Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Life in the age of Coronavirus. News addicts like me are dangerously close to overdose. Entities of every stripe are rejiggering their operational models. And each will publish a press release that includes the phrase: …out of an abundance of caution…

To me, the phrase suggests that “we don’t really need to be this cautious, but we are anyway because we deeply care about you, our customers, clients, employees, etc.” They could, of course, truthify the wording to read: …our stakeholders (or, more specifically, shareholders). “An abundance of caution” seems disingenuous to me.

The current reality is proving, though, that we really do need to be this cautious.

About ten years ago, I wrote an essay about a bacterium called MRSA. It was widely appreciated at the time, and seems to be holding its water still today – particularly the recommendations for prevention. MRSA is not coronavirus; think of the main text, below, as the alarmist attention-getting part and the rest as the currently-useful prevention part.

So now, with an abundance of snark, I would like to re-publish                      A Moron’s Guide to MRSA (only slightly edited from the original).

_____

A Moron’s Guide to MRSA

Written by an actual moron: Fred Marx

November 2009

Yesterday I was happy-go-lucky, free as a bird, blissfully ignorant. Today I live in fear of a danger that surrounds me: MRSA. I know about deer ticks, lunatics and politics (a redundancy, I know), but I’ve never heard of MRSA. And to be honest, I wish I hadn’t.

MRSA (pronounced: MER-suh) is an acronym for a long medical name that simple folk like me can’t say. But for those of you who want to try, good luck: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. If you could say that, you probably don’t need to be reading this. Have a nice day. Drive home safely. But if you’re more comfortable with MER-suh, gather ‘round the campfire, ‘cuz I’ve got a story that’ll scare the heebie-jeebies outta ya.

MRSA is a kind of bacteria. As you already know, bacteria are bad. They can live on your skin! Maybe a gazillion bacteria live on your skin, you mangy dog. Didn’t anyone teach you about hygiene? Years ago, I heard the late radio newsguy Paul Harvey do one of his infamous Rest of the Story essays. In this one, he described in horrid detail the features of a black-and-white B-movie monster. The rest of the story is that this monster is actually a microscopic critter living on YOUR EYELASH. And you’ve got them all over you. Right now! Kinda makes you want to scratch all over. But don’t do that. I’ll tell you why.

MRSA – the bacteria monsters that live on your skin – are pretty innocent little creatures until they spot a cut or a deep scratch. Seeing their big chance at stardom, they pounce into your innards and find their way to parts of you that you really care about and begin to grow into really big creatures. I don’t even want to tell you what these things do inside you (mostly because I don’t really want to know, myself). But I’ve been told by smart people that it can be deadly bad. Or maybe your MRSA will be lazy and settle for living in that paper cut, and then grow into a big boil and then all the neighborhood children will look at it and say “ewww.” And they won’t be laughing as they run away.

The creepy part is that you can wash the MRSA bacteria off your skin with soap and hot water, but they come back. They could be on almost everything you touch: bedposts, broomsticks, steering wheels, door knobs, desktops and even (gasp!) food packages. They are on the skin of almost everyone you touch: your spouse and kids, your clients and customers, your brother Tom, and your Auntie Millie (Well, you already knew Millie had problems).

So we’ve established that you can’t avoid MRSA. The bacteria are practically everywhere. And we’ve established that they’re icky but harmless if they just live on your skin even though they’re not paying you rent.

You’re probably asking yourself right now, “Can this story get any grosser?” Yes, it can.  You can get a MRSA infection by using the same baseball bat used by an infected teammate. Or sitting on the locker room bench where the infection has been unwittingly left by a previous sitter. Or by sharing a shaving razor, or a comb. Or a toilet seat.  Ewww.

Or how about this for ghastly? You go to the doctor’s office or hospital to get well. But these places are full of sick people. You could croak just visiting a nursing home.

It should be quite obvious by now that there are only two options available: 1) you can retire to a cave with plenty of food and 500 channels of satellite TV and live the rest of your days in isolation; or, 2) you can adopt the best practices of healthcare professionals the world over who are as obsessed as you are about staying alive.

What are these best practices? Spend as much time as possible in a hot, soapy shower.  When you’ve been reduced to a prune, dry off, eat a meal, watch an episode of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe (Mondays, Discovery), and return to the hot, soapy shower.  Repeat.

No, really. Here’s what you should do to avoid becoming a hermit, becoming a shower-Dirty Jobs zombie, or becoming the victim of a horrible MRSA infection:

  • WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY AND OFTEN. This is the single most effective way to avoid getting or giving your MRSA monsters a chance at havoc. Use hot water, antibacterial soap, and don’t stop washing until you’ve completed two verses of “Happy Birthday To You.”
  • If soap and water are not immediately available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel (I prefer the apple-scented variety), and scrub, scrub, scrub.
  • If you’re in the presence of someone known to have a MRSA infection, avoid direct contact. MRSA is highly contagious, remember?
  • If you have a diagnosed MRSA infection on your skin, cover it with a bandage. (Duh! Who wants to get creeped out looking at your pus-filled blisters?)

