Tuesday, February 26, 2008

One Month of Cardio and Weights

About a month ago I mentioned that I'd started my annual winter fitness program and was anxious to see results. Well, I've been strictly faithful to an every-other-day program of 35 minutes on the cardio trainer (arms and legs both working) followed by a pretty comprehensive free weight lifting session. It works!

I've gained about six pounds of muscle ( to 188 pounds) and my waist is a bit smaller (less than 34). When I sing in the church choir I can hold the long notes all the way to the end. My chest and shoulders feel "tight", and they are noticeably larger. The other day I easily ran, pretty fast, up a 50-yard hill with a young man - and I was not breathing hard at the top. These results make it easy to stay on my plan.

Last year I worked out until May, then hiked the Appalachian Trail a bit, then spent the summer walking the golf course. I didn't keep up the workouts. By September I had lost quite a bit of upper body strength. This year I'll keep exercising throughout the summer, emphasizing flexibility and endurance more than I do with my current strength-oriented workouts. I'll celebrate my 64th birthday in July in pretty good shape, by that time probably able to bench press 150 pounds ten times.

You may think I'm writing this blog to boast about my progress. Not so. I'm really writing to let you know that you can get into shape regardless of your current physical condition. One hour, every other day. 3.5 hours per week is all it takes. The rewards are better sleeping, a better appetite, shorter "colds", better sex, and a more positive self-image, in addition to being able to accomplish physical things with less chance of injury. Why not think about it?

There's No "Straight Talk"

I'm rooting for Obama, but he, Hillary, John Mc, and The Huckster are all telling big fat lies. There's no "straight talk", and the electorate is being treated like a bunch of dumb sheep, as usual.

Hillary and Obama are competing to describe health care programs that are virtually universal, "state of the art", and affordable. They're also competing to see who can trash NAFTA the hardest. They're both being disingenuous at best.

McCain is vowing to keep the Bush tax cuts and eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, even though he would start his term with a huge deficit budget. That's not "straight talk", it's a trip to dreamland.

The Huckster thinks God directs us. If so, we don't need the Huckster to find our way.

The fact is that the incoming president will face the most serious challenges of any president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. What are they? A costly and intractable war in Iraq, a recession at home, Social Security and Medicare going broke, health care costs going out of sight, a broken education system, a pot-holed infrastructure, global warming's mandate to switch to alternative energy and conservation, a huge national debt, and a declining currency.

If I was an enemy of the United States at this moment, I would play a waiting game. If we don't act radically, we will run out of the money needed to defend the country before too many more years have passed. The new president, whether Obama, Hillary, or McCain, already knows this. They just don't have the guts to tell us.

The answer to most of these issues is simple: do more with less, or simply do less. Less war. Fewer entitlements. Caps on health care for chronically ill oldsters, persons with terminal conditions, and those who fail to manage their own non-healthy behaviors (such as obesity). Innovative educational methods and stronger sanctions on those who ruin other's opportunities for education. A comprehensive energy strategy with no holds barred. All of these require a trashing of the status quo and the handcuffing of special interests. The president must be the best leader since Roosevelt if he or she is to achieve progress on these intractable problems.

Can any of the candidates begin to tell the truth after they're elected? Not likely. The emergency already exists, but they're ignoring it and creating expectations they can never deliver. That is why, even though I like Obama's ability to inspire, I'm a pessimist about his and all the other candidate's ability ability to succeed in the job unless the straight talk starts during the campaign. Not much chance of that, though.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another "Teaching Company" Course

Not to bore you too much with another commercial, but I must report that Good Witch and I finished Professor Bill Messenger's course on "Great American Music: Broadway Musicals", which was comprised of only 16 45-minute lectures. We loved it.

