Wednesday, December 31, 2014

#179 - Another Auld Lang Syne

As I sit here, there are less than four hours left in 2014. My son is busy playing away on his WiiU, and my wife is asleep on the sofa in the other room. I'm sitting here trying to figure out just what I want to say as one year ends and a new one begins. Do we know how to party or what?

As is the case every year, new names and faces entered the world as well as the public consciousness while other people gave up their earthly existence, their souls embarking on the next stage of their cosmic adventure.

For some of my friends, the losses hit closer to home. One friend and former colleague lost her father. Even though children are supposed to outlive their parents, I don't think it's any easier for a child to lose a parent than it is for a parent to lose a child. In some ways, that kind of loss may sum up better than anything what life is really all about.

Life is not supposed to be easy. It is not supposed to stay constant; life is fluid, always changing, much like a river changes over time. The other part of the lesson in all of this may be that nothing worth having is gained without effort.

A different kind of loss befell another friend of mine this year. Her longtime boyfriend lost his job after working for the same company for many years. That kind of loss can put stress on a relationship and create all kinds of uncertainty. Being that he is the same age as me, I can relate a bit to the challenge ahead as he tries to re-enter the workforce, especially when it comes to landing a good-paying job. The one difference is that I was lucky enough to be able to leave on my own terms.

Just as in any year, 2014 was not without its positive moments. We welcomed a grand or great niece into the family. Teresa and I enjoyed a wonderful week with her brother and his wife and without children. I wrote more than I have in years, and Teresa and I worked up one of my lyrics that we may perform publicly for the first time in early 2015.

Sometimes I think about things that might have been and things I might have done if I'd had more ambition or drive or strength of personality. At the same time, as I get older, I realize that as long as I'm breathing it's never too late to start working on making one's dreams a reality. Having said that, I also realize that it probably wasn't the smartest thing to wait so long to get started.

May the coming year bring each of you health, happiness, and peace. Most of all, though, I hope 2015 brings each one of you the desire to pursue and achieve at least one of your dreams. Make new friends and remember old ones. Reconnect with your inner self and with those around you. Happy hunting and happy new year!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

#178 - Lessons Learned

"Lessons learned are like bridges burned, you only need to cross them but once."
- Dan Fogelberg

I don't think Dan Fogelberg had someone like me in mind when he wrote those words thirty-plus years ago. Over the course of my journey through this lifetime, it seems I have had to learn some lessons more than once. At least it feels that way.

As I prepare to mark another year in the book of life, I look back and ponder the question of what, if any, lessons have I learned. I'd like to think perhaps I have finally learned a few, albeit at a slightly later stage in life. However, the reality is that I am still learning. At least I hope I am. Among the things I am trying to learn:
  1. Stuff is replaceable. Friends and family are not.

    When I was four years old, my favorite toy was a working mockup of a car's dashboard. It had a  little windshield with working wipers, a steering wheel with a working horn, even a radio (which for some reason never did work). One day, some other child picked up this favorite toy of mine and threw it into the swimming pool of the apartment complex where we lived. I tried to go in and save it, but being unable to swim at the time, I guess I was lucky not to have drowned. It was my first real sense of loss. The following year, my father left for good. Although I now know there were good reasons for him being banished from our lives, you can probably guess which loss had the greater impact.

  2. Define your stuff. Do not let your stuff define you.

    So often we are defined by what we do or by what we have. People with big houses and new cars are seen as successful. People with smaller houses and older cars are not. It seems to me the really successful people in this scenario are the marketers and salespeople who convinced those with the big houses and new cars that they needed these things and the added expenses that go with them. As I get older, I think about getting rid of stuff, stuff I don't use or need. At the same time, my son talks about getting more stuff. The battle of the bulge with regard to stuff is a never-ending one. In the new year, I hope to put our house on a stuff diet.

  3. Sometimes, less is more.

    This piggy-backs on the previous point about stuff. We work five or six days a week, 40, 50, even 60 hours or more a week, volunteer for overtime, etc., all in search of a bigger paycheck to pay for our toys and the things we want. Perhaps if were a bit more selective or held on to things longer or perhaps did not jump on every bandwagon or take part in every new craze that comes along (the hype over the new iPhone 6 comes to mind) we would not need quite as much money and would actually have time to enjoy what we do have and perhaps spend time with friends and family. Yes, there are things I want, but I try to wait patiently as we save toward those things. In the meantime, I look at some of the things around me and wonder whether I could get rid of some of them.

  4. Once you reach a certain age, time is no longer on your side.

    When the Rolling Stones sang that time was on their side, they were all in their early 20s. Once you reach the age of 30 or 40 (definitely 50), time is no longer on your side. In other words, if there is something you've dreamed of doing, do it. I struggle with this one because of a variety of factors: lack of self-confidence, lack of ambition, lack of discipline, just a lack of. Throughout my life, I have had a number of dreams. Many of them I've long since given up on, some I stubbornly hold on to.

  5. Chase your dreams while you are young before life gets in the way.

    This could almost be point 4b. I am not saying here that it is impossible to pursue your dreams after a certain age. However, I do think it is easier to chase a dream when one is younger and still firmly holding on to the strength of their convictions. Older people sometimes refer to the young as being idealistic and/or naive, as if that were a bad thing. I suspect that some of them are actually lamenting the loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams when they say something like that. They realize that it is easier to chase a dream before one gets tied down with a job, a family, a mortgage, etc. Having said that, however:

  6. Never stop dreaming.

    Even as we get older, it is important to keep dreaming. Dreaming may not keep us young, but it can help keep us young at heart and give us a reason to get out of bed each morning. Even at my age, I continue to dream. I truly believe that the day I stop dreaming is the day I die, even if the body lingers for years after. Do not listen to those who tell you to grow up and start living in the real world. They are the walking dead who stopped dreaming years ago. Having seen the real world, I can attest that it is not all it is cracked up to be.

  7. Find your passion in life and pursue it.

    I believe that each of us has something we were born to do, and only rarely does it coincide with what we do for a paycheck. Often, it may not bring any financial reward at all. Riches, though, are not defined simply by one's bank balance. I have struggled with this for years and have yet to truly define my passion, but I know it's out there. I think, perhaps, that my passion is writing, though not the type of writing I've often spoken to others about, novel writing. I think lyric writing may be my passion; it has certainly been my lifeline for 40-plus years. I will never be mentioned in the same breath as Paul McCartney or even Irving Berlin, but I think I occasionally come up with something pretty good. So I keep writing. If you cannot identify your passion, ask a friend to help you. Brainstorm, do whatever it takes, but find it. Having a passion, more than a big paycheck or lots of stuff will help keep you sane and will likely lead to a happier life.

  8. Look beyond the black and white to the shades of gray. It is there that the truth is found.

    I am fearful of people who speak in absolutes. No one has all the answers. No one religion or philosophy has all the truth. There are always at least two sides to every story, sometimes many more. I also believe there is more to truth than mere facts. One needs context as well. Without context, facts are like random numbers, meaningless. Often, looking beyond the words to the speaker and the circumstance is much easier said than done. I myself probably fail as often as I succeed. But I believe it is worth the effort.
Keep trying. Keep learning. Keep laughing. Keep loving.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

#177 - Season of Change

I haven’t had much to say in this space of late. Most of my thoughts lately have been more lyrical in nature, and so I have been posting them on my writing blog, My Wordsmithing. I’ve also been trying to think of what exactly to write about in this space. This morning, it came to me.

Waking up this morning and getting ready to work, I began to think about the dwindling days – getting light later and dark earlier. It seems, somehow, a perfect metaphor for my current stage in life, as I get older and move closer to life after work.

For all of that melancholia about growing old, I realized that autumn is my favorite season of the year and has been for a long, long time. When I was younger, the falling of the leaves and the dormancy of most plant life seemed to suit my angst-filled teenage life. I didn’t feel as if I fit in with those around me and knew no one else could relate to that feeling. Years later, I realized that most teens probably feel something similar at some point along their rocky road to adulthood. That education did not go to waste!

These days, autumn remains my favorite season, although the reasoning has changed. When I speak of autumn, I mean after the calendar changes over to October, not the period immediately following the autumnal equinox in September.

For me, October is the quintessential autumnal month. The days, while getting shorter, still possess enough daylight to produce moderate temperatures. (Here in SW Idaho, highs reach the upper 60s and lower 70s, typically.) The nights, while crisp, are not bitterly cold. And the colors are often breathtaking.

October is to me the perfect time for a camping outing, especially if you have something other than a tent. Campgrounds are uncrowded and sometimes empty, and weekend outings become an opportunity for relaxation and reflection and not simply a two-day escape. The pace is slower and quieter.

