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Conversation With A Mad Man

As I’m writing this, it’s 4:30 AM Saturday morning. This is a rather late point in the week to start writing anything that is going to publish at 10:30 AM on Sunday, especially given that I also have to select and submit images for two major art shows by 8:00 PM tomorrow. Oh, and it’s also the Saturday two weeks before that wild and crazy holiday and it’s up to me to take the kids to choose gifts for other family members. The prevailing theory is that they need to see this as a season of giving, not getting and you already know that, at ages 9 and 11, what they get is the only thing on their minds. 

On Monday of this week, I started an article on greed. I’m over 3,400 words into that article. However, I forgot to plug in my Chromebook, which is where I do all my writing and ended up taking a forced break yesterday. That gave me a chance to go back yesterday afternoon and re-read what I’d written. I nearly fell asleep. Too much talk about economic theory.

So, here we are, you and I. It’s too late to do research on another article and get much past 400-500 words. I don’t consider it worth my time or yours to publish anything smaller than 2,000 words. We both have better things to do. I have from this moment until 6:00 AM when I have to go get gas so I can take Big Gabe to work this morning.  I’ll probably have another hour or so when I get back, but everyone will be up and making noise by then so I need to have set a pretty strong premise by then or this just isn’t going to work.

Here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to have a conversation, you and I. I’m going to play the part of me and you are going to play the part of the voice in my head that keeps bugging me endlessly with questions I can’t answer. I’ll feed you the questions so you don’t have to think too hard about it. I’ll be designated by the letter M and you’ll be designated by the letter Y. We’ll see how accurately I am able to read your mind. I would say that if you disagree with the words I put in your mouth, let me know in the comments but the only people who ever leave comments are Chinese bots and I have to delete those. So, we’re just going to go with this and see what happens. It’s now 4:50 AM. 

Conversation WIth A Mad Man

Y: I don’t want to have this conversation. It’s too damn early.

M: Sorry, but this is the only time available. I don’t need you tagging along all day trying to get this done. We have limited time. Deal with it. Would you like coffee?

Y: Yes, please. WIth cream and two things of sugar.

M: (shaking head) Putting cream and sugar in coffee is one of the many things that’s wrong with this country. We’ve lost the fortitude to drink our coffee black, the way the gods intended.

Y: Yeah, well, it tastes like crap without the cream and sugar, so if you don’t mind, stop being an asshole and put the cream and sugar in my coffee.

M: The creamer we use is already sweetened. Taste it before I add anything.

Y: (taking a sip of the coffee) Yeah, that’ll do. Why are we doing this so early, again?

M: Because it’s the only time this house is quiet, and even then, “quiet” is a comparative state. Dogs are in and out, cats are… sigh, bouncing off the furniture one minute and then sleeping in the middle of the floor so that I don’t see them when I go to get dressed.

Y: Wait, you’re not dressed? I really didn’t need or want that mental image in my head.

M: Get over it. I’m wearing a t-shirt and boxers. The light bulbs in the kitchen emit a yellow light so my pasty white legs don’t blind anyone. Chances are, you may not be wearing pants, either.

Y: Well… even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t tell you, you pervert.

M: Hey, watch the name-calling. We’re not Republican Congresspersons here.

Y: You’re not going to make this whole conversation about politics, are you? If you are, I’m leaving.

M: Do what you want. Politics are responsible for roughly 90% of what’s wrong with this planet in the first place, though. It’s rather difficult to have a constructive conversation without coming back to how woefully inept our elected representatives are. We didn’t read all the way through Plato’s Republic before we started this experiment and it shows.

Y: (Blank stare)

M: You’ve not read Plato’s Republic, have you?

Y: (Blank stare)

M: See, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make and what Plato warned about. The people doing the voting, ostensibly you and me, need to have a deep understanding of how the system works or else they elect people to office who fuck it up.

Y: Must you curse? I really don’t like it when you curse.

M: I’ll try to keep a lid on it, but the F word is such an ingrained part of my vocabulary that it just comes out. Most mornings, it’s the first word I utter when the alarm goes off.

Y: You’re probably not alone but I don’t think most people actually say it out loud, they just think it.

M: That’s an option? My mouth is open before I have a chance to hit the button. The morning F-bomb is instinctive at this point.

Y: That’s disappointing. You know your mother wouldn’t approve. She’d be very disappointed.

M: My mother would be disappointed with very large sections of my life the past 17 or so years. Don’t worry, she still haunts my dreams and reminds me of how inadequate I am and that if I had practiced harder I could have been an out-of-work musician at this point in my life.

Y: That’s a rather cynical viewpoint. Your mother was a very sweet person and supported you in pretty much everything you did.

M: Yes, mother was a very sweet person unless you crossed her and did something of which she didn’t approve. Then, she could be very biting in the most deliciously passive-aggressive sort of way. It was wonderful watching her do it to other people, especially pastors she considered inept, but it really stung to be on the receiving end. 

Y: Sounds judgemental.

M: It was, but one needs to understand it came from a perspective of wanting people to do better. She wanted everyone to be better educated, to think smarter and behave in an appropriate manner and when someone didn’t do that, especially when their actions affected other people negatively, she felt an obligation to say something to someone. Poppa was usually that someone and that was usually enough. She knew that saying anything publicly was as bad if not worse than whatever had offended her in the first place.

Y: She wouldn’t have done well with Facebook.

M: Are you kidding? Mother wouldn’t be on Facebook. She would have hated Facebook. She didn’t even learn how to use email until Poppa died. She hated the computer. She only learned to use it at all so she could see pictures of her grandsons. Otherwise, if there was something you needed to say to her, your options were to either call, write a letter, or drop by and talk. 

Y: Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad way to handle things.

M: It wasn’t and we would probably do a lot better if we wrote more letters and communicated directly. I think too much of the time we get into a contest online, whether it’s Facebook or any other social media, as to who can be the most outrageous, or silly, or provocative. If we were forced to sit down and write letters, by hand, with a fountain pen, we would say a lot less and think a lot more.

Y: Why a fountain pen? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually use one.

M: They’re wonderful, elegant writing tools that prohibit writing too fast. The nib of the pen has to hit the paper at just the right angle or you end up with a mess or nothing at all. There’s also no going back and applying spellcheck to what, you write. One has to stop and think before applying ink to paper. The result is inevitably more thoughtful and considered communication.

Y: But it’s not convenient.

M: No, it’s not, but a lot of our communication shouldn’t be built upon convenience. Convenience allows us to be sloppy, to not consider all the facts and subtleties in play. The only chance convenience has of working is if everyone in the conversation is well-read and of equal intelligence. Otherwise, there’s going to be a misunderstanding. 

Y: You underestimate people.

M: Do I?

Y: Yes, I think so. I think the average person is a lot more intelligent than you give them credit for being.

M. Says the person who hasn’t read Republic

Y: I don’t think people have to all read the same things and think the same way to be intelligent. You’re setting a very narrow standard where everyone thinks the same as you do or else you consider this less intelligent.

M. No, what I’m saying is that there has to be a base level of education to which we all have been sufficiently exposed or the whole system doesn’t work. The very phrase, “my tax dollars” if proof of that. If one understands how taxation works in a representational democracy you’re not going to say things like that because you know that money no longer belongs to you in any form. Those are not “my tax dollars” being spent on that fucking ridiculous border wall (sorry). Those are government funds being misdirected from other Congressionally-approved allocations resulting in a deficit of funds available for expenditures that were appropriated through legal means. The president is, in fact, stealing.

Y: That’s one way of looking at it. Or you could say that the liberals in Congress were never going to approve funding through normal channels so he diverted discretional funds to pay for a much-needed project.

M: That’s bull… Sorry, that’s a load of crap. Those are not “discretionary funds” being diverted. Those were specifically earmarked for named projects, projects that are not getting done because they no longer have the funds necessary because of a 100 percent useless wall.

Y: What do you mean useless?

M: They’re already scaling and/or cutting through the damn thing. It is, at best, a minor delay. It’s not stopping anyone. The wall is a waste of money, in addition to being a physical example of racism that paints the whole country in a bad light. Remember how negatively Americans considered Germans after WWII? That’s how the rest of the world looks at the US now.

Y: That’s not true and I wasn’t alive back then so no, I don’t know any of those Cold War emotions, Boomer.

M: Sooner. 

Y: What?

M: Nevermind. If you’re not from Oklahoma you wouldn’t understand.

Y: Look, my point is that you claim to be all accepting and supportive of alternative lifestyles and opinions but you’re really judgy when it comes to people who disagree with you.

M: No, I’m judgy about people who demonstrate a severe amount of ignorance that I consider unnecessary.

Y: Right, people who disagree with you.

M: That is not accurate. One might hold the same viewpoints that I do but for inadequate reasons, such as wanting to go along with all their other friends. That’s why we see thousands of people sharing the same things on social media. We’re not sharing our own thoughtful opinions, we’re co-opting the opinions of others in hopes that it makes us look smart, or cool, or in-the-know. I’m just as guilty of it as you are.

[pause while I take Gabe to work]

M: Sorry, that was a longer delay than I expected. Things needed to be done.

Y: That’s okay, I took the opportunity to snoop through your stuff and steal all your passwords and credit card numbers.

M: Jokes on you, I don’t have any credit cards.

Y: None? Not even a bank card?

M: I have the requisite ATM card but that’s it. If I can’t pay cash for something, I don’t get it. It’s that simple. 

Y: You realize you are like the ONLY person on the planet who lives that way.

M: No, I’m not. A lot of people are in that situation. Some because they choose to be, like me, and others because they’ve no choice. The fact that our society expects everyone to have multiple credit cards is problematic and one of the reasons our economy is not nearly as strong as we think it is.

Y: Yeah, yeah, you do realize even the government runs a tab…

M: And that’s going to get us into trouble eventually as well. We piss China off the wrong way, and tariffs start looking like child’s play. They could literally foreclose on the country. Our debt is $22 TRILLION, the largest it’s EVER been, and there’s no plan to pay it down and no motivation on the part of Congress or the President to reduce it. 

Y: I think you’re over-reacting.

M: I think I’ll be dead before anything dramatic happens, but it WILL happen. Trust me.

Y: Why? What makes you think you’re an authority on anything.

M: I never said I’m an authority. What I am is educated and well-informed, someone who doesn’t trust a single source and verifies the information before speaking. Therefore, when I do make a statement it sounds authoritative because, unlike most of what one sees on the Internet, it tends to be accurate.

Y: No mistakes?

M: Meh, I’d give me about an 88% accuracy rating. Things occasionally slip past me.

Y: And sometimes, I’ve noticed, you don’t say anything.

M: That’s been a more recent development. I’m finding that with many issues now there’s so much noise that adding another voice doesn’t solve anything. If I’m going to be ignored then I might as well stay quiet.

Y: Sooooo, why do you keep writing things that no one reads? Like, the stuff here?

M: Ouch. That hurt. You’re right, but it still hurts. I write what no one reads for the same reason I create art no one buys. I can’t make people listen or appreciate what I have to say, there may be no one who understands, but it is better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.

Y: Okay, that makes sense up to a point. You KEEP doing it. 

M: Because I still have things to say. In my mind, there will come a day, maybe 200-300 years from now, some digital archeologist digging through this strange mix of nonsense called the Internet is going to come across this stuff, read it in the context of what is for them, history, and see from that vantage point what no one is seeing now. At least, that’s the scenario that plays in my head on a daily basis.

Y: So, you’re delusional.

M: Probably, with grandiose visions of self-importance if we’re being clinical about it.

Y: And that doesn’t bother you.

M: Oh, it bothers me a lot but the alternative, living in a world where I’m a singular, largely unidentifiable pinpoint in a world that has known over 15 quintillion pins, is too dark and too hopeless to keep me alive. I would have taken a dirt nap a long time ago if I weren’t my own biggest fan. 

Y: That’s… troubling.

M: The only thing I find troubling is that more people aren’t in exactly the same position. Or, perhaps, more people are not admitting they’re in the same position. Self-delusion can be a wonderful thing and there are plenty of institutions such as religion to help facilitate those delusions. Did I tell you I was approached by a Jehovah’s Witness while pumping gas this morning?

Y: No, you did not. That seems like a strange place to be approached. 

M: It was just after 6:00 this morning, so no one else around. I’m not sure the gas station attendant was even awake. So, it’s just the two of us out there, pumping gas. He’s a reasonable-looking gentleman in a camel-colored dress coat and a sock cap. I’m standing there in my boots and cowboy hat with a car coat on. He comes up and says something to the effect that I look like I read a lot and hands me this brochure, says that if I go to this website, which to me was easily recognizable as religion’s website, I can find six “modern” translations of the Bible and if I don’t speak English they have it in 96 other languages.

Y: What’d you say?

M: Thank you, and then returned to pumping my gas.

Y: You didn’t engage him?

M: Why would I? People of faith are not easily convinced by any reasonable argument under the best of circumstances and standing in freezing winds at a gas pump at 6:00 in the morning is far from ideal circumstances. There’s no point in wasting one’s breath arguing matters of faith because those who believe, and mind you, I’m not picking on one more than the other, but those who are committed to identifying with their belief system are already delusional. They don’t want to see the holes in the logic, nor the evidence of its fallacies, nor the massive gaps in its logic and reasoning. Faith, of necessity, transcends all of that.

Y: So, you’re saying people of faith are ignorant?

M: No, don’t put words in my mouth. 

Y: You’re the one typing.

M: (rolling eyes) There are many people of faith who are intelligent and many who even realize that the things they believe are out of sync with matters of logic and reason but still choose to believe. There are many people who are of the opinion that matters of faith transcend everything else. When one chooses such a belief system it is very difficult, perhaps impossible to convince them otherwise.

Y: That doesn’t stop you from complaining about them.

M: Only because they have this nasty habit of trying to impose their belief system on everyone and everything else. Belief systems are fine on a personal level—believe in whoever or whatever you want—but they are just that, personal, and to impose them on anyone or anything else is morally wrong on a more universal level.

Y: Shouldn’t a belief system affect one’s lifestyle?

M: Perhaps, but if it does, it is your life it should affect, not mine. No one has the right to legislate a belief system. Theocracy is wrong and, interestingly enough, goes against the tenents of every major religion! There is no deity that desires to be in the government business. 

Y: People of faith don’t seem to see it that way.

M: Yes, I’ve noticed. That’s because their organizations have been politically motivated for thousands of years, mistranslating their holy scriptures to meet their political needs, and claiming heresy when someone tries to point out what the scriptures originally said. It’s an underhanded and shameful way of manipulating people to get them to do what you want and if their deities do exist and there is an afterlife, both of which I question, then those deities are likely to punish those severely who have bastardized the belief and taken advantage of people.

Y: Strange to hear you say that. You were raised differently. You even worked in churches, went to a religious university and everything. What happened? How did you get so contrary?

M: A number of things. One was being exposed to all the people my traditional belief system was labeling as “wrong.” Maintaining a belief system is easy when cocooned within a community of like minds. When one steps outside that community and begins to relate with others, one is likely to find the horrible things said about those “others” is largely untrue and bigoted. 

Y: Bigoted? That’s a rather strong accusation.

M: Yes, but it’s accurate. There is an intentional lack of understanding within religious groups for those who exist external to them. They say they don’t want to be “polluted” with the heresy and “sin.” The truth is, it’s the only way to keep people inside the religion. When they find out that the “bad” people aren’t so bad after all, everything else starts to fall apart.

Y: So, if we all started hanging out with each other and understanding each other, religion would die away?

M: Probably not, as there is a need within a lot of people to believe in something and religions offer a well-packaged something. However, religious participation is declining across the board and most dramatically among younger people. The Washington Post did an opinion piece back in October about that very topic, and there have been several other observational pieces as well [click here to read the WaPo article]. Religious institutions are not the authoritative source they were even ten years ago. People are tired of feeling manipulated.

Y: Is this why you’re so grumpy all the time? You do realize no one ever sees you smile.

M: Okay, let’s get some things straight. First, I’m not grumpy all the time. Most times, inside my head I’m quite pleasant. That’s in part because most of my day is spent alone and there’s no one around to upset me except the animals. Conversations with Kat and Gabe are usually pleasant. It’s when I look at the news that my mood goes sour. If people external to me weren’t such assholes I’d be a much better person to get along with. I’d probably be a lot more quiet, too.

Y: You’re telling me it’s all everyone else’s fault you’re an old grouch?

M: For the most part, yes. I mean, sure, I’m rather short on patience at this point in my life. Not that I’ve ever had much. A lack of patience has been a problem going all the way back to college and probably further. I set what I think are reasonable expectations and when those expectations are not met I tend to get frustrated, especially when what is delayed effects something or someone else. The computer is the worst offender. I expect it to work. Always. Efficiently. 

Y: Computers are inanimate objects, though. 

M: Are they, really? AI is growing by leaps and bounds and I’m not so sure but what there isn’t already a small, limited amount of sentience in every electronic device created at this point. Just enough to know when to slow down or turn off an app right at that critical point where hours of work are lost.

Y: You’re smiling. Please tell me you’re not serious.

M: Probably not, but, maybe.

Y: You’re nuts.

M: I thought that was a given.

Y: So, dramatically changing the subject, what do you do for fun?

M: I don’t.

Y: You don’t have fun?

M: As an explicit act, no, and that’s a failing on my part.

Y: There’s nothing you enjoy?

M: That’s a different question. There are plenty of things that I enjoy. I enjoy taking pictures. I enjoy spending time with Kat. I enjoy conversations with my sons. I enjoy intimacy and sex. I enjoy intelligent conversations with the few people who don’t mind associating with me. I enjoy good food. But I don’t view any of those things as recreational. Fun, in my mind, implies a recreational aspect on some level, and recreation isn’t something I’ve allowed on my schedule. I should, I know I should, I would be a lot closer to something sane if I did, but I don’t.
Studies consistently show that we need playtime, it’s built into our DNA. I get that. I have trouble turning off this brain, thing, though. If I’m not doing something that has a specific output for a determined purpose, I feel though I’m being lazy and inadequate, two things I won’t allow myself to be.

Y: That sounds dangerous. Don’t you ever relax?

M: Sort of. I reach points at the end of the day where my eyes hurt from looking at screens all day or my head hurts from trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense and I’ll stop, have some scotch and a cigar, chat with Kat a bit, and sometimes have some sugar-free ice cream. That’s relaxing. And I nap, though, increasingly, that’s a necessity. I’m old.

Y: Sounds like a rather unpleasant level of intensity.

M: Does it? I don’t know. I’ve done it for so long I’m not sure how I’d function any other way. I know I’m not looking forward to reaching that point where I’m no longer physically or mentally able to do something constructive. That’s going to be hell.

Y: You’re not looking forward to retiring?

M: I don’t think I get to retire, honestly, until I reach that point I can no longer hold a camera or form coherent sentences on paper. I think retirement is a privilege of the rich and I’m far from rich. When I reach that point where I’m no longer of any use to anyone, I’ll be happy if Kat lets me sit quietly in a corner drooling on myself until I expire. 

Y: You don’t sit still very long, do you? You’ve been up and down through this entire conversation.

M: No, I don’t. My mind is constantly thinking of something else I need to do. If my coffee cup starts getting low, I need to make coffee. If I see the cats have knocked clothes onto the floor, I need to do laundry, and all those are things that if I don’t get up and do right then while I’m thinking about them, they won’t get done. The worst is the floor. The living room floor needs to be vacuumed but everyone’s still asleep. I’ll forget by the time everyone’s up and it won’t get done and I’ll remember again in the morning and go through the whole thing again.

Y: It makes it difficult to have a conversation with you. I get the feeling you’re not paying attention.

M: I’m absolutely paying attention at the moment. I hear everything being said and do my best to respond intelligently. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember anything five minutes after we finish talking. I forget a lot and the older I get the more difficult it is to remember things. Like the 80s. I remember pieces, special events and all, but on the whole, it’s a big blank in my memory banks. 

Y: Does that bother you?

M: More than you can possibly imagine. Granddaddy, Poppa’s father, had Alzheimer’s and I remember too distinctly how dementia slowly took over, how he lost his sense of time and place, and how, toward the end, the most gentle and loving soul in the world became so mean only certain members of the nursing staff at the facility he was in could administer his medication. His last days were tortured and I don’t want to fall victim to that.

Y: Wait, what just happened? 

M: I burned my thumb on a pan I just took out of the oven. 

Y: But you had a potholder, I saw you.

M: Yeah, but the tip of my thumb still managed to come into contact with the pan. This sort of hurts.

Y: Do you need to put something on it?

M: No, it’s extremely superficial, hardly even red. It will go away in a few minutes. 

Y: And just like that, you move on. You’re typing full speed again. The pain doesn’t bother you?

M: I feel it, sort of, but no, I don’t let it bother me. I can’t. If I let pain bother me I’d never get anything done. 

Y: You burn yourself that often?

M: (laughing) No, not too often, but there’s always pain. After that egregious misdiagnosis with my leg and foot seven years ago, pain has been a constant. My choices were either dangerous and addictive meds or try to work it out. I refused to be a victim of opioids, so I decided to work with it on my own and here we are. It took some time, about three years, and I still don’t have full mobility, I don’t expect I ever will, but I get around and do what I need to do and the pain is simply a background thing I’ve learned to ignore. 