Most of the course dealt with older American Broadway music, which included minstrel shows, vaudville, the ragtime years, and early Tin Pan Alley. So many of our familiar American songs come from these eras. Then, of course, we learned about the entry of the "big,plot-oriented musicals" with "Showboat" and later, "Oklahoma!". These were followed by such wildly different successes as "The Sound of Music", "West Side Story", "The Music Man", "A Chorus Line", "Miss Saigon", and "The Producers". It appears that just about any subject can be dealt with in a musical. Needless to say, we heard a lot of different music and we enjoyed it a lot while learning much.

We have subsequently started 48 30-minute lectures on "The History of World Literature". The professor, as usual, is excellent. What is dawning on me, however, is how connected this course is to two previous ones that we've completed: "The History of Western Civilization", and "The History of Western Music". Taken together, one can put together the pieces of how we got to where we are now - the good and the bad. I feel far more educated than I was before we came upon these wonderful courses.

To give you a tidbit we learned the other night: the stories of India, going back at least 2,500 years, traveled across the world to show up again and again in "Tales of 1,000 Nights, Canterbury Tales, and Aesop's Fables, to name a few. The world is really a lot smaller than we think, and it has been for a long time.

Tonight's lecture on Japanese poetry of the 7th to 9th centuries gave me new insight as to why my company, which had a Japanese subsidiary, experienced so many issues regarding our two different cultures. The Japanese have always been subtle, indirect and precise, while Americans are pretty much the opposite. Both companies needed to make accomodations in order to work together sucessfully.

Got a little extra time on your hands? Go to www.teach12.com and spend a few bucks. It'll be worth your time and money.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Politics of Compassion

As noted in my sidebar, I believe in God. My way of understanding God is the Christian way, although I believe that people can find and understand God in the light of other faiths as well. Recently, as part of an attempt to make Lent more meaningful, I read "Jesus: A New Vision" by Marcus J. Borg, a well-known Christian scholar. One of Borg's conclusions really struck me - the idea that Jesus attempted to transform culture through the "politics of compassion".

Borg points out that "Jesus repeatedly emphasized the compassion of God". He did this in stories like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, and he did it by healing people for whom he felt compassion. Compassion is that feeling of being "moved by" or "feeling with" someone who is experiencing a bad situation. Authentic compassion results in actions such as welcoming the downhearted son, assisting the traveler beaten by robbers, or assisting a sick person. As God's agents in this world we are expected to feel compassion and act on it both individually and collectively.

As I thought about this I realized that one of the least noticeable characteristics of our current government is "compassion", the act of recognizing and acting on the needs of the least fortunate. This, in spite of the fact that this government has associated itself with the idea of Christianity more than any other in my memory. But its focus has been on helping the "have's" rather than the "have-not's", and on threatening or fighting others rather than making honest attempts at conciliation. Across our land we see little evidence that those who need the most support are given the most attention. Borg would say that our leaders do not often practice the "politics of compassion", even though they profess Christianity. The one obvious exception is the effort to address AIDS in Africa, which I applaud.

I believe our country is at a critial juncture in our history. We have a growing gulf between the "have's" and "have-not's", particularly in the area of opportunity. A significant percentage of Americans are born in circumstances which do not bode well for their living happy and productive lives, yet we do not continually express compassion for them or attempt to address their needs in effective ways. This failure threatens our future as a nation, as it already is clearly threatening the life of cities such as Rochester, where I live.

The politics of compassion is not a soft-hearted sentimental reaction to suffering and despair. It is a practical, positive approach to maximizing the potential of individuals and our culture as a whole. It does not call for one-way gifts requiring no response on the part of the recipients, but rather hands held out in support that must be taken and held by the other. Its application provides hope, without which progress cannot be sustained. And yes, it is not without cost, but in my own life I most remember those who put themselves out to give me a hand when I was desperate for one.