Autumn is also my favorite season because it is a season of change. Or, perhaps to be more exact, it is a season that promises change as the old makes way and the landscape prepares for the promise of new life with the coming spring.

That aspect of autumn rings more true than ever for me this year, as I am about to embark on change of my own. After some discussion and deliberation and perhaps some second-guessing, my wife and I have decided it is time for me to leave the working world, at least the working world as most people define it. In a sense, I am giving up work to begin what may end up to be the most important work I’ve ever done.

Instead of punching a time clock at a job that offer little in the way of a challenge and less in the way of advancement opportunity, we have decided that I should work on our son. Specifically, I will try to help him and teach him some basic day to day skills that might help him to live a more independent life. In the last year, I think we both have seen some of his intellectual capabilities kick into a new gear, demonstrating capabilities I've long thought and hoped he had. As a result, we decided now is the time to strike while the iron is hot, as it were.

At the same time, I will also try to do some work on me. (In a sense, I guess you could say I am also developmentally delayed.) Some of that work will revolve around household management: menu planning, organization, cooking (rather than simply throwing something together for dinner), arranging appointments (car, medical, etc.) Another part of that work might fall under the category of personal improvement and development and will likely involve more physical activity and hopefully involve more writing. Underlying all of this, however, is the goal of helping our son to be all that he can be (to borrow a military marketing slogan).

The adventure begins November 1. In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are-a changin’, and I’m looking forward to the change. I just hope I’m ready.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#176 - What Were They Thinking?

According to a news report, a nine-year old girl in Arizona has accidentally shot and killed her shooting instructor while learning how to fire a gun. Note that this was not a pistol or even a normal rifle. It was an Uzi submachine gun.

I don’t know and don’t really care where anyone stands on the issue of gun control. I would hope that no sane person could rationally argue that a nine-year old should learn to fire an Uzi. For that matter, why should anyone outside of the military even have an Uzi, let alone learn to fire one. I can’t see it as a legitimate weapon for hunting, and I personally would find it too dangerous to have one in the home. To me, the only purpose of such a weapon is to kill other human beings.

I don’t normally write about such hot button topics, but I just did not feel I could let this one go by. I get that some parents want to teach their children how to hunt. I personally don’t hunt, but I know for many it is a chance to bond with their children and also serves as a rite of passage.

What I don’t get is how any parent in their right mind could think their child needs to learn how to fire a weapon like an Uzi, which is capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute. I find it even more incredible that these parents could think it make sense for their nine-year old daughter to hold, let alone try to fire such a weapon at an age when they might reasonably be expected to have trouble controlling any gun, let alone a machine gun.

I can’t pretend to know or understand what was going through the minds of that girl’s parents when they made the decision to have their daughter learn to fire the Uzi. Nor can I pretend to know what went through their minds in that instant when it all went horribly wrong. I don’t know what the girl thought about learning to fire such a gun or what she thought when she realized what had happened.

What I do know is that, at nine years of age, this girl has taken a life. Accidentally, yes, but taken a life nonetheless. It is an act of such finality that even some soldiers never get over it. I can’t begin to imagine how she ever will, though I hope she can. As for her parents, they could easily be accused of child endangerment. They are at least guilty of incredibly poor judgment. Whatever else they might be guilty of is up to their conscience.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#175 - Fighting That Blah-g Feeling

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit blah and nothing feeling like I have much to say or write about. My day to day life is not all that exciting – eat, work, sleep, rinse and repeat – and some things are best not blogged about, at least until I get the okay from “the boss.”

None of that explains why I’m feeling a bit blasé these days. Perhaps it’s the fact that summer is winding down, which means colder weather won’t be far behind. I know many sweltering in triple-digit heat would welcome some much cooler temperatures about now, living in Idaho, I won’t be one of them.

Perhaps it’s knowing that, while we try to use our RV year-round, with school about to start back up, our opportunities to get out will diminish. Even though we still have a few trips planned before the end of the year, it still feels as if RV season is ending for some reason as we will have to winterize the beast before too long, which means we won’t be able to use all of its systems to their fullest.

Maybe it’s simply that I’m feeling in a reflective mood, and I’m not all that happy with the reflection I see. I look at where I am, where I thought I’d be, what I’ve done, and what I haven’t done in my life. As it likely is for most people, the picture is a mixed one.

At some level, I've always been a dreamer. This can be both good and bad. It is good in the sense that having a dream or two has made it possible for me to get through many a mundane 9 to 5 day. On the other hand, having a dream without possessing the willpower, determination, or perhaps talent to make that dream come true can be frustrating and demoralizing. I struggle occasionally with that one.

It could be that I’m simply over-thinking things. Or maybe I just need to work some more exercise (mental and physical) into my routine. Perhaps I simply need to reflect more on what I do have – a wonderful wife and son, a home, a beagle (can’t forget him), fairly decent health, no massive debt, and the aforementioned RV.

While I do that, simply think of this entry as a placeholder until I think of something else to write.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

#174 - Feeling Random

Heard a co-worker come in this morning and state that she wanted to leave early today because she had an appointment for a pedicure. That sent my mind off in a dozen directions at once. At least. With apologies to Stephen Wright, here goes:

Why do people call it a manicure when women are much more likely to get one? If, as the Rolling Stones once said, “time is on my side,” why do I need to wear a watch on my wrist? If you’re not Formica, are you against it?

Why are UFOs called “unidentified flying objects?” If we call it a UFO, haven’t we just given it an identity? With all the current debate about immigration in America, do you suppose the French ever think about asking us to return the Statue of Liberty?

Do you think prostitutes ever get tired of being confused with garden implements? Why is an oven also known as a range when it isn't wide open and never goes anywhere? If you were a groundhog and saw a shadow that looked like that, wouldn't you be scared too?

How much lettuce should you feed a dust bunny? How long did it take God to stop laughing after putting Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis in the same family tree?

Is the population in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico lower because they've killed all the liars? In order to get more done in Washington, should Congress consider changing its name to Progress?

Why do people buy big houses then spend most of their time in a couple of rooms or the garage? If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, what does a one-legged person wait for?

What exactly is "a stitch in time," and why does it save nine? Nine what? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, how would you really know whether it made a sound? Can a sound truly exist if no one hears it?

If it's true that the movie "The Greatest Story Ever Told" really was, why does anyone else bother? Finally, if a movie flashes up “The End” on screen, why does it sometimes then follow with ten minutes of credits?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

#173 - It Makes a Village Online

Since rediscovering a love of camping more than eight years ago – after moving to Idaho – and then discovering an even greater enjoyment of life in an RV (recreational vehicle, for those not up on the lingo), I have had in the back of mind the goal of taking to the road full-time in an RV once my working days are done. The road and some of the places I see help to make more real the journey aspect of life.

The move to life on the road in many ways seems a natural for me and my wife. Our fathers were both truck drivers, as was my grandfather. I also have an uncle and a cousin who drive a truck for a living, so it seems a natural that we would take to the highway at some point. In addition, my wife has lived in at least six states for some period of time, and I have lived in nine states, so there is a bit of the nomad in our blood.

Roughly five years ago, I began exploring the notion of full-time RV living. I discovered that an entire subculture of “full-timers” exists, complete with blogs and organizations  geared toward RVing and RV life. One of the blogs I stumbled across in my research features a retired teacher from Georgia who had never done any RVing before beginning her grand adventure. RVSue, as she is known travels with her two dogs, known affectionately as “the Crew,” across the West mainly in her van and small travel trailer.

Although I read several blogs on full-time RV life, Sue’s is the blog I read most often and most consistently. Part of the reason is her entertaining writing style. An equally important reason is the fact that Sue does not write about typical destinations (state parks, RV resorts, and the like). She prefers to get off the beaten path, away from the crowd. It is the type of RV life I envision living, at least most of the time.

What perhaps makes RVSue’s blog the most entertaining of any blog I read is the multitude of comments from her readers (affectionately known as “blogorinos”) and their interaction both with Sue and with each other. The conversations that take place in the comments section are often as entertaining in their own way as the blog post that got everything started. Even though Sue’s blog does not contain flashy animation or graphics, does not usually feature videos or have interactive games, chat rooms, or a discussion forum, it is certainly much more than a static web page.

Comments, replies, rebuttals, and further responses, all help to make RVSue and Her Crew perhaps one of the most interactive sites on the internet. Her blog serves as an example of what good writing, done in an entertaining fashion, can lead to, even in our mile-a-minute, always connected world. The fact that her readers and commenters almost always get along and respond to one another with humor, respect, and civility further go to show that meaningful discourse is still possible in our electronic and often divisive world, the example of the current Congress notwithstanding.