That seems like a lot. But of course, there’s more. MRSA can live on non-metallic damp or wet surfaces for up to forty-eight hours. And what might those surfaces be? Well, how about the kitchen counter for starters? Maybe the bathroom has a few damp surfaces? The baby’s toys or Jack’s jock strap or Missy’s tutu. The office is generally safe…until people arrive and start touching things.

The point is that where you have control, clean every touchable surface with a disinfectant. Where you don’t have control, see first bullet above.

MRSA is no joke. It can be debilitating to its victims, dangerous to others, and potentially deadly to anyone whose immune system is already compromised by another illness or who is taking antibiotics to treat an illness. You can live life in fear of MRSA, or you can respect it, and take the steps necessary to prevent it.

by Fred Marx

Before I retired, there wasn’t time enough to add something to my life, even if that something was important and I ached to do it. When I retired and moved to Colorado, my activity level did not change as expected and I could not squeeze  anything new into life.

Well, it must be something important — whatever it is — because I received the ultimate notification just recently: ‘You have heart disease and it could kill you. But it won’t, this time. You’ll live a long and healthy life and you’ll get an inarguable second chance to do this thing for once and for all.’

‘Voice-Of-God’ notifications are rare, I think. Too often you and I have seen them used to give legitimacy to a project wanting to be done by the receiver. I don’t know how God uses his voice. So let’s just say that if such a thing were to happen to me, I’d vet it six ways from Sunday and still come out on the doubting side.

My special project is writing a book.

Let the doubting begin.

Who cares!? Everyone I know wants to write a book. I don’t even know yet what the darn thing is about. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. I must sound like the boy who cried “fire” in a crowded theater so often that no one believed him when one actually occurred. Can’t blame anyone for not believing. Still, the book burns in me.

A confluence of factors brought me here. First, I’ve been telling doctors for decades that there is something wrong with my heart. No one listened until early this year. My new doc heard something I said, ran a test, connected the dots and announced: “Heart Disease.” This was later confirmed by CT scans which impressively showed calcium blockages in three of the major arteries servicing my heart.

Things began to happen fast. A long trip to a major medical center; laparoscopic surgery to determine the adequacy of stents (nope. Gotta be vein grafts; three of them). Two days later, I was on the schedule and on the table. My sternum was zipped open and the surgeon bypassed my clogged arteries with replacements from other parts of my own body. Let the recovery begin.

Of course, any confluence has at least two parts. My ‘part 2’ actually began when I was just 2½ years old; the first time I realized what life on this planet meant to me. I was a gifted communicator. Through the years, I wrote, spoke, broadcast, produced, interviewed, researched, contextualized all manner of material for the good of my fellow man. It was all well accepted by my peers and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow when I’d be able to do it all over again.

Except for that elusive book.

Maybe it’s the enormity of the task. Research, drafts, editors, congruity. Maybe it’s the success rate of books on the shelf. How many books are written only to be ignored at the library or bookstore? So much work. Failure cannot be an option. Success cannot be guaranteed.

Am I even a good writer? Yes. I believe so. Absolutely. But then I am not the reader of my own material, am I? You be the judge. Sunlight Blog and ElderBlog are readily available for inspection. Countless additional materials rest in my own files and in the files of companies for which they were created.

The need to write remains so loudly pronounced that all the if’s are swept off the table. You don’t write because you want to; you write because you have to.

And that brings us back to this moment in time. It’s not a deciding moment; I rather think that the decision has been made for me already. If it’s a book that’s useful to others, I’m good with that. If it’s fiction, well, I’ve always written reality; fiction could be fun and interesting to me.

Whatever it is, it’s time for me to get on with the physical healing of my body. I hear that book tours are murder.

by Fred Marx

Following is a re-post from my now-retired ElderBlog.

– – –

The events of September 11, 2001 caused me to write an e-mail to a friend in which I said: “If there’s a silver lining to be found in all of this, it is that Americans will bond, and will return to civility.” I was right. For about two weeks.

We don’t yet know what brought about the horror in Tucson this weekend [the Gabby Giffords shooting]. It could easily be argued that insanity is the cause. But well-meaning people, seemingly from across the political spectrum, are using this occasion to make the statement: ‘We must return to civilized discourse.’ I want to believe respect and decency will be the ultimate result of the coming dialog, but I fear that I don’t believe. The lesson learned from 9/11 is still fresh in my mind.

Since the current thinking is political, I will offer these words as perspective. In January 2009, I wrote an essay that I ultimately chose not to publish. It focused on the vitriol of modern-day political campaigns. While campaigning is not the subject of this weekend’s events, some of these points resonate.

– – –

I’ve lost a friend.

My request had been an innocent one – I asked him to remove me from his political e-mail forward distribution list.  “I get way too many e-mails”, I explained, “and have no time to read forwards.  But do, please, keep me up on what’s happening with you and your lovely wife and kids.”

He replied almost immediately.  “The reason you don’t want to read my e-mails is because I’m right and you know it.”  I haven’t heard from him since.  A twenty-five year friendship was finished.

Maybe it’s because we failed to maintain a more personal relationship after our careers sent us to different places.  Our political viewpoints had always been dissimilar, but close proximity can soften the edge with which a point is driven.  Or is it that, in recent election cycles, wedge issues, driving-up-the-negatives, and scurrilous opponent branding – lies – were weaved into our political / societal / campaign fabric.