As this presidential campaign winds down to November, I'll be listening for words of hope and compassion for those who are at the bottom of society's ladder. I want to hear talk of better options for health care, education,encouragement of children, and housing. I'd like candidates to speak of new ways to deal with the fixations on sex, drugs and violence that poison our culture. I'm hoping that the tone of our international relations changes toward proposing strategies that maximize the good for all people rather than focusing on enemies who need to be punished. Do we need to be able to protect ourselves? Of course. But it's much more satisfying to make a friend than defeat an enemy. The politics of compassion should make us much less a target of hate than we are at present. Even General Petraeus understands this simple truth.

All the major religions have a focus on compassion and generosity to strangers, but they also admit that we tend to be hard-hearted and selfish. We need to be reminded of our blindness and encouraged to see the immense benefits of a culture where all are included and helped to achieve their potential. The best of our presidential candidates will be the one who can help show the way.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Personal Valentine

I went to the store to buy a Valentine's Day card for the Good Witch. There were many to choose from, ranging from "funny" to "gushy" in content and from $3.69 to $4.99 in price. A few minutes later I left the store emptyhanded and returned home to sit in front of my laptop and open Microsoft Word. I just couldn't let someone else's words explain why she is the one I love.

With just a little fooling around with fonts, colors, and style I produced something that looked pretty nice and said what was in my heart. It fit easily on one page, and most of it is too personal to put in a blog. But here's one thought that came after a list of about ten reasons why she's my Valentine: "Just because you happen to be married to someone doesn’t necessarily mean that person is your Valentine. The person has to earn that honor."

Good Witch and I were married in August, 1966, and we've traveled many roads together since then - roads both smooth and bumpy. The bumpy times gave us opportunity to better understand ourselves and the other, and to focus in on what each of us found most important in a relationship. We found that those "core" characteristics - the inner drivers that define each of us - were what had attracted us to each other in the first place and continue to satisfy us. We also learned that the other's imperfections should be more than tolerated; they should be accepted with a smile, and compensated for with special efforts of our own. Consequently, we have built a love that is never in doubt.

I've never been a big fan of holidays, especially when they are highly commercialized. Valentine's Day has often seemed to me a most artificial holiday, a day when roses or candy might be hoped to atone for months of neglect. But this year, Valentine's Day prompted me to tell her in specific terms why my concept of "me" is incomplete without her. The funny thing is, the effort to describe this phenomenon probably did as much for me as it did for her. Her "good night kiss" was especially sweet.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"An Inconvenient Truth" - Gore -vs- Bush

The Good Witch and I finally watched "An Inconvenient Truth" the other night. It's a rather dramatic commercial for those who believe in global warming, and a heckuva good commercial for Al Gore. Once or twice he takes a shot at the guy who somehow edged him out for President, but mostly he focuses on documenting climate change and its implications for the world.

Frankly, Gore is impressive. He has "presence", he speaks with considerable skill, and his efforts to communicate science in terms that the average person can understand demonstrate that he has an amazing amount of commitment and energy. The documentary leaves one sad that someone with this much talent got beat by the Bozo, and you just know that our country and the world would be much different (better) today if Gore had been at the helm. Of course, that could be said about just about any other person who happened to be at the helm (excepting Cheney, of course).

If you've not seen the movie, take the time to watch it - it's less than an hour and one half. If you have doubts that civilization has had a lot to do with climate change, he'll give you some information that you can test with your own resources. Personally, I was already convinced but I heard some new information that was interesting.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch I'm getting ready to leave for the overnight shift at our local ambulance corps. It's 18 degrees outside, and all the hospitals are close to overflowing. There must be a full moon or something. Then again, maybe I'll be lucky and get some sleep. Be safe, gentle readers, and keep an eye out for the Yahoo's who forget about the rules of the road!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Change Agent Needed

You've heard the term - Change Agent. It's a term I know a lot about, because I've been one for many years. I know how hard it is to understand a situation for what it is by developing "facts" based on hard-nosed analysis, to identify and evaluate alternative solutions for addressing the situation, to decide on the best alternative, to convince those with power to back it, and then to do the work to solve the problem. There is nothing more satisfying, though, than making the world better by changing how we deal with a part of it that is broken. And we need a change agent as our next president.