In many ways, RVSue and Her Crew is a 21st Century carrying on of the long standing tradition of talking after dinner, a practice carried on by cowboys around a campfire, guests at a fancy dinner gathering in the drawing room after the meal to discuss the issues of the day, even such things as a girls’ or boys’ night out. More than that, Sue’s blog is an opportunity for people of different backgrounds, different incomes, different demographics, different locations to come together to discuss things they have in common, creating in effect an internet village.

The RVSue and Her Crew blog is a shining example of what the internet can be and all too seldom is, judging from the many comments I glance through on other web sites. Even though she looks to escape in some ways from civilization, Sue’s blog actually gives me a little hope for the civilization she seeks to leave behind. I hope to hold on to that hope, at least until I, too, can escape.

Friday, August 1, 2014

#172 - Idaho Dumbing Down or Just Needing to Take a Different Look?

New figures indicate that the percentage of Idaho high school graduates who go on to attend college dropped from 2012 to 2013. The decline occurred in spite of – or perhaps because of – the state’s somewhat lame Go On campaign aimed at encouraging more grads to pursue post-secondary education.

According to the story at Idaho Ed News, a little more than half of Idaho’s high school graduates in 2013, 52 percent, opted to continue their education. The Idaho State Board of Education president says an improving economy may be partly to blame, with grads opting to work now and save money to attend college later. It’s a nice thought, but I suspect it has little to do with the actual reasons.

The same Idaho Ed News article also seems to suggest that Mormon grads putting off college until they complete a mission may also play a part in the decline. The idea that God told me to wait before attending college doesn’t seem to me to carry much validity, either, despite the large Mormon population in Idaho. Especially when the article only attributes that reasoning to the decline in the one Idaho country where the branch campus of Brigham Young University is located. As if graduates in that county would only consider attending that university.

The article’s loudest alarm bells are reserved for the declining numbers in Idaho’s two largest school districts, declines that took place despite their proximity to two and four-year colleges. The fact that both the two and four-year schools in and around these districts have, rightly or wrongly, reputations as commuter schools more likely to attract older students than recent grads is ignored.

Also ignored are what I think may be the main reasons for the decline. First is the fact that Idaho, despite the growth of Boise and the surrounding area, remains a largely rural state dependent on the land for its people’s livelihood. For better or worse, many in agriculture or other trades may not see the need for continued formal education after high school.

The next fact, I suspect, is the fact that Idaho does not allow much overlap in educational offering between the state’s institutions of higher learning. As a result, many programs may only be offered at a single school. Given Idaho’s position near the bottom in terms of per capita income, coupled with the rising tuitions cited by the article, this restriction may put higher education out of reach for some.

Finally, with the shift in focus in recent years by many colleges toward more business-oriented offerings, colleges have come to more closely resemble vocational schools. The latter, because of more accelerated programs, can be less expensive. Plus, they are often easier to get into.

So what is the solution? It is doubtful that one size fits all. However, it is equally doubtful that Gov. Butch Otter’s “spectrum of educational opportunities” (whatever that means), with “an emphasis on reading in the early grades and a rigorous high school curriculum” will translate into “college or professional-technical training and completion.” Idaho, along with a number of other states, is already trying that with Common Core. Yet the numbers are still falling.

Idaho needs to try to think outside the box, which leads back to Otter’s “spectrum of educational opportunities.” The first opportunity is for Idaho to stop trying to remake all higher education into expensive, glorified vocational schools that no longer put money, let alone emphasis on anything other than business, engineering, and science. Yes, those are important fields, but the arts and humanities are no less important.

I might argue the arts and humanities are even more important than business fields in terms of living. It is through the arts and humanities that a person learns discernment, critical thinking, and appreciation of life outside of work, as well as the ability to articulate one’s thoughts in spoken and written word. A broadening rather than a narrowing of one’s education leads to a balanced and well-rounded mind and spirit. It is people such as this who will best be equipped to survive, if not thrive in an increasingly demanding and ever changing social and economic landscape.

The next thing I think Idaho should do is look more at forming partnerships between various schools so that students in one part of the state do not have to move to another part of the state to pursue a particular program of study. This could be conceivably be done through online courses taught with an on-campus component or support person at the student’s home school. It could also involve online or teleconference discussions with student’s on the campus of the school where the program is centered.

The same kinds of partnerships could also be explored between four-year schools and vocational schools, whereby vocational students might take classes in the arts and humanities but geared more closely to the needs of the student’s chosen field. Regardless of whether a person is studying to be a lawyer or an auto mechanic, the need for critical thinking skills remains as does the need for exposure to areas outside the person’s chosen field, especially if those areas can somehow be related or tied back to that field.

Something else that would definitely be out of the box would be for at least some of Idaho's colleges and universities to develop programs for the developmentally disabled. These programs could be both degree and non-degree programs designed to help these people live more independently and also help them pursue areas and fields they are interested in at their own pace and with the necessary accommodations to allow them to succeed. As the father of an autistic son, I admit to an ulterior motive here, but I also think such programs could bring a new clientele to college campuses and also cause education to be looked at in a different light, by administrators, educators, and students alike.

I also think Idaho has an opportunity to lead in the area of making money for college more affordable to prospective students. I find it no coincidence that college tuitions began to rise more rapidly and more often once private lenders were given more leeway and freedom in what they charge for student loans. Some sort of state-private partnership, whereby the state given some financial benefits or tax breaks to lending institutions offering reduced interest rates (say five-percent or less) on student loans, is one possibility.

Another possible component of this could be an Idaho version of AmeriCorps. In such a scenario, the state might pay a portion of the student’s tuition or make a student’s loan payments for a time in return for a specified length of service by the student in a part of the state where the student’s talents might be most useful or needed. This might also work as part of a beefed-up internship program.

Any or all of these will require forward thinking and a willingness to risk failing. Because of that, I don’t expect Idaho to explore, let alone implement any of these suggestions. Which leaves me with my last and easiest to implement idea. Reduce the focus on recent high-school graduates and turn attention to those considering a return to school and those who perhaps need additional education and/or retraining.

At least one of Idaho’s four-year universities is already referred to as a “commuter school,” although most of those who use the term do so in a derogatory manner. However, just as some people don’t need or aren’t meant to go to college, others don’t need or aren’t ready to go to college right out of high school. I tried and failed simply because I was not ready. 15 years later when I decided I finally was ready, I went back, earning a B.S.Ed. and then a MA in English. That 15 year interval allowed me to gain some maturity, as well as an appreciation of what I was learning, and I suspect it made me a much better student.

Since the population as a whole is aging, it is likely that the greatest potential for growth in Idaho’s colleges will not come from those fresh out of high school but from those who already have a few years out of school (or more) and perhaps a few jobs already under their belts. That “real world” experience will allow students to bring a different perspective to the classroom, and the added maturity that often comes with age may allow them to better appreciate the new ideas that the classroom can bring to them. It’s worth a shot.

Monday, July 28, 2014

#171 - Friends, Family, and Fun

We just got back from making the annual 800-mile round-trip pilgrimage to the event that is known in our family as Hickfest. It's a chance for friends and family to eat, drink, and be merry or Mary (although, I don't think I saw any cross-dressing this year - unless dressing as Richard Simmons counts).

This year's event was, as always, graciously organized and hosted by my cousin. Each year for the last several, he has opened up his house, his freezers, his ice chests, and who knows what else to attendees. This was our third Hickfest, and, as with the first two, I wished it could have lasted longer.

A small part of that has to do with the distance we travel. Even though we stayed four days, it felt like we'd only just arrived and suddenly it was time to go back home.

The bigger reason for wishing this get together lasted longer is the fact that this is the only chance I get to see most of my family, so I try to make the most of it. This year was the first time in five years for seeing some members of the family. Even after all that time, it was amazing to me how quickly we fell into old conversation patterns - as if we'd seen each other just last week.

In our family, that familiarity is perhaps both good and bad. I honed my sarcasm skills in this family but never really learned to talk seriously about much with them. Our family can be volatile at times (that would be the Irish from our grandmother's side of the family), and grudges can last years. On the other hand, most of our family will bend over backward to help another member of the family in need. What we don't often do, especially the men in the family, is talk about how we feel.

Maybe we don't know how. Maybe they, like me, don't always know how they feel. In the past, I think it is safe to say I have loved and perhaps hated members of my family. Some, I suspect, may not know why I felt the need to pack up and move hundreds of miles away with only the occasional visit. I'm not sure I know why, except to say that I did it because of me and not because of them. Because our family is full of strong personalities, and I knew I would never find mine if I stayed. 30 years later, though, I think I'm still looking.