Truth be told, these tactics are not recent at all.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson endured a presidential campaign in which supporters of his opponent, President John Adams, labored mightily to convince the public that the then-vice president was an atheistic coward hell-bent on ripping Bibles from the homes of God-fearing Americans. A Jeffersonian writer, in turn, called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and the firmness of a man nor the gentleness or sensibility of a woman.”

In later campaigns, Andrew Jackson’s wife was referred to as a woman of the night, and Abraham Lincoln was characterized as a baboon in as many creative ways as the opposition could imagine.

-- excerpted from “Negative Campaigning -- What's New?"
by Larry J. Sabato, The Los Angeles Times  11/4/2008

Negative campaigning has continued since.  In just my years of political awareness came theDaisy adused by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964; theBlack baby of John McCainslur in the George W. Bush primary campaign of 2000; theConvention Adrun by Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey in 1968, to cite but a few.

I think that the current generation of campaign operatives was fathered by Lee Atwater.  In the 1980 Congressional campaign, Atwater planted a fake reporter in a press conference who asked about South Carolina Democratic nominee Tom Turnipseed’s mental illness.  The now-adult candidate had, himself, spoken widely about his teenage struggles in the hope that others would benefit from his experience.  But Atwater turned it into an insidious thing and did it with deceit.

Later, he ran a dirty tricks operation from the White House.  His superior, Ed Rollins, wrote in 1996 that Atwater was “ruthless”, “Ollie North in civilian clothes”, and someone who “just had to drive in one more stake”.  He would soon bring his skills to bear in the 1988 Bush/Dukakis campaign.

Massachusetts Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis’ predecessor had authored a furlough program for some of his state’s prisoners.  Convicted murderer Willie Horton committed rape during a weekend furlough; this while Dukakis held the office.  With candidate George H.W. Bush 17 points behind in the polls, Atwater asserted that he would “strip the bark off the little bastard” (Dukakis) and “make Willie Horton his running mate.”  This, and other similar tactics, so raised Dukakis’ “negatives” that Bush won the election.

Karl Rove is a protégé of Nixon’s “dirty tricks” expert Donald Segretti (later convicted as a Watergate conspirator), and soon became tight with Lee Atwater.

If one word were used to define the result of Rove’s campaign and political tactics, it might be “divide.”  Google “Karl Rove” + divide and you’ll find over 220,000 referenced articles from every political perspective.  ‘Smear, polarize, defeat, and devour’ was effectively his mantra through the entirety of his  career in campaign leadership.  And Rove’s progeny were responsible for the 2008 McCain campaign.

I have made clear that the same tactics are being used by both parties. The stench is equally foul, no matter its source.  Worse still, it extends now from the highest office to the lowest.

My now-lost friend subscribed to the talking points supporting his political leaning.  He didn’t have to reason them through.  He had only to receive them, agree with them automatically, and espouse them as his own.  This, I think, is his (and, perhaps, our) greatest sin: to accept, unchallenged, the “facts” as they are fed to us.

We live busy lives.  Two-income households, kids’ school and extra-curricular activities, our own professional, community and social activities.  There just isn’t enough time in the day.  Nevertheless, we make the time to do the things that are important.  Such a thing is participation in the political process.  If we don’t know what’s going on in some detail, the headlines will hold sway.  Sound bites will be the basis for our decision-making.  And these decisions could become sources of regret both in the near term and for future generations.  The demagogues will have won.

Lee Atwater died of a brain tumor in 1991 at the age of 40.  Call it a deathbed revelation if you must, but, by most accounts, Atwater came to understand the wrongness of his tactics.  He spent the precious energy of his last days begging the forgiveness of those he had smeared.  In Life Magazine (Feb.1991) he wrote:

“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.  The country … can learn on my dime.”

– – –

If there’s a silver lining to be found in all of this, it is that Americans will bond, and will return to civility…..

by Fred Marx

If this were another screed about new technology, it would be titled “Why I Hate My Fancy-Schmantzy New Smartphone.” Or, “Sliced Bread Has Fewer Crumbs Than Windows 10.” This is not about that.

This is about the love/hate relationship I have with tech that’s keeping me alive and fully functional. Overly dramatic? Not to me.

I think of myself as healthy; maybe even healthier than most people my age. I eat (mostly) good foods, get a reasonable amount of exercise, and more than enough fresh mountain air and sunshine. I have none of the health risk factors for anything.

Yet, I stop breathing about 52 times per hour while I’m sleeping. Yep … Obstructive Sleep Apnea. And that serves up the first of two examples of what I’m calling negative technology: Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. You know it as CPAP.

If ever there was a perfect medical/mechanical concept, it is this one. If the airway closes during sleep, the CPAP machine rests quietly at your bedside and gently pushes some humidified air into the nose to keep the airway open. Simple! Just an innocuous machine, a 6ft hose and a little mask to cover your nose and mouth. But that’s where the problem begins.

Half of everyone for whom CPAP is prescribed — stop using it. Some people never even acquire or use the blessed thing (God only knows why). Others are claustrophobic about having a mask separating them from perfectly good room air. Others never find an effective and comfortable mask from among the myriad styles and sizes available. I’m in this last group.

