooms. This gave my mother a few minutes respite from the turmoil, and us a chance to turn our attentions to anything less contentious than each other.

As any small children, our rooms were adequately filled with toys and like most toys they were based on grown up things like real cars, or real airplanes, or real kitchens, but they were toys. Thanks to the groundwork laid by Mr. Bell, one of the items I had in the bottom of my closet was a toy telephone set which consisted of two mostly plastic telephones, a roll of wire and a couple of batteries. Thanks also to Mr. Bell, his design was so simple that these toy phones worked just like the real thing.

On one such occasion when we had earned some quiet time in our rooms, I found solace in my toy telephones. The problem with telephones, however, is the need for Mr. Bell’s Watson to be on the other end to hear. With great mischief in mind, I peered out of my doorway and saw my sister down the hallway doing the same. Whatever argument had precipitated our separation was instantly forgotten. With Mom safely in the other room and with knowingly quiet glances, we conspired to conspire.

I affixed the wires to the phone sets and with some effort pushed one of the phones down hardwood floor in the hall toward Kathy’s room. She stealthily retrieved it. Within minutes we were whispering to one another over the phones, “Can you hear me?” “Yes. Can you hear me?” I don’t think that we ever stopped looking at one another. “Can you see what I’m holding?” “Yes. Can you see what I’ve got?” The phones were just another excuse to play, but this time we were quiet. I am sure that Mom never interrupted our “time out” because she knew exactly what we were up to.

I regret that I am not able to say that because of this experience I know that I have changed the world. I have not been gifted with the sight to see what others do not. I am not a scientist. I am not an inventor, an artist, or musical composer. Oh, I dabble, but I am not a serious dabbler. I do not think about things that are missing from my life and figure out ways not to miss them anymore. My path has been pretty traditional in that regard. However, I am thoughtful with a blank page.

My father-in-law is an outgoing fellow. He talked his way into dental school after a stint in the Navy, and later spent years talking and swapping stories with his patients. As a bright twenty year old with his whole life ahead of him, he joined the throng of celebrants as they walked over the Golden Gate Bridge on its very first day. He can’t tell you who he might have bumped into that day, but he is outgoing enough to have talked to a great many of the 200,000 pedestrians. Perhaps Joe Strauss was one of them. Perhaps, they exchanged pleasantries – a wink and a nod on that windy day. Perhaps there was a lingering smile and a mysterious look that Harold wasn’t able to interpret with certainty, but that left an unanswered question in his mind. Perhaps, a stubborn puzzlement that could not be shaken. Perhaps.

The stress of building the Golden Gate Bridge nearly killed Joseph Strauss. He survived its opening day by only three years. He was finished professionally and retired to while the rest of his life away, but he knew exactly what he had accomplished. He could see it and feel it under his feet. In the same manner, Alexander Bell, knew what he had accomplished. He had a little longer to contemplate it, but he could see what he had done and he could see thousands of people adopt his work to make their own lives better.

We are all inventors to some degree. We all must fashion our own lives. We make of them what we will. We impact our circle of friends and acquaintances and perhaps alter their course as well as our own. Unlike Bell and Strauss, we just can’t always see the impact our little drop makes when it hits the water’s surface.

Can you see the ripples?


Those of us who are graciously self-defined as middle aged are usually pictured in our mind’s eye as twenty-something. The little aches and pains, the sags, the wrinkles, the sun damaged skin, the thinning hair are all easily overlooked as foreign and belonging to what we see in the mirror, not our true selves. We preen and puff and straighten ourselves up and then turn our backs on that image to face the day with the reality that everybody else who deals with us has to see. It is a fine game we play. And, everybody is in on it.

Sometimes the reality of our true age seeps in cold and sobering, and we are faced with a frightening image of mortality. Our parents die, or their friends -- intellectually, that is easier to grasp than the pure emotional loss of close family and somehow less related to our own existence. We occasionally glance at the obituaries and recognize a name. We look in the paper and someone we grew up with or knew, but haven’t seen for awhile dies. Right then and there, our world closes in on us. Suddenly, life becomes both real and short. The how and why of it is a lot less important than the mere fact that it happens.