As I look back at the last few paragraphs of what I've written, I get the sense that I am still avoiding what I need and want to say to my family. So here goes. I love all of you. You are a part of my past, my present, and my future.

Bill and Sandy, it was great to see you again after all these years. Bill, I don't think I ever told you, but you were perhaps my best friend growing up. I just wish I could have kicked your butt a few more times in any of the athletic endeavors we tried. Sandy, 35 years later I still remember the conversations and cups of coffee we shared. Those times remain a treasured memory.

Although I'm not much good around children (I get that lack of talent from my mother), it was good to see so many kids enjoying themselves again this year. The next generation of this clan promises to be just as ornery, stubborn, and opinionated as the current and the previous generations. Which means future family gatherings should remain energetic and lots of fun.

Families can be a blessing or a curse. Over the years, I suspect my family has been a bit of each, which makes it in many ways an average family, I suppose. Personally, though, I don't think there is anything average about them. And, while there have been times a part of me wanted to kill one or two of them, I wouldn't trade my family for any other.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#170 - Catching Up

This morning, I spent some time visiting the Boise Farmers' Market. It was my first visit of the year to the market, although I'd been telling myself I was going to go ever since it opened for the season back in April. Why do today what you can put off until next weekend, I guess.

The market was nice enough, but it was really only an added plus to my real reason for going downtown. My real reason for going downtown was to visit a friend and have a chance to catch up on what she's been up to.

Even though we live in the same city, we haven't seen each other in months, something that probably isn't all that unusual in our hectic paced world. I suspect most of us have trouble connecting as often as we'd like with friends - unless we happen to be lucky enough to work together in the same general location. Which she and I no longer do, although that was how we met in the first place.

I think we had a nice visit, talking about what we've been up to, what her future plans are, our families, etc. You know, the kinds of things friends talk about. I think perhaps we also discovered some additional things we have in common.

Tonight as I write this, thinking back on our conversation, one big difference between us really crystallized for me. I'd always known there were differences, in large part because of the difference in our ages, nearly 30 years, in fact. Of course, I've always been aware of that difference. Actually, I think most of the people I get along best with are much younger than I am, primarily because I don't feel old inside, and I'm not ready to be old outside.

Looking back on today's visit, though, the one thing I am most struck by is the real difference between us in terms of our stage of life. In some ways, I am marking the days until I can retire, at which point the next real adventure for me begins. She, on the other hand, is in many ways just getting started in life, even though she has already had more experiences than many people will have in their lifetimes.

In the last couple of years, my friend has mapped out a career path for herself and has embarked on the educational path necessary to be able to traverse that path, even while continuing to hold down a job. It's something that many people choose or feel they have to do these days, but the fact that many people do it does not make it any less difficult.

As I'm thinking about my friend, I realize that, because of school and work, she has to basically compartmentalize her life in order to make it all work. Everything - work, school, play - has to have its own box, its own cubby in order for everything to fit together, in order for her life not to fall into utter chaos.

Keeping it all together as she has done requires tremendous discipline. It's a word that came up a number of times during our conversation, and it's something we both professed to have difficulty with. I think she is selling herself way short.

The discipline that has allowed her to balance life, work, and school will also, I have no doubt, allow her to be very successful in her chosen career path, and the people she will be working with in her chosen field will be lucky to have her.

I am grateful she was able to make a space for me today in her busy schedule, and I do not say that lightly or sarcastically. It was a wonderful conversation and a wonderful morning spent catching up with a good friend. I'd have to say that most days, life doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#169 - Maybe We Can All Get Along — Or Not

“Right and wrong - do you know the difference / Right and wrong - do you know the difference /
'Tween the right and the left and the east and the west / What you know and the things that you'll never see”
Joe Jackson “Right and Wrong”

According to a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and discussed in numerous articles, including this one in Mother Jones, our political beliefs – whether we identify as liberal or conservative – may not be so much a product of how we are raised as it is a product of our physiological and genetic makeup. That’s right, political beliefs may be different because we are different physiologically and genetically.

According to the study by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, political conservatives “have a ‘negativity bias,’ meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments.” These included things such as the image of a dazed person with a bloodied face. As the Mother Jones article puts it, ”the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.”

What to me is equally interesting is that the paper’s main premise found almost overwhelming agreement among the 26 researchers invited to comment, with roughly 90% of them accepting the general idea of a conservative negativity bias. On the other hand, it also appears from this and other papers that conservatives tend to be happier and more satisfied with the lives than are their more liberal counterparts.

At first glance, Hibbing’s paper might appear to suggest that there is no hope for ever bridging the gap between the left and the right enough to accomplish much politically. The current situation in Washington would seem to support such a pessimistic view which would then call into question the bottom line usefulness of what Hibbing and his colleagues have written. The Mother Jones article, however, concludes on a more hopeful note:
All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock…thanks to science.
If I had stopped reading there, I might have allowed myself a hopeful feeling about the future politically. Unfortunately, I then read some of the comments on the  Mother Jones website and comments and responses such as the following:
“Assimilation is certainly more of a liberal trait.”

“Liberal trait? That's funny. It's always conservatives that insist people follow their religious dictates, their ideas about what marriage is, what a legitimate relationship is, how women should be treated (always by their own tightly bound rules)...conservatives are the ones that want everyone to be the same, that get nervous when everyone isn't just like them. They are hardly accepting differences in others.”

“Wrong. Liberals I've met are far more in lockstep on all issues from abortion to gay marriage to gun control. But you wouldn't call them in lockstep if they are right, right?"’In lockstep’ likely because they're more open-minded, or liberal, on those issues. And I don't discount your personal experiences, but you need to look beyond them.”

“I know more liberals than conservatives. From my experience, the conservatives are more diverse in their views (libertarians, objectivists, tea party advocates, laissez faire capitalists, isolationists, nation builders, etc.)”

“Describing the difference between conservatives 'groups' like trying to argue the substantial difference between swiss chocolate ice cream, dutch chocolate ice cream, and plain chocolate ice cream...”
After reading several dozen comments in the same vein, I am forced to conclude that while Hibbing may be correct in his thesis that political ideology may be at least partly genetic in nature, the optimism set out by the Mother Jones author appears to be premature. Based on comments such as those quoted above, dysfunction and gridlock will continue to be the order of the day for some time.

Some liberals accuse some conservatives (and vice versa) of having their heads in the sand with regard to various issues (insert favorite hot button topic here). Based on the comments I read after the Mother Jones article, keeping my head in the sand doesn’t sound so bad. It certainly seems a friendly and safer place to be these days than either Washington, DC or the internet. *sigh*

Thursday, July 3, 2014

#168 - Happy 4th of July

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk at work, watching the clock, and waiting for the magic hour when I will be independent of the responsibilities of work and free to enjoy the holiday weekend.

Just in time for the Fourth, the weather has decided to treat us, not to fireworks but, to some of the hottest temperatures of the year thus far. The phrase “hotter than a firecracker” comes to mind. Whoever came up with that phrase must have been sweltering on a Fourth of July not too unlike the one expect to experience this year in Idaho.

Speaking of firecrackers, for many people, I imagine the Fourth of July conjures up visions of massive fireworks displays staged by whatever city they happen to call home. For others, I suspect the Fourth is an excuse to drink too much and then shoot off either their illegal fireworks or their guns or both. I also suspect but cannot prove that the probability of someone doing something really stupid increases exponentially come the Fourth of July. Because of all of these things, I expect to read and /or hear of several fires starting over the holiday weekend, most of which will eventually turn out to be caused by fireworks.

For me, the Fourth of July usually means getting out of town and away from the fireworks. I’ve never really been a big fan of fireworks or of fireworks displays. As a result, I usually try to schedule a camping trip to a location where such things are not allowed. The fourth of July, aka Independence Day, is also an opportunity for me to be independent of city life, the 9 to 5, and rush hour traffic.

Of course, The Fourth of July commemorates America’s declaration of independence from the British and the founding of our nation, even though technically, America as we know it was not truly formed for almost 12 years after July 4, 1776. The nation as we know it actually dates to 1788, and we would have – if anyone had thought to do so – celebrated the nation’s 226th anniversary June 21, the date New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution.