It took months to find a mask that worked even moderately well. It took years to find the mask that actually works for me now. Huzzah! Or maybe not so much.

Just try to sleep in a position other than flat on your back. Wanna roll over? You have to half-wake up, drag the hose to wherever you need it, reposition the mask on your face and try to fall back to sleep. In my case, this ritual takes place several times a night. Need to take a little stroll down the hall at 2:30am? Take it all off, stroll, get back into bed, put it all back on, and try to fall back to sleep. Wanna cuddle with your honey? Fuggedaboutit. Can’t be done. Why? The answer is blowing in the wind. CPAP users well know the song.

In business, there’s something called ‘The cost/value proposition.’ It applies to everything, really. If I put out this amount of energy, I get that benefit back. If I invest in this enterprise, I am likely to receive that return-on-investment in three years. If I spend this amount of money at the store, I get that number of Snickers® bars.

In the Obstructive Sleep Apnea business, the cost/value proposition is easy: use it and you don’t die.

The mask that works for me is not really a mask at all. Rather, it looks and functions like a nasal canula … the kind of contraption you see strapped to hospital patients’ faces to give them oxygen. It’s perfect for me. Except that it isn’t.

My canula requires a seal in order to deliver the goods. For months, the skin at the tip of my nose objected to the overnight attachment of this foreign invader; objected to the point of developing blisters and scabs. Ewww. It was during this period that I began working for a new employer. (Yes, I know I’m retired. But I’m doing a very bad job of it.) Anyway, the scab on the tip of my nose was so evident that I had to explain to the boss that I am not, in fact, snorting cocaine. Embarrassing. For all I know, cocaine would be better.

So, that’s the cost part. The benefit part is that I wake up in the morning without feeling like I’ve had 52 heart attacks. Honestly, it hurts. And the hurt stays with you all day.

* * *

A million years ago, I spent lots of time on flight lines, the areas of an airport where (usually military) aircraft are parked and serviced. Can you guess how many decibels of sound are generated by a fighter jet ramping up its engines? That’s right, a gazillion decibels. Hearing protection? Not me.

My job was to visually document certain flight operations and practices. For this, I shouldered a 40lb television camera with a 9lb telephoto lens all tethered to a 15lb battery belt and a nice set of headphones. Headphones? Don’t they amplify sound? Why, yes they do. If the engines generated a gazillion decibels, my headphones generated five gazillion. It goes with the job. Hearing damage? Oh yeah. Just ask my wife.

I didn’t actually know I was impaired until years later when someone who’d seen my profile asked, “Hey Fred, how’s your hearing?” “Huh?”

Wikipedia tells me that the first hearing aids were developed in the 1600’s. They were called Ear Trumpets EarTrumpet.jpgand they looked weird and nobody liked using them – so they didn’t. Two hundred years later,bluto.jpg electronic hearing aids were invented, but you had to hire a big burly guy to carry them around for you. Nobody liked the smell of burly guys, so nobody used the hearing aids. (Note: deodorant hadn’t been invented yet.)

Yet another two hundred years later, I was introduced to my first hearing aids. By then, technology had improved the devices and shrunk them to a size that you could hang behind your ears. But, if, like me, you wore glasses, the parts that hung the glasses on your ears rubbed against the hearing aids causing horror-movie sound effects all day long. I didn’t much care for that, so I stopped using the hearing aids. And I haven’t watched a horror movie since.

Just this week, I got the latest greatest technologically zip-a-dee-doo-dah digital hearing aids by ReSound. They were crafted specifically from moldings taken of my ear canals. They are a fraction of the size of the old devices. ThReSound Hearing Aid.jpgey have hidden microphones that face forward (unlike the last pair). They have some noise cancellation. They have push-button settings for female voices, male voices, and rock ‘n roll. Seriously! I can raise and lower the volume in either or both ears, take phone calls via Bluetooth, and they make my eggs-over-easy. Okay, not really that last part.

Sounds great, huh? (Pun intended.) The value in the cost/value proposition seems pretty obvious: I get all these benefits and I can hear better. The cost part of the proposition is that they are not completely invisible, and they are slightly uncomfortable. Maybe I’ll get used to them. Maybe I won’t.

I’m expecting a delivery from FedEx any day now. The package will contain accessories: a wireless microphone my wife can clip to her blouse so I can clearly hear every golden syllable she speaks; and an actual real live remote with which I can control ambient sound, the directionality of the mics, and the size of the bubbles my CPAP machine blows to amuse the cats at night. bubbles.jpg Okay, not really that last part.

(Personal note: please don’t tell my wife about the FedEx package. If she ever finds out about the mic, she’ll make me wear the hearing aids. Thank you.)

There are historical markers in my life just are there are in yours. Mine include:

  • The Kennedy Assassination — I was in 6th Grade French class when the news was announced over the loudspeaker. My then-crush, Dionne, was sobbing in the next row. That’s how I knew it was important.
  • Watergate — the beginning of my obsession with politics.
  • Exxon Valdez — the spoiling of the waters in my precious Alaska. I took it personally. Still do.
  • 9-11 — the hotel staff was huddled around the lobby TV. I glanced at the screen on the way out the door. A plane hit the WTC. My first impression: “It’s New York. We’re tough. We’ll work it out.”