Bill was my age and had just retired. I hadn’t seen him for at least three years and the telephone rang innocently. Another person with whom I had lost touch was on the phone telling me when and where Bill’s Memorial service was going to be. Bill had shot himself.

He had an old, brightly painted red tractor that sat in his front lawn as a welcome beacon to the neighbor kids and a symbol of what the perfect grandfather could be. A couple of times a year, Bill would fire up that beast and take all the kids on a neighborhood parade around the cul de sac. Anybody who needed help doing anything could count on Bill for guidance, counsel and craftsmanship. Bill knew how to build things the right way and he delighted in taking anyone along side and showing them the right way too. Bill seemed to like everybody. He had time for everybody. He had room for everybody in his life, except apparently for Bill himself.

I think the last time I saw him was when I was in the local pizzeria picking up a Friday night pizza. I was doing take out, he was having a family night out with his wife and two high school aged daughters. It seemed only typical, not special. And yet, it was special in the way that intact families are special these days. Bill saw me first. He stood up and we talked.

We talked about nothing really as I waited for my pizza. Our families had stopped being social a few years ago, but never stopped being friends. The busyness of our everyday lives, soccer, basketball, school, church, vacations – you name it -- all drive wedges into the slices of time we have to give to each other. Whatever forces existed that drove each of us into our own social circles were not relevant to our families, only to our social calendars. That’s the sad part really…that we didn’t continue to carve out time. We all know about that “elephant in the room thing” that makes keeping up difficult, but it seems trivial.

Bill and I talked about nothing really as only old friends could. Not a missed step in the intervening years. We chatted with a familiarity and ease that is usually reserved for closer friends. Bill made everybody feel that way. We made false promises to each other to meet again at the pizza parlor some indefinite Friday night weeks hence. We left it with a warm handshake and that irrepressible smile that spoke almost as much of Bill as Bill could say himself.

Bill was my friend. He was in the prime of his life with retirement ahead to do projects only of his own choosing. He had successfully raised his children into young adulthood. His next steps included all the “grands:” grandparents, grandchildren, more grand family vacations, more grand pizza nights. Now, these dreams were gone. This was what I thought about as I studied Bill’s wife across the room. She didn’t need me to remind her of these things. Only that they are what I would miss too, and I can’t help but miss them for her.

One day, when he had the house to himself, he sat on his bed contemplating the unthinkable, and suddenly there was nothing left for him to think about.

“If only….” I know that I am not alone with this thought. For everyone who knew Bill and was close to him, I can’t imagine the guilt they must have for having missed the clues that had to have been there. The room that held his memorial service was overflowing with Bill’s friends and family. Did he know they would have been there for him in any other circumstance too?

“If only….” “Maybe….” It is nothing to offer these thoughts. They don’t go anywhere. There is no place for them to go.

I liked Bill and I regret his passing. His death is an incentive for me to live life harder somehow, although it is hard to imagine cramming more into a life than Bill had managed to do.

A Love Story

Saturday, July 26, 2008 Darren and Amy finally got married. I say finally even though they had only been engaged since March 15th, the first year anniversary of their first kiss. They had been friends since the first day of college at Whitworth. Friends, just friends. Darren’s first attempt at a kiss was at a New Year’s Eve party 18 months prior to their wedding. Amy refused. She, ever the romantic, didn’t want it to be the alcohol talking. Darren, although mightily rejected, didn’t want to let it die. It would have been easy to say that this just wasn’t ever going to work. “You don’t have to tell me twice,” he could have easily said. He reported this incident to his law school buddies and there was universal agreement that any romance would be an uphill struggle. Fate entangles souls so deliciously.

Despite this obvious setback to an attempt at upgrading the level of intimacy between them, Darren and Amy continued to be the friends they had always been. As a law student, Darren was used to angst and this was just more of it. Amy was used to not settling for anything less than what was in her mind’s eye, and this was just more of that.