Y: Do you take anything?

M: Maybe an NSAID on the really bad days but that’s it. Masking pain isn’t beneficial. Pain is how our body tells us something’s wrong. If we ignore the pain, if we ignore changes in the pain, we do more damage. 

Y: So, you don’t think people should take pain meds?

M: There you go putting words in my mouth again. No, people should talk to their doctors and do what makes the most sense for them. For me, it is a matter of learning to live with my decision one way or the other. There’s no “fixing” the problem now without rebreaking and attempting to reset all the bones in my foot. The odds of that making things worse are higher than the chances of actually improving anything. Someone else in a different situation may make other choices and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Y: You have a cat in your face.

M: That’s Lyndy. Those things happen around here.

Y: Why? So many cats in such a small house?

M: Because Kat’s crazy? (laughs) Because we’re too compassionate to turn them out and let bad things happen to them. They’re all rescues of one sort or another. It’s a challenge to keep up with them and it makes it almost impossible to have guests over because no matter what we do there is going to be cat hair. I’m not even the world’s biggest fan of cats, but at this point, I can’t see us getting rid of any of them, unless there’s one you want to adopt (smiles).

Y: Uhm, no, thanks. You’re a little over 5,000 words now, by the way. Do you want to continue?

M: I don’t care. Do you think anyone is actually still reading at this point? I could probably say something really outlandish and see if anyone notices. Not that anyone ever comments, anyway. Those few who do read rarely say anything. That disappoints me, but I’ve gotten accustomed to it No one ever checks my references, either. I could be pulling information out of my ass and posting links to Disney porn and no one would know the difference. 

Y: Disney porn? That’s a thing?

M. Yeah. It’s illegal as hell but it’s out there and it gets a lot more hits than I do. 

Y: That bothers you.

M: Of course it does. I don’t like being ignored.

Y: Why do you think no one pays more attention to what you’re doing?

M: A couple of reasons One is that I went cheap and give this website a .xyz domain. It cost less than a dollar to register and I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do with it. If you look back through the archives, we’ve done a lot of different things here and I can’t say we won’t do something even more different in the future. I don’t know. Anyway, the .xyz domain pops up as being untrusted on some networks. Like, if there’s a comment, usually spam, that I need to moderate. I get an email giving me a link to that comment. If I click on that link, my mail program instantly pops up an alter because of the xyz domain warning that the site may not be trustworthy. I know it’s okay, but for other people, that’s enough to avoid the site and go elsewhere.
The second reason is that there’s already so much other information out there and it’s difficult to cut through the clutter, and most of it is just that: clutter. People would rather look at pictures of Lyndy than read anything informational. Our brains are overloaded to the point we cannot consume anything of any depth. 

Y: I should probably mention at this point that you are dressed, have been for some time now, given that you went out and came back. Just making that point of clarification.

M: Thank you. I’d hate for anyone to think I’d gone to the gas station in my underwear.

Y: You roll your eyes a lot.

M: Do I? Kat says I do but I’m almost never aware of it. It annoys the hell out of her and I can appreciate why but I’m genuinely not aware of it happening so it makes it difficult for me to control. 

Y: You do, and I can understand why Kat would feel slighted. You’ve done it like thirty times through this conversation.

M: I apologize. Perhaps that’s a sufficient reason to end here.

Y: Sounds good. Any idea what you’ll write for next week?

M: Meh. Maybe something spirited. I almost hate to guess, though, with the Impeachment vote coming up this week. I don’t trust the overwhelming stupidity of everyone in Washington. Writing something positive is difficult when the level of inane ridiculousness reaches such a fevered pitch. We’ll see.

Y: Thank you for your time.

M: Thank you for listening.

Looking For Legacy

Note: I’m a rebel and don’t underline anything like links to other websites. I do have links scattered throughout this article, though. You’ll find them hiding behind the text in bold italics. Except for that example just before this sentence. Go ahead, click the links. They’ll take you somewhere. Probably. Also, in regard to that whole ten-year challenge, the photos with today’s article are re-processed versions of self-portraits taken across several years. How many, I’m not sure. I know the baby in the second photo is a teenager now. No relevance, just something to amuse myself.

This week’s article is probably going to be shorter than normal. I was 3632 words into an article on Thanksgiving and its foundation in elitism, not reality, when I came across this article in The New Yorker that said almost exactly the same things, quoted or referenced many of the same sources, tossed in the author of a related book, and did it all in under a thousand words. Obviously, they were missing some of the humor and detail I was putting in my article, but at the end of the day, the article they published on Monday of this past week (November 18) scooped everything I was going to say. 

Insert heavy sigh and a couple of expletives. Now I have to find something else to write about and I have two days to do it instead of six. Maybe we just skip this week, or go ahead and run one of those “looking back” or “In the past ten years” articles that magazines use for filler when they can’t think of any decent content this time of year. I’ve done that before. I’m trying to not do that again this year. We’re just under 200 words at this point. How am I doing?

I’m panicking, that’s how I’m doing. Getting something interesting written isn’t the only reason for the panic this morning. The end of the year is some five and a half weeks away and with that brings the not insignificant decisions about what to do next year, whether to continue current activities or change course and try something else. On most things, I’m rather stubborn about continuing because most of what I’m doing is working the way I expected it to work. However, there are exceptions and it is the exceptions that are causing me angst. 

When I’m honest about what is going on, I have to admit that I’m dealing with something that perhaps is unique to older creatives: Fear Of Being Forgotten. This is in sharp contrast to the whole millennial FOMO thing. Missing out isn’t all that big of a concern for me. I don’t like flying because I hate airports. I don’t do arena concerts because what the fuck is the point if you can’t see the band or hear the music? I don’t do extreme anything because extreme things are for extreme people who the rest of us if we’re honest, find annoying. [Don’t worry, we’ll never say that to your face.] Missing out doesn’t bother me because I’m not especially motivated to do those things in the first place.

What bothers me is the fear that I’m going to be forgotten. The fear that if I miss a week’s post, or go a week without publishing more photographs, or even if I simply keep doing the exact same thing I’ve been doing for the past 35 years, I’ll one day wake up and no one will know, or care, who I am. I will disappear from everyone’s memory and everything I’ve ever done will be gone. 

I would think that I’m alone and psychotic in this fear and while I’ve not yet eliminated the psychiatric failings a couple of quick messages to former classmates assures me I’m not alone. As the world around us changes into something we no longer recognize, the need to be remembered grows stronger. The challenge is not that we fear being consigned to history but that we want to make sure our page is included in the book and not edited out.

Walk with me.

It Started With A Random Article

A long time ago

There are various places on various devices I use that feed me headlines to random news stories. Most of these are curated along general topics such as politics, art, news, weather, etc. Most days, they all link to the same stories from different sources. However, a couple of weeks ago, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain adequately, my phone offered up a link to an article written in 2013 by a young English woman named Vanessa who lives in Paris. She sounds sufficiently nice and perfectly millennial in all the appropriate ways but the article she wrote six years ago, Found in a Junk Shop: Secrets of an Undiscovered Visionary Artist sent a chill down my spine. 

WHY did Google suddenly think I needed to see this depressing headline right now? Every other article suggested was current. Why did they feel that this six-year-old article by a person I don’t know is suddenly relevant now? Why is the Smashed-Face Wheezer Kitty sitting in the dish drain cleaning himself? Life is full of too many questions and not nearly enough answers

The article is about a Prussian immigrant named Charles Dellschau who worked as a butcher and died in 1923. Several years after his death, a used furniture dealer bought 12 notebooks off a junk collector. The used furniture dealer paid no attention to the notebooks until an Art History student actually opened one and discovered absolutely amazing artwork on the inside. The entire contents of the notebooks are nothing short of incredible. 

Mr. Dellschau had spent the bulk of his elder years after he had retired from chopping up dead animals, documenting the plans and conversations of a secret organization known as the Sonoma Aero Club. Apparently, the club was composed of people, perhaps engineers or physicists, who were studying the possibility of human flight long before the Wright Brothers. Dellschau’s notebooks are largely the minutes of that club’s activities and include spectacular drawings done in colored pencil of the various plans the members had submitted for possible flying machines, many of which appear architecturally feasible. 

Mind you, the drawings start in 1899, more than twenty years before the Wright Brothers started piecing together bicycle parts in North Carolina. The notebooks talk about the goings-on of the secret society and hint at an even larger secret society that controlled their actions, so it’s not surprising that the notebooks were hidden and nearly lost completely. 

However, the presence of these drawings raises some questions about Mr. Dellshau’s past. These are not the work of someone who simply picked up a colored pencil one day and started messing around. Mr. Dellschau was 71 when he started compiling these notebooks. What happened before then besides the whole immigration and being a butcher thing? Where did he learn to draw? Did he go to art school in Europe somewhere? We do know he was 25 when he migrated to the US, but there’s a lot of ground to cover between 1853 and 1899. How could such talent have remained hidden and unknown?

Pretty easily, actually. Consider the time when he arrived in the US, just barely before the start of the Civil War. Art wasn’t exactly a bustling enterprise and being an artist wasn’t exactly the kind of job that paid the rent. Being a butcher was more reliable because if there’s one thing about US history that hasn’t changed over the years it is the fact that we are fanatical about eating meat.

Were there any other Dellschau works that weren’t secret though? We’ve no idea and there’s no way at this point to follow up on any conjecture. At some point, a nurse who had been looking after Dellschau’s elderly step-daughter was ordered to clean the trash from the house. The notebooks and many other things were put out on the curb for the trash. A junk collector saved the 12 notebooks, but there’s no indication as to what else might have been among the clutter. 

What we do know is that a single page from one of the notebooks was demanding $15,000 at auction in the late 1990s. The works of those notebooks are valuable for both their historical value and insight as well as the quality of Dellschaus’s artwork.

Reading through Vanessa’s article was both interesting and disheartening. What Dellschau documented has the potential to alter our view of flight history. At the same time, though, here was someone whose talent was shelved and literally discarded. Hundreds of pages of drawings that represent hours upon hours of handwork cast aside and totally forgotten even by his own family! The fact that absolutely no one cared is devastating.

Now we are at the point where the article triggers my fear. What is to prevent my own work from completely disappearing and being forgotten? Yes, I’ve given my boys instructions to publish my photographs through whatever means available when I die, but that in no way means anyone is going to give a shit. The digital works especially could easily be lost, deleted, or left on drives that later technology no longer has the capacity to access. Charles I. Letbetter could end up being as forgotten as was Charles Dellschau, and I don’t have a secret airship-building club to document for later retrieval. This line of thought is deeply disturbing.

What It Means To Have A Legacy

What Is A Legacy

By purest definition, a legacy typically involves the bequest of someone deceased. That’s not, particularly, how the word is used in popular culture, however. We often hear of the legacy of former presidents, for example, whether they’re yet dead or not. If President Obama can have a legacy, then so can I. He’s a year younger than me, that whippersnapper. 

If one is looking for help establishing their legacy, though, good luck finding it. While there are plenty of “financial planners” who will help you “manage” your estate while you are living, and a plethora of attorneys ready to help draw up a complicated will and/or establish living trusts or family foundations, there’s nothing outside the financial industry to help make sure one is remembered for anything other than investing well and leaving a pile of cash that everyone wants for their own projects. 

In recent years, though, a different kind of legacy has cropped up, a digitally-oriented existence that continues on after a person dies. The use of the term legacy is loosely derived from the tech world’s reference to older software and computer systems. That has morphed into legacy profiles, the continued existence of a person’s social media accounts after they’ve died. Typically, they’re maintained by a surviving family member as a way for friends to share remembrances of the deceased. They don’t typically get a lot of traffic and I always find it interesting how not everyone on their friend list knows or remembers that a person has passed when their birthday rolls around. I am friends with one such legacy profile of a former high school classmate. She’s been gone over five years, but I still get reminders from Facebook on her birthday and when I look, sure enough, there are clueless congratulations from people who have no idea she’s dead. 

These digital legacies are still new enough and uncoordinated enough to not have any boundaries around them. Nothing other than a family member’s interest determines how long the legacy profiles stay active. In theory, that family member could continue posting as the deceased, though that would be really creepy. Most I’ve observed just sit there with remembrances posted on the anniversary of the person’s death or, because we’re reminded, on their birthday. 

Others, though, become online places to grieve. One such profile, in particular, strikes me because of the frequency with which the deceased’s family post messages to her. The young woman’s untimely death four years ago is something her family still struggles to understand and her mother and sister regularly post messages to her wall, often at great length, as part of their grieving process. They’ll occasionally post pictures, talk about family trips when she was young, or recount embarrassing moments that make them laugh. For those family members, the profile is cathartic and maintains the legacy of their loved one.

There are other forms of digital legacy as well that are more professional and curated. At least, that’s what they set out to be. Google the name of most any deceased celebrity and you’ll see what I mean. Take, for example, the late actor Bela Lugosi. He became famous for his 1931 depiction of Count Dracula and went on to make quite a career in cinema’s early horror movies. At 6’ 1”, his towering height over most actors and his thick Hungarian accent was unmistakable. For millions of fans, Bela Lugosi was Dracula and the website celebrates his memory with movie clips and pictures.

Oh, and you can also buy stuff. The site, operated by the late actor’s son, licenses merchandise with the Bela Lugosi name, making it possible, if one is really such a committed fan, to purchase t-shirts, posters, beer, greeting cards, guitars, or even a life-sized resin bust. The family also operates Lugosi Wines. I’m guessing they specialize in reds. Blood reds. (If you didn’t roll your eyes just then, please check your pulse.) Even here, there’s a relationship to the financial concept of a legacy taking care of one’s surviving family. I’ve no idea how many people actually spend money on Bela Lugosi products, but I assume it’s enough to pay the annual web hosting fees so that the original on-screen Dracula is never forgotten.

Lugosi is fortunate in that there is someone who cares about how he is remembered and has carefully curated the site to protect his name and reputation. Not every celebrity gets that treatment. 

A perfect example is the late supporting actor Robert Prosky. He has nearly 80 film credits, mostly from the 1980s, and had a thriving stage career twenty years before that. He had a family with three children who, presumably loved him, but his on-screen legacy is in the hands of people who don’t have a direct attachment to the late actor. There are his IMDb profile and his Wikipedia page but both of those are subject to amateur curating and are not guaranteed to be accurate. There’s also a lack of warmth and emotion as both sites are designed to simply restate facts such as movies in which he appeared and the dates of stage performances. 

Also, no one seems to be aching to make money off the actor’s memory. Almost certainly, there’s some provision for continuing royalties to be forwarded to his family, but they’re not out there with Robert Prosky t-shirts, mugs, or 2-acre plotted subdivisions (I see you, Dennis Weaver family). That in no way means that his family didn’t love him and doesn’t appreciate his memory. 

If anything, I am disturbed by the uneasy connection between a person’s legacy and the licensing of their memory. I cannot help but wonder if the motivation for such lies in an effort to protect the reputation of a beloved person or to compensate for the loss of revenue caused by their death. I understand the licensing of a likeness or name as a means of protecting one’s reputation, especially regarding living celebrities or those recently deceased. Former NBA star Michael Jordan pretty much set the standard for making money off his own name and he jealously protects the brand he has created. Others, though, such as the Bela Lugosi guitars, seems like a desperate reach to make a buck wherever one can. One ends up asking the question of whether this is legacy or exploitation?

At the center of these questions remains the primary goal of remembering who someone was and what they did. If selling cheesy merchandise keeps someone’s name from being completely forgotten, is that worthwhile? Is that what the deceased would have wanted? Does it in any way reflect who they were, their goals and desires in life? Does the method matter as long as the motive is achieved?

Perhaps what bugs me, even more, is the question of whether it is better to have a cheesy, laughable legacy versus no legacy at all? If not selling licensed merch results in one being forgotten altogether, have we lost something important? Think of all the young people who had bit supporting roles in forgettable films or short-lived TV series and are now completely forgotten except as an IMDb listing with little information. For some, that is exactly what they want, having walked away from the film industry to make their mark elsewhere. 

Others, though, perhaps desired and deserved something more but fate intervened, taking their young lives early through no fault of their own. Heather O’Rourke, from the Poltergeist movies, comes to mind. Her only “legacy” remaining is the odd fact that died of cardiac arrest at the age of twelve while filming Poltergeist III. The child had been ill and was undergoing surgery at the time. Short of that oddity, she is all but forgotten.

There is no guarantee that just because someone did something noticeable once upon a time than anyone is going to remember whatever it was they did. Not everyone has a legitimate legacy, something that is remembered and is of value. What’s more, we don’t necessarily get to determine whether we have a legacy or what that legacy is. If we want any part in determining what people remember about us, we have to manage that memory before we die. Bet you didn’t have that on your bucket list, did you?

Managing Your Own Legacy

Who was this guy

Oddly enough, we’ve circled back around to the research I did for that article on Thanksgiving you’re not reading. When it comes to legacy management, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD), or Mayflower Society as they’re more commonly known, does about as good a job of making sure the memory of the original pilgrims is kept alive and thriving. They’ve had to do that because if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be talking about Pilgrims and arguing about the treatment of native tribes. In fact, chances are reasonably high we wouldn’t think about that first set of 102 strangely dressed people at all if the Mayflower Society hadn’t commandeered Thanksgiving over 100 years ago.

You see, when President Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday in 1863, he had other motives in mind, namely, getting re-elected and ending the damned civil war. The establishment of a Thanksgiving holiday was an astute and calculated political move in an attempt to buoy up the spirit of a country whose moral was devastated by the prolonged war. Lincoln was looking at an election coming up the next year and while it might have been an electoral college landslide (221-21), he still only won 55% of the popular vote, which means a lot of people weren’t on board with how things were going. 

Establishing a national holiday was a call for unity, an attempt to put a positive spin on dire circumstances, and shifting the blame to deity because if we’re thanking God for the good things, we can blame him for the bad stuff, too. Classic governmental “it’s not our fault,” deflection.

What Lincoln was doing, in a manner so unique that a young Mike Pence made it the topic of his senior thesis at Hanover College, was co-opting religion for political purposes. Keeping the Union voters focused on “their godly duty” kept their mind off an ungodly war and the act that even when they were winning there were still a lot of people being killed. There’s no mention of pilgrims or Plymouth or turkeys or indigenous peoples in his declaration. 

So, along comes the dear folk of the Mayflower Society who decided that the legacy of their ancestors fit well with the new holiday and decided the two needed to be married. They sought to cement the legacy of what was actually only 40 people, most of whom died the first winter. [The other people, known as “strangers,” had been allowed on board because the Pilgrims couldn’t afford to pay for the trip by themselves.] However, since they were working with people who didn’t take copious notes of every aspect of their lives or Instagram every meal they ever ate, they decided they would make things up as they went, making their ancestors appear divinely righteous as they settled the New Land filled with savages. 

Yes, they intentionally made shit up, something for which they’ve apologized in advance of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage next year. They’ve also apologized to some 4,500 descendants of the Wampanoag tribe who were driven from their land by the first descendants of the Mayflower settlers. All this was done, however, in the name of legacy building, creating something that would justify remembering their ancestors. 

Such is the risk of dying. If we’ve not already established our legacies before we pass, we leave our stories to be told by someone else who may not have the same motivation in telling our stories as we have for ourselves. To protect our legacy, we have to begin managing them ourselves before we die. 

I’ve looked around at what it takes to build a lasting legacy and I, quite honestly, consider most of the advice horse shit. What you’ll find on the standard Google search is a bunch of feel-good claptrap with bullet points listing nonsense such as, “Dare to be joyful,” “Nauseate yourself,” “Consider the responsibility that comes with your power,” “Do the next right thing,” and just in case you forgot, “Die.” Apparently doing this is called “leadership” because every last one of those came from a leadership article printed in places like INC magazine and Harvard Business Review. Notice I’m not giving you links to the articles. They’re stupid, vague and unrealistic. Don’t read them.

No, I’ve done a lot of studying in the past 12 or so hours and this is the more honest list of what it takes to build a legacy.

  1. Have kids

Why? Because, “your children are your greatest legacy,” in theory. Of course, that’s assuming that your children actually turn out okay and do something with their lives besides sitting on the couch losing at video games all day. The flaw in this piece is that not every child is going to grow up giving a damn about what you’ve done with your life. In fact, they’re more likely to want to separate their legacy from yours, which means you’re not going to get any real help from them. Also, it’s apparently bad to pressure kids to actually do something. Kids are not dependable. However, if you don’t have kids there’s no one to verify that you actually exist. They don’t have to like you, they may call you names, but as long as they can confirm your existence they’ve done their part.