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t chosen to write about the deeper meanings for each of these events before. Even more surprised am I that 30 years have passed and I’ve never written about the Shuttle Challenger disaster.

I was, at that time, the Marketing and Programming Manager for the big cable system in Anchorage. I was beset with union votes, expansion woes, Mike Tyson fights, and the press queries that go with all of these.

On this morning thirty years ago, the TV was on in the bedroom as I got dressed for that day’s work. The nascent CNN was covering all of NASA’s launches and I watched them all because I like the adventurous aspects of science, space and space travel. A minute after launch, when the words, “Go at throttle up” were spoken, I knew what would happen.

What did happen, of course, was instantly recognizable as anomalous, to say the least. It was visually horrifying.

And I stood there and watched, and said to myself: “It’s going to be a really bad day.”

I was instantly ashamed of myself.

Seven lives had been snuffed out. I wasn’t thinking about their loved ones. I was thinking about the press calls I would be fielding throughout that day.

If I could paint this damning story in a positive light, it would be to say that I learned, in that moment, to think outside of myself. Sure, I’m important. But I am not alone.

ChallengerCrew

 

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My friend Vincent is deeply into all things science. When something peaks his interest, he blasts it out to his e-mail list. Yesterday he broadcast a post about “blood moons”. As moons go, blood moons are remarkably rare; think of them as a total eclipse of the moon – where the earth blocks the light from the sun. Because of their relative rarity, some are moved to think of them as signs of the beginning of Apocalypse.

It’s all good. But Vincent’s article made me think of an article I read earlier this month. It asked: “Are Republicans Or Democrats More Likely To Survive The Apocalypse?” A curious question, I thought. What makes this article interesting is the way the answer is derived.

Imagine a bunch of uber-smart numbers nerds sitting around the conference room table chewing on the variables presented by the posited question. What results is a transcript of thoughtful, funny, expansive, preposterous, sometimes profane dialog that’s worth the reading. Enjoy!

http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/are-republicans-or-democrats-more-likely-to-survive-the-apocalypse/

I’ve been wondering how to explain what’s going on inside my head these days. Thank you, Eda LeShan, for figuring me out — two generations ago!

THE RISK OF GROWING

by Eda J. LeShan

(first published in Woman’s Day Magazine, 9/22/81)

I recently celebrated my fifty-ninth birthday.  As usual I was utterly astounded by the passing of the years.  It seems to me that last year I was only twenty-five and the year before that I was about twelve.  But no matter how surprising they are, I find birthdays useful.  They remind me that I must not waste a minute of my life – and that I must keep on growing and changing in order to truly celebrate my birthdays.

Eda J. LeShan   circa 2002

Eda J. LeShan circa 2002

A number of years ago I wrote a book called The Wonderful Crisis of Middle Age.  I thought middle age could be called wonderful because it seemed to be a chance for a second adolescence – a time during which I could make new and better decisions about the rest of my life. 

While I was writing the book, I met an oceanographer who asked if I knew how a lobster was able to grow bigger when its shell was so hard.  I had to admit that learning how lobsters grow had never been high on my list of priorities.  But now that he had mentioned it, how in the world could a lobster grow? The only way, he explained, is for the lobster to shed its shell at regular intervals.  When its body begins to feel cramped inside the shell, the lobster instinctively looks for a reasonably safe spot to rest while the hard shell comes off and the pink membrane just inside forms the basis of the next shell.  But no matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is very vulnerable.  It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish.  In other words, a lobster has to risk its life in order to grow. I found myself preoccupied with the lobster story for days after hearing it. 

I finally realized that it was a symbol for the book I was writing.  The lobster could teach us that the only way to endure the passage of time and the limits of our mortality is to know that we are growing and changing, that we are becoming more than we have been with each year of our lives. We all know when our shells have gotten too tight.  We feel angry or depressed or frightened because life is no longer exciting or challenging.  We are doing the same old things and beginning to feel bored.  Or we are doing things we hate to do and are feeling stifled in our shells. Some of us continue to smother in old shells that are no longer useful or productive.  That way we can at least feel safe – nothing can happen to us.  Others are [wiser]; even though we know we will be vulnerable – that there are dangers ahead – we realize that we must take risks or suffocate. In honor of my birthday, I invite you to share the party I always go to – the one where I shed this year’s shell, despite the dangers, in order to get ready for new and better adventures.

-23ºF. That’s the kind of temp that earns Minnesota its reputation. Factor in the wind chill, and it’s -60º. That’s the kind of temp that earns Antarctica its reputation. Yet, here I am … at home in Minneapolis with my wife and 500 channels of cable and a Christmas Tree that won’t come down until March, and a wind chill of -60. I’ve heard so many adjectives, I don’t know which apply: crazy cold, dangerous cold, historic cold, this-ain’t-fun-anymore cold.

Now, I’m pretty smart and I know a lot of things. I won’t bother you with the trifles you’ve been getting from  the media about cold weather consequences. What I know is that when things get this cold, things break. Take my car, fr’instance.