In earlier days, Amy always seemed to have a boyfriend. One of them had even been a roommate of Darren’s in the dorm. Years later, Amy had moved to the forgotten and forsaken town of Fernley, Nevada, from Virginia to teach and be close to her current love interest, and he continued to do what brought him to a town like Fernley. The ever independent Amy lacked neither commitment, nor single mindedness, nor, ultimately, common sense. Fernley is not a compelling community. It does not inspire careers. It does not speak to growth, maturity and life long happiness. It is merely a waypoint in life’s journey. It cannot be more. And, it simply wasn’t to be for Amy.

Darren continued his education at law school. When he was home from Baylor, she came to visit again and again, conveniently disentwined from her current beau. One cannot say that she was brazen in her overtures but, she was clearly open to letting bygones be bygones. They would sit on the couch watching TV and Amy would be leaning uncomfortably close to Darren. So much so that it would have been impossible for him not to get a hint of discomfort himself. But, he remained both stoic and platonic. Once burned, twice cool as the saying goes.

Darren was home for his last academic spring break. Amy came to visit. They were both disciplined and wary. When it was time for him to go, His mother and I said goodbye to him at our front door because Amy drove him to the airport for his last trip back to school. It was at the airport then that Darren grabbed her and asked her if their relationship could be something more. She drove home. He flew back to Baylor on the clouds. A promise sealed with a kiss.

At their wedding reception, Darren told the story of Whitworth traditions by way of explaining the Ring Pop party favors on each table. It seems that there are three traditions at Whitworth that are well known and revered; 1) Catch a virgin pine cone, 2) Drop a food tray in the commons, and 3) Ring by spring. Amy had found his calendar and surreptitiously entered the accomplishments of these traditions on random future dates though she was unable to disguise her handwriting. As the pages turned, Darren caught the virgin pine cone, he rejected the wasteful disregard for real food, but, as if passing all of the requirements, presented her with a Ring Pop on the given day; thus, sealing his fate -- a fate little known to either of them at the time. Amy, of course, had other romantic interests and Darren was just a friend. When he ultimately proposed, the diamond engagement ring he presented her was nestled in a plastic facsimile of a Ring Pop. The Whitworth tradition lives on.

The tradition of toasting derives from biblical blessings. The original Jewish concept was that blessings were conveyed by God onto his people. Moses, as God’s conduit passed blessings on to the twelve tribes of Israel. The blessing became a matter of passing the spiritual and birthright inheritance down to subsequent generations. In the hundreds of generations since, it has become a way of passing good wishes on to those being blessed. The Irish have turned it into a poetic art form. We carried on that tradition though not necessarily the poetic part.

The fathers of the Bride and Groom toasted their children. The Best Man and Maid of Honor spoke personally about the qualities of their own relationships with the betrothed. Both Amy’s father and sister struggled with their comments, overwhelmed by their own sense of loss on the occasion. They were clearly happy and yet their happiness was tinged with a profound sense of emptiness that only the tincture of time will cure.

I was able to toast to their happiness with composure. I think that this sense of loss manifests only in the bride’s side of the family. I could be wrong about this, but I go by my unerring gage for this sort of thing, my wife Anne, who will cry when only the merest suggestion to be sympathetic exists. She was beaming virtually the whole time.

As the father of the groom, I personally felt no need for bereavement of any kind. I am happy with the union of these two of our progeny and I am delighted with the prospect of what is to come. They have both accepted the independence gained with adulthood and embraced their future with each other. Their marriage can only be modeled on what they have seen from their parents and extended families: that is, years of stability and working relationships that are built on mutual respect, love, trust, faith, and friendship. What could be better than that?

A toast:

Anybody who knows me even casually has probably heard me say that my life began when I met Anne. Though she rolls her eyes almost every time she hears it, truer words were never spoken. If you know me a little better, you might have heard me say that there’s a reason that God didn’t give me girls. The shrill shrieking and squeaking that accompanies most of them through their formative years is way beyond my ability to cope. But when they come into your life at the age of 25, they’re kind of nice to have around. So, to Amy: Welcome to the family.