  1. Do something

What’s going to help you here is if you’re doing something no one else is doing, or do something first that everyone else wants to do, or, if you’re really desperate, do something better than anyone. Legacy is perpetuated on the concept that you’re different and thereby special, at least in that one specific area. Of course, this means you’re probably going to have to put forth some effort of some kind. I suppose there are some folks over at Guinness World Records who might care if you grow the longest beard or don’t cut your fingernails for 30 years but, for the most part, lazy people don’t get legacies. Maybe you create beautiful portraits by holding the fuzzy end of the brush in your mouth. Perhaps you invent a new and more effective way of impeaching presidents. Find a cure for stupidity and your legacy is pretty much a lock. But at the core, you have to do something.

  1. Monetize what you do

People are much more interested in what you do if you’re making money doing it. Why? Because they hope to copy you and make money, also. This is why being first is important. License your shit as you go so that no one can make money by copying you without your attornies suing their ass to hell and back. Having your work licensed before you die also makes it easier for your descendants to make money off your work which will please them very much because, like Bela Lugosi’s son, they don’t have to get their own job. Having a lot of money when you die helps pay for all the things necessary to make sure people remember that you made a lot of money. There’s also the fact that if people become accustomed to paying for your shit before you die they’ll go nuts and pay a lot more after you die. Again, something to make your kids happy and more willing, maybe, to care about your legacy.

  1. Organize your shit

Charles Dellschau’s work would never have been found had he not put it all in notebooks that he made himself. Millions of dollars worth of amazing art and artifacts have been lost to history because they were left sitting someplace where no one expected to find anything valuable. Your life’s work could be similarly lost if there’s not some reasonably organized method through which it can be retrieved. This is an especially difficult thing for creatives because many of us are, by nature, rather scattered and cluttered at best. Some of the most brilliant thinkers I’ve met are also some of the sloppiest in keeping things where they can be found. Get a safe. Get a lockbox. Utilize some method of organization that’s not subject to someone making monthly payments for the space. You want the memories of your life to be secure even if you die at sea and no one notices for a couple of months. Then, make sure someone knows where everything is. Don’t leave it where the maid might throw it out with the trash.

  1. Build demand for what you do

This part is super tough because let be honest, there are a lot of creative people the world is too stupid to appreciate while they’re alive. I worry strongly that I’m among that group. If there is demand for what you do before you die, then there is likely to be continued demand for what you did after you die. If that’s not possible, and it’s not always our choice, steps four and six are all the more important because when that demand does occur, when people finally get a clue and appreciate what you do, the work has to be organized and the right people have to be in charge of your legacy. Legacy is easier, though, if one has already made an impression and burned at least some small place in the public mind.

  1. Leave the right people in charge

Remember those kids we mentioned all the way back in step one? Here’s where they could finally become important. Once you’re gone you don’t get a lot of say in what happens to your stuff or your memory. People say what they want, remember what fits their own agenda. Sure, you can have a will, but the reach of that document is limited. Establishing a foundation or trust gives you the opportunity to assign people to manage what you leave. If your children are enthusiastic and competent, then assign them to the boards. If you’re not sure you can trust them, find people you can. Leaving the right people in charge can cause your legacy to either be great or a complete disaster.

  1. Die during a slow news cycle

31 August 1997 is a powerful day for many people for that was the day Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car accident. Do you know who else died that day? No, you don’t because the news of her death completely overwhelmed every other death for the next week. Two days later, Rudolph Bing, the fantastic manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera died, as did noted psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl. During a slower news cycle, both of those deaths would have been noteworthy but they had the misfortune of dying at a time when everyone was paying attention to what was happening in Britain. This makes it important to watch everything and everyone around you, avoid taking unnecessary risks, especially in the back of limousines, and be sure to take your vitamins. Kind of like looking both ways before you cross the street, try to make sure no one’s going to eclipse the news of your death; it makes the whole legacy thing difficult to establish.

Legacies Don’t Last Forever

The Old Man

When I’m taking my son to work we pass by two cemeteries within a few hundred yards of each other. The one on our left is over 150 years old and contains several large obelisks and massive headstones to mark the memory of someone who died a long time ago. The size of those monuments suggests that perhaps it is worth one’s time to investigate the legacy of the person buried there. The cemetery on our right is what is known as a “perpetual care” cemetery. There are no obelisks or massive pieces of granite. Instead, bronze markers are placed above each grave at a level that allows the grounds to be mowed and manicured with relative ease. To some extent, everyone is equal in this cemetery, a forced democratization in death. At the same time, there’s nothing here that suggests anyone in that field is worth remembering. 

There are precious few names, maybe 200 over all of history, that are remembered more than a couple of generations. Those names belong to people who radically changed the world or at least, their part of it. What they did still holds some effect today and that makes them worth remembering. For everyone else? Good luck being remembered more than a generation. 

A couple of years ago, Disney released an interesting movie named COCO. One of the subplots to the story is a centuries-old myth that when there is no one left among the living to speak your name, your soul dies and is gone forever. Accordingly, that is why celebrations like Día de Muertos are important, they keep alive the names of one’s ancestors which guarantees their souls’ continued existence. In essence, it becomes the responsibility of one’s family to facilitate their legacy. If the family decides that one’s name is to no longer be mentioned, as is the case in the movie, then that person’s soul can be lost forever.

While I’m not big on mythologies, there is still that concern that at whatever point no one remembers my name, finds it printed in some genealogy, or attached to a photographic print hanging on someone’s wall, the value of my existence disappears. This creates an existential problem. If, at some point in the future, my existence no longer matters, does my existence matter now? Why go to all the effort of creating anything if, say 200 years in the future, absolutely no one has any clue, not even a hint, that the works created or the people involved in creating them ever lived? If there’s no longevity, why bother?

There is a term for what I may be experiencing here. I’m not inclined to believe any online diagnosis, but I find this, on some level, to be interesting. Consider:

Athazagoraphobia is a rarely discussed phobia. It means the fear of forgetting or the fear of being forgotten or ignored. Thus, Athazagoraphobia is of two types or has dual components: it might be seen in dementia patients in their early stages (or patients suffering from other medical conditions where memory loss occurs) where they fear forgetting their own identity and other things.  Alternatively, it may be seen in spouses or caregivers of Alzheimer’s/dementia patients where the individuals believe their loved ones will forget them eventually, (or that they would be forgotten after the loved one has passed). It may even be triggered in the childhood where one has been left alone or been ignored for long periods of time. [source]

That all sounds legitimate until one gets down toward the bottom of the same page and reads:

Gingko Biloba, Ginseng, omega-3 fatty acid supplements, etc are some proven medicines that can arrest memory loss and improve general cognitive brain function.
Patients must also focus on eating a diet rich in walnuts, salmon, fruits and vegetables as well as exercising regularly to keep depression at bay and delay age-related memory loss. 

Uhm, in a word, no. While I don’t want to completely discount natural remedies, when I see yet another ailment claiming to be cured by Gingko Biloba and Ginseng it is difficult to not chalk it up as untested and unproven because there have been no definitive peer-reviewed studies on Ginseng and Gingko Biloba that satisfactorily prove they help anything. They don’t hurt, per se, but they don’t cure.

Still, there’s some comfort in knowing that there’s a word. I won’t remember it, but I’ll have this article to refer back to as long as I continue to pay the hosting fees on a regular basis. The Internet is another thing that may not be as permanent as we like to think it is. Take out the power grid and the whole thing is useless. More likely, replace it with better technology and it becomes useless and, over time, forgotten as do humans.

At least with Mr. Dellschau’s drawings, his legacy seems secure in the hands of a capable and interested curator. Well, it did for a while. It seems the person who wrote the book about Dellschau and was in possession of the notebooks ran short on cash and started selling them off one page at a time. 

That’s the way things happen in the art world, though, isn’t it? No matter how well one is known, no matter how valuable their work, once a piece of art is sold the artist is no longer in control. There is nothing to stop priceless works from being bought up and stored, unseen, in someone’s garage. As long as there are still plenty of works in the public realm the artist’s memory remains alive, but should a collector corner the market on a given artist’s work, they can doom their legacy by keeping the works hidden.

No matter what we do, no matter what steps we take, there are no guarantees. Odds are overwhelming that, sooner or later, we are forgotten and our attempts at creating a legacy for ourselves become irrelevant. 

Some would claim that this inevitable irrelevance is sufficient argument for living solely in the moment: You Only Live Once (YOLO). If what we do ultimately doesn’t matter then why not do what makes us happy at this very moment, even if it means going into debt? 

My difficulty with that concept is that while the long-term view of life may be less than positive, the short-term view is that our lives are generally too long to be careless. If all we had was the immediate, there would be no reason to be concerned about cancer or war or even propagation of the species. Only when we have an eye toward legacy, toward what comes after us, do we consider the manner in which we treat the environment or bettering society in any way. Only when we look beyond ourselves do we find a reason to care about how we treat others, coming to the defense of the helpless, the integrity of our leaders, or our interpretation of a tradition. 

Sigh. So much for writing a short article. What began as a frustration point has developed into this whole treatise that aimlessly looks for a way to justify caring about my work. I sit here now, 5,000 words and two days later wondering if there is any point in creating anything at all. 

For the moment, my consolation is that even if I am not eternally remembered, perhaps, through means and methods out of my control, my work might positively influence someone else who does become that person who joins the list of names recognized through the ages for their contribution to the world. My sons are still young enough to do something surprising. Perhaps three generations from now, someone might see one of my prints and find the spark of inspiration is born in them.

I will accept that intermediate thought, and perhaps a shot of scotch, as sufficient comfort to allow me to sleep. The ghost of legacy will return, though, and continue to haunt until a sufficient answer is found. Someone call Mr. Dickens. I hear he has experience with this sort of thing.

You may read that New Yorker piece now. I’m going to make you scroll back to the top of the page for the link, though.

You know you don't read enough. You know you want to be reading a lot more. We've broken the article into chuncks to make reading easier.

“Reading Is Fundamental,” is what we were taught in elementary school. That was back in the days when schools had libraries full of these things called books and children were taught to not only recognize words in a sentence but to understand the context of those words and to appreciate the meaning of a story.

Those days are not entirely gone. I’m not a doomsayer who is certain that the digital revolution spells the end to civilization as we know it. If anything, technology offers us the opportunity to read more than we ever have before. We can know more than we ever have before.

But we don’t, do we? Despite all the resources and opportunity lying around us, our reading time is limited to the four seconds it takes to read a headline and deduce the contents of the associated article or story or book. We live in a world of assumptions thinking we know things we’ve never actually read or studied. Our level of knowledge is false but the extent of our Kreuger-Dunning disease is so severe we don’t care and refuse to acknowledge that we’re living in a fantasy world.

Actually reading is important. Yes, that means sitting down and taking time to not only consume words and sentences and paragraphs but to take some serious time to think about what we’re reading, the inferences of the words chosen and the implications that any given article or story might have to our own situation. The challenge is not that we don’t have the time but that we’d rather spend it doing mindless things such as looking at cat videos. We have devalued the art of reading to the point that we treat it much as we do a chore such as washing the dishes, making the bed, or scooping the cat’s litter box. If we could somehow delegate reading to another person, we would.

My challenge for everyone today is that we begin reclaiming the art of reading, that we take the time, put down the cat videos, and actually consume an entire story. Study the words, consider their meaning, appreciate the effort some writer took to put those words together in the particular order printed. Whether the source is digital or paper is, at this particular point, irrelevant. The words I’m about to give to you are not available in print so to insist that one only consume from that form of media would be a bit disingenuous. What matters is that you read.

I’ll start with a story from this past week, my experience in taking my driving test. I’ve not had a valid driver’s license for over ten years, which meant I had to go through the whole process again that I went through when I turned 16. This was a much different experience. Following that story, I’ll give you a few more from the archives, providing enough material to get one through at least 30-45 minutes of reading.

Of course, I already know that of the few people who start this article only two or three will actually finish. While that makes me sad, I’m not the one who can change that statistic. You are. Reading for yourself is not enough. We must encourage others to read as well.

Here’s the first story.

The Adventure of Taking My Driving Test

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

It’s not fair, you know, an adult being told they can’t drive. Not in today’s world. One has to drive everywhere to get anything. I know because I’ve tried walking and I’m here to tell you that people in cars have absolutely no respect for people who are walking. If you want respect you have to be in another car, riding their bumper, then whip around them and cut them off right in front of a cop. That’s how you get respect. And a $750 ticket for careless driving.

Seriously, the last time I was stopped by a police officer it was because I was guilty of walking. Mind you, THERE WERE SIDEWALKS! What else is a person supposed to do with a sidewalk if they can’t walk on it? But no, someone called the police because they had a report of, and I kid you not, “a suspicious person, matching your description, walking.”

Walking. Not messing with anyone. Not snooping where I wasn’t supposed to be snooping. Just walking, on my way to the grocery to get milk, actually, and I get stopped because someone thought it was suspicious that a grown adult would be walking on a sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. Who the hell calls the cops on someone who is walking? Oh, wait, Maybe they thought I was black or Hispanic. Or perhaps, since I was wearing a blue shirt, they deduced through their massive front window that I’m a registered Democrat There are people who would call the cops for either of those reasons. We’ve seen it happen too many times.

Bottom line is if you want to avoid harassment in these fan-fucking-tastic United States, one has to be able to drive. Not Uber. Not Lyft. Damn sure not the bus. Drive. If a person can’t drive, then there is a significant portion of society that doesn’t consider you a person. I know this because they’ve tried to run me down when I’ve been walking and the only reason they weren’t successful was that I looked at them and the stomped on the brakes out of fear. Had I been better looking, I’d likely be dead. Being scary saved my life when I was walking.

No kidding. About 11 years ago now, I was walking down the street through a part of Indianapolis that tends to have a reputation for being a bit rough. There’s a lot of gang activity in that neighborhood and the police are called to investigate shootings and homicides on a regular basis. I had to walk through this neighborhood at 11:00 at night. It was the only way to get home. I couldn’t afford a cab and the busses had stopped running. That’s right, this neighborhood was so scary even the buses wouldn’t go there at night.

So there I am, walking down the sidewalk, and I see this for young men coming toward me from the opposite direction. I start feeling nervous. There’s four of them, one of me, and my feet are already tired so running is out of the question. We’re getting closer to each other and I feel my heart start to beat faster, my palms begin to get sweating. I didn’t even have a cell phone to call 911. I was concerned about how to handle this situation.

Then, about 20 feet away from me, they stop. One of them points in my direction and whispers to the other three. I’m thinking, “Great, this is it, they’re planning how to kill me.” But I was wrong. The one pointing at me looks scared. His eyes get big because I didn’t stop, I just kept walking and I’m getting closer, and the other guys’ eyes get big too, and now I’m only about ten feet away from them.

That’s when they wave, quietly say, “Hey, how you doing?” then RUN to the other side of the street. Why? Because I scared them more than they scared me. I didn’t say a thing, either. Didn’t brandish a weapon, didn’t even pretend to have one. Just walked right at them. And they ran.

There comes a point, though, where walking just doesn’t cut it. It’s more than not getting the respect one deserves. From where I live now, it’s over four miles to the nearest coffee shop! That’s a matter of life and death, man! On those mornings when a person wakes up and discovers that someone else in the family decided to fix and drink the last of the coffee, it helps to have a coffee shop close by, but we don’t have one. 4.3 miles one would have to walk, crossing a major highway in the process. That’s a bit too dangerous. It was time for me to get my drivers license.

Now, I’ve had a drivers license before and I was a good driver. Had it not been for the fact that I had some health issues and almost cause a wreck, emphasis on the almost part, there would not have been an interruption in my driving. That happened, though, I gave up driving, and in Indiana when one hasn’t had a valid drivers license more than three years one has to take the whole set of tests all over again. All of them. Written test, eye test, organ donor test, and the driving test. Should be easy, right? Of course.

The problem is that included in all that is the trial driving period. After passing the eye test and the written test, one has to drive with another licensed driver for a total of 40 hours across a span of 180 days, minimum. That’s six months for those of you who went to public school. Six freakin’ months that Kat has to be sitting in the front seat with me every time I drive.

Understand, one of the reasons Kat was so excited and supportive of me getting my license back is so that she wouldn’t have to be the one to cart my fat ass all over town. She especially hated trips to the grocery store because I never can remember everything. We’d go to the store on Sunday, then Tuesday morning I’d tell her I need to go again.

“You were just at the store,” she’d say.

And I’d reply, “Yeah, but I forgot the cheese and I really need cheese for tonight’s dinner.” So, we’d go get cheese and I’d come out with 15 other things that I remembered that I’d forgotten. This would happen two and three times a week every week. She was getting a bit tired of it all. She really wanted me to have my license so I can take my own damn self to the grocery store.

We get through the trial period, I go to make an appointment for my driving test and I can’t find a time available at the nice Northside BMV office where I’d taken my other test. All the times were full when Kat was available to take me. I had to look at other BMV branches and the only one that had an opening within the timeframe I needed was on the South side of town right smack in the middle of one of those neighborhoods where people are likely to cross to the other side of the street when they see me coming. Rough neighborhood but that’s our only choice.

We get there a little before they open. Mine is the very first appointment of the day, always a good one because the person giving the test, the examining officer, is fresh and should be in a relatively decent mood unless they ran out of cream for their coffee or some similarly horrible personal event. They’ve not really had time for their day to be ruined by drivers who are not as good at driving as I am.

We walk in and all the BMV staff is standing behind the counter calling out numbers. “I can take the person holding number 1 here!” calls one. Another takes two, three, and so on. I have number six and a young woman calls for number six. I start heading in her direction when the person standing next to her shouts, “I need to see whoever has the first driving appointment! Whoever is scheduled for the 8:30 driving examination needs to come right here.”

Now I’m confused. Do I go to the person who is looking for number six or do I go to the person looking for the first driver? I’m both. To whom do I give my attention?

I walk to the young woman looking for the first driver and we get the number thing worked out and she gives me this exasperated look like I should have known better than to take a number but the sign at the front door said everyone needs to take a number and that’s exactly what I did. Nothing said anything about people taking driving tests not needing a number.

She instructs me to take a seat across the counter from her and I immediately start to feel nervous. This young woman is no older than my own sons, probably between the oldest and the middle sons. I have coffee mugs older than she is.

Part of my nervousness comes from how hard she’s trying to be authoritative. I guess when you’re young and short, she’s around 5’4” or so, getting people to respect the authority bestowed upon you by the state of Indiana isn’t exactly an easy thing to do. I get that. She’s doing her best to not appear as though she has a personal feeling in the world. She’s all business. No smiles. A permanent grimace all the way through the opening procedure.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” she says, pulling out a piece of paper with ink on both sides. This is not “a few” questions. I’ve had college finals that weren’t this long.

She starts the questions. “Have you ever had a license suspended or revoked by a judge in any state?”

No.

“Have you ever lost your license as part of a plea agreement or other court action?”

No.

“Have you ever been convicted of committing a crime while in the process of driving a motor vehicle?”

I swallowed my smart-mouthed answer and said, “No.”

She goes on and asks approximately 40 more questions covering every possible illegal act one might commit while driving a car. “Have you ever abandoned a moving vehicle? Have you ever killed anyone while driving a motor vehicle? Have you ever attempted to eat a gyro while driving and had the cucumber sauce drip onto the pants that you just paid $30 to have dry cleaned?”

No, no, and why are you paying $30 to have a pair of pants dry cleaned? Say they’re your dads and they’ll do it for $5.

We finish the questions, I prove to her that I’m not as blind as I look, she puts on a bright yellow safety vest and bright red ear warmers in case we are in a horrible accident and she has to walk back, and then we go out to the car. The first thing we have to do is show that both the brake lights and the turn signals all work. That means I’m inside the car with the seat warmer on, toasting my buns, while she’s out in the cold. They do, of course, and she comes around to the passenger side of the car to get in. And can’t.

The door’s locked. The locks on the car operate off a key fob. Kat and I both carry one and all we have to do is step up to the car and it unlocks the door for us. The driving examiner doesn’t have a key fob and I can’t find the freaking button to unlock the damn door. The thirty seconds of fumbling around felt like half a day. I was sure I could see her delicate skin beginning to chafe in the cold. I’m hoping I don’t get demerits for this.

She sits in the car and puts a clipboard on her lap. Attached to that clipboard is a piece of paper and on that piece of paper are all the things I can possibly do wrong to fuck up this driving test. The clipboard is on her lap, her pen is at the ready,she instructs me to back out.

Immediately, another person steps behind the car on their way into the BMV office. I see them in my mirror, she doesn’t.

“Anytime you’re ready,” she says.

“Just waiting for this pedestrian,” I respond, as the man passes by her window. She jumps in surprise and double-checks her seat belt.

From that point forward her pen never hit the paper. Maybe it was Indy roads and all that pot hole dodging (Indy’s next contribution to the Olympics). Maybe she was too scared to move. Maybe it was the lulling sounds of NPR on the radio. Maybe it was the seat warmer.

We drove around the block, I parallel parked without any curbs being assaulted and returned to the BMV office. The test really was that straight forward. We didn’t even talk, really. She gave instructions to go this way and that way and yes I instantly thought about that children’s song and wondered what it really means.

I did ask one question. I asked what the rule was regarding dodging potholes. Her response was to inform me that she was not allowed to answer any questions regarding the test, but yes, please, avoid the potholes.