My little car has twice as many miles on it than it was originally designed for. Yet it keeps on going. Going so well that I’ve actually come to trust it; a trust hard-earned — we’ve done tens of thousands of miles on unpaved, dusty, gravel-y roads together. The car gets regular service, and I get chiropractic adjustments. The car has often taken me through dangerous weather, sometimes with precious cargo (wife). Just the other day, we drove for 24 hours through extreme cold from the middle of Montana to the Twin Cities. As its reward, I got the car’s tires rotated.

Then it happened: the power steering went out. All of a sudden, I was driving my mother’s red and white ’59 Nash Metropolitan again. A simple left turn was a smack-down wrestling match. This would not do, of course, as I had ceased wrestling so many decades ago. So I drove my little car (not the Metropolitan which was so much littler) straight to the shop. That was Friday.

This morning came the call. I was thinking cracked pulley; stretched belt; a couple hundred bucs; back to Montana tomorrow.

Wrong.

Oh, the pulley was cracked alright, and the belt was stretched. But the actual official professional diagnosis was “Timing Belt Tensioner Assembly.” The guy needn’t have said another word after Timing. I was already sorting through my vast storehouse of knowledge and had arrived at the critical datapoint: this was going to be expensive. And, of course, I was absolutely

Correct.

$741.82 parts & labor. And they won’t fix it till tomorrow because of all the other cars that broke due to the weather.

Now let me pause for a moment to say that I’ve been blessed with a car that got us here safely before it broke. And I’ll say further that I am blessed with $741.82 to pay for the repairs. Even further than that, the world won’t stop spinning on its axis if I don’t travel back to Montana until Wednesday.

Being a naturally curious person, though, I Googled the parts and found them available for as little as $212.00 plus shipping. And herein lies the problem.

I am also blessed with supreme intelligence and a newly-discovered ability to do things with my hands (like building furniture, loft beds and such). Intelligence + ability = I can do this myself. And so I set about preparation for the job. I’d need

  • a rental propane space heater for the garage (frostbite, hypothermia. Hello?)     $37 for one week plus $25 for gas
  • a rental hoist with which to pull the entire engine out of its cavity     $150/wk
  • a rental set of tools (mine are in Montana)     $200/wk
  • a rental pickup truck to haul the above to my garage     $39 twice (here and return)

It was to be another fun project in which I would learn and accomplish a new thing. It all seemed reasonable and doable, too, until I streamed a YouTube video on how to replace the Timing Belt Tensioner Assembly for my car. It was doable alright, if you knew what you were doing – which I don’t. And this easy-to-do four-hour project could easily take me four days taking into account the redo’s to fix my mistakes. And, I realized, there were yet further costs: $0.97 for the bandaids, and an extra $150 for Sunday’s offering plate to cover the colorful language eminating from behind my garage door.

Since this post is a well-disguised lesson in calculus, I must correct my original formula: ‘Intelligence + ability = I can do this myself’ is incomplete. The complete formula is: Intelligence + ability + experience + tools = I can do this myself. (If using this formula in your college thesis, please attribute to Fred Marx.) Put another way, Intelligence + $741.82 = let-the-pros-do-it-right-the-first-time.

So here I am, at home in Minneapolis with my wife and 500 channels of cable and a lovely Christmas Tree that won’t come down till March, and a wind chill of -60. Maybe it’s crazy cold or dangerous cold or historic cold or this-ain’t-fun-anymore cold. But I don’t really care. I’m safe, warm, loved and blessed. Life just don’t get much better than this.

And I’m ever-so-slightly smug in the knowledge that the application of the second expression of my formula is actually the right one. It pays to be supremely intelligent.

I’ve written about animals before, but never one like Angel. She’s a Golden LabTheraHund who hails from northern Germany and has traveled close to twenty thousand miles since July. Destination: Alaska. What makes Angel unique is that she writes a blog – in English and German – using multi-syllabic words! Show me another dog with that kind of talent.

Angel and her people rolled their tired tires into Anchorage today, a place forever dear to my heart as I spent ten of the best years of my life there. One of the many things that Rondy13Pinmakes Alaska special is an annual fur-trading event which long-ago developed into a major 10-day-long festival called “The Fur Rendezvous“. This year’s edition starts next Friday and features the Running Of The Reindeer (think: Pamplona), a carnival, Snowshoe Softball, the Grand Prix Auto Race, dog weight pull, fireworks, the Frostbite Footrace, and a Grand Parade. I sound like a commercial, but everything about “Rondy” is fun, and families have been enjoying it for seventy-seven years.

As cool as Rondy is, it’s not the reason Angel’s in Anchorage. As cool as Rondy is, it’s just the warm-up for the really big event: Alaska’s world-famous “Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race“.

One of Angel’s people has – for the longest time – wanted to experience the IditarodIdita13Patch close-up. “The Last Great Race” pits dog teams and their mushers against rugged terrain, extreme weather, and distance: a thousand miles! Angel’s person (who happens to be my sister-in-law) has volunteered for several important positions, and while she’ll be working very hard, she’ll know that she’s participating in a historic event.

AngelPicThat’s what brings media from around the world to Alaska for the race. But Angel has already discovered that all of the media are human. So she’s busy sniffing out a volunteer position for herself as the canine reporter for this year’s Iditarod. You’ll find her posts on the blog “Travels With Angel“. And if you’re in Anchorage, look for the white pickup with Angel’s picture on the windows. She won’t be driving, but will be somewhere nearby.