I could stand here and tell you cute stories from Darren’s youth…interesting stories from his adolescence…embarrassing stories. But somehow these stories always seem to circle back to one of my own failings. I think I will forego the humiliation for the both of us.

I present to you Darren and Amy Indermill, standing at the very beginning of their journey. May your journey together be blessed with a smile on your lips, the sun on your cheeks, a gentle breeze to cool your temperaments, and no burdens larger than together you both can bear. To a long and happy life together.

This was far from a fairy tale. In retrospect, the story unfolds with certainty, with all the signs pointing in the direction of wedded bliss, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. That these two found themselves together after seven years of friendship is a testament to how well they knew what they wanted for themselves rather than any perseverance or patience either of them may have had for the other. If this was a marriage made in heaven, only heaven knows how Darren and Amy managed to put up with God’s plan. The only regret either of them may have is how muddled the path seemed from their first day at Whitworth to this.

Life As Art

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, Gaston Lachaise’s Standing Woman (1932) was right across the green and I watched her throw her naked shoulders back with her hands on her naked hips and laugh at us everyday. She greeted me as I walked from my car. I smiled back politely. She was imposing, standing a little over six feet tall.

Whatever my emotional state, her demeanor never changed. She presided over the comings and goings of thousands of students everyday and never let us in on her secrets. Day in and day out she stood in the mottled sunlight waiting for the most dour of us to pass by, so she could wink at our seriousness and feign indifference to our moodiness.

In a most fitting placement, if she required further study, there was a bench placed at her backside. She indiscriminately mooned all observers. She gave us her ass to look at, and you could stare at it as long as you needed to. She didn’t care. She saved her expressions for those passing by.

I ate lunch in the sculpture garden almost everyday. It was my favorite place to be, to watch, to observe the world, to contemplate, to reflect, to while away the time. The Alexander Calder (Button Flower 1959) that I sat on provided a perfect curve for my back and made a very comfortable perch from which I could watch the world. That Calder provided the backdrop for many a reading assignment, interrupted by…well, by almost anything.

The world of the sculpture garden was pretty narrowly defined as law students to the south, art students to the north, and a lot of business students in general. The art students were the interesting ones to watch. They had no concept of “fit,” only of style. They dressed oddly, walked oddly, and cared not about this one observer sitting on (no doubt) one of their idols’ sculptures. Sometimes a law professor would move his class from its staid and sterile classroom out under a big shade tree and conduct his teaching there. I audited a lecture or two from my Calder.

Occasionally, a traveling troop would set up shop in the natural amphitheater there in the garden and put on Shakespeare. Although I tried to be diligent, I was late to class on more than one occasion when I fell under the spell of yet another “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When I wanted to actually study some of this sculpture that surrounded me, I looked to the Henry Moore contribution at the entrance to the Macgowan Theater Arts building. The Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3 held my interest not only for its clever name, but it also pestered me for just how and what Henry managed to see inspired in his own work. I looked for clues as to its deeper meaning, and I must confess defeat.

Perhaps this view doesn’t quite do Moore’s work justice. There are certainly other places one can stand to ferret out its most telling secrets. Perhaps, but I think this work is complete from any perspective.

I have since seen many other works by Henry Moore and I see in his work the same whimsy with which I think Alexander Calder approached his art. It was not created for a public statement per se, rather a simple condition of being reflected in the mood of the observer. (And, because I studied business rather than art, I can be absolutely correct in my pondering.)

I played hooky one afternoon and went to see Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” in that theater. The drama students were very good at depressing us all with Williams’ tale of heartbreak and indifference. We surely would have been depressed forever were it not for Henry Moore and Gaston Lachaise to greet us as we left. If only Alma could have seen these works from her park bench, she might not have been so wistful or so broken. Maybe her romance with John Buchanan Jr. would have worked out after all. Maybe, if Tennessee Williams had spent some time here in the sculpture garden, he would have found more joy in his work.

This is what art is meant to do; evoke in us whatever it is that we can feel. It is l there to lift us when we’re down, change us for the better, make us appreciate and think about what we see, feel, know, and experience. I am a big fan of public art. I like to see public spaces graced with someone’s creativity. Even if you can’t understand it, or just flat don’t like what you experience, the artist has touched you. That is their very purpose.