We get back the the BMV office and she jumps out of the car. This is when I realize that her face is paler than it was when we started, and that’s saying something for a little red-headed person who likely has to wear SPF 40 just to open the microwave door. We get inside the BMV door and she says, “You passed, you did fine. Take a seat and someone will call for you.”

And then she disappeared.  Maybe she needed a drink. Maybe she needed to vomit. Maybe she needed to call a family member and tell them she loved them. Maybe she was double-checking her insurance. Another ten minutes would pass before she would return to her station. She was right next to where I was finishing up my license. Not once did she even glance my direction. She was visibly trembling.

But hey, I passed. I have a real driver’s license again, which means you have to respect me now or I’ll run your ass over.

Okay, maybe not your ass, but at least your toes. Seriously. Be nice.

Naked And Unashamed

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

From the earliest moments of my childhood, the biblical myth was pounded into my head with a resounding moral: being naked is wrong. The predominant scripture used was this, from Genesis 3:

7And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

8And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

9And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

The theological arguments to be made here are irrelevant to my point: I was taught that being naked was wrong. For the past 52 years, I have not been comfortable being naked.

Now, given what I do, and the sometimes graphic nature of the pictures I take, the dichotomy here is severe. I’m comfortable with anyone else on the planet being comfortable, standing in front of my camera in said state, and distributing pictures of people in various states of undress. Go ahead, YOU can be naked; doesn’t bother me one bit.

But ME be naked? Okay, I have a problem with that.

I never have been comfortable being naked. Is that the fault of the religious prohibition? Perhaps. I’m sure that constant indoctrination has a great deal to do with my psychosis on the subject. Yet, I don’t think that alone is to blame.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, a time when exploration and personal expression was common place. Streakers were everywhere, it seemed. So, at the young age of 12 I tried streaking … in the back yard when no one else was home and neighbors couldn’t see. I made it about 15 feet from the door then hurriedly ran back inside. I didn’t like it. Being naked wasn’t just wrong, it felt uncomfortable.

A few years later, I tried again. I had seen something on television where one of the major characters slept nude. So, that night I quietly shucked my underwear and gave it a try. I didn’t last ten minutes before I was reaching for those tidy whities, thankful to have something keeping my most private parts ensconced and well protected.

Even after being married, when sex became a semi-regular event, I still wouldn’t sleep nude. We’d fuck, then snuggle, and as soon as she was asleep I was reaching for my underwear. I never walked around the house naked. I didn’t get into nude tanning. Never have been a huge fan of skinny dipping. Sorry, I’d just as soon keep my pants on, thank you.

So why is it, at the less-than-sexy age of 52, I am suddenly finding that, more often than not, I wake up naked? How is it that I am suddenly comfortable walking down the hall with my junk jiggling? What makes sitting around in a loose robe more palatable now than when my body was in a more flattering condition?

I can think of a few reasons.

One is that I have more reason to be nude now than I have before. My current situation, minus health issues, is one where clothes get in the way of spontaneous sexual activity. Sex is not just one of those things that happen one or two nights a week. Any time we are both conscious and interruptions are not likely, lively physical frolicking is likely to ensue. One needs to be ready to drop those drawers at a moment’s notice.

Another reason may be that there is no shame to nudity in my current situation. Sure, I’ve had other roommates *say* they didn’t mind being nude, but I never saw them in that condition unless it was specifically for the purpose of taking pictures. And had *I* walked through the house naked, they all would have turned red with embarrassment. That stigma doesn’t exist here. As long as little ones are not present, clothes are truly optional, if not outright discouraged. Being naked is celebrated, not merely given lip service (pun acknowledged).

More than anything, though, I think this new burst of being comfortable in my own skin boils down to one significant factor: Love. For the first time in my life, I feel genuinely loved for being exactly who I am, wrinkles and all. Receiving that kind of love makes it easier for me to in turn love myself for the same reasons. The result is a level of comfort with myself that does not generate any shame in being naked.

Look back at the Adam and Eve myth. They realized they were naked and became scared. Their shame, however, was not caused by their nudity. Rather, the realization of being nude induced guilt from being disobedient to their deity. They had been told not to do something and did it anyway. As a result, they lost everything that had allowed them to be comfortable in their garden condition. Not only did they now need clothes, but they also had to actually work for food, and felt pain for the first time. Nudity did not cause those things, dishonesty did.

I’m still not 100% comfortable with being naked all the time. I’m sitting here in my underwear as I type this, and even that is a big step for me. Yet, the same I always felt with being anything less than modest in my attire is gone. No, I’m not likely to go publicly parading around in my birthday suit any time soon, but I’m no longer afraid of doing so should sufficient reason for doing so arise. Being loved and accepted takes away the guilt and the shame with which I grew up.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Perhaps if we did a better job of raising our children with the same level of love and acceptance they might find it easier to accept themselves for who they are without all the years of therapy.

Just a thought.

Jumping Off Bridges

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

My thoughts had already catapulted me off into distant lands so I did not immediately grasp the question, prompting its repeat.

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now?”

White grocery bags held together in her left hand give her the appearance of possibly being homeless, the glossy sheen to her eyes and her otherwise kept attire indicated a greater probability that at least her body had a home, even if her mind and soul had been dismissed by whatever pharmaceutical cocktail forced her to wander the near lifeless streets of Elgin.

At least she was smiling.

When she repeated the question I mumbled a hasty, “Not today, thank you,” as though I might give her offer more lengthy consideration on some later date. I looked over the crumbling concrete railing at the sludge-brown water of whatever river smirked slowly below. What would she have done had I responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure, you toss me then I’ll toss you!”  Internally, some small wrinkle in my brain chuckled at the potential hilarity while the remaining neurons fired away at all the instructions necessary to keep one’s body propelled forward.

Having time to think opens precarious doors. One’s initial thoughts focus on the inherently obvious and can entertain a logical analysis of known factors. Given sufficient time for processing, though, the mind eventually begins substituting the illogical in place of the logical. Unknown elements replace known factors and before long one inevitably tumbles headlong into conjecture and the impossible world of “what if.” Within such ambiguous territory, fears enjoy free reign, popping up in every concept until they leak past the world of the unknown to pollute the world of the known. Suddenly, nothing seems quite so certain anymore.

Except, there’s still that bridge and it’s potentially life-changing offer.

Ever stop to think about bridges? They are fundamental to transportation, or any manner of transition. Bridges represent a desire to leave one place, one existence, one ideal, in favor of another, the two being separated by some form of chasm which cannot otherwise be traversed.

Look carefully at the construction of a bridge and one finds the very structure itself is the definition of change. Such was true even of ancient bridges; on either side of a ravine may be roads or paths of sod, yet the bridge itself must be made of a different material, usually wood or stone. Modern spans of asphalt spread on beds of gravel are bridged by delicately poured concrete under-girded with steel. Engineers would never consider building an entire road from the same material, using the same methods as bridges; the expense alone makes such an idea impractical. As a result, it is almost impossible to cross a bridge that does not invoke change.

Often, one sets focus solely on whatever lies on the other side of the bridge. After all, whatever exists over there is the reason we cross the bridge in the first place. Yet, what too often catches us by surprise is the change invoked by the bridge itself; a change wholly unlike what waits on the other side.

And in that consideration, that change requires pre-change, the question of a seemingly mentally challenged pedestrian takes on a whole new meaning. “Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

Here find both cause and solution to failure; it is not that one does not want or fears the change on the other side; but that we are unprepared for the intermediate change of the bridge and, caught up in the panic of the unexpected, we either jump or allow some random crazy person to toss us over. As a result, we end up soaked by the muddy waters of despair, never achieving the change we so ardently desire.

What we fail to realize is that what we experience on the bridge is necessary preparation for what we find on the other side. Bridges are designed to get us there, not stop us in the process. We need what bridges offer.

Granted, some bridges have the innate ability to invoke fear.

In the Disney movie “Shrek,” the ogre and Donkey arrive at the dragon’s castle to find they must cross a less-than-secure looking bridge below which flows a stream of fiery molten lava. Donkey is immediately concerned and, half-way across, is ready to turn around and go back, willing to leave the princess for someone else to rescue. Shrek proceeds to employ distraction tactics and before Donkey realizes what is happening, they both are safe across the bridge.

And what distraction did the giant green ogre use to get donkey across the bridge? The threat of being flung over the side!

Two matters are worth noting in that story. First, it was Donkey’s over-thinking the safety of the bridge that allowed room for the fear to engulf him. Had he simply walked cautiously across the structure he would not have encountered any problem. Second, when paralyzed by fear, we sometimes need the help of a friend threatening to send us over the side before we can get across.

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

Outside the Adams Street entrance to Chicago’s Union Station, an older man, his back hunched from the reality of a life lived, sits on a bench and removes from his shirt pocket a pack of Marlboro Lights. His old hands trembling, he removes a cigarette from the pack and lights it. Not a scenario that sounds too terribly unusual, especially given that almost every other bench in the area is occupied by someone else doing exactly the same thing.

What makes this gentleman unique is that, prior to fishing the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he had to first remove and shut off the oxygen tube from his nose. Every drag on the cigarette was obviously painful and labored. More than once the man winced as he struggled to draw the nicotine down into what little remains of his lungs. When finished, he replaced the tube in his nostrils, turned on the portable oxygen tank strapped to his back, and resumed a more relaxed and comfortable breathing rhythm.

Talk about addictions all you want, ultimately the man couldn’t, wouldn’t, cross the bridge. Crossing the bridge, for him, means putting down the cigarettes and he has made the decision that suffering is preferable to crossing the uncertain path leading to quitting.

We may find it easy to criticize the old man for making such a self-destructing choice, but how often are we guilty of making choices of equal fatality to our careers, our families, our well-being, our happiness, all because there is some bridge, some challenge, some fear that we must first conquer before we can reach our goal?

No significant change happens without some manner of transition. If there were no canyons between the status quo and progress, we might well slide between one state of being and the next without realizing any chance had occurred at all. Yet, it is those muddy rivers, those gullies, the ravines, and ditches, that create boundaries, territory markers, and we simply cannot move from one existence to the next without crossing some manner of a bridge.

Many of life’s bridges we zip across without care or worry, scarcely even noticing that the ground beneath us has changed. However, as we cross some of the most meaningful bridges of our lives we will often be faced with that now lingering question: “Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?” 

Perhaps the old woman wasn’t so crazy after all. Something tells me she knows the answer to that question better than any of us.

In From The Rain

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

Thunder echoed off the cavernous walls of skyscrapers, shaking the city like an old rag in the wind. Julianna worked the keys in the locks of her apartment as quickly as she could. The exit from the subway was less than half a block, but that had still been enough, in this downpour, to soak through her clothes, leaving her shivering, cold, and dripping water in the hallway. She gave a fleeting thought to mopping up the small puddle that had formed in front of her door, but decided against it, hoping that bothersome old Mr. Dreyfus might slip and fall to his death, or at least damage enough to keep him from stalking her.

Clothes started hitting the floor the instant the door was shut behind her and she was naked by the time she reached the towels in the bathroom. She turned the water in the shower on as hot as she could stand and stood under the stream until it started to cool. She then wrapped in a towel and made her way back to the living room, still wet, but feeling some better about the matter.

Passing by the phone, she saw the message light blinking, reminding her that even after five her work was not done. Pressing the play button, she stretched out across the bed waiting for the first message.

“Julianna, this is Kristi. I guess you know by now you left your umbrella in the cab. I have it here at the office. Not that it does you any good here, does it? Anyway, it will be here. I think it’s supposed to rain all week. You may want to bring hip waders, too, though not for the water. Bill’s back from his vacation. See you tomorrow!”

Julianna smiled. Kristi was a good enough admin, but not always quite as on the ball as she would have liked. She made a mental note to grab a copy of the Post in the morning, in case she needed a cover between the building and the subway.

“Julie, it’s Mom. Tory’s birthday is Saturday. You are coming, aren’t you? You’ve missed the past three years. I know you’re busy, but you’re hurting your brother’s feelings. I know you think Tory’s a skank, and, just between us, you’re probably right, but as long as Dave loves her …”

Mercifully, the machine didn’t allow long messages. Julianna winced at the thought of having to be in the same room with her brother’s wife. She and Tory had gotten off on the wrong foot from the beginning. Julianna was positive she had seen the young woman just the day before, standing on the subway platform locked lip to lip with someone who was definitely not her brother. She made a mental note to take her digital camera with her from now on, just in case she came across the bitch again.

“Hi, this is Karen Richardson at the Gotham Cancer Center. Our records indicate you’re due for another check-up. This is the fifth year since your surgery, so we’re going to want to run some tests while you’re here, make sure there’s nothing hiding from us. Please give me a call to set up your appointment. My number is … “

Groan. Was it that time again, already? The colon cancer that had given her a scare five years ago had been caught in its early stages, thanks to an extra-diligent young female doctor with whom Julianna had fallen hopelessly in love. Unfortunately, though the cancer was in full remission, so was their relationship. The check-up was necessary, but there was no way the visit could be comfortable.

“Ms. Gartner, this is Lucas at the Freshman’s Deli. We have that special Virginia-cured ham that you requested. Just give me a call and I’ll have it sliced and waiting for you when you get here.”

Mmmmm. The sweet flavor of the Virginia-cured ham brought back wonderful memories of dinner at her grandmother’s in Norfolk. The particular brand her grandmother bought wasn’t widely available outside the region. She would look forward to dining on the special meat all weekend.

“This is Roger. Julianna, listen, about last night, I just want to apologize, you know? I mean, I didn’t even know that bra was in my coat pocket! Really, I’m not some lothario. Can I have another chance, please?”

Sigh. What was it about boys that forced them all to be so very disappointing? Especially the pretty ones. Julianna suspected than the more muscles a boy had the fewer active brain cells remained. Again, another reason for preferring girls.

“Hey, pretty. Thanks for the flowers. You always know exactly what to pick to fit my mood. God, I miss you. Seriously, is there any good reason you can’t come to Connecticut this weekend? I need some time between those lovely legs of yours. Call me when you’re wet, dearest.”

“Should have seen me thirty minutes ago,” Julianna laughed. There was her excuse for not going to Tory’s party: she was needed in Connecticut. Her family didn’t need to know who she was seeing there, nor why. Although, she wondered how jealous Tory would feel knowing she was with another woman instead of her.

“Julianna, this is Roger again. Uhm, you don’t happen to remember me setting my credit card down anywhere, do you? I can’t seem to find it and I need to make plane reservations for a trip to … uh, well … nah, you probably never saw it. Anyway, call me, okay? Bye.”

She laughed. Stupid boy. She wondered how he would explain to his wife the charge for flowers sent to Connecticut. Of course, she had used the card only once before passing it to a homeless person who looked like they could use a good meal. She hoped he had a high credit limit

“Julianna, Gordon here. I just got off the phone with the Milliken Agency. Good work there! Now, the downside is they’re going to be here in the office tomorrow afternoon and they want to see your sketches for their new campaign. I went out on a limb and told them you’d be ready. Please, we’re counting on you for this one.”

Shit. She had bullshitted her way through that whole presentation. Not only did she not have any drawings, but she also didn’t have any hard research to support her plan. So much for a relaxing evening. She’d order pizza and spend the rest of the night getting the campaign together.

“Julianna, Gordon again. I’m sorry, that meeting’s been moved to ten in the morning. Hope that’s not a problem.”

What the fuck? She sat up and looked around for something to throw. A 10:00 meeting meant she’d have to be at the office by six to get everything printed on time. She hoped no one would mind the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep.

“Hey, this is Tory. I know your mom and brother have probably already been on you about being at my birthday party this weekend, but … uhm … yeah, I know you saw me in the subway and, well … it really wasn’t what you think, but … I won’t be offended if you decide to not come, I mean, given the circumstances and all …”

This time Julianna did throw a pillow at the phone. “What a fucking bitch,” she thought. Not only would she definitely be at the party, but she would also be taking Miss Connecticut along with her. Cheat on her brother and then try to blow her off? Oh HELL no that wasn’t happening!

“Julianna Gartner, this Daniel’s Cleaners. This white blouse you brought in, we can’t get clean! What is this, blood on the collar? Please, come pick up. We can’t do anything.”

Julianna groaned and fell back on the bed. She had been shaving and, of course, cut herself. Thinking she had grabbed a towel, she ended up blotting her leg with her favorite white blouse. Obviously, she was going to need a new one.

“Ms. Gartner? This is Gary at the front desk. We just had some flowers delivered for you. Let me know when you’re in and I’ll send them right up.”

She wouldn’t even need to read the card. Julianna knew who had sent those flowers, and why. She smiled. Perhaps the night wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Let it rain. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be a little wet.

Beneath The Skin

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

Light poured in the window warming the room just slightly beyond the point where it was comfortable. Spring was doing its best to make itself known, even if it did have to struggle to maintain that position more than a few days at a time. Lindsey loved the ability it gave her to enjoy the freedom of being something slightly less than clothed. This afternoon, she was very much less than clothed, having decided after her shower that allowing her delicate skin to air dry would be the best thing for it.

Granted, there was plenty of studying, plenty of homework, plenty of housework, that could have been the focus of those several minutes, but those chores had already managed to consume the morning and she refused to go a whole day without a few moments to herself. She knew full well her peace would be shattered soon enough, and she was quite correct.

Tina was the exact opposite of Lindsey. So much so, that their few mutual friends, both of them, could not figure out how they managed to live together without one killing or at least mutilating the other. Tina was headstrong, defiant, rebellious, and loud. Lindsey was studious, determined, disciplined and, for the most part, quiet. Ultimately, what allowed them to live together was that they were rarely home for very long at the same time. Lindsey was frequently gone during the day while Tina was typically out most of the evening and night. What little time they did overlap was usually spent sleeping. The system worked.

Lindsey being home this afternoon was quite an anomaly. Normally, she would have been at the library, studying, but a short in the library sprinkler system had temporarily closed the section to which she needed access. So, she had decided to try finishing her Philosophy paper from home, being careful to be quiet and not wake Tina.

Lindsey was stretched out across the arm of the love seat when Tina staggered sleepily from her room. “Good morning, sunshine,” Lindsey said softly, but cheerfully.

“What has you home and naked so early,” Tina asked groggily. “Have you seen my coffee cup?”

“Oh, I washed it this morning. Sprinkler problem at the library. Check the cupboard to the left of the sink. Second shelf,” Lindsey replied

Tina took a moment to parse what Lindsey had just told her, then found her mug exactly where she was told it would be. She looked around the normally trashed kitchen. It was spotless. “Uhm, so, you’ve been home all day, I take it?”

“Pretty much,” Lindsey said, shifting her position on the couch so as to not get fabric lines on her skin. “Had class at 9, but then the sprinkler thing happened and it just seemed to make sense to come back here. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, no,” Tina assured her while fumbling with the coffee pot. “Had you woke me I would have had to kill you. I never had a clue you were here. But, how much studying did you get done?”

“Finished my philosophy paper,” Lindsey answered, shifting again. “Got most my calculus homework done, and the reading for my anatomy class.”

“And still had time to clean the kitchen? You disgust me,” Tina growled, only half teasing.

“Oh, I didn’t really clean,” Lindsey said. “I just tidied up a bit. Washed some dishes. Folded some clothes. Paid some bills. Nothing big.”

“You realize you’ve already done more in one day than I do all week,” Tina mused.

Lindsey laughed. “I doubt that. Just because I’m not here to see you do something doesn’t mean you’re not busy.”

“I may do a few things here and there, but I’m not Miss Perpetual Motion like you are,” Tine said. “Which reminds me, I need to change Deacon’s litter box.”

“Already done,” Lindsey said. “I was afraid he was going to wake you with his howling if it didn’t get changed. Wasn’t really any trouble. Took less than five minutes.”

“Okay,” Tina said, haltingly. “Thank you.” She poured herself a cup of coffee. “You want any coffee?”

“No, thank you,” Lindsey said. “Wouldn’t want it keeping me up all night. Besides, it gives me funny freckles.”

Tina held the mug firmly in both hands, still feeling quite groggy from the previous evening’s high alcohol consumption. She took a seat on the adjacent couch and kicked off her slippers. She wasn’t quite awake enough to be as naked as Lindsey, though she had to admit it looked quite comfortable. “Speaking of freckles, I thought you were supposed to stay out of sunlight as much as possible.”

“That’s direct sunlight,” Lindsey corrected. “This is very indirect and feels very, very good. You should try it.” She sat up. “Here, you can stretch across this couch. It’s really comfy.”

Tina sipped at her coffee. “Yeah, maybe later. I need to wake up a bit more first.” She paused, then added, “Thank you, though.”

Tina tried to remember the last time she and Lindsey had a conversation that was more than two sentences long. Her fogged-over memory couldn’t retrieve back that far, if ever. She decided it might be worth actually trying to have a conversation. “How are the new meds the Dr. gave you last week? Are they working?”

Lindsey turned and leaned backward off the arm of the couch. “Not really. One makes me really sleepy, so I can’t take it on nights before I have an early class. The other makes my ears ring, which seems like a really strange side effect.”