No year exists by itself. My 2012 began sixty years ago and built up to now. About the same for you? Sure.

North Carolina was a perfectly lovely place. But with apologies to my friends there, it just wasn’t home. When it became possible for me to exit, I did. And by the time I did, my network of personal and business relationships had been considerably weakened back in Minneapolis. So I wound up in North Dakota: a strange place to me, populated with people whose dominant culture was different than I had yet to face. This would take some getting used to.

When I was younger, a situation like this would have been an adventure and my approach would have been with energy and excitement. Not so this time. I was broke, broken and depressed. I wanted to find work, and spend the rest of my day alone. I did nothing to integrate myself with the people here.

I had last seen Bruce when he was just four. Now he’s six-foot-three, married to Liza and has a bunch of great children. They took me into their home without condition, fed me and made me part of their family. I had the shirt on my back, a paid-for car and, within a couple of weeks, a job. Things were trending positive. Still, I resisted.

There was a decision to make: would I spend my life wallowing in self-pity, wanting what I couldn’t have, or would I find myself and find a way to thrive and grow in this new place? Things got worse in my head before they got better.

I didn’t make the big decision; I made a little one. I decided to buy new carpet, and after several weekends of looking, I found it and brought it home. Before laying it down, I thought, “Well, it would be best if I painted the walls first. So I prepared the walls, thought about colors, and painted the room: sunshine yellow for the part of the day I’d be active; sky blue for the part of the day I’d be asleep. Face one way and it’s daytime. Face the other way and it’s night – all in one 8 x 12 room. “Genius,” I thought. And then I put down the underlayment and carpeting.

Thusly proud, I thought about maximizing the space. The twin bed I’d purchased took up so much floor space and made the room so small. I decided to elevate the bed, and not to common bunkbed height, but high enough that I could stand and walk comfortably beneath it. The ceiling is 12 feet high, so the mattress surface would be at 8 feet. I designed and built the structure beneath the mattress with one 4″x4″ post occupying floor space and the rest of the structure secured to the wall studs. I stained the wood my favorite shade of oak. No standard bunk ladder reaches that high, so I built my own. It’s perfect, and the elevated bed is perfect. It doesn’t squeak or creak and I feel perfectly comfortable and safe sleeping up there. “Genius,” I thought.

I spent a few weekends looking for just the right kind of lighting for both the ceiling and under the bed, and I am using daylight CFL bulbs to reduce eye strain. I found an oak wardrobe kit with hanging and shelf space. Costco had a pair of 2’x4′ maps: one of the world and one of the U.S.  They are mounted side-by-side on one of the yellow walls both as a reference and as a reminder that I live in a larger world than my little room represents. There’s a corkboard on which I tack the artwork the kids draw for me. “Genius,” I thought.

My computer, monitor and printer all sat atop their respective boxes along one of the day walls. That would no longer do. I designed and built a 6 foot long, two-tier shelf on which these components are now arranged. And there’s plenty of space left to use for other things. My next projects are a shallow 4-foot-wide dresser (oak, of course), and a reclining swivel glider-rocker with an ottoman, all made of oak and with supportive and comfy cushions. And I will build these things, too. Then this room will be complete.

So, what, exactly, is the genius of what’s been done here? Well, I stretched myself. Building stuff like this is not something I’ve ever done before; it’s not in my skillset. I had to research the proper angle of the ladder, for example; and the distance the steps should be apart, and how to notch the steps into the sides for added weight-bearing. I had to calculate the exact dimensions of the two-tiered shelf to fit into the space available. In other words, I had to challenge myself to do something new. I had to stretch beyond my usual mindset and abilities.

There’s another aspect to my genius, though. Without thinking about it, I was investing myself into my living space – thereby creating a place that I wanted to be; creating a home of my own.

If there are any IQ digits for me to think with, I take no credit. I didn’t give them to me. I’ll take credit only for using what I have as, I believe, the Giver would have it.

I have long thought that I’d regret turning 60. What actually happened was a surprise: I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. For all of my life, I’ve been striving: trying to achieve this; trying to earn that; working for tomorrow. On my birthday, it occurred to me that I no longer cared as much about tomorrow. Today provides sufficient challenges. I’m not living today as if it’ll be my last; I’m just living it to the best of my ability. And I’m not reaching beyond what’s available to me today. Understanding this, I felt relief.

I’ve also made an effort to become more of a joiner. I accept invitations now, and I make some, too. I go places and do things that don’t fit my usual patterns. And whereas I used to do these things with low-level dread, it usually turns out just fine. Enjoyable, even. I’m allowing roots to go down; friendships to form.

Okay. That’s the ethereal stuff. Here’s the other stuff.

I wrote about the much-anticipated thrill of Mike Oldfield’s live contribution to the London Olympics Opening Ceremony. I could not have anticipated that an equal thrill awaited within the closing ceremony of the London Paralympics.

Coldplay, my second-favorite musicians (after Oldfield) were invited to play a set at the big stadium. I thought, “Well that’s terrific; all the pomp and circumstance will get done and then Coldplay will entertain everyone with a big concert.” Wrong. What actually happened is that Coldplay came on and did a few of their big hits. These served as background for physically-challenged performers to do amazing things. It was all quite wonderful to watch.