For several months I worked in a building with a public plaza that had a signature work by Bruce Beasley (Apolymon, 1967). This was the first large scale casting of Acrylic ever attempted. We, the public, put our faith in Bruce to be able to give us something new and artistic. This was his result: a Lucite pelvis.

The way that this large sculpture captures light and changes its look depending on its ambient surroundings is quite amazing. I am sure that Bruce was pretty serious about this work and probably never once thought about the “pelvis” angle throughout his creative process, but I could never glance at it and not have that expression spring to mind. (It should be noted that this picture itself is a work of another artist, Claudia Smith, who captured this image as she does all her work, with a pinhole camera.)

I came to the realization as a fairly young adult that I would not pursue the dollar to the degree necessary for allowing my discretionary income to be spent in the direction of high minded and expensive art. Though I really appreciate sculpture, I do not possess the wherewithal to produce it, the wealth to buy it, nor the creativity to think of it in the first place. I appreciate the works of others, but not enough to actually own them outright.

Good artists command lots of money for their time and creativity. I thought that if I ever wanted to have fine paintings around the house, I would have to do them myself. At the same time, I do not generally appreciate the paintings one finds hanging on Hotel room walls – my taste leans to the more serious endeavor. I began a course of study in oil painting.

Oil paint is a great and forgiving medium. If one has the patience, the paint can be mushed around the canvas long enough so that almost any disaster can be overcome. My efforts are good enough to passably copy a master, but I am neither creative enough, nor skilled enough to be much of an artist. Never the less, I can live with my own output. This is my copy of John Singer Sargent’s Venetian Wineshop (1902). As an impressionist, Sargent has managed to perfectly capture the intersection of three lives, each with their own purpose and intent. He leaves it up to us to interpret just what that is.

Guests in our home often remark that they would like to have this painting. That is rewarding enough for me, but it is mostly a tribute to Sargent’s mastery of the medium rather than my own, and yet, simply another example of how evocative the arts can be. (See the essay on “The Prettiest Girl I Had Ever Seen.”)

Now that I have a little time to contemplate what I can actually do with my time, the creative spark seems to have been overcome by a diminished enthusiasm. I would love to have a house full of paintings and a backyard full of Sculpture. I would also like the time to contemplate and enjoy them while the sun is still high in the sky. I would like to share them, discuss them, and argue their merits to any degree my guests would like to engage in conversation. Alas, I do not. I was never quite Bohemian enough to strike out on my own, ignore my obligations, and discover my creativity while I was young and I had the time. Nor was I ever passionate enough to collect the work of others.

It could be argued that the conduct of business is an art, but I would offer that while there is creativity in the product, there is no joy. ‘Tis a pity that I cannot have all the private art I would like, and that there is not nearly enough public art for the rest of us to enjoy. I regret only that I couldn’t settle my youthful back into the curve of that Calder once again to experience the life going on around me.

Where there is no art, there is no life.

Angels of Death

I was once a young buck in the business world. I had been a consultant with a “Big 6” accounting firm who was hired away by one of my clients. I was good, skilled, and in demand. My client, now my employer was growing like crazy and was clearly understaffed. In addition to my own responsibilities, I had to help to hire another 150 people to flesh out the organization. Times were busy. I had two young children to raise and a nascent business to plan for. We had just moved the business from one part of the state to a much more affordable locale that would allow the business to grow. The office had a comparatively slow and bucolic feel to it from what I had been used to.

My new office enjoyed a view of the American River. The office park was located in an area had not been built up yet, so the surroundings were sparse and natural. We were located about a stone’s throw from the water. Every morning I could see as well as hear the geese flying up river and honking on their way, drawing dark Vs against the bright blue skies.

Occasionally, I would take my work outside. These flights were so numerous that outdoor conversations were always interrupted and punctuated with various honks and squeaks. It was an almost a continuous display of precision flights of flying V’s. Every so often the goose at point would fall off lead and his place would be taken up immediately by his successor. The V would reform effortlessly and move on. Every afternoon they would reverse course and I could watch them again. I was often caught up in their aerial ballet. It was easy to take a twenty second respite from my desk duties to calmly soar with the geese for a moment. I never tired of watching them.