The nation has changed in many ways in the years since its founding. For one thing, despite our independent streak, it could be argued that America is more dependent than independent – things that happen halfway around the world do eventually affect life in this country, especially when they impact the flow of foreign oil on which we heavily depend. Living in cities, as most of us do, we are dependent on city services – police, fire, water, etc. The nation itself is built on a structure that makes us dependent on one another through our elected representatives to get things done. (o, in the case of the current Congress, not get things done.)

Nature, too, makes us dependent on one another as it does not recognize state or national borders. As a result, environmental issues and events in other states and nations can and likely will eventually affect our own environment, just as such issues and events here where I live can and will affect other states and countries. Witness the water disputes of recent years between Georgia and Alabama and between states along the Colorado River. As the old Disney song states, “it’s a small world, after all.”

In spite of the troubles of the world – both in and outside these borders – the fourth of July will be for most people a time of celebration. I hope your holiday is an enjoyable one – independent of any issues or concerns you currently face. They’ll still be there Monday. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday and the weekend.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

#167 - Still Life

I think most people - at one level or another - have a need to be creative in some way. For some, it may be working with wood or tying flies or painting. Me, I have an almost constant need to be creative. My creativity (such as it is) takes many forms. Often, I express myself creatively through this or my other blog, My Wordsmithing. Other times, I express myself through writing song lyrics.

Sometimes, I try to express myself creatively through photography. Now, I don't claim to be a great photographer. I'll never be confused with Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, or Anne Geddes. Heck, my wife Teresa has a much better eye than I do when it comes to photography. Still, from time to time, things do catch my eye and inspire me to get out my camera. Tonight while making dinner was one of those times.

I was cutting up vegetables for dinner, a little stir fry to go with some rice. I finished chopping up some garlic, then set the knife I was using down on the cutting board. As I did, I looked down at the arrangement of cut vegetables on the board and thought, this looks like a picture. So I decided it should be.

I pulled out my trusty Pentax K-r, slapped my 50-millimeter, f2 prime lens on it, and here is the result. I took two versions, one with and one without flash. let me know what you think.

Taken with in-camera flash

Taken without flash

The angle is slightly different, but the arrangement is the same in each image, both of them taken with a lens I bought on eBay for $25. I ran both images through a program to auto-correct the exposure, and I cropped the flash version a little. Then I re-sized each image to one-fifth its original size for this blog entry. Otherwise, I did nothing to either image.

If I had been thinking, I might have moved the chopped garlic closer to the other vegetables or moved the knife a little further away for the sake of symmetry. Be that as it may, I kind of like how these pictures came out.

I guess if there is a message here it is that one never knows when or where the creative muse will show herself. The question is: will you be ready when she does?

Monday, June 9, 2014

#166 - Born To Be Punched?

Men, if over time you have come to the point that you feel like punching bags, it apparently means you have evolved. Men, apparently, are designed to be punched.

At least that is one way of looking at a new theory on the evolution of men. As reported on BBC News, this theory, published in the June issue of Biological Reviews, our early male ancestors (the australopiths) evolved “beefy facial features” as a defense against fist fights. The article argues that this “beefing up” of men’s faces occurred as a result of fighting over women and resources. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The areas that were protected the most by evolutionary changes, according to this theory, the jaw, cheek, eye, and nose structures, are those most prone to damage in a fist fight. Does that mean someone with a “glass jaw” is less evolved than, say, Hulk Hogan? You make that argument and, at least in certain circles, you could well have a fight on your hands.

According to this same article, men are apparently devolving when it comes to having a beefed up face. One of the authors, Professor David Carrier of the University of Utah, says this is because we have less need of such protection. The professor obviously does not watch professional wrestling, mixed martial arts, or daytime soap operas.

Perhaps this theory at long last explains our apparent need to go to war. We were born to fight or at least evolved that way. It is certainly a convenient explanation. It might even be correct. Many of the disputes of the past several years have, at some level, had a resource component involved, whether it be the battles in Iraq and Kuwait (oil) or the standoff in Nevada between ranchers and the federal government (grazing rights) or the legal battles between Alabama and Georgia (water).

What? You say you don’t get into fights? Never have? Are you single? Are you alone? Your failure to fight could be the reason. Men, the next time you want to show a woman you’re interested, go out and get punched, preferably in the face. It’s the least you can do. Besides, it’s what your face was made for. Years of evolution don't lie.

Friday, June 6, 2014

#165 - What's Happened to Us?

I should learn my lesson; I really should. At my age, with my level of education, I should know better that to try and discuss serious issues on social networking sites, such as Facebook. (I imagine Twitter, with its 140-character tweet limit, would be even worse, but I don’t have a Twitter account.) Yet I persist.

I must be a glutton for punishment. Almost never do I encounter consistent and thoughtful discussion, particularly when it comes to political issues. Instead, I see name-calling along the lines of “(insert the name of your least favorite President) is the worst (insert favorite derogatory phrase) EVER!” Opposing views are seen as disrespectful, and each side becomes polarized against the other with no space for discussion, no room for compromise (which is itself seen as a dirty word), and no middle or common ground to be found.

Social networking venues, such as Facebook and Twitter were heralded as great democratizing forces. Personally, I think Facebook is great for keeping up with the goings-on of family and friends. As far as democracy goes, however, I think social networking sites, so-called “citizen journalism,” and the 24-hour news cycle have each done more to polarize this nation than perhaps anything since the battle over Civil Rights in the 1960s. 

Each of these, in its own way, is more about “instant gratification” than it is about meaningful discussion. There are repeated instances of erroneous information being distributed, widely read, widely believed, and widely available for several hours before it was shown to be wrong. The correction gets lost or missed in the avalanche of response to the original report.

The 24-hour news cycle, with its pressure to be first, is largely to blame for this. Social networking, with its ability to quickly and widely share such information, is not blameless. Such instantaneous dissemination of information encourages and even demands instantaneous response. 

I would argue that at no time in history has an instant response to anything ever been well thought out. Thoughtful response and instant reaction are mutually exclusive to one another by nature. (Let's not even talk about the fact that something posted by Joe Schmo potentially carries the same authority and weight as something posted by NBC's Brian Williams since the internet has no way to discern which voice is more trustworthy or authoritative aside from measuring web traffic.)

As I mentioned, compromise has become a dirty word in today’s political arena. Yet for years, give and take by both sides was how anything in this country got done. Today, action is replaced by gridlock caused in large measure by both political parties mapping out positions increasingly at the extreme edge of their respective ideologies in order to even further differentiate themselves from the other side. The President then gets blamed for inaction, unless he actually tries to do something through Executive Order, in which case he gets accused of bypassing Congress and acting like a dictator.

Some of this I have touched upon before, but if anything, things have gotten even worse. I’ve concluded the wisest thing (or at least the safest) is to disengage from politics and political discussion. Such an act is seen as capitulating to the opposite side and as being part of the problem rather than the solution. However, I have now lived long enough to see that people will believe even the most outrageous lies if they are repeated often enough just as many people, for whatever reason, seem inclined to vote against their own base interests based on some faceless group’s assertions that “X (whether it be reduced coal emission, a higher minimum wage, clean air, etc.) is bad for America.”
I am increasingly convinced that America as we know it is nearing the end of its life cycle. We should not be surprised; no empire or democracy lasts forever, and America has had a pretty good run. Not as good as the Roman empire, but not bad. I don’t think the end of America will come because of its failure to address the national debt or because of its failure to protect its environment or a failure to transition to alternative fuels or because of a decline in the nation’s morals or an abandonment of “the American ideal," whatever that ideal is.

No, when American as we know it is no longer, it will be due to the fact that we have lost the ability to talk with one another on the national stage in a meaningful and respectful manner. We have lost the willingness to compromise and the desire to search for common ground with one another. That, more than anything else I can think of, will be our undoing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

#164 - Are We Having Fun Yet?

Are we having fun yet? I hear that question fairly often at work and have asked it myself from time to time. Oddly enough, though, the question seems to invariably be asked when the answer is anticipated to be either a sarcastic “yes” or a definite “no.” Why is it that question never seems to get asked when the answer might really be “yes?”

A related question when it comes to the workplace might be what actually constitutes “fun” where work is concerned. I suspect a great many people are not having fun yet where their jobs are concerned. They are, as the band Loverboy put it in the 1980s, "Working For The Weekend." People lucky enough to work in jobs or fields they truly enjoy are likely a minority, although they may enjoy aspects of their jobs such as the ability to work from home, the short commute to work, the people they work with, the benefits, or perhaps some mixture of these.

Of course, all of this begs the question of job satisfaction and what it really means. For some, I imagine it means truly being engaged in their work and not being able to wait to go in to work each and every day. For others, it may well mean having work that is not too demanding (physically or mentally or both) that allows those people to maintain or enjoy a certain lifestyle, either because of the income from the job or the flexibility of the work schedule. For others, it is likely some combination of factors.

