Saturday, June 30, 2012

Welcome Home, Moose!

We picked out Moose (formerly Munch) on June 18. After a couple of delays, I went to pick him up from Fortunate Pooches and Lab Rescue last Wednesday. Although I had set up a meeting place only a few miles from where my grandparents lived, it wasn't until I passed near the cemetery on the way there that I recognized the significance. Getting Moose on June 27 was a perfect way to turn the day of my grandfather's death into a day of new beginnings.

We don't know much about Moose. He's a friendly, submissive, two-year-old black Lab with a big head. He came from southern Illinois with fleas and a (fortunately mild) case of heart worm. The rescue group got rid of his fleas and started his heart worm treatment. We just have to keep him relatively calm for the next four weeks (which may not be easy), give him some pills, and take him back for a few follow-up tests.

After the woman from the rescue group drove away, I led Moose toward our car. He put his paws on the ledge of the passenger side door... and jumped in through the open window! He sure didn't have any hesitation about going home with me!

Sorry I'm a few days late posting this, but I wanted to wait until I had a photo:

Saying Goodbye

Tonight as part of my battle against clutter I am shredding corporate documents like an Arthur Andersen weasel. Well, not exactly -- these documents lost their value many years ago. I'm getting rid of piles of documents from Targeted Software Solutions.* I thought we were hot stuff in the late 1990s with half a dozen employees, and as a co-owner I was pulling down six figures before I turned 30.

If I sound like I'm bragging, well, I am. Americans are often defined by our jobs, and I haven't had one that put food on the table in a long time. It's been more than a decade since I pulled down six figures. Hell, it's been eight years since I pulled down five figures. So I have to brag about the past because the future sure as hell isn't brighter.

That's what I'm letting go of tonight -- the last vestiges of my past life as a successful computer software developer/consultant. Amid reams of payroll data and benefits statements, my most productive years in society are being torn apart in the shredder. Soon there will be no traces of my career. I determined earlier this month that most likely every piece of code I ever wrote has been replaced by now.

It's not something I spend much time thinking about anymore. I came to accept what I've lost and what I've gained years ago. I miss the money, of course, and I miss the mental challenges of programming, but little else. My wife says we'd be divorced by now if I still worked that job. I never realized how much of an asshole the stress made me. I'd rather have a failed career than a failed marriage. On the other hand, I'd probably be thinner if I had kept working. and I'd be a hell of a lot wealthier. We certainly would have fixed a lot more things in our house by now. That is, if we still lived together.

* That is still the official name of my company, in all its faded glory (DJWriter, Inc. is a "doing business as" or "d/b/a" name). That means I can claim that my small business has survived for over 15 years, even though I haven't turned a profit for half that time.

BC2012: How to Live by Henry Alford

This book bears the lengthy subtitle "A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)." Alford's quest for wisdom leads him through a series of interviews with senior citizens as well as a review of historical writing on wisdom. Alford's interview with his stepfather unexpectedly triggers the end of his mother's 23-year marriage, and this book becomes more of a family memoir than I expected.

Overall, I guess I enjoyed it enough. It held my interest most of the time. Most of Alford's interview subjects, ranging from minor celebrities like Granny D and Ram Dass* to "ordinary" people, are insightful and entertaining. The family drama that unfolds during the writing of the book is an amusing diversion with moments of poignancy.

But then again, I sometimes found myself thinking Enough about your family; get back to the interviews already. His tangential musings, such as his tediously documented quest for aphorisms, almost lost me a few times (at such moments, BC2012 really pushes me to keep reading to the finish). In the end, I felt like I didn't get the book promised by the title. How to Live could be required reading for writing students as an example of how an author can be his own worst enemy when he lets himself get in the way of a good story. Instead of drawing more out of the interview subjects, Alford writes too much about his own feelings and reactions during the interviews (I expected the book to be about their wisdom, not his). And although the book is truthfully labeled as a memoir, it would have been better without so much about Alford.

* This is the second book I've read this year to include a chapter featuring Ram Dass, the first being Paul Krassner's Murder at the Conspiracy Convention.

Friday, June 29, 2012

BC2012: Hitler: The Survival Myth by Donald M. McKale

This scholarly book examines the details surrounding the suicide of Adolf Hitler and explores how and why the myth that he survived World War II arose and persisted for so long. Obviously this is no longer an issue since he now would be 123 years old, but the original Hitler: The Survival Myth was published 30 years ago (I read the updated 2001 edition).

The Soviets created much of the doubt about Hitler's whereabouts. Although they found his charred remains only days after he died and positively identified him based on dental records, they did not immediately share this with the other Allies.* Actually, in June 1945 the Soviets held an off-the-record press conference to announce that Hitler was dead, and then they followed up three days later with an official one surmising that he could still be alive.

A British investigation led by historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who published The Last Days of Hitler in 1947, concluded that the dictator committed suicide in his bunker, but the Russians didn't reveal their autopsy report on Hitler until 1968. In the meantime, plenty of wacky stories developed about Hitler living in Argentina under CIA protection or even in a German fortress in Antarctica!