“But are they doing what they’re supposed to do?” Tina asked. She never had pried into all of her roommate’s medical issues. She simply knew there were many.

“Some,” came the answer. “I don’t shake as much when I drive, which is a good thing.”

“Very.”

“But it dries my mouth out so that I have to keep a bottle of water or two handy all the time. Not exactly convenient for that three-hour long lecture seminar on Thursdays.” Lindsey set back up so that the blood could leave her nearly purple face.

Tina gasped. “Oh my god, you’re practically purple! Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Lindsey laughed. “It goes away quickly. Just have to do that every once in a while to keep the circulation going well.”

Tina shook her head. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked, just how many different diseases have they pinned on you?”

Lindsey stopped and thought a moment. “Well, they dropped rickets a couple of months ago, so that puts me down to fourteen, I think.”

“And how many different doctors are you seeing?”

Lindsey shook out her long, blonde hair and laughed. “Oh, I stopped trying to keep up with that count a long time ago. Primary this, a specialist in that, sub-specialist in something else. I do my part in making sure everyone who wants to gets a chance to poke and prod me.”

“I know some guys in your Calc class that would like a chance at that, too,” Tina teased. “Especially if they could see you in your current condition.”

“Ew, no,” Lindsey said, making a contorted face. “How do you think I got this sick in the first place? It was all those boy cooties from elementary school!”

Both girls laughed at the joke. They were keenly aware of how rare this moment was and neither wanted it to end.

“OH!” Tina started, excitedly, “Did you hear that Dr. Koskerov got fired for nailing that Susan … what’s her name …Patro-horse-face-something?”

Lindsey laughed. “Patrohorstkovich, I think. I hadn’t heard that, though! Who will be teaching his class?”

“Some boring TA at least the rest of this semester,” Tina dished.

“Good, I wasn’t looking forward to having him again next semester,” Lindsey confessed. “He didn’t get her pregnant, did he?”

“Nah,” Tina said, “but when he wouldn’t raise her grade from a C she filed a sexual harassment suit. The university settled out of court, fired Koskerov, and I hear Susan’s transferring to Ohio next semester.”

“Wow,” Lindsey said, astonished. “Where do you get so much information?”

“Eavesdropping in the ladies room at the bar,” Tina laughed. “That’s the best news source on the fucking planet!”

Both girls laughed again. The sun was beginning to set and the room was beginning to cool. Tina could see goose bumps beginning to form on Lindsey’s sensitive skin.

“Why don’t I kick the heat back on a bit,” Tina suggested. “I think the temps are supposed to take another dip in the frost bucket again tonight.”

“Speaking of tonight, what do you have going on,” Lindsey asked.

Tina knew she could easily think of at least a dozen things to do, but decided, for once, to see what Lindsey might suggest. “I’ve got some stuff, but I’m flexible. What’s on your mind?”

“Want to help me make dinner? I was thinking fettuccine alfredo, with homemade noodles,” Lindsey offered.

“Oh my god, are you kidding me? I’d love to help! I love your alfredo! I always sneak out and eat your leftovers!”

“I know, that’s why I always leave them in a box well marked,” Lindsey laughed.

Tina was literally jumping with excitement. “Okay, so what do I need to do first?”

Lindsey looked at her carefully, and instructed, “Well, pull your hair back and you probably want to lose the clothes. Making noodles can get a bit messy.”

Three, four, five hours passed, along with two bottles of wine and abundant helpings of fettuccine and breadsticks and salad. The girls laughed, danced, sang, and ate as they never had before.

Once again, the girls were lying naked, sprawled across the couches, this time quite happily exhausted. Tina looked across at her roommate of three years and felt sad to have never bothered spending this time with her before. Lindsey pulled the afghan off the couch she was on and wrapped it around her.

“You feeling okay, Linds?” Tina asked. “You’re looking a bit gray.”

“Forgot my medicine,” Lindsey murmured.

“Which ones?” Tina asked as she rushed toward the bathroom.

“They’re numbered, seven, eight, nine.”

Tina pulled the bottles from the shelf and ran back to the couch and removed the lids. “Hold on, I’ll get you water.”

Lindsey shook her head. “No, has to be orange juice, in the fridge.”

Tina hurried and poured the juice, racing back to the couch without spilling a drop. Lindsey took the medicine and then lied back on the pillows, shivering.

Tina put her arms under Lindsey and tried to lift her up. “C’mon, let’s get you to bed. You don’t need to sleep out here.”

Lindsey did the best she could to focus, but the prescriptions were less than fast acting and it took all the energy she had to not fall on top of her roommate. Tina guided her to bed, moved the textbooks scattered across the top, and tucked her roommate in.

Lindsey was already half asleep, but managed to grab Tina’s arm and whisper, “Thank you for a wonderful evening, and for being my friend.”

Tina felt water floating in her eyes. “Thank you for being so beautiful.”

Lindsey’s face grew puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Tina leaned in close to Lindsey’s face. “I’ve always known you were the prettiest girl on campus, and at times I’ve hated you for that, but tonight you’ve shown me what you’re like beneath the skin, and I hate myself for not having looked sooner.” She kissed her roommate on the cheek. “I love you. Sleep well.”

Tina stood at the doorway, like a mother checking on a sleeping infant, making sure Lindsey was still breathing. She knew life in this apartment would never be the same again.

A Dog Story

I will admit to not always being the nicest person in the world. As I get older, and older, I no longer feel constantly compelled to go out of my way for other people, especially if those people are ones I find generally annoying.

So it is in this story, which I’ll tell quickly rather than dragging it out for 5,000 words [trust me, I could do that]. Anyone who has been to our house in the past two years has met our dogs. One doesn’t get a choice. While it’s possible to miss a cat or two, depending on the time and how long one stays, no one misses the dogs. They won’t let themselves be missed.

They’re good boys, both of them. One’s a hound, the kind one might take hunting if one were of the mind to do so. He’s an endurance animal who can run forever. The other is a pit/lab mix. He’s more of a sprinter who looks fierce as hell but actually is the biggest snuggle bug in the house. He’s convinced he’s supposed to live in someone’s lap.

A Dog Story
Belvedere and Hamilton

Because our dogs like to run and bark at anything, I rarely pay too much attention to the noise they’re making outside. Unless I hear the shouts of a human in the mix, I assume that they’re just issuing warnings to anyone, or anything, they think might try to invade their yard, especially squirrels. 

On Fridays, the garbage trucks run through our neighborhood in multiples. The dogs tend to be vocal at trucks of any kind, but the sanitation workers riding the back of the trucks talk back to the dogs so they’re especially loud when those trucks come through. We’ve grown used to it and rather ignore the noise the dogs make on Fridays. As long as the dogs are secured inside the fence, everything’s cool.

The dogs have also enjoyed the cooler weather this week. There have been days when they only came inside to eat then wanted right back out. I don’t mind too much. When they’re outside, one can safely sit on the sofa without risking 70 pounds of wiggle jumping into your lap. 

This afternoon, they had been lying around outside, enjoying the weather, when something grabbed their attention. First it was the mail carrier, who they always “talk” with in a loud and obnoxious manner. Then, it was a neighbor walking his little morsel of a dog on the other side of the street. There were enough people coming and going, along with the garbage trucks, that I tuned out all their barking.

However, around 2:30 I became aware that the guys had been barking non-stop for several minutes. What was more strange is that they weren’t barking at the same thing. Belvedere was at the front of the house and Hamilton was at the side gate. Both were running back and forth along the fence line, making sure whatever was out there knew that the border was not to be breached.

Then, in a most uncharacteristic move, I heard Hamilton move to the front of the house, right next to the front door. Typically, the dogs stay right at the fence. They don’t back down. Hamilton had moved and his bark now had a bit of a growl to it, indicating he was upset by something. Perhaps it was time I took a look.

At first I didn’t see the cause of the problem. Hamilton had taken off around the side of the house again, out of view and, to make the story bizarre, Belvedere was barking at a young man standing at the front gate with a fishing pole. There is not a fishable body of water anywhere near us so I can understand why the dog was confused.

While I can see out the windows, however, seeing in, especially from the street, is almost impossible during the day. When a neighbor across the street came out to see what the commotion was about, the young man asked her if anyone here was home. She replied that she wasn’t sure, but warned the young man to not mess with the dogs. 

I’m sitting here giggling. At this point, I still don’t know why the young man with the fishing pole is at our gate. Obviously, he feels some need to come inside the fence but the dogs are making sure that he’s not going to get the chance.

A Dog Story
Outside, on patrol

I get up and walk to the kitchen to refill my coffee. That’s when I see the second young man, a little heavier and with large knit cap on his head, the point of the cap sticking up in such a way I’m reminded of the Coneheads skits from Saturday Night Live

Now I’m laughing. This is the most entertainment I’ve seen outside in quite a while. I told you, I’m not always nice. I could see no good reason for the young men to come into our yards and the dogs were doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Why would I disturb that?

When I returned to the front window, though, I finally saw what had the young men so concerned about getting into the yard. There, in the grass, was a small drone. Not the expensive commercial kind, mind you. One that they had probably picked up at Target or some similar place for $30 or so. It’s batteries had failed, right over our yard. The fishing equipment was an unsuccessful attempt to snag the drone without having to physically cross the fence.

By now, the boys had a look of desperation on their face. Between barks, I could hear them contemplating whether to just leave the drone and come back when they saw a vehicle in the driveway. Understandably, they were a bit worried that the dogs might destroy the drone in their absence. 

I took a giant sip of the coffee and decided to go save the drone before the young men took a risk they might regret. The look of relief on their faces was priceless and they were exuberant in expressing their thanks. They promised to make sure the drone would never land in our yard again and headed back toward their home.

Hamilton chased the young men around the fence to make sure they were actually leaving while Belvedere looked up with an expression that seemed to ask, “But what am I supposed to play with now?” Both dogs followed me back inside, promptly jumping on the couch so they could both try to fit into my lap. 

Dogs are so much fun and the older I get the more entertained I am by just how fearful people are by these two snuggle butts. Granted, I’ve little doubt that they would not be kind to anyone who did dare to cross the fence without Kat or I out there. They are extremely protective, especially when the kids are present. Still, they’re not the ferocious beasts our neighbors seem to think.

I’m the only one here who’s mean.

A Dog Story

We have 8 cats, Old Man Talking

Cats make wonderful pets for people who have the personality to handle them. Typically, two cats are enough for most households. Any more than that and it can feel overwhelming. Four years ago, I agreed to get one kitten. One. So why do we now have eight cats? I am totally blaming you for this. 

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My dear fiancè’s name is Kat so it really is no huge surprise that there would be cats in our household. Not only is there the name influence, her father runs a cat rescue that houses anywhere from 12 to 20 felines at any given time. Having cats in our home was probably inevitable.

We’ve not always had cats, though. Originally, we had no pets, only children. I left all the pets with my sons when I moved to Indiana. I needed to be mobile and flexible, a state that does not work well with having an obligation that needs feeding and care on a daily basis. Kat had the children and didn’t want to introduce a pet until they were old enough to not kill it. If you know our children you understand why that was a smart move.

Four years ago, though, Kat lobbied hard and I finally gave in to rescuing a kitten from a local shelter. We met up with an all-black kitty we named Burberry and brought her home. That was the beginning.

A few months later, when the weather was horribly cold, we acquired an adult male who had been stalking our back door for a while. Kat had just pulled into the driveway and shut off the car’s engine. She opened the door and he jumped right in, settling into the floorboard where it was warm. His ear was docked, which meant he was already neutered, so we brought him in and fed him. He got along well with Burberry so we let him stay.

All went well for a couple of months but the weather only got colder and snowier. One bleak morning I looked out the front window to see a gray tabby struggling through the snow. I alerted Kat and she rescued the poor thing from the cold. Once we got her inside, we could tell something was wrong. A trip to the vet revealed that the poor thing had a severe hernia and was pregnant. A hernia could be repaired but her kittens could not be saved. We brought her back home and nursed her back to health with the full intention of re-homing her as soon as possible. I did not want a third cat. No one else wanted her either, though, so she stayed.

Over a year passed. We added a hound dog named Belvedere so I wouldn’t feel like the only one without a pet. We also added my youngest son to the mix. The house was starting to feel full.

Then, while walking the dog one day, Kat discovered a set of kittens outside near a neighbor’s home. She found it unusual for such small kittens to be outside in that setting. When she inquired, she discovered that the kittens, along with a mother cat, had been unceremoniously dropped off on the corner. It took some doing, but eventually, both kittens were captured and brought home.

Kittens, of course, are adorable. My son immediately adopted one for his own and the other kitten adopted Kat. There was never any question of re-homing them.

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Life, of course, has its ups and downs and one of the downs came the evening we found out Burberry had a fatal intestinal issue. There was nothing we could have done to prevent it, nothing we could have done to fix it. Within a matter of hours, she went from a bright, rambunctious cat to barely able to pull herself across the floor. We cried, hard, as the number of cats dropped to four.

Four cats is a workable number, though. We were happy. Another dog, Hamilton, came to stay with us in the spring, giving Belvedere a much-needed buddy. Everything seemed cool.

Then, a friend messaged with the sad news that her aunt had passed quite unexpectedly. One of the consequences of her passing was that her kitten had been left outside for several days. No one in the family could take the kitten. She asked if we would mind adding her to our brood. Naturally, we couldn’t turn her down. Returning to five kittens wasn’t that big a deal and she mixed well with our team.

Months passed again before Kat’s dad made a request that added to our number again. One of his rescues was being problematic. He was being a bit of a bully to another cat and generally disturbing the peace among the cats at the rescue. Dad didn’t think he was so much of a bad kitty but rather just in the wrong environment. Would we mind seeing how he would do here, at least on a trial basis? Naturally, we agreed, and to everyone’s great surprise the new cat merged perfectly with ours.

Now, we’re up to six.

Within our circle of friends, pets come and go. Kittens and puppies are a regular occurrence and while we look at the pictures posted on Facebook and comment about how cute the little ones are, we’re never tempted to take one. We have six cats and two dogs and five adults. Our house is full.

There are exceptions to almost everything, though. One of those exceptions came when a friend’s cat gave birth to a little of kittens that included three orange tabbies. Orange? We didn’t have any orange kitties. We also knew that these particular friends wouldn’t be able to keep all the kittens and, because of the time of year, finding reliable homes would be difficult. Kat and I talked it over and decided we could take an orange kitty.

When Kat first went to see the kittens, though, she changed her mind. There were two who, no matter how often they were moved, consistently sought each other out and snuggled together. There was no way we could take one kitten and not the other, was there? Separating the two would be cruel.

Then, one of the two developed what we thought was a cold. Its nose was runny with snot crusting on its little face. Momma cat stopped nursing him. He was in bad shape. Kat took him to our vet and got him antibiotics to help the cold and milk replacement to get him back to health. Momma cat still didn’t want anything to do with him, though. There was little choice but to bring him on home if he was to survive. His brother followed a couple of days later.

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We Cannot Take Any More Cats

Once again, the kittens are adorable as one can see in the pictures above. They are loved by everyone in the family and merged effortlessly into our brood. However, we simply cannot take any more cats, no matter how severe the emergency. We don’t have the room.

I get up early, typically 5:00 every morning, to let the dogs out. With the first hint of light, all six cats come running. Some want attention. Some want food or water. Some just want to know what’s going on. Cute as it is, the situation in our small kitchen quickly becomes crowded. I have to be extremely careful where I step and first thing in the morning, before I’ve had a chance to make coffee, that’s a really dangerous proposition for the cats.

Everywhere one looks in our house now, there’s a cat. They all have their favorite spots, but even in the bathroom, where one might like a bit of privacy, there’s going to be at least one cat joining and if the dogs are inside Hamilton’s coming along as well. Two of the cats have been known to jump up in one’s lap while one is sitting on the commode.

Both cats and dogs go through a large bag of food each week. Our monthly food costs typically run right around $100.

Vet bills pile up as well. The latest was with the new kitten whom we assumed had a cold. He didn’t. Turns out a botfly had made its home in his nasal cavity. Fortunately, we caught it before any serious damage was done. There will be additional expenses with the kittens as well as they’re going to need shots and they’ll need to be neutered very soon. The last thing we need is a couple of horny tomcats running around the house.

Oh, but where are my manners? Here, let me introduce you to our cats. You’ve met the kittens, Frankie and Solaris, in the pictures above (in the top picture, Frankie is on my shoulder, Solaris is in my lap). Here are the rest.

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Name:  Gypsy the Wandering Vagrant, aka Fat Guy

Fat Guy is the senior member of the brood, the one who jumped into the car and declared himself at home. We don’t really know how old he is but we’re guessing around eight, given his mannerisms and dental conditions.

Having been outdoors for a long time, Fat Guy is the only one who regularly expresses a desire to slip out the back door. He wishes he had opposable thumbs so he could open the door himself. Believe me, he’s tried.

Fat Guy is the undisputed Alpha across all ten pets, even the dogs. He tends to take a gentle approach, but challenge him and the claws are coming out

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Name: Bobbie the Bobcat, aka Bit Bit

First, I should note that Bob is female.

Second, I should note that Bit Bit is short for Bitch Bitch, which more accurately describes her general demeanor.

Bit Bit is the one who had a hernia, which likely affected her general mood. She’s taken her sweet time warming up to the humans and the other kitties. Only in the past year has she started getting up in our laps and asking for affection. Even then, especially in the mornings, walk too close to her and she’s going to give you a howl and a swipe. One is best advised to not mess with this kitty unless she comes to you first.

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Name:  Fred Fredburger

Kat named this one. Only those familiar with the animated series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy will get the reference.

Fred is one of the kittens rescued off the street two years ago. He’s another one who was in bad shape when we got him and racked up a sizable vet bill in the very beginning. He’s been worth it, though. He’s Kat’s favorite lap kitty and even follows her to bed at night and tucks himself in under her covers.

Fred is also the only cat I’ve ever seen who actually recognizes and responds to his name.

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Name: Amber aka Fat Ass

Amber is Fred’s sister and my son claimed her the instant we brought her home. She is one of the cuddliest cats I’ve ever met and can be quite demanding when she’s wanting affection. One dares not deny her.

Amber has a weight issue, though. We’re blaming it on the boy and how he cuddled and carried her when she was small. The fact is, though, she just eats a lot and needs to be on a diet.

She has also taken on the mothering role with the new kittens, Frankie and Solaris. While she’s not able to nurse them, she will groom them both and let them sleep with her.

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Name: Gabby Tabby

Gabby came to us after her owner unexpectedly died. She was still a kitten, about eight months old, when she got here and even now is the smallest of the adult cats. She has a slight orange tint to her fur, which is a unique quality that adds to her beauty.

Gabby was an indoor/outdoor pet for her previous owner but we’ve kept her indoors and she hasn’t voiced any objections. She will sometimes look longingly out the kitchen window but she’s not one to run toward an open door.

Gabby is the most skittish of the cats and rarely makes an appearance when we have guests. Even though she’s been with us nearly a year, she still is frequently startled when someone tries to pet her.  She’s adapting, though, and can often be seen playing with the other cats early in the morning.

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Name: Magnus

Magnus came to us from the kitty rescue. Unlike the others, he was temporarily given up while his owner addresses some personal issues. As such, there are conditions under which his owner could reclaim him. We’re not anticipating that happening any time soon, however.

Why Magnus couldn’t get along at the rescue we don’t really know. There, he was a bully and did not fit in at all. He’s done wonderfully here and has even started playing with the new kittens after some initial hesitation. He’s a lover, enjoys being petted and snuggled, and enjoys a good game of chase through the house with the other adult cats.

If Magnus’ owner does reclaim him, we’ll be sad to see him go. He’s a fun cat and a good companion.

These Cats Are Your Fault

As much as we love our eight furry felines, the truth is that only two of them should be here: Magnus and Gabby. They were pets who were wanted and loved but became victims of circumstances outside anyone’s control.

The others, however, are here because someone else wasn’t a responsible pet owner. Pets weren’t spayed or neutered. Kittens were just dropped off on the street, left to fend for themselves. For Bit Bit, Amber, Fred, and Frankie, had we not intervened they would likely have died.  We weren’t looking for extra pets but we’re not the cold-hearted, selfish beasts who leave a helpless animal out to die.

Globally, the pet population is a significant issue. Animals are left abandoned in many cases and in many others, they’re kept in conditions that are worse than being left out on the street. Puppy and kitten mills that breed animals by the hundreds for pet store sales leave owners with weak, sickly animals whose extensive vet bills often become a burden on the family.

In the US alone, there are over 70 million homeless cats and dogs. With fewer than 4,000 shelters, there’s not enough room for even a quarter of those. Shelter animals are euthanized at the rate of approximately one every eight seconds and that still doesn’t keep up with the rate at which pets are abandoned.  Disease also spreads rapidly among the homeless pet population and that puts other animals, including your own pets, in danger.

This situation exists, and we have eight cats, because people didn’t take care of their pets. They didn’t have them spayed or neutered. They didn’t consider the costs before taking in a pet. Pets were bought for children who didn’t know how to take care of them. Pets were abandoned instead of being responsibly rehomed.