I suspect that for many of us the question of job satisfaction does not arise until we are already working in a position and have several months or years under our belts. For others, job satisfaction may not be something they think about until they feel it is “too late.” They may be years (or decades) into a line of work they no longer enjoy, if they ever did. Or they may be at an age where they feel they are “too old” to “start over.” Regardless, they may not feel able to change career path and may feel trapped in their current line of work, which I think most would agree is the antithesis of job satisfaction.

If, as I suspect, most people do not experience true job satisfaction, it then becomes a matter of whether one can find satisfaction through the lifestyle the job allows one to maintain. If you have a low-paying job that you do not enjoy, my condolences, as it is extremely likely you have a lifestyle you do not enjoy on top of a job you do not like. People in high-paying jobs may well have lifestyles they enjoy even if they do not particularly like the work. However, there are potential trade-offs there as well: pressure to keep a position in order to maintain a certain lifestyle, the possibility of increased stress, as well as other potential health risks.

Perhaps that is why so many “experts” stress the need to strike a balance between work and play. However, that can be very hard to achieve, especially when you consider that there is “work,” the kind that brings in an income, and there is “work,” the kind required to maintain a home – dishes, shopping, laundry, yard work, and so on. On the surface, that does not seem to leave much space or time for play. Unless you are one of those sick, twisted souls who actually thinks yard work is "fun."

I think some of our European brethren may have the right idea. Many in Europe enjoy four to six weeks of vacation a year – without having to be in a job for 20 years or more as in the U. S. People in Europe work, on average, fewer hours per year than do their American counterparts, and more jobs are part-time (but with benefits). At least one Swedish city is experimenting with shorter work days in hopes of creating a “happier, healthier, and cheaper” workforce. 

The idea of a shorter workweek also gets support in a 2013 book called “Time on Our Side” from the New Economics Foundation. One of the co-authors of that book and the Foundation’s Head of Social Policy argues that longer work hours are associated with decreased productivity and that part-time workers are actually more productive on an hour-by-hour basis.

Our American/Puritan work ethic dictates that we work longer and harder, so such ideas are usually dismissed out of hand. However, with the rising cost of living and of health care, coupled with what will likely be decreased Social Security benefits in the years to come, this may be an idea whose time is about to come. If that happens, we may or may not experience greater job satisfaction, but we could well experience increased satisfaction with our time away from work. Instead of everybody working for the weekend, we could end up working for a longer weekend. I’m all for that.

Are we having fun yet?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

#163 - Am I Certifiable?

Please note that I am not talking about being insane, although I suppose a strong case for insanity could be made for anyone who puts themselves through the process I am about to describe.

We are in the midst of trying to acquire Certified Family Home (CFH) status for our now 18-year old son in order to be able to get and provide him with the services that we hope will help him to one day live a more independent life. I say “in the midst” rather than “in the middle” because I honestly have no idea how far into the process we are or how close we are to the finish line. I suspect no one else involved (particularly the powers that be) knows either.

For the most part, I have been a spectator on this crawl to certification, mainly providing moral support and encouragement to Teresa as she tries to maneuver the maze of bureaucracy and jumps through the numerous hoops required to reach the finish line. One of the more daunting of those is the paperwork required in order to become a Certified Family Home, followed closely by repeated demands for documentation of our son’s status, documentation the state of Idaho has now received in roughly the same form and number of pages perhaps half a dozen times, most if not all of them sent to the same state agency. To be fair, we began maneuvering through this  paperwork jungle even before trying for CFH status.

As for the requirements I think are specific to CFH certification, one of the strangest to me (at least on the surface) was the requirement that we have a dryer. Prior to this, we had not seen the need to own a dryer during our ten-plus years in Idaho, primarily because Idaho is a desert with low humidity, meaning clothing air dries fairly quickly, even in winter. Apparently that is not fast enough for the state, or else they have some sort of agreement with the various appliance retailers in Idaho. I’m sure there must be a rational reason for requiring a dryer, but it has never been made clear to me.

Other requirements:
·         Smoke alarms (and according to at least one HVAC technician, Carbon Monoxide detectors) in every room where sleeping does or can take place (i.e., there’s a bed or something that can be made into a bed)
·         A 5 LB. fire extinguisher, wall-mounted, located somewhere near the kitchen
·         An electrical inspection
·         Fingerprinting and Criminal background checks
·         CPR and First Aid training
·         Passage of a class in assisting with medications
·         Doctor’s written approval of all of the resident’s (our son in this case) medications, including over-the-counter meds
·         Storage of said medications (including over-the-counter) under lock and key in their original containers (not sure how that applies if the resident does not need assistance with medications)

There are also requirements for the minimum amount of sleeping space a resident can have, along with a requirement for a minimum amount of spending cash (if the resident receives Supplemental Security Income, in which case they also cannot keep too much cash on hand). I’m sure I’ve left plenty of other requirements out.

These requirements apply whether the resident on whose behalf certification is sought is a family member or someone you contract to bring into the home. I think that may be part of the problem or reason behind the seemingly massive amount of paperwork and the numerous regulations. From the outside looking in, as it were, I’m not sure such a one regulatory size fits all approach is the most efficient way to go about this, thought I certainly could be wrong.

Deep down, I'm sure there are good reasons for the numerous rules and regulations surrounding acquisition of CFH status. I know that, above all, the rights and the needs of the person receiving care must be protected. At this point, however, all I know is that we are somewhere along the journey with no apparent end in sight. I also feel like I'm taking part in and witnessing a circus, only it lacks the fun and excitement (and maybe the clowns) of the real thing. Are we crazy or what?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#162 - Family, Holiday Camping, Allergies, and Road Trips

(NOTE: I know that for many, spending time in a RV does not constitute camping. However, at my age I appreciate no longer having to get up from a tent floor after trying to sleep on an air mattress while it loses air through the night.)

Let me start by saying I understand that the true purpose of Memorial Day is not so people can have a three-day weekend. However, the fact that it was a three-day weekend, coupled with the fact that two of my wife’s brothers were visiting from out-of-town, made it an opportune time to take the RV out of storage. So that’s what we did, taking the truck and fifth-wheel about 90-minutes outside of Boise to Bruneau Dunes State Park.

The good thing about a holiday weekend of any kind is that it provides an extra day away from work and the demands of daily life. The bad thing about holiday weekends is that even the nicest campground can begin to resemble a Wal-Mart parking lot, packed with dozens of other rigs, all of whom are now your neighbors (if not your closest friends). If you’re lucky, most of your fellow park residents will be courteous and not see your site as the perfect shortcut to the bathrooms, the visitor center, the picnic shelter, the hiking trail their friends told them about. You get the picture. This past weekend, we were lucky in that regard, although I suspect our site location – not close to anywhere campers might be interested in walking to – had much to do with that success.

Early evening view - 1st night
The weather was almost perfect for the last weekend in May – mid to upper 80s and sunny, though it was a bit breezy at times. However, the wetter than average spring we had (at least by Idaho standards) caused my allergies to interfere a bit with my enjoyment of being out with the RV. On the other hand, dealing with allergies in a scenic location, albeit it still miserable, is more enjoyable than dealing with allergies and still having to go into work.

While the park was too crowded for my tastes (to be expected as the holiday weekend usually marks the start of camping season here in Idaho), the weekend was enjoyable and relaxing but too short, as always. My wife may disagree, but I also think the packing up and hitching up to leave process went as smoothly as it ever has. (More so than our arrival as I again managed to forget something we planned to bring. I guess one of our trips isn’t complete unless that happens.)

Teresa and I also took the Tuesday after Memorial Day off from work so we could spend an extra day with her brothers before they began their trip home. Both brothers are into photography, so we decided a day trip was in order to see if we could find some location worthy of their cameras. (Plus, after driving the day before, who wouldn’t want to get back behind the wheel and drive some more?)

After a little thought, we decided to drive to Leslie Gulch, an area still fresh in our minds (at least in mine) as it had been mentioned a week or so prior in a local newspaper article as a worthwhile scenic drive. Leslie Gulch is located in Eastern Oregon just inside the Idaho border near the south end of the Owyhee Reservoir, about a two-hour drive (or thereabouts) from Boise. We ended up in a campground at the end of the dirt road, where we took pictures, had a snack, and met a couple from Georgia who seemed to know more about out of the way scenic Idaho locations than we did, and we have lived in Idaho since 2003!

