Traveling Home

This is the season of our discontent

We line up at crowded gates impatient,

waiting, after paying extra for the

extravagance of bringing our luggage,

for legroom

and for dignity.

that most elusive luxury of air travel

(P.S. Don’t eat the fish.)

Photo credit: lunchtimemama

American Vignettes (I): Totalitarian Undercurrents

“Yet, the world around you is being made more uniform. The neighbourhood bars, the little storefronts and the local factories you remember from childhood trips through Chicago are slowly being replaced with identical corporate units. Manhattan makes you uncomfortable with its cleanliness, its order, as if the madness of those streets promised in the pages of Kerouac and scenes of Scorsese is now tended like a garden in a California theme park.”

I know the point of this blog was something much more important, but this paragraph really stuck out to me while I am visiting suburban North Carolina, and was just thinking how much the metropolitan New York City looks like it. For a long time we seemed to be able to resist it. Not anymore. The corporate least common denominator is winning.

How To Get Angry A Lot

No regular post today as it is a holiday here.

But I did want to post something in an effort to get the blog on a weekly Wednesday schedule.

I think this video deserves a post of its own. It’s from the School of Life.

Personally I think I need to watch it at least once a week. Maybe daily.

Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt

(This post originally appeared on Medium. This is a week of thanks, and while I am still very sad to have lost Caffeine I am still grateful for the 12 years she spent with me. It seems appropriate to repost over here this week.)

I said goodbye to Caffeine, our 12 year old Border Collie mix a few days ago. This is my attempt at processing the grief.

It’s 5:57 AM and I have, as usual, awakened a few minutes before the alarm. I’m barely conscious and have only now opened my eyes.

Thump…Thump…Thump…

That’s Caffeine’s tail thumping on the bed. She has sensed the change in my respiration. If I move I will be smothered in “kisses.” I’m not ready for this yet.

A minute later I shift from my left side to my back. Because I am ready.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido once said:

The Aikido I practice has room for each one of the world’s eight million gods and I cooperate with each one of them. The Great Spirit of Aiki enjoins all that is Divine and enlightened in every land. Unite yourself to the Divine and you will be able to perceive gods wherever you are.

Ueshiba’s notion of “gods” and the “Divine” are rooted in Shinto. Unlike the monotheistic supreme being of Abrahamic religions or even the limited pantheons of Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology, Shinto believes in Kami, the divine life essence in all things. Nature is made up of gods and makes up the God in Shinto, and they represent what we humans should strive to be. (This is, by necessity, an oversimplification. Translating Kami to English requires entire books, not a blog post.)

In my personal creed dogs are Kami. They contain this Divine life essence and represent what we humans can only hope to be. My answer to the famous riddle is a unequivocal “yes.”

Most importantly, dogs are special because of what they are. Not because they are like humans, but despite any similarities.

It’s a cold Thursday evening in February, there’s snow on the ground and the roads are a mess. I left work early so I could visit a rescue in Lyndhurst with Dagmar and Christian.

Despite the terrible condition of the roads we get to the grooming storefront where the rescue is run early and they are closed. I decide to stop over at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a snack since we skipped dinner to make the trip. I’m tired and running on empty.

When we get back to the storefront they are unloading the 2 black and white puppies we came to see, a boy and a girl. They don’t have names yet. We follow them inside.

When we get inside they leave us alone with the puppies. The girl is a firecracker, prancing around the room and soliciting play with Chris and I. At one point she attacks and shreds the waxy bag my Dunkin’ bagel came in. I quip that they should name her Caffeine.

A week later Caffeine is part of our family.

The Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 can “see in all four dimensions.” Meaning that rather than perceiving time as the linear and serial progression we do, they can see all of time at once.

Early in the novel Billy Pilgrim describes how the Tralfamadorians relate to time and death:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever…Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”

Is this phrase meant to be glib? Does it represent an acceptance of death or a numbness to it? I’m not sure what it means, but right now it seems to be comforting.

Dagmar and I are in the outdoor agility ring at St. Hubert’s. It’s our third or fourth agility class with a just barely 1 year old Caffeine. I miscue her for the millionth time and she breaks away from the A-frame we’re standing in front of to take the tunnel, the dog walk, the chute…anything but the A-frame.

Then she returns to me, gives me her big goofy smile, and seems to be saying “That was great! Why don’t you come with me this time?”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

No. Everything doesn’t. Things happen and it is up to us to deal with them as they come. It’s easy to blame (or credit) external forces rather than accepting responsibility for where we are. Our lives are the sum total of the decisions we make, minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

We hate uncertainty and ambiguity. Everything must have a cause and an effect. This seems to be related to our inherent desire to find patterns and reason in our chaotic and random world.