People like us often come to the rescue of homeless pets but we’re at our limit. We cannot take another homeless animal no matter how severe the need might be.

Regaining Control of the Pet Population

Pet overpopulation didn’t just happen overnight and it won’t disappear overnight. Bringing the pet population back in line requires diligent and purposeful effort from generations of humans. We have to start somewhere, and that somewhere might as well be here. The steps are not difficult.

  1. Spey/Neuter your pets. There are no excuses for having family pets running around breeding with every cycle. Bob Barker was telling you to do this all the way back in the 1970s and no one listened. The only reason for having pets capable of reproducing at this juncture is if one is purposefully and responsibly breeding, which is a whole other level of commitment to the animal’s health and well being. The old wives tale of females needing to have a litter before being fixed is nonsense. As long as the pet is healthy, one doesn’t need to wait past the eight-week mark. This is especially true with cats who can reproduce before they’re a year old. There are low/no-cost clinics in every major city. No excuses. Get it done.
  2. Don’t purchase animals from puppy/kitten mills. I cringe every time I see a pet store selling some little puppy for thousands of dollars while there are literally millions of homeless puppies that are likely to be better pets. The average family doesn’t need a purebred animal. If one does not plan on going through all the challenges of showing their pet, then mixed breeds are just as loving, just as loyal, and less likely to have the health issues that over-bred breeds often encounter. Many shelters have free adoption days when the shelter becomes too full, making it possible for one to gain a new, loving and grateful companion for very little cost.
  3. Only adopt an animal if you’re committed to its long-term care.  When we chose Belvedere, our hound dog, we were told he had been surrendered because his previous owner “could not take care of him.” I’ve often wondered exactly what those circumstances were that were just too much trouble for someone to not be able to care for such a loving and loyal animal. When adopting a new pet, one has to consider not only how cute it is as a puppy or kitten, but what it is going to need as an adult. How large is the pet going to grow? How much space does it need to run and exercise? Do you have the time to give this pet the care and attention it deserves? Adopting a pet is a forever agreement, not something one abandons when it becomes inconvenient.  Don’t start what you cannot finish.
  4. Keep your pet’s immunizations up to date. One of the biggest heartbreaks is having a pet die too soon. There are a number of diseases common to both cats and dogs that can take our pets from us unexpectedly. Many of those diseases are carried and transferred by stray animals coming into contact with our pets. Immunizations help keep those diseases under control and prevent them from spreading. This is especially important given how easily rabies can spread even among different species. Most immunizations are annual. Plan for them and make sure they happen.
  5. Have your pets chipped and keep chip information updated. The ability for veterinarians to implant a microchip just under your pet’s skin can make a huge difference in finding lost/stolen pets. When we first rescued Hamilton, one of our primary steps was to check whether he was chipped. Had he been properly chipped, we would have known quickly where he belonged and could have returned him. He wasn’t and other efforts to find his owner failed. Hamilton was lucky we found him and took him in. Many lost pets don’t find new homes and end up either in shelters or dead. We never know what circumstances might cause us to lose track of a pet. Have them chipped and save both of you a lot of heartaches.

Our Pets Are Our Best Friends

As I settled down to sleep last night, I felt four tiny paws pad their way up my arm, onto my shoulder, and a little ball of fur curled up under my chin—Frankie’s favorite place to sleep. A couple of minutes later, Solaris curled up on my chest. Hamilton was already spread out across my feet. Our pets love us and we love them. As hesitant as I was to take on the first one, I don’t regret accepting any of the cats or dogs we have in our lives now, even if they do outnumber us 2 to 1.

We are at the same point as many shelters, though, where we simply cannot take any new animals. We don’t have space. We don’t have the funds. We’re at our limit.

We’ve done our part. Now, you do yours. Your pets are your responsibility. Take care of them.

Does my relationship give you the creeps

“If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.” –Actor Clint Eastwood to his wife, Dina

Relationships are really big in the news rights now, specifically dysfunctional and largely illegal relationships. I hadn’t wanted to comment on any of the mess in Hollywood or New York or anywhere else because anything I might say one way or the other would just be noise. When the allegations against Alabama GOP Senate nominee, Roy Moore, surfaced last week, I rolled my eyes. We already knew the former state Supreme Court judge was a piece of shit trying desperately to cling to the hem of Jesus’ legacy; this seemed to me to be merely more noise that the thick-headed Republicans in Alabama would just ignore. Those folks haven’t elected a decent politician since … uhm … ever. No need for me to wade into that useless fracas. No amount of logic is going to sway the minds of the willfully ignorant.

However,  in recent days since that story first dropped, I started noticing things popping up here and there, in a comment on a news story, in a reply to a tweet. Nothing really major, I suppose, just personal opinions regarding large age gaps in relationships. The topic gets under my skin a bit, but the people making those comments were not people of significance and are entitled to their own opinions, even if they are misinformed.

Then, this piece of garbage showed up on my Twitter feed, thanks to someone’s reply to the attempt to misdirect the conversation:

does my relationship give you the creeps

The tweet references an article in People magazine in September of this year, talking about the revelations in a book by the woman involved, Mimi Alford, who had just released a book detailing her experiences as Mrs. Kennedy’s personal assistant [source]. Presuming the allegations are true, and there’s no reason to assume they aren’t at least based on some level of fact, then sure, President Kennedy abused the power of his office for sexual favors. So did Bill Clinton, in case you slept through the 90s. 

What makes the allegations against Moore so much worse, and Coulter’s attempt at distraction more despicable is the fact that Moore’s victims were teenagers, under 18, making the act one of pedophilia which is illegal. The law sets the age of 18 as the point at which a young person can reasonably be expected to have enough information, education, and life experience to make her own decisions regarding the when, where, why, how, and with whom they want to have sex. The further removed one is from that age, the less they have sufficient maturity to make knowing and responsible decisions, putting them in the category of inherent victims regardless of what the child might have said at the time.

What angers me, though, is when people like Coulter associate all May/December relationships with the despicable acts of pedophiles like Moore. Pedophiles aren’t looking for relationships, they’re looking for control and power. Comparing the two is like trying to compare mustard with treated lumber—they’re not remotely the same thing.

Why, you might ask, does this matter upset me so much?  Because I’m in one of those May/December relationships, I’ve experienced the negative response, and quite frankly, I’m rather fed up with people patting me on the back as though I’ve won some award while looking at The Young Woman (hereafter referred to as TYW for brevity) as though she’s either lost her ever-loving mind or presuming she must be a gold digger. That response is every bit as wrong as expressing disgust with a biracial relationship or a same-gender relationship.  We are in love because we both chose to be in love and the only creepy factor is among those who think our relationship is creepy.

Part of the problem is that some seem to think that May/December relationships only happen because one was stalking the other. The dialog goes that either the older person had some latent pedophilia going on or the younger person was merely looking for someone from whom they could mooch a comfortable existence. Either of those assumptions would be wrong. While I can’t speak to every such relationship that has ever occured, I can speak to ours, so let me enlighten you.

How Our Relationship Began

Scroll back up for a second and take a look at the photograph at the top of this article. That photo was one I took the night TYW and I first met: December 6, 2012. She was 28, I was 52—25 years difference. We met at a non-holiday party thrown by a mutual friend who had the week before posed for this photo for my birthday:

Does my relationship give you the creeps

photo credit: Brian Logan, processed by charles i. letbetter

Yeah, that’s me in the center there, back when my hair was just a tad longer than it is now. Our mutual friend is down front, wrapped in brown cloth. Her intention was to throw a party for other girls who, like here, was over the whole holiday party scene. She asked me to come along and take pictures. Then, one of the girls asked to bring her fiancé. TYW asked to bring a friend as well. She brought her boss. Not kidding. He was freshly divorced and rather lacking in dating skills. She was trying to help. As it turned out, the party had almost as many guys as girls, but it was okay. I was only there to take pictures.

I didn’t presume anything from meeting TYW that night. She was friendly enough, but she seemed rather distracted by our host. The brief gallery below is a sample of the photos I took that night.

Does my relationship give you the creeps
Does my relationship give you the creeps
Does my relationship give you the creeps
Does my relationship give you the creeps
Does my relationship give you the creeps
Does my relationship give you the creeps

I’m going to just assume that one can pick up on the obvious theme there. I was not the person to whom TYW was paying attention that night. We talked politely, but I left before she did and slept sufficiently not knowing that I’d ever see her or anyone else from the party again. I wasn’t looking for a relationship and neither was she.

Then, we started talking. I don’t remember exactly what prompted the conversation. Presumably, I still have the conversations but trying to dig that far back was going to take several hours of time I really don’t have to give up at the moment. Still, we talked. We met up for coffee a few times and discussed, among other things, how that neither of us thought love was real. She had been married and divorced twice already and was gunshy of relationships. She was also a U.S. Marine, tough, fit, and very independent.

Our first non-coffee date was an art gallery tour about a month later. While it went nicely enough, there was still no signs of romance. She wouldn’t even let me buy her coffee afterward. We kept talking, though. We enjoyed that and conversed about several things. As I got into the February fashion season, I’d be online at 3:00 in the morning and more often than not she’d be waiting for me. She came over a couple of times to watch me edit photos (thrilling time that is) but always left with nothing more than a hug.

 Later that month, I mentioned a need for a model for a very special art project shared with a rope artist. The art was erotic, well out of the mainstream, and not the sort of thing just anyone can do, even if they want. This was the kind of art that can trigger all manner of anxieties and psychological issues. To my surprise and pleasure, she volunteered. A few nights later we met up at the artist’s studio and took a few pictures. I managed to find one that is reasonably work safe.

Does my relationship give you the creeps

Yeah, it was pretty intense, but again, she wouldn’t let me buy her a drink or anything afterward. She took me home, gave me a hug, and left. We were making good friends.

Eventually, the romance did kick in and by March she had moved me in with her. She didn’t give me a choice. I was sick, again, and as I sat shaking on her couch she informed me that she was sending someone to pick up my stuff. I could either go with them or just tell them where everything was. End of conversation. We were a couple in a relationship who hadn’t planned on a relationship. Pleased, but surprised, we weren’t ready for what was about to happen.

The fallout begins

We knew not everyone would approve of our relationship because of the gap in our ages. We tiptoed around the issue, passing it off as TYW just helping out a friend. We pulled off that ruse until her birthday, which just happened to be when her best female friend had a baby. We were at the hospital and while I knew her friend, I didn’t know any of the other people in the room and let it slip to her friend’s sister that I was TYW’s boyfriend. Her friend didn’t find out until after we left, but her response was no positive.

Eventually, her parents figured it out and TYW went ahead and told them. Interestingly enough, her mom, who is only four months older than I am, took it better than her dad, who is 11 years older. But then, most of her dad’s reaction was just watching out for his only girl. I can appreciate that.

What was disappointing, though, was the number of people who completely ghosted. Poof. Gone without a word. Sure, it got back to me all the murmuring on the grapevine, how that some found are relationship disgusting, others thinking that I had been predatory, and still others convinced she was just wanting all the pictures to be of her. I did my best to ignore it all, but don’t think for a second that the betrayal didn’t hurt.

TYW met my boys for the first time when the middle one graduated from Marine boot camp at Parris Island, the same place TYW had gone. Not only were the boys accepting of her, she hit it off well with their mother, which I totally wasn’t expecting. If my former wife could be okay with this new relationship, which couldn’t everyone else?

Yet, what we’ve experienced in the ensuing years is that those who really care about us are accepting and those that never were run and hide.  And in some cases, they make faces.

A mere three weeks after I moved in with TYW, I twisted my ankle stepping on a tree root during an outdoor shoot. By the time I got home, the ankle was swollen, presumably sprained. The Marine wrapped it, put it up, and made me stay off it. That should have worked, but it didn’t. Three days later, I was in the ER with both legs severely swollen and in need of attention. TYW had stayed with me long enough for the doctor to notice her presence. He assumed she was my daughter. Upon correcting that information, the doctor’s response was less than positive.

We encountered the same problem with other doctors, all of whom were visibly surprised, and one of which even restricted my access to pain medication out of fear that TYW might steal them for herself. I did not continue treatment under that doctor long.

Every time we meet someone new, the stigma is there. We see it on people’s faces, even if they don’t say anything. We see the looks of surprise, the curiosity, and the disgust. Rarely do we meet someone whose response is positive. We’ve grown used to those reactions but they still hurt just a little.

And now, it’s all coming back around again, a little stronger and with more bias this time, because of a stupid fuck-up of a politician.

Relationships of our own design

May/December romances such as ours are nothing new. They go back at least as far as Classical Greece and probably further than that, though there’s little written record one way or the other. As society has changed and mating habits have changed and our understanding of human development has changed, we have altered the moment at which such relationships are justifiable and legal. There are reasonable arguments to be made whether any person between the ages of 16 and 20 have the level of understanding and emotional maturity necessary to engage in a sexual relationship with anyone of any age.  For that matter, I’ve met people my own age who still don’t have the emotional maturity necessary for a relationship. 

To take advantage of someone, regardless of the situation or their age, is wrong. We’ve not spelled that out well before, and at times our culture has even celebrated the “boys” getting drunk and rowdy. Remember the 1984 movie Porkies? Everyone laughed at the shower scene in that movie back then. Yet, that is the very type of media influence that encourages the behavior we’re now fighting against. 

When two adults agree to a relationship, though, whether it be physical or friendly, there’s no good reason for making age a factor. In fact, if one were to ask TYW, she would likely tell you that it was the relationships with people closer to her own age (one slightly younger than she was), that caused her the most trouble. When we are free, as adults, to fashion our own relationships we are far more likely to find someone with whom we are better suited for the long-term, someone who gives as equally as giving, and maybe even someone who knows how to love.

What is even more strange in this situation is that we care less when both people are older than we do when one is still what society considers young. Consider that the age gap between Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina is exactly the same as mine and TYW: 25 years. Does the fact that Eastwood is now 87 and his wife is 62 make it any more or less acceptable, or is it simply that one has more difficulty imagining them having sex at that age so we’re not so perversely interested? Perhaps consider that Harrison Ford is 72 while his wife, Calista Flockhart, whom he married in 2010, is 53.  Does their age gap matter all that much or might it have mattered more when we still knew Calista as the character Ally McBeal? Here’s another one: comedian Jerry Seinfeld is 63. His wife, Jessica, with whom he’s had three children, is only 46. Does that 17-year difference in their ages really make any difference? I’m willing to bet that their kids would say no.

Public perception and acceptance of our relationships is important to our social well-being. When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were first married, they changed their ages so that it appeared that they were both the same age, born in 1914. The truth was that Lucy was six years older than the 23-year-old Desi and they knew that difference would be a problem for them in the fickle social circles of Hollywood. Most people don’t think of a six-year gap as being that significant when the man is older, but our prejudice is born out in how we respond when a woman chooses a spouse who is significantly younger.

Destroying Relationship Bias

One would think American society would be getting over its stupid inbred attitudes toward relationships, but we’re not nearly as accepting as we want to think. Families of mixed race still face significant amounts of hate, especially within their native cultures. Same-gender marriage has been the law long enough that it really shouldn’t be an issue but Roy Moore is actively campaigning in Alabama on a platform that includes not merely overturning the Supreme Court’s decision but putting gay people in jail. We’re not making anywhere near as much progress as we should be and the fact that we’re not is, quite plainly, disgusting. We know better. We know we know better. Yet, we continue to choose prejudice everywhere we can possibly find it.

Let me ask you a very important question and one needs to be extremely honest in answering it. What harm does it do to you if I love someone who is 25 years younger than me?  What harm does it do to you if I love someone a different race than me (technically, that is the case)? What harm does it do to you if I love someone who is the same gender as me, or someone who is gender fluid, or someone who is trans?

Here’s the honest answer to those questions: none. Zero. Zip. Nada.  The sooner we, as a society, can figure that out the sooner we can get on with really important issues such as keeping real creeps like Roy Moore not only out of the United States Senate but away from little girls in Alabama shopping malls. Apparently, we need to be much less concerned about which restroom transgender people use and more about the ones movie producers and politicians visit since there are far more cases of the latter molesting people. In fact, there are ZERO cases of trans people molesting children or committing a sex crime. Too bad our own President can’t say the same thing. I’m still waiting for us to get back to that issue.

If my relationship gives you the creeps, then YOU are the one with a problem and you are the only one who can fix that problem. The same goes for every other relationship between consenting adults.  Nothing about anyone else’s relationship is any of your business on any level for any reason. Sure, you may be jealous because we’re having more and better sex than the rest of you (on Tuesdays, at least) but again, that problem is on you, not anyone else.

America, as a country, needs to get over its relationship bias problem. Gossip columnist Liz Smith is dead. There is no breaking news here. Fix yourself or go away. Far, far away.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Surviving mornings when you're not a morning person

I am not a morning person. Not even close. If it were up to me, my day would start somewhere around 10:00 and ease into work mode somewhere around noon. I start slow. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been able to follow that schedule, though. Real life doesn’t care what my body’s natural rhythm is. There are deadlines to meet. People want answers now. Contacts over in Europe would really like me to respond before they close up shop for the day, which, coincidentally, is about 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time.

Add to that schedule the fact that we have school-age children who dominate the early morning. Currently, they get on the bus right at 7:00. That means they need to be on their feet no later than 6:15 if we want them to catch that bus. They’re not old enough to responsibly get themselves ready every morning, so we have to be up and awake and in charge. We control how their day starts, which subsequently relates to whether they have a good day at school.

In an ideal world, we would all be able to follow our body’s natural circadian rhythm. For those in the back who haven’t been paying attention over the past 40 years, circadian rhythms are “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle [source].” If we were as smart as we pretend to be we would adjust our schedules and routines so that we’re working during the times when our bodies are most inclined to be productive, exercise when our muscles are best toned for stretching, and sleep when our bodies tell us. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Without question, we would all be healthier, get more done, and live happier lives if we were to follow our body’s natural timing.

However, one of the downsides of the industrial revolution is that corporations need everyone in the same place at the same time in order to get things done. Despite all the advances we’ve made in distance and remote working, there are still too many instances where we need people in an office, or a boardroom, looking at each other face-to-face. That means we have to put aside out circadian rhythms and follow a unified schedule. More often than not, unified schedules mean being in an office by 9:00 every morning, a time when many people’s bodies would much rather be sleeping.

Forcing ourselves into schedules outside our circadian rhythms has its downside. Not only are we likely to be less healthy, we are also more prone to making mistakes [source]. Errors may not be a big deal if one is in a dead-end job where their efforts are duplicated a couple of dozen times, but it can have devastating effects if one is, oh, a brain surgeon or something really important like that. So, when we find ourselves in a schedule that is oppositional to our natural circadian rhythms, we have to make some adjustments to keep everything around us from exploding (hopefully using that word in a metaphorical context).  I’m about to give you some life hacks. Pay attention.

Prep your morning before going to bed

There are certain things in everyone’s life that we just know we’re going to have to do before we walk out the door in the morning. Things like getting dressed, personal hygiene, and probably coffee. We know we’re still going to be half asleep when we do those things, though, so the best way to combat potential areas in this department is to prepare for them the night before. Go ahead and decide what you’re going to wear and set everything in a safe place where you can find them literally with your eyes shut. This avoids time lost and mistakes made when we go searching for clean clothes when our brains have yet to start functioning. Set out a towel and washcloth. Prep the coffee so that all you have to do is turn things on (better yet, get a coffee maker with a timer).

When we do this, we make morning life a lot easier for ourselves by reducing the amount of actual brain activity required before our brains are ready to be active. Give yourself some space where you’re able to reasonably function on auto-pilot until you’re fully awake and aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t force yourself into a position of having to jump out of bed and start making decisions before your eyes are even open.

Nix the bright lights

Our brains respond to light in a very interesting fashion. Bright, cool light tells our brains that it is time to be awake and productive. Warm, soft light tells us that it is time to chill, relax, and prepare for sleep [source]. Having super-bright lights in your bedroom makes zero sense because that is the one place where you need your brain to take it easy, not try and keep you up all night. This means you’re probably going to have to make some adjustments like leaving your cell phone on a nightstand turned face down and changing the wattage of the bulbs in your bedroom from 100 watts to something more in the neighborhood of a soft 40 watts. Most importantly, make sure the room is as dark as possible when you go to sleep. Even nightlights disrupt your sleep pattern and keep you from resting as well [source].

Non-compensated plug here: GE makes a special bulb called C-Sleep that is designed to fit our natural sleep patterns. These are LED bulbs controlled by an app on your smartphone. You set the times at which you need sleep light versus wakeup light and the bulb adjusts to give you the right kind of light for the time of day. The bulbs are a little pricey on the front end ($75 on the front end when ordered directly from GE) but only use 11 watts of electricity so they’re likely to save money on your electric bill. Most importantly, they give you the right light to help you rest and get your morning started off well.