Leslie Gulch offers up some
interesting rock formations
If you like out of the way locations with interesting rock formations, then Leslie Gulch is worth a visit. The dirt road in from U.S. Highway 95 is fairly well maintained (except, perhaps, in winter) and can be traveled in a regular passenger car, although a Jeep or Honda CR-V (or something similar) might make for a more enjoyable drive. The way in is basically also the way out, so there is also a second opportunity to capture any pictures missed the first time around or to retake shots with a little different lighting.

As I write this, Teresa’s brothers are somewhere between Boise and Western Wyoming. We enjoyed their visit and hope to see them again before too much time passes. I also hope they found some sights worthy of their cameras with which to remember their visit.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

#161 - An Open Letter to My Son

On Tuesday, our son Christopher turns 18, that magical age at which all of us become adults. This past weekend, we marked the occasion with a party at the local bowling alley. It was a small affair; the neighbor brought her son and daughter, and two girls Christopher invited from school were also gracious enough to attend.

Christopher said he had a great time, for which I am thankful. It did, however, get me to thinking about what is next for him. I know what I hope for him, but I'm never quite sure what Christopher wants out of life or if he thinks about it much. It's always been a tough subject to discuss with him. Perhaps, like me, he expresses his thoughts better in writing. So, I thought I would try writing down what I hope for Christopher and ask him what he hopes for himself.

Dear Christopher,

In a couple of days, you will turn 18. It is a challenging time and also an exciting one. Most 18 year-olds are preparing to graduate from high school and head off to college or perhaps to working life. As you well know, though, your autism makes you unique in many ways from others your age.

And yet, observing you at your birthday party on Saturday, I see that you are in many ways much like other young men your age. You have a strong interest in girls, and you know a pretty girl when you see one, judging from the two you invited to your party. You also have an adult sense of humor, one that can even be a bit naughty at times. (Your mention of being in a "girl sandwich" did take me a bit by surprise, I have to admit.) So, in many ways you are a lot like your fellow classmates.

You do also have your challenges - sense of time and money, being able to process information and respond in a timely manner. The latter sometimes makes you seem deliberate and thoughtful. At other times, it can be maddening. I suspect that patience will always be a struggle for those you come into your life.

Speaking of your life, what does it hold in store? What do you want to do with your life? What will be possible? I think all of us (teachers, aides, even us parents) have sold you short a time or two in your first 18 years. We have all struggled to determine what you are capable of and what you might be capable of in time. At times, you seem very mature and capable of great things. At others, I struggle to  hold on to the idea of you being able to live a meaningful life. I used to tell people you were 17 going on six going on 30, such are the emotional and intellectual shifts I've seen you make.

You have expressed an interest in varying things, some of them right in line with what many other young adults are interested in - a wife, a family, a career. I don't know how many of these will be possible. I hope all of them. Regardless, I hope you will be better than I was at celebrating the successes and dealing with the disappointments you will likely encounter.

At 18, your whole life is ahead of you. I hope you are able to articulate your dreams and make them come true. Where you are concerned, I've always believed anything is possible. I've no doubt it will be harder for you to make your dreams come true. But I've also no doubt that you are capable of much, probably more so than any of us give you credit for.

Your autism will convince some, perhaps many, that the things you want in life are not practical or achievable for you. Do not listen to them unless you become convinced they are correct, but decide that for yourself. Do not let them convince you. Fight for your dreams but also recognize that you will likely have to work harder to make your dreams a reality.

I know I have been hard on you at times, but it is only because I can see the potential for your life. Deep down, I've no doubt you are capable of making your dreams, whatever they are, come true. If you are willing to work hard at it and not hold on to the frustrations will will most certainly encounter, all things are possible. Dream big! Work hard! Love fully! Live!

Love, Dad

Sunday, April 20, 2014

#160 - A Different Take on Easter

Happy Easter, everyone! In the Christian world, Easter is the day when the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. At least that's the case amongst Christian adults. I suspect their children are more interested in finding out what the Easter Bunny brought them.

Easter has a different or an added meaning in our household. Two years ago on Easter, our family made the decision to stop consciously eating any and all animal products - no meat, no dairy, no poultry, no seafood. People who knew of my love of steak and five-meat pizza were sure this would be a short-lived experiment. They were wrong.

We are now two years into this change, and I don't think any of us has looked back. Does that mean we never slip? No, but we have done our best to stay on what we see as a healthier, more humane, more sustainable and less resource-intensive eating path. By and large, we have succeeded.

Recently, I finished reading an English translation of The Upanishads, one of the most sacred texts in Hindu spirituality. Throughout the text, I was struck by the many similarities between what the Hindu and Christian faiths believe and profess. I was convinced anew of the truth and the wisdom of the old adage "there are many paths to the mountaintop."

Toward the end of my reading, I was especially struck by a passage in the Taittiriya Upanishad dealing with food. These five lines spoke directly to the reason for our dietary change and served to further underline the validity of our reasons for that change:

From food are made all bodies, which become
Food  again for others after their death.
Food is the most important of all things
For the body; therefore it is the best
Medicine for all the body's ailments.
(Taittiriya II.2.1)
We have tried and struggled at times to reduce if not eliminate our intake of processed food, and it is to this effort specifically that this passage speaks. Thanks to economies of scale and highly efficient production methods, processed food is usually less expensive than the natural ingredients sometimes used to help make that processed meal. To me, something is wrong with that picture.

I believe healthy food is a basic human right. I also believe that people have a right to know where their food comes from, what is in the food they eat (GMO grains, hormones, chemicals, etc.), and how their food is produced (are livestock raised using humane or inhumane methods, for instance).

I also believe those who risk much to expose unsanitary and/or inhumane food production methods should be applauded. They should not be accused of a crime, as is fast becoming the common response across America. (Note the spate of so-called "Ag-Gag" legislation popular in agricultural states in recent years, including Idaho, where we live.)

Some of those considerations played a part in our decision to change how and what we eat. Some of the medical research also played a part (e.g., Dr. T. Colin Campbell's The China Study). Ultimately though, I suppose we made the decision because it felt like it was the right thing to do for ourselves, for our son, and for our planet. How could we go wrong? Happy Easter and healthy eating!

(The Upanishads - translation by Eknath Easwaran. © 1987, 2007 The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Published by Nilgiri Press.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#159 - Technology - It's a Beautiful Thing . . . Sometimes

Technology is a beautiful thing – when it works. When it doesn’t, people are inconvenienced, businesses lose money, lives are disrupted.

A recent and minor change in the office where I work brought that notion home to me. The change – a simple battery – caused us to be without access to our internal computer network as well as the external computing world for about 30 minutes. No opening files from remote locations, no sending or receiving e-mails, no surfing on the internet and, because we have internet phones (voIP or voice over Internet Protocol), no incoming or outgoing phone calls.

Once the battery was replaced, regaining access was simply a matter of restarting our computers, reopening our e-mail programs and web browsers, and picking up where we left off. Except for phone calls, that is. This seems to be a problem every time there is some sort of change to our computer network, only no one seems to know where the reset button is for the phones (if there even is one).

Technology is a double-edged sword. It frees us and ensnares us. Thanks to technology, medical and scientific procedures and advances once unthinkable become commonplace. We can map the human genetic sequence and turn once major surgical procedures into outpatient surgeries with small or no scars. At the same time, a computer failure can cause large parts of a major city to lose power or potentially cause a nuclear missile to begin a pre-launch sequence. Because so many of us use e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with friends, family, and associates, a technological failure can also cause us to lose touch with the world around us, albeit temporarily.

As I sit and wait for the telephones at work to resume functionality, I am struck by the thought that most if not all of us would be lost and completely unable to function in a world without the technology we take for granted. While our 18th and 19th-century ancestors were largely independent and self-sufficient, we are largely dependent (the objections of some notwithstanding) on one another and upon our economies of scale. Such changes are more efficient and perhaps make life easier, but disruptions are more noticeable and create more inconvenience on a larger scale.

Although they are never mentioned as part of the argument, I suspect such potential pitfalls lend credence to the suggestion (even argument) that each of us needs to occasionally unplug and disconnect from our electronic lives and plug into and connect with the physical world around us. Our e-lives allow us to reconnect with people and places we might otherwise lose touch with, but they are no substitute for the world that exists all around us. As The Police sang in their 1981 song, “we are spirits in the material world.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

#158 - The Perfect Rig

RVSue, a blogger who lives full-time with her two dogs in a 17-foot long Casita travel trailer, recently posted an entry detailing how she came to choose the type of RV she did. Her post resulted in an interesting discussion of rigs, and it got me to thinking about what constitutes the perfect rig.