But things happen that can’t be explained and can’t be wrapped into a neat package. Some times these things are very good. Some times they are very bad. Most often they are somewhere in the middle.

Some people, including my father if he were still here, would call this existentialist or even nihilistic. But looking past external forces and accepting responsibility isn’t the same as denying meaning.

It’s up to us to find any meaning in events that we can. The moments are still there, it’s up to us to sort them out and pick out the important ones.

I am kneeling on the blanket the vet tech brought into the room. Caffeine’s head is resting on my arm. She is completely relaxed as I stroke her neck. As the doctor pushes the plunger on the second injection she tells me “She can still hear you.” I nod, while thinking that we don’t need words to talk to each other. She knows I love her. The doctor pushes the plunger on the third hypo, and I watch her chest rise and fall for the last time. I weep for the first time in many, many years, and the first time in many for the next few days.

I wish I could view time like a stretch of mountains, and not like beads on a string.

I’ll have to do my best.

The New Now

It’s 5:30 when my Microsoft Band vibrates to wake me.  It’s still dark. I use my iPad to light my way down the stairs so I don’t have to wake my wife with the hall light. Caffeine follows me.

I head right to the coffee grinder and french press. Caffeine recognizes that this means no food is coming and heads back upstairs and back to bed.

Even my hyperactive dog thinks it’s too early to be wandering around the house, but I like this time. I usually need some time in the morning before I can communicate with people (or dogs). I also like the quiet.

I check my blood sugar. It looks good today.

As my coffee brews I look over news and email. Soon the coffee is ready and I drink at bit. I would like nothing more than to stay here and read and maybe write at bit. But it’s time to get to work.

Down to the basement. It’s a lifting day (I alternate days between weights and the recumbent exercise bike) so I prop the iPad up on its stand and open the spreadsheet with my exercise. I fire up Justice League Unlimited on Netflix (it’s the episode where Mordred makes them kids!) and start my warm up.

I never used to need to start with a warm up, but my shoulder has made it abundantly clear: I do now.  I stretch, with a focus on the shoulders and the hated hamstrings, which an orthopedist one described as being “like cement.” The standing desk, by virtue of making it possible for them to not be compressed for 30+ hours a week, has made them more like cement that hasn’t fully cured yet.

One of the warm up exercises are “Spider-Man Steps” a movement originally developed when waterboarding proved ineffective on some prisoners.

And then finally the good part. Today’s menu features squats, bench press, curls, push ups, step ups, and planks. Followed with a final course of probable problems climbing the stairs back out of the basement and random soreness all day.

Would you like to see the whine list?

This is it. This is life. It’s not only a phase. I can’t afford it to be.

Owning It

The examination rooms at the healthcare center are unusually large. At least these rooms on the outside wall are.

The healthcare center seems like an old office building from the late 50s or early 60s, and the floor plan reinforces this impression. There are exam rooms on the outside wall and most of them are much larger than what what one would design for a medical office. I am sitting in a room on the northeast corner of the floor, and it is the size of what a proud middle manager would tell his wife is his new corner office. There’s at least six feet of empty space between the examination table and the door. There’s a small cabinet with a sink, a desktop computer, and a sanitary disposal bin 5 feet away in the other direction. It looks out of place along the long, otherwise bare, wall.

On the inside walls are tiny rooms, closer in size to what you would expect. Maybe even a little smaller. These rooms have the same furniture, but he walls are almost completely concealed.

I wonder what those guys told their wives about the jerk that just got promoted and how proudly he carried his red stapler and TPS reports into his new corner office.

I sit in the huge exam room, and I know what’s coming.

I like my doctor. He has an easy-going manner while at the same time not being afraid to say what needs to be said. (Although how he decides what needs to be said is about to come into question.) He is, however, incredibly busy and I get the feeling that he doesn’t remember who I am, or at least what my story is, until after our consultations begin. It’s obvious that he is looking at my file during the session for the first time since our last session.

This isn’t his fault. This is medicine in the United States. We blow away the rest of the western world in every metric you can imagine — when it comes to dollars spent. But when it comes to actual quality? Not so much. I live in an area that boasts what’s purported to be some of the best medical care in the country. But every office I’ve been to in the past decade feels overbooked, oversubscribed, and impersonal. I hear constant fears that our care will become “rationed” like it is in Canada. It’s already rationed by demand and by private insurers.