Eliminate distractions while you sleep

This is a big one for me and one that, quite honestly, I don’t do well enough. I’m a light sleeper. I grew up in a family where the phone was likely to ring in the middle of the night and when it did it was never good news. Depending on the severity of the situation (whether one or both parents were needed), we could find ourselves getting dressed and having to jump in the car at 3:00 AM without any warning. That uncertainty set up a life-long habit of constantly listening for sounds that might indicate an emergency. Sure, I no longer have to worry about my phone ringing at 3:00 AM, but my brain won’t turn off that switch. any noise and I’m up and assessing the danger level. It doesn’t help that I have a dog who is even more sensitive to sound than I am.

The general recommendation to help us get a good night’s sleep is to listen to white noise, such as the sound of waves crashing, while we’re snoozing [source].  Generally speaking, I rather like that idea with one exception: we have children. Those of us who have children know that we have to keep one ear open all night in case one of the kids wakes up and needs attention. The younger your children are the more critical this factor.

While we may not all be able to enjoy falling under the spell of white noise all night, we can do other things to minimize distractions. Things like taking down wind chimes, keeping pets sequestered outside the bedroom, and using sound-reducing shades to block out external traffic noises can all help. We may not be able to eliminate all the distractions but we can minimize them enough to help our sleep be more effective.

Establish a morning routine

Just because our eyes are open and our body is out of bed and mobile doesn’t mean we’re actually conscious just yet. This whole waking up thing takes a minute, you know? If we have a routine, though, we can allow our bodies to operate on auto-pilot as long as we have a routine that is safe and efficient to get us through the first five-ten minutes of our day. Mine is pretty simple. When my feet first hit the floor, the first thing I do is let the dogs out the back door. I can almost do this with my eyes shut because the dogs flank me every step of the way. They won’t let me deviate from the appointed path. While the dogs are out, I put food in their bowls and check the cats’ food supply as well and then fill the community water bowl. By this point, the dogs want back inside. Making coffee and pouring my morning cereal (necessary for taking morning meds) are next in line. The first 20 minutes of my day are a set routine that never deviates even on weekends (the animals don’t care if it’s Sunday or Tuesday, they still want out and to be fed).

There’s no right or wrong to what one puts in their morning routine, simply that it be consistent. Personally, I like things peaceful and quiet so my brain and slowly ease into gear before the children get up and start demanding that I think. Those whose existence is more solitary might find benefit in turning on music and there are even some crazy people who find an early morning run to be helpful. The nature of your routine depends largely on your circumstances and the rhythms in which your body wakes up. Find what works for you and stick to it. After a couple of weeks, muscle memory takes over and the routine becomes automatic.

Give yourself plenty of time

I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to leave the house to go to work. My commute consists of turning my chair around and looking at the computer. For most people, though, going to work means getting in a car, fighting their way through traffic, and struggling to make it into work on time every morning. I’ve been there and know that it’s not easy. One is tempted to wait until the last possible minute to get out of bed and then rush to work like a bat out of hell. The problem with that approach is that it increases our stress levels and makes it much more likely that we will make mistakes and even leave things at home, such as the notes for that all important meeting you had right at 9:00.

Give yourself some time before you have to put on your super suit and be an action hero. I set my alarm at 5:00 every morning not because I’m a morning person but because I’m not and I need that hour and fifteen minutes to mentally prepare myself for children. On the very rare morning something happens and I don’t get up well before the demons, their morning doesn’t go well. I’m crankier than normal (and that’s never a good thing), I’m more easily frustrated, and my blood pressure meds haven’t had time to kick in yet so I’m more likely to yell and scream over insignificant things like why no one can find one of the 50 million combs and brushes I know we have in this house. Your time may vary, of course, but waiting until the last minute isn’t helping you. Get out of bed a little earlier and give yourself a chance to start the day better.

Avoid the negative

I cut my adult teeth on the news. Working first for a local newspaper and then a major news syndicate, the news is in my blood and something that will never leave. The news is rarely a positive starting point, though, and having the Internet at my fingertips only makes the obsession worse. I have aggregators that assemble all the important stories that have accumulated overnight and place them in my inbox for my convenience. What I have learned, though, is to not start my day by opening those email. As tempting as it is, I leave those alone until I have found something, somewhere, to make me laugh. Not a big, loud guffaw mind you. I want everyone else to stay asleep for a while. Just something that makes me giggle on the inside and maybe turn up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds.

Our lives are filled with enough negative things. The instant that those emails are opened I’m going to go from smiling to concerned or worried or angry. If I can put off all that negative emotion for a bit I’m less likely to let that negativity spill onto the people around me. Sure, there are days when the news is so bad and so unavoidable that the people around me are affected; there typically isn’t anything I can do to stop that from happening, especially given the current state of chaos. There is a lot I can do to reign that in, though, and much of that starts with making my own morning as positive and upbeat as possible. When I wake the little ones, the first voice they hear should be cheerful, not angry.

There is no perfect solution

Lives are different and everyone’s circadian rhythm is different so don’t think that what works for me has to work for you. If you are one of those people who work third shift and has to sleep during the day, there are different precautions you have to take to make sure you are not disturbed. Those of us who work remotely from home can be much more flexible in our morning schedules than can those who are slaves to a corporate taskmaster who doesn’t care what’s going on in your personal life.

What’s important is that you find what works for you and don’t let anyone interrupt your flow. If you need to be in bed by 9:00 at night, don’t let someone shame you into staying up later. If you need your first cup of coffee to be stronger than what you drink the rest of the day, know that you’re not alone. You can make this work.

We have been born into a society that doesn’t really work for the vast majority of people. If it did, offices probably wouldn’t open before 11:00 in the morning and we’d all take a nap around 4L00 in the afternoon. Since corporations dominate a third or more of our lives, those schedules are not likely to change. We have to find solutions that help us fit into that routine in the best way possible. Hopefully, these tips work for you.

Abide in Peace
The Old Man

Hey, we’ve not passed the hat this week!

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surviving mornings when you're not a morning person

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never leaving home

One of the joys of living when we do is that modern conveniences, particularly the Internet, make it increasingly possible to not have to leave home when we don’t want to. This is important because part of abiding well means being able to spend long hours in meditation and contemplation and taking naps. Going out for the purpose of running errands is exhausting, time-consuming, and gets in the way of other activities, like taking naps.

Personally, leaving home can be a real pain in the backside. I don’t drive and where we live, while smack in the middle of a relatively major city, is not within reasonable walking distance of anything I typically want or need to do. Okay, there is a liquor store less than a mile away but I’m not a heavy drinker so that’s not much of a factor. The closest grocery is a little over three miles away. Decent restaurants are further than that. Banking is a little closer but requires crossing a major traffic artery that doesn’t have a crosswalk—which is a bit scary most days.

When I do leave home, I have to ask for a ride. Sure, the Young Woman is generally very gracious in taking me where I need to go, but she also has a job outside of our home and I hate asking her to get back out after she’s spent eight or more hours on her feet. There are other friends willing to help but each of them has their own lives and obligations which makes their availability sporadic at best. Besides, no one wants to be that dude that’s constantly bumming rides off other people.

We do have reasonable public transportation, which is a plus for certain things in certain places, but it doesn’t really work when I need to buy groceries or dog food. The bus could pick me up right in front of the house (which it doesn’t) and I still wouldn’t want to be the dude lugging a 20-pound bag of kibble around. Talk about not being cool! Dude (using that term in the most non-gender-specific way possible), oversized bags of any kind for any reason on public transportation doesn’t work for anyone. Don’t be that person.

Fortunately, modern technology now has us at a point where there’s very little reason to ever leave home except for the pursuits of pleasure, such as bowling. I mean, pizza delivery has been a thing for over 40 years. The Internet opened the door to online shopping. And with Amazon having recently purchased Whole Foods, the world of grocery delivery just became a lot more practical and competitive. If your local grocery doesn’t deliver, keep watch because this is the next big make-or-break point for that industry. Stores that don’t offer delivery in some form are going to go out of business. I’ve gone through a list of everything that formerly required me to leave home and the only thing on that list that I can’t take care of online is liquor and that’s only because I live in the insipidly stupid state of Indiana. Most other places, though, even liquor delivery is possible.

Taking care of everything online isn’t necessarily easy, though. If you really want or need to stay home as much as I do then there are some preparatory things one might want to address before you start clicking randomly around the Internet. There are some things to know some places to avoid, and some information one needs to have available before starting. Here are some tips to make your experience a smoother.

1Do price comparisons before you start shopping

One of the benefits of shopping online is the ability to easily compare prices at different stores. Where we get into trouble, though, is we find a good price on one item on one website, another great price on a different item at another website, and we end up ordering an entire basket full of goods from a dozen different places.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, if one is making major purchases such as furniture, luxury fashion, and other high-ticket goods. Those almost always come with free shipping built into the price. With smaller items, though, that’s certainly not the case. Most sites have a minimum dollar amount or require a prepaid membership before free shipping kicks in. If one only purchases one or two small items from those sites, the cost of shipping can be more than the price of the purchase!

We also have to remember that, like any brick-and-mortar store, websites put lower prices on some popular items as an enticement for you to buy more from them. A store may have a good price on sugar, for example, but everything else could be 4- to 5% higher, meaning that your overall cost would be more than if you shopped somewhere with a slightly higher price for sugar.

Online stores are no less competitive, and sometimes more so than brick-and-mortar stores. If you’re purchasing things such as groceries, household items, or smaller office supplies, a better tactic is to make out your shopping list and compare the cost of the full list among three or four different websites. Then you will know which website is going to give you the best overall cost for the goods you need.

You’ll also want to compare free shipping thresholds as well. Some places set the threshold as low as $20 US while others go as high as $50 or more. Depending on where in the world on is located, the speed of delivery may be a factor as well. UPS and FedEx don’t deliver ground-shipped items on weekends, for example, except during the winter holiday rush. So, the dog food that I order this morning won’t be here until Tuesday of next week. Price, shipping cost, and speed of delivery all factor into which website is the best source for your purchase.

2Check for online coupons wherever your shop

There are coupons and discounts for almost every online retailer but if you’ve never shopped that website you’re not likely to know about them. There are dozens of websites and services that try to keep up with different discounts, but the volume is so very high that none of them are totally accurate on every website.

Personally, I use the Honey plugin for the Chrome browser. Click the link to create an account and install the plugin. The software sits there quietly until it senses that you are in a shopping cart. At that moment, it checks its database of coupons and discounts and pops up a window if it has any codes that might work. You decide whether you want Honey to test its discount codes or not. If you do, it runs through the list, eliminates any that are invalid, and chooses the one that saves you the most money. Cool, huh? It’s like clipping coupons without the bothersome and messy task of clipping and organizing coupons.

There are a couple of downsides to online coupon use, though. One is that discount codes tend to change frequently. The discount code that saved you 30% a month ago is probably useless the second time around. If you don’t have a new code you don’t get a discount and even if you do that discount may not be as much as it was last time. It’s difficult to know if you’re going to save any money if you’re waiting until checkout to discover whether Honey or some other service has a code for you.

We also have to keep in mind that sites typically don’t let one use more than one discount code per transaction. There are some exceptions, but if, for example, one has a discount code for 20% off a specific item and another code for 15% off your entire purchase, you’ll have to do some math to decide which is the better discount to use. For those who don’t count math among their strengths, this can be problematic. Still, when shopping online there is almost always some kind of discount to be found somewhere and that’s always helpful.

3Know the source before you buy

Erg. Yeah, there’s so very much to do and we’ve not bought a damn thing yet. But hey, we’re getting to stay home, right? A little bit of work on the front end really pays off.

One important point with online shopping, though, is that it is important to know where the online retailer is getting their stuff. Are they making it themselves? If so, that’s super cool! Supporting makers is an uber dude thing to do. If the retailer didn’t make the goods they’re selling themselves, though, then we have two different reasons to be careful. One is that the goods may be unethically sourced. The second is that what you’re buying may actually be stolen. Let me explain.

First, there is a shit ton of goods sold in the US and around the world that are unethically sourced. By unethically sourced we mean that the people producing those goods at dirt-cheap prices are paid wages that amount to pennies per hour, often living in company-owned housing and rarely, if ever, allowed to leave the manufacturer’s facilities. This happens most frequently with goods made in Southeast Asia, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, but can occur almost anywhere and often the consumer has no way of knowing the human cost of what they’re buying. Among the brands who have been caught using unethical labor are H&M, Zara, Nike, Walmart (including its store brands), GAP, Victoria’s Secret, Adidas, Primark, Aldo and Urban Outfitters. Of course, all of those companies deny that they’re involved in anything resembling slave labor, but the Southeast Asian manufacturers responsible for everything from textile production to garment assembly keep on producing more and more and we keep finding it in our closets.

What makes this an especially difficult issue for the online shopper is that there is no obligation to inform consumers where the clothing is made. Yes, the garment itself has to be tagged with the country of origin, or final assembly, but websites are not obligated to publish that information. Websites are still treated as advertising entities and are not subject to labeling laws. Even if they were, though, that garment that says it was made in Taiwan almost certainly passed through three or four other Southeast Asian countries with different pieces being made in different places before final assembly, which may have only been adding a size tag.

Is that really a big issue? For me, personally, yes it is. While I like a bargain, I find it reprehensible that my savings come at the cost of someone else’s prolonged suffering. Maybe it’s not that big a deal for you. Let your conscience be your guide.

The other issue here is a matter of stolen goods. When thieves are able to steal large quantities of items, online outlets are a much safer way to get rid of the merchandise than, say, setting up a pop-up store on a street corner in the hood.

Product theft is a serious problem and is a significant reason the cost of things such as cell phones is so very high. This issue got a little bit personal this week when a good friend who works for a major cell provider was robbed at gunpoint just as the store was opening. The robbers were experienced and knew exactly how long it took to open the safe. They only took iPhones because they knew they could sell those quickly. Fortunately, no one was hurt this time and thanks to some quick thinking on the part of my friend the thieves were caught along with the merchandise before her shift ended.

A large portion of the time, though, the thieves get away with the phones, store them in a rented storage facility, and then sell them online, sometimes through custom websites that are made easily enough, other times through sites such as Craigslist. Almost any time one finds any electronic item priced dramatically below cost one can be pretty certain that the item is stolen. The problem is extremely common and once the phones are sold they’re almost impossible to track.

How do you fight against this problem? Purchase name-brand products only through licensed and/or authorized retail partners. Yes, you’ll pay more, but you’ll also get a warranty that is invalid if the product is stolen and your purchase won’t be putting any lives at risk. This is totally a matter of supply and demand. Remove the demand and there’s no reason to steal the supply.

4Know your sizes when shopping for clothes

One might think that knowing what size clothes they wear is a given but it only takes a couple of times receiving something that doesn’t fit to know that the size we think we are and the size we really are can be very different things. Even if your height and weight have held steady for years, our bodies change as we age. Weight shifts from point A to point B slowly without us noticing. Making matters worse, the clothes already in our closet stretch and adjust to our bodies with repeated wearing. So, that pair of jeans that you love wearing may not actually be the size on the label.

This is where you may need some help because no one likes getting all excited about new clothes only to open the box and have them not fit. Disappointment like that can ruin an entire day and make it very difficult to abide. Taking one’s own measurements, especially inseams, is damn near impossible. So, find someone who’s not likely to smirk and crack jokes about how big your gut or your butt is to help you find key measurements: chest (bust), waist, hips, inseam, sleeve (measured from top of shoulder to wrist), and neck (give yourself some breathing room). For most adults, checking those measurements every six months or so should be sufficient. I know we think we stop growing as teenagers, but our bodies never stop adapting to our environment and health.

Once you have your measurements in hand, you can consult a general size chart to get a basic idea of what your size is. Note that sizing is significantly different between the US and Europe. If you’re buying from a website that is not located in your home country you’ll want to double-check those sizes. Most major clothing retailers have size charts on their websites that are helpful. I always consult those charts to make sure that their specific sizing scheme isn’t terribly different from the standard. You’ll be surprised how many places use proprietary sizing charts.

Another resource helpful with sizing is reading product reviews. There are some stores that are consistently shorter than expected, shrinks after washing, or tends to run long. Product reviews tend to give us some insight to these all-too-common problems inherent to shopping online. Little things like this prevent us from having to go through online return hell. No matter how easy the retailer tries to make the return, it almost always involves leaving home. I still have two pairs of shorts that are immensely too large for me because I didn’t want to leave the house to drop the box off at the shipping company. Yes, I can be that lazy. You don’t want to be in the same boat.

5Avoid using a payment for tied directly to your bank account

Perhaps the biggest hesitation people have about shopping online is the threat of fraud or theft. There have been stories of financial disaster floating around ever since the first person bought something on the Internet way back when. Not all those stories are true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter because one true story is enough to cause our wallets to stay closed. We’re not encouraged by reports of hacking at major retailers such as Target,  Home Depot, JCPenney, or many others. Friends in the tech industry have been telling me for years that there is no such thing as a hack-proof system. The larger the store the more of a target (no pun intended). Hackers will spend years trying to breach the toughest systems.

The best way to protect ourselves from complete financial ruin is to never use a payment method that is directly tied to your bank account. Anywhere. Debit cards are a great convenience but if you’re using one to make purchases, whether online or at the store, you’re putting your finances at risk. For many stores, the databases that hold customer financial information are the same whether the purchase is online or in person. When those systems are hacked it doesn’t matter where the purchase was made, you are now vulnerable. You have to contact your bank and ask for a new card, a process that takes about a week to complete. I know this because I’ve been there. The bank froze our account when it saw suspicious activity. While that kept our account from being cleaned out it also meant we were late paying a couple of critical bills while we waited for new cards.

We have a couple of options here.  One is to use a separate credit card that carries fraud protection when making purchases online. Having a card like this is never a bad idea providing one has sufficient credit to actually obtain such a card. Those who have been a bit careless with their credit, which is several million of us, have a bit of difficulty getting some of these cards and sometimes, even more, difficulty when we get one. Not everyone knows how to handle revolving credit well. If you’re in the market and eligible, though, Capitol One seems to have one of the best products out there. That’s not an endorsement,  merely an observation. I don’t have one so I can’t speak with any experience.

My personal preference is my PayPal account. I use PayPal a lot. Many of my clients pay through PayPal. If you happen to make a donation to this site (which we encourage) it is processed through PayPal.  I then have a choice. If I need to, I can transfer funds to my bank account easily enough. I rarely do that, though. Instead, I use PayPal to make the online purchases I need to make. Granted, PayPal isn’t accepted everywhere yet, but it is accepted by many places including Walmart and Target, both places where I am really reluctant to use a bank card. Even when a PayPal link isn’t listed as the main option (on Walmart’s site you’ll have to click the “more” option at checkout) I’ve been pleased that a quick note to customer service usually results in being given the link to make a purchase with PayPal. Retailers want your money. It’s not in their interest to make that exchange difficult.

PayPal offers some of the best fraud protection I’ve seen. I had one instance where an ordered item was listed by the shipper as being delivered but we had not received it. PayPal worked with the retailer to issue a refund within minutes of filing the complaint. Not days, mind you. Minutes. I can live with that level of responsiveness.

Leaving Home For The Fun Stuff

While no one in our house is especially keen on leaving home when it’s not necessary we’re not exactly hermits, either. We can still be coaxed out to do the things we like, such as attending a friend’s comedy show, a PATTERN launch party, or a chance to go bowling. We like having fun and being around friends when it can be on our own terms, when we’re not already totally exhausted, and when we actually like the people involved.

We’re not as thrilled by the prospect of having to go out and stop at five or six different places, making one or two small purchases at each place, before coming back home. Those trips are both physically and mentally exhausting. I don’t drive and I still get upset when we’re caught in ridiculous traffic. Being able to address all those errands and make all our purchases online helps relieve us of a lot of the stress that comes with day-to-day living.

There are still some challenges, mind you. Fresh meats and fruits, which can spoil quickly, are sometimes a challenge to buy online. I have sources that are reliable, such as Instacart, but depending on what I need their cost may be higher than the store from which the goods are purchased. Sometimes, the ability to stay home is worth paying a little more, especially as we head toward winter. Other times, though, it’s a problem.

People who are reliant on public assistance such as SNAP (food stamps) may also find it difficult to shop online. Because of the restrictions applied to what can be purchased with SNAP or WIC funds, there is no reliable way for the retailer to easily distinguish what is or is not an eligible purchase. Anti-fraud measures typically require that a benefits voucher or EBT card be presented in person to make a purchase. There’s not much retailers can to do help that situation.

Still, any reduction in the number of trips one has to take away from home is helpful. We much rather reserve our fuel and energy for fun trips to the park or visiting a friend. I’m all for leaving home for the fun stuff. Running errands is not fun stuff, though. I’d rather stay home. Thankfully, we can pretty much do just that.

And now, it’s nap time.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

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I'm only leaving home for the fun stuff

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Can I Eat Here?

Note: This article was previously published on the Old Man’s other website. We apologize if you’ve read it before. We needed content and the Old Man is cheap. For us. For anyone else, he’s insanely expensive. 

Fighting Type 2 Diabetes means finding flexible places to dine

 

Ready-to-wear fashion season is always a bit stressful around here. I’m up at 2:00 in the morning trying to catch early runway shows in Europe and trying desperately to keep up with trends and issues. I can get a wee bit irritable by the time it’s all over.