In an ordinary concert, Coldplay does a song called, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face.” While the title seems benign, the song rocks! It may be among the hardest songs for a drummer to play. When “God Put A Smile…” came up during the Paralympics set, there were two drummers on stage: Will Champion, Coldplay’s drummer, and Mat Fraser, born a thalidomide baby without arms. Well, Mat grew up to become a man, a writer, an actor and a drummer who performed in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin was amazed by Mat’s work. So he invited him to play the toughest song in their repertoire: “God Put A Smile …”. Stunning! Fraser played the song beat-for-beat as aggressively as Champion, and he smiled throughout. It wasn’t a smile that said, “Hey, look at me; I’m playing with Coldplay.” It was a smile that said, “I’m good enough to play with Coldplay.” He was. And the 7.7 million people watching him will never forget it.

That was a Sunday. The next day, it was back to work. Everything I do depends on my car. It’s just a Dodge Neon that wasn’t built for punishment. Yet, I commute to work and back 100 miles each day. And I run that number of miles daily, on average, out in the boonies with dirt-, gravel- and scoria-covered roads. I arrived here in February with 70,000 miles on the odometer. We’re now just shy of 120,000. The car gets serviced regularly, and new tires were put on in October. My confidence in the car has been growing of late; it just keeps doing a good job for me.

We face a greater hazard here than most other places. With all the construction and trucks moving dirt and rock, some of it lands on the roads. Or, worse, gets kicked up into your windshield. You can’t call yourself a Montanan or North Dakotan if your windshield hasn’t been assaulted by rocks. I’ve been fortunate so far; only six dings in the glass. I get them fixed immediately and they haven’t spidered into long cracks. It’s only a matter of time, though, and I’ll have to replace the whole thing. It’s the cost of doing business.

This next story says my bad. It’s your good if you learn from my experience. With my kind of work, it’s best to have all of my computer files with me on a flash drive – available whenever and wherever I might be. I think of this small device also as a backup. My flash drive has reliably done the job since February. Then, one day, it didn’t. I stuck it in the office PC, and the PC didn’t “recognize” it. I called our IT guy who tried a few things to no avail. We stuck it into a few other computers. No recognition. My skin was becoming clammy.

The IT guy found a company near Denver that does crash recovery, talked with them by phone, and then recommended it to me. I hotfooted it to FedEx for next day air ($36). It was received and preliminarily tested on Tuesday. Failure. ($220). They offered to run my flash drive through their whiz-bang high-end machine for another $500. It was a no-brainer … I needed those files. It was Wednesday. The next day, I got an e-mail that said the process had been successful. And on Friday, they sent me a link from which I could download my files (which took all morning to do).

Meanwhile, I tried to find a way to back up my backup in the cloud. And I researched and bought a 64G USB 3.0 tank of a flash drive; dust, shock and waterproof to 20 meters. It’s a Corsair Survivor. I’m still trying to find a way to sync it to the cloud. If you have any suggestions …

The total price for my (duh!) lesson was $820, plus lost time working without my files. It’ll drive a man to drink.

I’ve written before of my fondness for things flavored with lime. I have discovered BudLight Lime-a-Rita’s. It doesn’t taste like BudLight with a squirt of lime. It does taste exactly like a top-shelf Margarita and it packs an 8% wallop to boot. They come in a 12-pack of little 8 ounce cans and man, these things are good!

The new year brings a few changes, all of which will be broadcast to my mailing list. I have a new cell phone number, a website (www.fredmarx.com) to host this blog, and a new e-mail address.

One more story from 2012 before heading toward the New Year’s Eve confetti. On Saturday, November 13, we had our first snowstorm. It rained the night before, then froze, then snowed. I spent the better part of Sunday shoveling the driveway; something I actually enjoy doing.

I figured the plows would have had plenty of time to do their thing on the major roadways by Monday morning, but I was wrong. They’d taken only one pass and the major road heading north from Sidney was mostly snow-packed.

I headed out at 6am, as usual. It was dark and the road was snarky, so the 65mph speed limit was ignored in favor of a safer 40mph. There was, thankfully, very little traffic. About 5 miles north of town, there was just one oncoming car a quarter mile away, and another a mile behind that.

Then, one of my drive wheels must have found a patch of dry roadway – and I started spinning. Fast. It had to be at least three clockwise rotations; I couldn’t count. There wasn’t time for my heart to jump to my throat. There was only time to reflexively turn into the spin. The first car miraculously passed me without contact.

I came to a stop facing north in the southbound lane. The second car couldn’t have stopped if it tried. My car was stalled. I tried three times to restart it. It cranked but didn’t catch. I turned off the headlights and radio and tried again. It caught, I turned on the headlights, put the car into gear and slowly crawled back into the northbound lane – getting there just as the second car went past.

I continued on to the office kind of surprised by how calm I was.

Later in the day, I sat down and purposefully thought about it. I started spinning. I turned into the spin fully expecting a collision but not having one, and I didn’t land in a ditch. I then realized that I had said two words right about then: “Holy GOD!”

For all the spinning I’ve lived through this year, at least my head is still screwed on tight.

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