They became my almost private diversion. Work was a halcyon of activity and my mind required the restful peace that the geese randomly afforded. There was comfort in seeing their migration to and from points unknown along the river. But, they were not the only birds in the sky.

In 1947, the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed services. That reorganization of our military forces solidified the role of the Strategic Air Command, or SAC as it was called, in the development of both an aggressive and deterrent ability to forward the interests of the United States while giving primarily the Soviet Union pause at plying more aggression toward Europe. SAC’s mission statement was in part to “…be prepared to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; to conduct maximum-range reconnaissance over land or sea, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; ….”

It was under General Curtis LeMay’s command that this mission was interpreted to be the cornerstone of our strategic policy of nuclear deterrence during the cold war with the Soviets. The SAC Force grew to include more than 1,500 bombers at its peak. As the Soviets became more capable of delivering nuclear weapons on their own, SAC strategy evolved accordingly. In the mid 1960’s, at the peak of the cold war, almost of one third of these bombers were aloft at any given hour to provide a swift and deadly response to any overt attack. Almost all of them contained nuclear bombs. The most impressive of these planes was the B52 bomber.

These B52’s were first delivered to SAC in 1954 and quickly became the backbone of the SAC air strategy. Impressive by any measure, these planes had a tail fin that topped out over 48 feet above ground and some four thousand square feet of wing surface area. Each wing supported 4 engines and the plane could carry impressive payloads of large numbers of conventional weapons or a single 43,000 pound nuclear one. Its wingtips sagged when the B52 sat on the runway. In addition to their deterrence initiative, they were used for surveillance until the Vietnam War in the mid 1960’s in which they were used in earnest to perform “carpet” bombing. Again, in the Gulf War of 1991 they delivered 40 percent of all munitions dropped in Iraq. They are huge, unmistakable, and deadly. They were nick named Angels of Death for quite legitimate reasons.

For those of you readers too young to have lived through it, the Cold War whip-sawed between heightened fear and relative calm. International crises, such as the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949), the Korean War (1950–1953), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War (1959–1975), the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989), and NATO exercises in November 1983 arose from time to time encouraging a mild hysteria in the press. Both the United States and the Soviets sought d├ętente as the only rational course of action. Direct military attacks on adversaries were deterred by the potential for mutually assured destruction using nuclear weapons that both sides possessed and both sides could deliver…if someone was just crazy enough to pull the trigger.

Just a few miles down the road from my office was Mather Air Force Base. Mather was home to SAC’s 4134th Strategic Wing. Half of their 72 B52s were in the air at any one time, keeping the concept of nuclear deterrence alive. My office was in Mather’s flight path. It was hard to tell if I should have felt safer when these planes passed low overhead, but they were impressive in their size and more importantly for what they represented.

I was born during the Korean War. I saw Kennedy on the news in Berlin, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why. I remember the first headline from the local newspaper that I ever read on my own was in big two inch type, “Cuban Missile Crisis.” I was taught not only to stop, drop and roll if I was ever to catch fire, but also to "duck and cover” and crawl under my desk should our teacher tell us that an atom bomb was going to be dropped. We were drilled on these techniques as commonly as we had homework. Backyard bomb shelters were thought to be a good idea. I was in high school and college during the Viet Nam War. The world was altogether a frightening place when we stepped beyond the boundaries and safety provided by our parents and the sense of home that they engendered.

By the time I got to be that young buck that started this story, there had been several years of relative calm for the United States. We had been beset with some economic turmoil in rising interest rates, falling housing prices, and were marginally involved in various trouble spots around the world, but on the whole, there was security. I felt safe. I was sure that the world was mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting my life, or endangering the lives of my family, and I was sadly disabused of that notion everyday as the geese flew overhead under the shadow of our own Angels of Death.