America is broken in many respects because our government has failed us. Our political leaders espouse peace but embrace and glorify war. They talk about courage but lead by fostering fear. They praise fiscal restraint but spend like drunken sailors. They profess to respect science but thwart the scientists who virtually prove global warming or who work to improve perhaps billions of lives through stem cell research. Our leaders profess limited resources to fund education for our children but give tax breaks to oil companies that are making record profits. Yes, our government has failed us - but we elected that government. We are the ones who made the failures possible, and we are the ones who have the power to fix them. We all need to become change agents.

Unlike my friend ThomasLB, I have a lot of confidence in the ability of large organizations to do good. Governments and corporations have the ability to do wonderful things. They can accumulate resources and talents, marshall them to address problems and chase after difficult goals, and satisfy many important needs of their employees and those who benefit from their work.

Can you imagine our world without the contributions of enlighted governments and corporations? We depend on the efforts of large organizations who work for the common good while simultaneously working for the benefit of those who work inside them. Yet it's clear that governments and corporations can also do great harm if their energies are devoted to the wrong objectives. We have the latter situation in far too many cases in America today. We need change agents, leaders who sincerely pursue the common good and have the skills needed to get results. We don't need unqualified buffoons like our current president or the selfish, conniving people who got him elected and benefit from his destructive policies.

We are approaching another election cycle. If we actively participate, each of us can be a change agent. Maybe we don't all have the backgrounds to figure out what must be done to fix America, but we all the the ability to ask questions of those who wish to lead us. Here's my advice: demand clear statements of what these people think are the big problems; ask them what they think needs to be done to fix them, specifically; ask them how they would pay for the work, and how they would organize government to effect the changes. If they can't make sense to you when they answer, look for someone else who can.

George Bush massacred the saying "If you fool me once, shame on you. If you fool me twice, shame on me." A large number of us were fooled twice by him, because he became president and stayed president. That means that we can easily be fooled again unless we are very careful in the upcoming election. As we listen to McCain, Clinton, and Obama, we need to focus in on the specifics and close our ears to the political bombast that all politicians love to spout. Identify the person whose goals most closely align with yours, and carefully evaluate their commitment and skills. America is not easy to fix, and we need the very best change agent.

p.s. If you like what Mike Huckabee is saying, disregard all of the above. You prefer to be led by a flim-flam man, and you can keep your brain in the park position.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

It's Time for the Younger Generation!

We have an aging population. The baby-boomers are now reaching retirement age by the millions and the oldsters are becoming an even greater percentage of the American population. Their demands for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicare prescription drug benefits are insatiable. The question is, is our government willing to bankrupt the country in order to take care of them (including me and Good Witch)? I hope not. And that's one of the primary reasons I'm hoping Obama does well in the upcoming primaries and beats Hillary for the democratic nomination.

I'll be 64 this year, and I will have been "retired" for 10 years. Many of my friends are senior citizens, and I meet plenty more of them on the ambulance. They are good people, most of whom worked hard and sacrificed a lot for their kids. I should add that they are, by and large, pretty well off. They grew up and worked in a different world than their kids are living in, a world where they had significant advantages over those who lived in other countries. Times have changed.

During their working life America fueled its vehicles mostly from oil and gas produced in this country; America exported huge quantities of steel, televisions, computers,and a plethora of other products to countries that were far less developed, or recovering from war, or short of natural resources; a high school education was perfectly adequate for many decent jobs in America. And, equally important, my generation grew up in a time when there were far fewer oldsters and a much less lucrative "safety net" for those who were old. Government was much smaller and much cheaper when my friends and I began our careers, and health care was much less expensive because doctors and hospitals were quite limited in terms of having surgeries and drugs that could prolong life.