Of course, there is no wrong answer just as there is no one right answer. One person’s “perfect” rig could be another person’s nightmare. That’s why there are so many different types, brands, and models. Different people also have different budgets and financial comfort levels, which is why you also see such a wide spread of model years still in use.

Other things will also dictate one person’s “perfect” rig  and cause it to differ from someone else’s. Those things include: the aforementioned budget, the desire for new versus used, floor plan and amenities, storage needs, and the type of usage.

That latter factor includes considerations such as: weekend use, extended trips, or full-time living. One must also consider whether the RV will spend most of its time in a full-service campground with electricity and water or camping off the grid. Staying in primitive campgrounds or even outside of campgrounds will require plenty of  battery power and likely some means of recharging those batteries, be it solar panels or a generator or some combination of the two.

We started our RV adventure with a 10-foot pop-up tent trailer. Once we added a dog to the mix, we decided we needed something bigger. The normal progression, so we've been told, would have been to a travel trailer. Not being normal people, we went instead to an older fifth-wheel. That rig taught us a lot about what we liked and did not like in terms of layout. So we moved to a different fifth-wheel (our current RV), which added some living space at the expense of kitchen prep space. Still not our perfect rig.

Now we have begun thinking about what comes next. This time, in anticipation of living in the RV full-time and hopefully doing some traveling, we are focusing on Class A motorhomes. (For those not versed in motorhome types, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association has a page detailing the various types.) To narrow the focus further, we are concentrating on diesel motorhomes (for now) in the 33 to 36 foot range. We figure this will give us more flexibility than the larger rigs in terms of where we can go while still providing some of the creature comforts. This is roughly the length of our current fifth-wheel, so there is no need to adjust to having a smaller space (other than the major adjustment of living in a smaller space all the time).

At first, we were focusing solely on the Tiffin brand as it is made in Alabama (my wife’s home state), and it has a good reputation for customer service. Since then, we have added the Newmar brand to the mix. It, too, seems to have a good reputation, plus some of the floor plans seem to fit our desires and needs a little better than the Tiffin models we’ve seen. With either brand, we would be looking to buy used as we don’t have Donald Trump money or large government pensions to allow us to buy new, and we don’t really want to finance anything. We’ve worked hard to get out of debt, and we want to stay that way.

We’re still a couple of years or so from any change, so there is still time for us to decide to go a different direction. As we look, we see that no rig is perfect. One may have a well laid out living space but almost no kitchen prep space. Another may have a great kitchen but a tiny bathroom. A third may have a great living space and kitchen, but the TV is in a location where the best viewing angle is standing up at the opposite end of the RV. As is usually the case in a marriage, any rig we choose will be the result of compromising some of what we want versus what we truly need and will also involve some discussion of which shortcomings we can work around. (For instance, in some RVs, the lack of kitchen prep space might be alleviated with the addition of a rolling cart that can be used as a small kitchen island.)

The next couple of years promise to be interesting and exciting as we go through the exploration, examination, and evaluation stages as we head toward the execution of the purchase or the decision to something completely off the current radar. To use the old worn out cliché, only time will tell.

Friday, March 21, 2014

#157 - The Wave

We are all familiar with various types of waves - the wave hello and its cousin, the wave goodbye. There is also the wave off, as in "I'm okay; I don't need any help." It's sort of a way of saying no with the hand. Of course, there is also "the wave," that obnoxious thing fans do (or used to do) at football games. Then there is the Jeep wave.

This latter wave is one I was unfamiliar with - until we bought our Jeep in September of last year. The Jeep wave is a select wave, restricted to and shared between Jeep owners. But the Jeep wave is not for just any Jeep owner.

The Jeep wave is almost a subculture within the Jeep owners subculture itself. Grand Cherokee and Patriot drivers need not apply. The old Jeep Wagoneer is also excluded from the club. The Jeep wave is restricted to owners and drivers of Jeep Wranglers and Rubicons. Four-door versions are also admitted to the club since they simply look like an elongated version of the traditional two-door Jeep.

Much like the secret handshake said to be shared by Freemasons, the Jeep wave is a greeting, an acknowledgment between owners of the traditional Jeep style. I suppose it could be seen as a sort of knowing wink or telling glance. Perhaps it is a recognition that we were discerning enough not willing to settle for some other pretender brand or for one of the upstart Jeep models.

The dealer who sold us our Jeep was apparently not up on secret handshakes and rituals and was remiss in not telling us about the custom of the wave. As a result, i was a bit surprised the first time I encountered it. I simply thought it was some overly friendly driver or perhaps someone who thought they recognized me as I passed. I waved back but thought nothing more about it - until it happened again. And again.

Drivers of other types of vehicles do not wave as they pass. And apparently there are other Jeep drivers not versed in the wave. I notice this lack of protocol primarily in younger Jeep drivers, and I chalk their lack of observation of the proprieties to a shortcoming in their education.

However, I have encountered the wave often enough in the six months we have owned our Jeep to know it is not coincidental or a fluke. Actually, it is something similar to what I sometimes see amongst RV owners as they pass or in campgrounds whenever we are able to take our trailer out. I suppose a passerby might liken it to membership in some sort of cult. I simply like to think of it as civility.

Monday, March 17, 2014

#156 - I Came, I Saw, I Camped

Today was St. Patrick’s Day, ostensibly commemorating the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland. In actuality, though, I think it is simply an excuse to add green food coloring to beer and get drunk. This weekend, however, we experienced a green of a different kind, the green that one begins to find outdoors as spring nears.

Over the weekend, we made the season’s  first outing with our fifth-wheel trailer. The promise of nice weather this past weekend (mostly delivered upon) made us decide relatively spur of the moment to hitch up the rig and motor about 90-minutes west to Farewell Bend State Park in Eastern Oregon.

Farewell Bend sits along the Oregon side of the Snake River and was the last river stop along the Oregon Trail. It’s a pleasant park that can get hot in summer and is often windy, making it less than ideal for tenters. During the winter off-season (through March), most of the sites are closed off leaving a handful of available spots all lined up like a mini RV park.

For our purposes, though, Farewell Bend was a perfect destination on two days’ notice. We had a chance to get the trailer out for the first time in more than five months and make sure some of the important components (refrigerator, oven, microwave, furnace) were in operational form. Because of the nice weather, we got to spend much of Saturday outdoors relaxing instead of glued to this screen or that or dealing with household chores or home project #47.

We also experienced yet again a phenomenon I marvel at every time I encounter it. Many of the RVers we’ve met have tended to be outgoing, friendly people ready to make strangers welcome at the drop of a hat. They certainly have done so on several occasions.

I do not include the so-called “weekend warriors” with broods of young children still at home in this category of RVer. These people often strike me as trying to cram seven days of togetherness and family activities into a weekend and often appear anything but relaxed. So I guess I can’t really blame them if they aren’t that friendly or outgoing when a stranger passes.

However, I have encountered such friendliness often enough to know it is a much more common occurrence in the RV community than it seems to be in the general population at large. We first experienced it not long after we bought our first RV, a 10-foot Jayco tent trailer. A private message sent to someone on an RV discussion forum led to us being invited into their full-time home on wheels and a discussion of several hours about full-time living in a motorhome.

This past weekend, my wife mentioned to the owner of one of the motorhomes near our trailer that the brand they owned was one we were considering a few years down the road. Next thing we knew, we were being invited to tour their wheeled home away from home and subsequently invited to join them around the campfire, That led to several hours of enjoyable conversation about favorite campgrounds, health, food, retirement, even skydiving.

They are the kinds of conversations that no longer take place in many neighborhoods. It’s as if we have taken the idea that our home is our castle to heart and created an imaginary moat around it to keep the outside world at bay. Neighborhood and residential developments have become so spread out that it becomes somewhat daunting and intimidating to meet neighbors, especially if you tend to be somewhat introverted, as I am.

Because an RV of any kind is much smaller than a traditional home, there is a greater tendency to spend at least part of each day outside. Therefore, the likelihood of interaction with other people is also much greater. The couple we spent several enjoyable hours with this weekend are people we likely would never have encountered if it weren’t for our common ground of RVing. If we lived in the same neighborhood, our paths might never cross.

This social aspect is one of the great things about the RV life. Equally great, though, is the possibility of obtaining complete solitude if desired. Especially in the western half of the United States, there are numerous places where one can get away from just about everything and everyone. That ability to be around people when desired and get away from people when needed is, to me, one of the greatest attributes of the RV lifestyle. It allows one to maintain a balance between the social and private self and to establish or restore a harmony between the human self and the natural world. I’m just not sure it gets any better than that.