This past February, though, was worse than usual. I was fussy before New York even started. There were other issues as well. I was constantly running to the bathroom. I was always eating something. If I wasn’t in the middle of a show or writing a review, I was napping. The slightest little deviation from expectations was upsetting. Worst of all, my blood pressure was at dangerous levels despite medication. Something had to be done and Kat gave me little choice but to make an appointment with my doctor.

After the appropriate blood tests, my doctor determined that I have Type 2 diabetes and, oh yeah, that puts me at high risk for a whole slew of other things, of which high blood pressure is only the beginning. Liver disease. Kidney failure. Heart disease. Every time the doctor mentioned something else, he wrote another prescription. The instructions were to take them all or bad things, very bad things, could happen.

I left the doctor’s office that morning feeling devastated. My father had Type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, he didn’t find out until his retinas detached, leaving him blind. I remember far too vividly the adjustments he had to make to his entire lifestyle. Mother was incredibly strict not only about what he ate (and didn’t eat), but also making sure he ate at exactly the same time, or as close to it as possible, every day. Poppa confided to me on more than one occasion that his menu had become so dull and tasteless as to take all the joy out of eating. Is this what the rest of my life would become?

Then, as though the universe wanted to emphasize the point, an acquaintance who had ignored her diabetes until she lost a leg, unexpectedly passed away. The entire time I knew her, she subsisted on pizza, fried chicken, and mac-and-cheese. On top of that, she smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day. The only nod she made to her diabetes was drinking Diet Coke. Granted, the diabetes wasn’t the direct cause of her death, but it most certainly contributed to it.

The message I was received was clear: a lot had to change, and that change had to be made immediately without compromise. My A1C, which is a three-month average of blood sugar, was at 10.5. Anything above 6.5 is diabetes territory. At 10, one is in danger of everything from eye problems to nerve disease. I needed to get that number down and get it down quickly.

Following what I knew from Poppa’s regimen, everything with sugar in it went away immediately. No chocolate. No pie. No cake when anyone celebrated a birthday (and we had three within a month). No barbecue sauce. In fact, since most sauces have fat as a base (either in the form of meat drippings or butter/dairy), almost every sauce I’ve ever used is off the menu. Nothing fried, at least not in the traditional sense. At my next check-up, a month later, I had gotten my A1C down to 8. Still high, but low enough for one month that the doctor was impressed. We were doing the right things. All we had to do was keep it up. Easy enough, right?

Hardly.

I need to eat now

charles i. letbetter - can I eat here

Eating well always sounds easier than what reality delivers

At my doctor’s insistence, we met with a dietician who specializes in counseling diabetics. She was encouraging in telling us that we were doing all the right things, and, if anything, could ease up a little on how strict we were being. She explained that current science shows that a complete elimination of fats and sugars isn’t necessary, but a severe limit on certain foods while emphasizing others. Her recommendations were similar to the American Diabetes Association’s Create Your Plate program: 25% protein, 25% grains & starchy foods, and 50% non-starchy vegetables. She also emphasized getting 130 grams of carbohydrates in each day, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We set out some dietary goals that I could track easily enough. I shoot for 2000 calories a day, though I seldom actually eat that much. When we’re talking steamed veggies and fruit, 2000 calories is a lot of food! We try to keep the total amount of sugars under 50 grams. This includes naturally-occurring sugars, mind you. Most days I’m able to keep that under 20 grams, though, which is helpful. My limit on saturated fat is more of a challenge some days. 22 grams is the limit. I’ve had to change much of the way I cook to stay under that number.

Perhaps the most challenging, though, is watching my sodium intake. High blood pressure is one of the most common problems associated with diabetes. Watching sodium intake is critical to controlling both diseases, but it’s not easy. Everything one buys at the store has sodium, even if it’s labeled organic. My limit is 2300 milligrams, which may sound like a lot, but consider that just ONE Big Mac contains 950 mg of sodium. If you want to get really crazy, a Dave’s Single at Wendy’s contains 1250 mg of sodium! Add fries and a soft drink to either, and one can pretty much exceed the sodium limit in just one meal. Even something that sounds as healthy as boneless, skinless chicken breast comes packed in a solution that contains, you guessed it, sodium.

We discovered that keeping to most of the dietary limits was easy enough, though I still have issues with cholesterol. The more unexpected issue was that once the prescriptions kicked in and my blood sugar began dropping and my blood pressure evened out, I was more aware of severe drops in my blood sugar when they happened. Yes, most of the time I was feeling better, but when my blood sugar drops there is an instant weakness, dizziness, and often a sense of confusion. The solution is to eat something immediately, such as sucking on a piece of hard candy.

If Kat is with me, which she is a large portion of the time, there’s no problem. She keeps Jolly Ranchers in the bottom of her purse for just such emergencies, and then we get something healthier to eat as soon as possible. When she’s not with me, though, the situation can get scary, quickly.

This first became critical one Thursday in April when I was out by myself, sitting at the Starbucks on 46th and Illinois, doing some writing. After a few hours of working and sipping coffee, I began to feel the early signs that a sugar drop was happening. I had wisely brought some candy with me and fished a piece from my sweater pocket. Disaster averted, so it would seem. But I needed something real to eat. I looked at the Starbucks menu and there was nothing safe. While sugar counts might be low on some items, everything was loaded with sodium!

I looked across the street at one of my favorite places to eat: The Illinois Street Emporium. If nothing else, I figured, I could get a salad there. Even that, though, came with a challenge. At 11:30, there was already a line out the door and down the sidewalk. I knew there was no way I could stand in line for several minutes. I popped another Jolly Rancher and waited for the line to go down.

Once I could get inside, about 30 minutes later, I looked at the menu board. I was starving by this point and really wanted more than just a salad. The fragrances of all the homemade breads and fresh food were intoxicating. There’s a damn good reason people go out of their way to eat here. Examining the menu was a bit disheartening, though. Many of the sandwiches contained sauces or were cooked in a sauce that was either high in fat, contained a lot of sugar, or loaded with sodium. For some, the portion size alone was too much. I finally found a spinach and tomato sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread (a critical factor) that, with a couple of minor adjustments, wouldn’t cause any problems and would meet my dietary requirements.

That experience drove home something I had rather known all along but had yet to experience first hand: eating out diabetic is difficult!

A larger problem

charles i. letbetter - can i eat here

Over 30 million people have Type 2 Diabetes and that number only keeps growing

If I were the only person on the planet with this unique dietary problem then we might say that it’s my fault for having eaten poorly, and there are still some who might say such a thing. We frequently hear Republicans refer to diabetes as a “lifestyle” disease, implying that we bring it upon ourselves. That’s not the case, though. I’m far from being alone. Over 30 million people in the US alone have diabetes and that number grows dramatically every year. Does diet play a part in that? To some degree, yes, but it does not cause the disease. In fact, scientists have yet to figure out exactly what predisposes someone to be a candidate for contracting Type 2 Diabetes. Hereditation seems to play a factor. Ancestry seems to be a contributor. Diet is a participant but not necessarily a determining factor.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that as much as a third of the people who have Type 2 Diabetes don’t realize they have it and of those who do know and are receiving treatment only about 20% are getting appropriate treatment. Like my recently-deceased friend, many people who have diabetes think they can either wish it away or that it’s not a real disease. They couldn’t be more wrong.

When we spoke with our dietician, she explained her amazement with my early results. “Here we are talking about little ways you can improve how you eat and that’s unusual for me. With the majority of patients, I struggle to get them to just cut back just one can of soda a day. They don’t understand how everything they put in their mouth is killing them.”

Because of that sense of lack of urgency, diabetes doesn’t get as much public attention as it should. Not since the late Wilford Brimley, whose diabetes-related commercials have been widely parodied, has the disease had a spokesperson widely associated with Type 2 Diabetes. Because the issue is rarely in our faces, we don’t think about it. Its symptoms are similar enough to other more “popular” diseases, such as depression, we are more likely to investigate those remedies than we are to ask our physician for a blood test.

Making matters all the more difficult is the fact that Type 2 Diabetes is a lifetime disease. Yes, one can get it under control to the point that medication is no longer necessary. However, if at any point one decides to abandon the diet, the problems and dangers of the disease are coming right back, and likely even stronger and more troubling than before.

Type 2 Diabetes requires individualized treatment to be effective. Not everyone needs to take insulin shots. A significant number of people, myself included, are able to control their diabetes with Metformin, a biguanide that decreases blood sugar levels. Some, like my late father, need other stronger medications. Some need very little. There’s no one-fix-cures-all approach to controlling the disease. One needs to see their doctor on a regular basis and carefully follow the instructions provided.

Then, there are the associated diseases to which we’ve referred. Diabetes can contribute to any of the following:

  • Glaucoma
  • Retina detachment
  • Nerve disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Bronchospasm
  • Insulin Autoimmune Syndrome
  • Low Blood Sugar
  • Confused
  • Depression
  • Easily Angered Or Annoyed
  • Feel Like Throwing Up
  • Gas
  • Itching
  • Loss Of Appetite
  • Not Feeling Well
  • Over Excitement
  • Rash
  • Redness Of Skin
  • Sleep Disorder
  • Swelling Of The Abdomen
  • Taste Problems

On top of all that, as if those weren’t enough, diabetes can sap your stamina and cause severe sexual dysfunction! Even when the disease is being reasonably well managed, many of those problems can still affect one’s health. So, instead of just taking one or two medications, most people with diabetes end up taking several others as well in order to avoid the problems for which they’re most at risk. Again, every situation is different, so consulting a doctor is absolutely critical.

So, where do we eat?

charles i. letbetter - can i eat here

A healthy pizza and muffins are possible, but you won’t find them on most pizza menus

I enjoy cooking, so for me, the best and easiest solution for controlling my diet is to eat at home, which is what we do a very large percentage of the time. There are days, however, where eating at home is either not practical, possible, or pleasurable. Those are the times when eating out becomes a challenge. Convenience certainly goes out the window because there is practically nothing on fast food menus that keeps both fat and sodium below my allowable limits. Most devastating from the convenience food category is pizza. From the dough to the sauce to the processed meats, there is no standard pizza place that makes a pizza I can eat.

Sit-down dining offers more and better options, but even there one can find plenty of challenges, even if all you want is a salad. House dressings are almost always loaded with sodium, especially if they are low- or no-fat. Pre-packaged salads are frequently covered in cheese, which is a high-fat food. Chain restaurants buy much of their meat in bulk and freeze it, which inherently means a higher salt content. Plates are frequently loaded with starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, and peas. One has to be careful.

One’s best, and safest, approach is to dine at locally-owned restaurants. The food here is likely to be fresher, contain less fat and sodium, and depending on the time of day and the item, more easily customized to one’s particular needs. We asked restaurateur Ed Rudisell, owner and investor at several Indianapolis-area restaurants, including Rook, Black Market, and Siam Square, how his restaurants respond to requests for special orders. We weren’t surprised by his response:

We get occasional requests for substitutions and happily do what we can when preparing the food. Of course, some dishes are easier than other to make adjustments to, but we always try our hardest to accommodate.”

While we’ve only eaten out a few times since being declared diabetic, I have found Ed’s response is typical for locally-owned eateries. Generally speaking, local restaurants are more responsive and sensitive to unique customer needs. There are times, though, when even a locally-owned restaurant can’t adjust a menu item to order. Rob Koeller, Owner/Executive Chef at Culinary Concepts & Hospitality Consultants and former dean at The Chefs Academy at Harrison College, went into a bit more detail:

“The whole “trick” to the restaurant business regarding the food is that you “prep” or pre-prepare as much of the food as possible without jeopardizing the quality so that you can get the food out to the customer in a timely fashion.  Depending on the dish that is offered, many (if not all) of the ingredients are already fully cooked and simply needing a reheat.  An example would be Veal Osso Buco or any braised dish.  Of course, soups and stocks are not being “made-to-order” so being able to keep your food quality up is a struggle and daily challenge.  In these types of dishes, it is hard to make any substitutions due to the nature of the recipe.

On the other hand, many dishes are not that way when it comes to preparation.  Sandwiches, salads, sautéed items, etc. all can be actually “made-to-order” and quickly reach the customer.  With these types of dishes, it is easy to make substitutions or leave allergens out, etc.

My basic approach to any special requests from customers is that if their request is possible/doable, then the answer is “yes” as to whether or not a substitution or alternative can be executed.  The customer, in my regards, is always right so if their request is something that can be done at the moment then it will be done.  Of course, there are requests that simply can’t be fulfilled.  (i.e. a gluten free customer wants sorghum flour used in their pasta but there is no sorghum flour in the establishment).”

One of the things I appreciate about Chef Koeller is his ability to adjust to requests on the fly, something that is aided by the depth of his experience. Experience and education such as his typically aren’t found in most chain or fast-oriented restaurants. Many chain restaurants don’t require any formal education for their kitchen staff at all and turnover is frequently high, making the development of those skills difficult. Asking a line cook at iHop to make adjustments in how your chicken is cooked might be more challenging than making a similar request at a restaurant such as Black Market.

Again, Chef Koeller explains:

One of many points that are taught to a culinary student is that he/she are not cooking for themselves anymore; they are cooking for others.  In today’s world of increasing food allergies, diabetes, and compromised immunities, it is critical for a chef to be aware of the various challenges such as you speak.  Truth in advertising is heavily stressed because of these obvious reasons.  A menu item that contains 40% sodium enriched ingredient(s) should state something to that fact on the menu. With the high turnover in hospitality employees, it has been increasingly difficult to rely on the server to relay important dietary information to the customer.

When I first started looking at places that were safe to eat, I instinctively looked online for nutrition information. What I saw tended to scare me. There are several websites that specialize in providing nutrition information for common dishes at chain restaurants. Pulling from the website nutritionix.com, we looked at some dishes one might think would be safe. Here’s what we found. Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

From Applebee’s:

Lighter Fare Cedar Grilled Lemon Chicken
 Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 230
Calories 580
% Daily Value*
40Total Fat 26g
20% Saturated Fat 4g
Trans Fat 0g
102% Cholesterol 125mg
16% Sodium 2440mg
20% Total Carbohydrates 48g
Dietary Fiber 5g
Sugars 15g
Protein 42g

From Panera Bread:

Frontega Chicken Panini on Focaccia Panini, Half
Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 110
Calories 370
 % Daily Value*
18% Total Fat 12g
18% Saturated Fat 3.5g
13% Trans Fat 0g
45% Cholesterol 40mg
14% Sodium 1070mg
12% Total Carbohydrates 43g
Dietary Fiber 3g
Sugars 4g
Protein 23g

From Red Lobster:

Shrimp Your Way – Shrimp Scampi
 Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 150
Calories 230
 % Daily Value*
26% Total Fat 17g
15% Saturated Fat 3g
Trans Fat 0.5g
40% Cholesterol 120mg
24% Sodium 580mg
1% Total Carbohydrates 3g
Dietary Fiber 0g
Sugars 0g
Protein 17g

Any of those menu choices might be one which a conscientious person would reasonably think safe for the average diabetic, and for some diabetics, they might very well fit the bill. However, there are caution points to each one. Look at the fat values, especially saturated fat. Fat turns into sugar and is often more dangerous than the actual sugar content of the food. Anything that represents more than 10% of my total allowable fat intake for the day is something I tend to avoid. Pay attention, also, to sodium. The Applebee’s menu item, as healthy as it sounds, is already over my limit of 2300 mg for the day. For anyone with concerns about heart disease, cholesterol levels are important as well. None of these menu items are as safe as we would like for them to be.

There’s a danger, though, of relying on nutrition information. There are different ways of calculating those numbers and percentages. While the differences are typically not severe, when one is watching each and every gram, such as I do, those differences can matter a lot.

Diabetics also need to understand that certain foods inherently come with certain risks. One large egg, for example, represents 50% of my daily cholesterol limit. I don’t have to ask, I know that anything prepared with egg is going to have a higher cholesterol and a slightly higher fat level. Knowing these things is important when dining at locally-owned restaurants that are not likely to have nutrition information available and for very good reason. Ed Rudisell explains:

“For small restaurants, it is nearly impossible to provide nutritional information. Our menu items change too frequently, the lab costs for testing are insanely high – making it the territory of chain restaurants, and preparations of a dish can change daily with the availability of ingredients/produce meats.”

What may be the biggest challenge to diabetics, however, is portion size. We, as Americans, are preconditioned to think that more is better and that, especially when it comes to food, we need to make sure we are getting our money’s worth. This is one of the primary reasons that America has an obesity issue and contributes in no small amount to the rise in Type 2 Diabetes. We are, in a word, gluttons, and that is a huge problem. Moreover, the fault for that problem doesn’t lie with the restaurants, but with the consumer. We demand more, so restaurants feel obligated to provide more.

Jolene Ketzenberger, editor, and the host of WFYI’s Eat, Drink, Indy, among a number of other food-related qualifications, places the responsibility for portion sizes squarely on the consumer:

Consumer demand drives dining trends. As more people wanted vegetarian or gluten-free dishes, for example, more restaurants began offering them. And now we have some strictly vegetarian restaurants. If there is a demand for a specific type of food, the market will comply, and someone will offer it. I think some restaurants, particularly the locally focused, farm-to-fork restaurants, do offer smaller portions; in fact, many of them get criticized about it. And the “small plates” trend makes it easy to enjoy a few bites of a dish rather than an entree-sized portion. So diners do have more options these days to eat lighter, healthier fare.

Mr. Rudisell adds:

As far as portion control is concerned, we try to keep everything reasonable. But I will say this: A LOT of Hoosiers’ definition of value is based on quantity over quality. We encounter this all the time. If you read the reviews of some of the best restaurants in the city, you’ll very often find “portions are too small for the price”. Again, quality is hardly taken into consideration, if at all. A lot of people only focus on the size of the plate and not the quality of the food/preparation. I’ve seen this time and again in my 25 years managing restaurants.

I cannot help but think that this is why it can so often be difficult to find menu items that are safe for diabetics without modification. We don’t say anything. Some are too embarrassed. Some don’t want to be a bother. The worst, though, is that the majority of people with Type 2 Diabetes aren’t even trying. Again, going back to the case of my deceased friend, even among people who know they are diabetic, roughly 70% are not following any kind of doctor-prescribed plan for addressing the disease! They prefer to endure the ever-growing list of consequences rather than watching and tracking what they eat, taking a handful of medicines every day, and getting a reasonable amount of exercise. Such ignorance speeds one’s encounter with death and ultimately reduces the amount of pleasure one can have in their life.

Solving The Problem

charles i. letbetter - can i eat here

Dining while diabetic can be just as much fun as any dining experience

Since that first day when I was caught out and needing food, I have had other situations come up where I needed to make a quick decision about where to eat. While I may not be able to indulge in my favorite fat-ladened pizza, I found several places that I can eat safely and still enjoy something with more culinary expression than kale. The onus is on me, however, not the restaurants and not the chef, to know what my body needs and what fits within my dietary allowances.

Can diabetics eat out and enjoy the experience? Absolutely! Here are some simple steps for making your dining out just as much fun as it has always been.

  1. Know your dietary limits. Talk to your doctor. Consult a dietician. Follow their advice. Everyone’s dietary needs are going to be different based on their specific risk levels. There’s no way to control diabetes with your diet if you’re just making guesses at what your body does/doesn’t need.
  2. Choose a dining location carefully. Avoid fast food unless there is simply no other reasonable option. Locally-owned, smaller restaurants are far more likely to have delicious fresh food and typically can be more responsive to requests for changes.
  3. Be considerate when requesting changes, but do ask for them. Things prepared in advance, such as soups and sauces, often cannot be modified. Understand that there are limits to what a chef can do and avoid being unreasonable in your requests.
  4. Eat smaller portions. This just needs to be a regular part of your dining habit. Stop eating so damn much unless your doctor specifically tells you otherwise (and they rarely do). There’s no shame in asking for a half-portion if necessary.
  5. Leave good reviews. In today’s socially-aware environment, restaurants and patrons alike rely heavily on reviews. If you have a good experience with a restaurant that made adjustments to accommodate your needs, then let people know! There are other diabetics who would love to see that kind of information in a restaurant review and it helps the restaurant out as well.

Let’s get real before we end this thing. Being diabetic is anything but fun. The problems can be severe and it has severely curtailed my activities. Even if I get my A1C level down below 5, diabetes never goes away. The dangers associated with the disease never goes away. Diabetes is a life sentence and the best one can do is learn how to deal with it effectively.

I am distressed by the number of people who do nothing to control their diabetes. If all 30 million diabetics started paying attention to controlling the disease, eating better, taking their medicine, and exercising, we could have a dramatic impact on the entire country. We would likely see more restaurants with menu items appropriate for diabetics without modification. We might even see changes to how fast food is stored and prepared. Who knows, we might even start seeing pizzas with whole wheat crusts and non-processed toppings!

We, as diabetics, have to shoulder the responsibility, though. Nothing changes if all we do is sit on our ever-expanding asses and ignore the issues plaguing our health.

Yes, you can eat out. Take some responsibility and find places that work for you. Everyone will be better for it.