The world of today's younger people is turned upside down from my old world. Much of our energy is imported, and worldwide demand is driving up energy prices. We import far more manufactured goods than we export. Our educational process has deteriorated significantly relative to our competitor countries. Oldsters are everywhere, and they benefit from ever-increasing government pensions and government payments for ever-escalating healthcare costs. Today's younger workers scramble to compete for scarce jobs, but many in my generation had the luxury of choosing from several employers who competed to hire them. Is America doomed to slowly deteriorate into a second-string country because our economy can't compete in the world? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.

Solutions do exist for many of America's problems. We will likely develop alternative energy sources. We may become smarter about creating more efficient living and working environments, environments far less wasteful than the large homes and McMansions that my generation never really needed. We may finally put some creativity into our education system and begin turning out broadly educated and motivated young workers who recognize that "producing things" creates much more value than selling things produced by others. But the problem of the oldsters may be the most difficult problem to solve. There will be many more of us each year, and we expect our government to take care of us. We will fight for government pensions and healthcare subsidies even if it means our schools will get a smaller and smaller share of the pie.

A young president, say about 48 years of age, is much more likely to take on the challenges of re-engineering America for the benefit of those who follow. An older president, say about 72 years of age, will have a totally different perspective. The choices will be difficult and politically dangerous, so they must be expressed in clear, honest terms to everyone who will be affected. The implementation time will outlive the oldster president, but a younger president will be able to see the progress achieved for his/her children and grandchildren. Much must happen, so it's time to give those who must live with the outcomes the ability to make the choices.

Unfortunately for my generation, the solution must include tapping into our rather immense resources. Higher taxes to pay for schools. Smaller growth in our Social Security. Less access to high cost health care options for oldsters with chronic conditions, and higher co-payments for elective surgeries like hip and knee replacements. Estate-management gimmicks that keep estates healthy while forcing the government to pay for long nursing home stays must go. Why? Because my generation failed, during our time of prosperity, to do the things necessary to keep America strong for our children and grandchildren. Now it's time to pay up.

Maybe Obama can rally the country to see the handwriting on the wall and do something about it. McCain is owned by the fat cats, and Hillary is owned by the special interests. Give the kid a chance to save his generation!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Local Warming, Global Warming

I know it's wrong to look at local phenomena and draw global conclusions, but I'm sorely tempted. We've had wacky weather here in Rochester, NY, this past year.

Rochester is known for overcast skies, temperate summers, and nasty cold winters with lots (read 100 inches) of snow. Rochester's also known for many great golf courses, so - southern readers - come visit me in July! But, back to the topic at hand.

Today is February 2, 2008. Normally, Rochester is in a deep freeze at this time of year. I remember a year when we did not get above freezing (32F) for 40 days! I remember a year when the Rochester newspaper printed a full page color picture of the sun, since we hadn't seen it in so long. Today, it was 35 degrees and felt pretty balmy, and yesterday the sun shone brightly for awhile. We've had a very easy winter so far, although December was kind of snowy. I played golf at my local course twice in January, once in 68 degree weather. We had several days of record highs, beating the previous record by almost 10 degrees!

Last summer was really nice, but we had some unusually hot spells in the 100 degree range. We are on the southern edge of Lake Ontario, which tends to moderate our temperatures - but not this year. Fortunately for us, most golf courses have nice deep ponds that are used to irrigate the fairways during heat spells. We were surprised to have so many hot days, since we rarely have temperatures that hit 90 degrees.

As much as I've enjoyed the warmer weather, I'm bothered by it. We've had a series of big windstorms as fronts have clashed with a vengeance, temperatures dropping 40 degrees in a few hours. This is new. I'm used to long, hard winters, but not to the ups and downs that we're now experiencing. It's more violent now, and definitely warmer than it's been in many years.

Scientists say that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising rapidly since humans became highly industrialized, and that the planet is warming because this gas traps heat. There's good reason to believe them without confirmation from Rochester, NY. But I've got to tell you, it's warmer here, and I don't think that's a good thing. It's time to get busy reversing this nasty trend!