Life moves on. I began to raise the two children I had then and a third that came soon after. They have grown into fine young men, raised in a world far different from the one in which I grew up. Their lives were filled with soccer, and basketball, and baseball and all the things that young kids do. The prosperity of the late 1980s through the ‘90s made life full and unburdened by presence of war. There was a brief skirmish with the first Gulf War in 1991, but after month it was out of the news.

The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, which was already suffering from severe economic stagnation. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving the United States as the dominant military power. The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There was simply no one left to play the game. SAC moved on to different objectives, Mather was closed, and the over flights stopped.

In benign and honest efforts to improve the historical curriculum in our schools, certain aspects of history just disappear. My children were not taught that there was such a thing as the cold war. If the subject was broached, it had no context, nor meaning for them. There were no reminders. I am sure that they feel that the world is now mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting their lives, or endangering the lives they might find themselves responsible for, and they will not be disabused of these notions everyday as the geese fly overhead. The Angels of Death have not lost their sting, only their wings. I regret that the generation my children belong to isn’t any more right about this than I was.

Modern Health Care

I broke my foot the other day in a silly accident. Nothing exotic. Nothing that I really will have great stories about. It was a common household accident that could and probably does happen to a couple of thousand people everyday. I stepped on my foot the wrong way and just went down. After a couple of minutes on the floor to assess the damage, I got up and walked carefully a few feet to sit down. After twenty minutes, it was clear that this was more than a simple sprain. It was time to go see somebody who knew what they were doing.

I went to an urgent care clinic that was staffed by some office help and a physician’s assistant. In a stroke of good fortune, I was their only patient. I was still there for an hour and 45 minutes while they diagnosed my broken bones, provided me with crutches and a nice fancy boot for a broken foot, and an appointment with a real doctor to confirm my brokenness. Three days later I spent maybe 5 minutes with the Orthopedist who said I was doing everything I was supposed to and to keep it up for another 5 weeks. A gentle pat on the head and I was sent away. It was almost demeaning in a way. I guess that is the price I have been made to pay by the depersonalization of our health care.

Not that I minded much. The doctor didn’t have to spend very much time with me. I would have felt better if he had, but there was really no reason to do so. There was no question that he knew what he was doing, and clear to him that I was doing what I should be doing and should continue to do. We were done, but I still would have liked some professional sympathy. Apparently, my private health care dollars don’t pay for sympathy.

Of course, these days health care spending is very expensive and out of control – out of reach for a lot of Americans. This is just the kind of thing that falls under the governmental care that our forefathers so thoughtfully wrote into our constitution’s preamble in the phrase “promote the general welfare.” This little phrase does not require socialized health care, but it does demand some reasonable solution to control the escalation of costs. Health care spending is out of control for a whole bunch of reasons. It is the kind of thing that we expect our government to fix, but that seems unlikely. There are many things to blame, and not very many palatable ways to fix it in a capitalistic economic system without seeming cruel and arbitrary, not to mention the ever popular sobriquets of racism, bigotry, other name calling, and miscellaneous slights from their constituency that keep our politicians from dealing with real economic problems.

In a simpler time, we trusted our doctors. We trusted them to have done all their research and know which illnesses were fatal and which we would survive, which drugs could help us and which could hurt us, which pains led to appendicitis and which led to the flu. We did not question their judgment. There were important maladies that neither the tincture of time nor bed rest itself could cure, and our doctors did their best to diagnose and provide us with the best care they could. We paid our doctors as we needed them, and though they made more money than most, they were still affordable. Doctors made house calls. Life was simpler. Then we learned to watch TV.

In a simpler time, there were no HMOs, or PPOs, and clinics were small self organized offices. Hospitals were small providers of specialized care, not big businesses. Health insurance was affordable, but hardly needed. If you were really risk averse, you might have purchased a policy for “Major Medical.” It would have been no more expensive than most people’s Starbuck’s budget for the month in this modern day.