The last doctor I had that gave something resembling personal service closed her practice and went into research 8 years ago. She told me she couldn’t handle dealing with insurance companies.

The surgeon that repaired my right hand stopped taking insurance altogether a few months after the last round of surgery. Fortunately for him he’s good enough to get away with it.

My doctor finally makes it into the exam room and we speak. He asks me how I feel.

“Like I need to lose weight and I need help.”

I’ve gained over 70 pounds in 2 1/2 years. Actually I gained it in less than 2, after rotator cuff surgery pulled me off of my bicycle commute and into a painful recovery that has not gone well. Last year the doctor had pointed out a large weight gain to me and things have only gotten worse since then.

We discuss seeing their onsite dietitian and he does the examination part of the examination.

Then we get to my blood test, I was in a few weeks earlier for a fasting blood test and other sundries. My fasting blood glucose is 189.

That’s high. That’s very high. That’s diabetes high.

I am completely unsurprised. I made the appointment suspecting it was the case.

I had been experiencing some of the symptoms (dry skin, swelling, tingling in extremities, etc.) but being aware of the perils of self-diagnosis I knew it was time to have a doctor take a look.

I also knew that walking into a doctor’s office saying “Doctor, I think I have –“ is at best bad etiquette.

But when I open the appointment with needing to lose weight I am acknowledging what I expected, while at the same time trying to distance myself from it, like “I’m not here with the fat guy, but I know he’s a problem.”

So I knew being diagnosed with diabetes was coming, and I needed the diagnosis to get here.

He writes a prescription for Metformin, for seeing a dietician, and for a standing desk. (I ask for that while he has the pad out.) He tells me to schedule a follow up for 3 months.

And he tells me nothing more. No explanation of what the medication was. No explanation of what the “A1C” test he did there on the spot was for. No directions other than “take this medication and lose some weight.”

It’s clear I am going to have to stop waiting for someone else to tell me what to do and own this.

It’s not like I don’t know what to do. I need to stop being fat and lazy. I need to stop whining about my sore shoulder (which isn’t going anywhere) and get to work on my health.

It’s easy to make fun of people for being overweight. It’s easy to blame them for being fat and humilate them for it. It’s also mean-spirited and intellectually lazy.

It’s easy to make fun of Chris Christie for being fat. Pointing out how and why he’s the worst governor we’ve had in recent memory takes a few minutes to make a case.

Bill Clinton was given to a bit of a paunch during his administration, and the lifestyle required of a President did nothing to help, I’m sure. Jay Leno repeatedly made cracks about Clinton stopping at McDonald’s (while omitting it was for coffee) during his morning runs and overlooking, of course that the President was actually doing something about his weight by running anywhere at all, while Leno lazily told the same tired jokes over and over again. (Jay Leno also stopped being funny about a week after he took over Tonight and only people that were 60 years old by 1992 missed him when he left 20 years too late.)

But this doesn’t mean that overweight people shouldn’t take responsibility for their condition.

Human culture is a large and disorganized collection of extremes. For every like there is an intense dislike. For every ideology there is an antithesis. So it’s natural that, while examining any debate, one finds a bunch of false dichotomies.

If you think we need to raise taxes, you love big government. If you like standardized tests, you hate education. If you think beating the crap out of criminals is wrong, you hate cops.

Obesity has become a problem in the United States (and most of the Western World) and it’s hardly a surprise that there are polarized debates about why it is happening and how to deal with it.

I feel that at least one thread of the “obesity debate” is too quick to absolve people of responsibility.

Yes, it’s easy to get inexpensive, low calorie, unhealthy food, and for many people that inexpensive food is the only option.

Sure, it’s easy to just not exercise, especially in our increasingly car-friendly and pedestrian-hostile society. (What’s the solution to an increasing number of road deaths due to overcrowding? Have computers drive for us. I mean what else is there to do? Walk? Ride a bike like those socialists in Europe? Are you kidding?!?!?)

But these, and other factors, don’t completely absolve everyone, least of all me, of responsibility.

This isn’t about blame. Sure I do happen to blame myself, but that’s my fault (get it?) and another story. Accepting (or assigning) responsibility is not the same as accepting (or assigning) blame.

Coincidentally Seth Godin actually published this the day I started writing this post.

Confusing the two is a mistake often made and a mistake that frequently stymies progress since no wants to engage in icky “blamestorming.” It’s easier to assume everyone did their best and march onward to the next circuit of the same mistakes.

I have type 2 diabetes and it is time for me to accept responsibility for the problem. And fix it.

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