In a simpler time, there were no advertisements on TV for prescription drugs. Television was black and white. It was reserved for local news shows, cartoons on Saturday mornings and movies with good guys and bad guys, or with cowboys, horses and the occasional Indian. Now we are assaulted with all sorts of colorful, informative advertisements that send us to our doctors demanding certain medications that we know we must have because the television has told us so. We demand allergy medicines, flu shots, pills for our blood pressure and our cholesterol levels and our ulcers and our regularity and our post nasal drip and our dry eyes. We demand pills to help us sleep at night, or to feel better about ourselves in these most uncertain times, or to calm our hyperactive children, or to lose weight, or to have better sex, or to alleviate our natural aches and pains. We do this because we crave the simplicity of the uncomplicated and healthy lives we see on TV without the pain of earning an uncomplicated or healthy life by eating well and exercising.

We demand these things from our doctors and because, well, time is money and we don’t have the time to be sick and they don’t have the time to waste on the education of their patients. It is so much simpler to just give us what we want. Our doctors have sought shelter in great assemblages of doctors and they generally give us what we ask for…because it is easier and less time consuming than arguing with us about appropriate patient care and drug protocols. These doctors work normal 9 to 5 shifts in large hospitals and institutional clinics where the terms like HMO and PPO abound. The term “house call” has been dropped from the vernacular.

In a simpler time, we had doctors and nurses. Now we are seen by physician assistants who are well meaning, but neither as educated as a doctor nor as fulfilled in their vocation as a nurse. They consult with real doctors when their patients present with more than a simple cold. They are kind of “tweener”…an economical response to patients that want to dictate their own course of care. They don’t get paid as much as doctors, but serve as a useful front line of defense to keep doctors from squandering their real doctoring on patients that just have the flu, or just have a cold, or just started running a fever. The fact that most people try to put themselves in front of a doctor at the first sign of any physical discomfort is the most compelling reason for doctors to hide behind their assistants, and the most obvious indicator that people who prescribe a course of medical care for themselves don’t have a clue about anything but what they see on TV and should be dealt with at arms length.

It turns out that my physician’s assistant knew exactly what he was talking about. This was simply confirmed by the more time constrained, more expensive orthopedist who obviously had bigger bones to pick than my poor metatarsal. I wasn't paying him to be empathetic.


So I’m talking with a little old church lady, Miss Sally Mae, about my broken foot and the inconvenience of crutches. There are a couple things you need to know about Miss Sally Mae. 1) She was a red hat lady before there were red hat ladies. She wears anything bright and spangled. She has sequined ball caps and gold glitter tennis shoes, and wears earrings the size of hub caps. 2) She broke her pelvis about 5 years ago and carries a cane with her now wherever she goes. (I think that has more to do with a litigious legal history than her ability to walk without it.) She does not use the cane; she carries it like she’s leading a dog on a leash. There is no wear on the rubber tip. She decorates it seasonally as is her fashion. She and her cane are quite the pair.

Her conversation with me reminded me of the 1970’s movie, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman. In the opening scene, Dustin has just graduated from college and is at a pool party thrown by his parents. All the guests are family friends, but mostly business associates of his father’s. A few of the men speak with the new graduate and give him a wink and a sly elbow nudge while whispering the word “plastics” into his ear. “Plastics” being the wave of the future. Anyway, Miss Sally Mae and I are talking about my foot and I told her that I never thought I would say that I was going to be happy to get to walk with a cane in a couple of weeks. She leans into me and with a conspiratorial wink and a quick glance at her cane, she says, “reflective tape.” I can hardly wait.

This brief brush with our medical care delivery system brought to my attention an article in the paper the other day. The state of Texas spent over $3 million caring for only three, otherwise healthy human beings who, over the course of three years had visited the emergency room of their local hospital on an average of once a week. Each week these people felt they had a need to receive medical care of the highest order. Each week they showed up in the emergency room with ill-defined complaints, and each week they received a battery of tests and visits from assorted medical personnel. Each week their bills were 5 to 6 thousand dollars. Now I realize that this is an extreme example of run away health care expenditures, but I’m wondering if they sort of felt like I felt in the Orthopedist’s office and just wanted some professional sympathy. I missed not having received it, but I don’t actually regret that I didn’t get any. Now if we could just get that sympathy product advertised on TV….

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