According to many testimonies, Hitler was in poor health during the Third Reich's final days He probably wasn't well enough to escape even if he'd had the means. His shakiness due to Parkinson's Disease led to another controversy -- was he physically capable of shooting himself, or did he take poison? The distinction is important to some as a matter of honor or bravery since Hitler was the leader of the German military (poison was considered a feminine suicide method, as demonstrated by Eva Braun). Although the Soviet autopsy found shards of a glass vial in Hitler's mouth, the common belief is that he shot himself (someone testified that one of Hitler's doctors suggested pulling the trigger and biting into the vial simultaneously just to be certain -- Hitler was terrified of surviving the war to endure Russian torture and humiliation).

Hitler: The Survival Myth is a good book, but it may be too thorough for most casual readers. It could be shorter, with perhaps less repetition of previously revealed information. I got a good laugh out of the examples of "Hitler is Alive" stories, so I wish more had been included about those. I think McKale felt that repeating too many of those stories might give them credence, which obviously is the opposite of this book's intent.

* I felt sorry for the young German dental assistant whose confirmation of Hitler's identity landed her in a Soviet prison for eleven years, mostly in solitary confinement, apparently because they didn't want her to tell anyone that she had seen Hitler's remains.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Will Bleed for Flattery

One of my few contributions to humanity is donating blood. My wife has trouble -- she wigs out and hyperventilates -- but I'm fine as long as I don't think about it too much (for example, I can't bring myself to do that process where they take out the red cells and then pump the rest of the blood back into you -- that just weirds me out). Still, I don't particularly like to donate blood. The blood bank wants me to come in much more often than I want to, and I have programmed all of their phone numbers into my cell phone so I can ignore them when they call. Since I have hardly any friends or clients, 90% of the calls to my cell number are either my wife or the blood people.

Today they called while I was reading a book at Costello's. Naturally, I pushed the button to silence the ringer and let the call go to voice mail. Then I had to call my voice mail just to clear out the message. There is a standard, prerecorded message they leave, and I can repeat the first few lines by heart since I've heard it so many times.

But this time I did not get the standard message. I got a personal appeal from someone who said she was calling only a select list of donors. They need blood for premature babies, and apparently mine is of particularly high quality. She left the number for her direct line.

Well, that did it. After they complimented my blood, how could I not return the call? So I have an appointment for 12:30 tomorrow afternoon, and my awesome blood will go into a special bag to help those tiny preemies.*

* Incidentally, many of my wife's fellow police officers say they don't donate blood because, "It's just going to go to some stupid gang banger anyway." But not my super blood -- I'm saving babies!

Monday, June 25, 2012

BC2012: The Harmon Chronicles by Harmon Leon

I bought this book at Barnes & Noble in Madison, WI used for $3.50. Leon puts himself into a variety of social situations and acts like a goofball. The results are mixed, but some stories are really funny. The chapter about faith is one of the best -- the author investigates Hare Krishna, Jews for Jesus, Transcendental Meditation, and Scientology as a potential convert. For the last, he takes on the persona of German musician Dieter Lietershvanz (which he uses elsewhere in the book as well) and stays at the Scientology hotel in Los Angeles.

This isn't a great book, but it has its moments. The Harmon Chronicles is from 2002, but nowadays the author is an active contributor to The Huffington Post.

Today's Epiphany

Today I'm reading a book called How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People by Henry Alford. I can't directly credit the author for this insight I had this morning, but the book -- along with the imminent anniversary of my grandfather's departure -- sort of put me in the right frame of mind for it. Anyway, here it is:
When I die, either there is an afterlife, or there is nothing and I won't know it.
That sounds stupidly obvious when I write it here, but it is a huge, somewhat comforting epiphany for me. Essentially, if there's nothing out there, I won't be conscious of it or able to contemplate the ramifications. And that means it's nothing to worry about.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

BC2012: Meet the Beatles...Again! by Denny Somach and Ken Sharp

I had a friend in high school who was a huge Beatles and Rolling Stones fan. Although he loved both bands' music, he said for some reason the Beatles were much more interesting to read about than the Rolling Stones. I've read more than two dozen books about the Beatles, and it is true that they are an evergreen topic (FWIW I've never finished an entire book about the Stones). Even though I rarely listen to them anymore, I still enjoy reading the occasional book about them.

With that in mind, I picked up this slim compilation of post-breakup interviews at Barnes & Noble in Madison, WI three weeks ago for $3 used (only the second B&N I've seen with used books). There are interviews with Paul and George, as well as Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney, Julian Lennon, George Martin, and others close to the band. There are also short interviews with musicians influenced by the Beatles including Don Henley, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie, and Heart.

For some reason the authors did not include interview dates, which would have been helpful. I wish some interviews had been longer, but on the other hand, they were short enough that I was willing to read even those with people who don't interest me. The book also could have focused more on the Beatles and less on their solo careers, but I know it's hard to get artists to talk about the past when they are much more interested in discussing and promoting their current work.

Note: My book looked nothing like this:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

BC2012: Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball by Bob Costas

I found this in the clearance section of Half Price Books in Appleton, WI for $3. I decided to read it because Father's Day was coming up, and a faded sticker on the book says "GREAT GIFTS FOR DAD." I thought that was funny because my dad hates baseball, so this book actually would be a terrible gift for dad.

I like Bob Costas and I enjoyed this book in general, but I probably wouldn't have bought it had I taken more time to examine it in the store. The problem is that Costas wrote this book at a particular time (2000) to lay out his ideas for how to get Major League Baseball back on track (he felt baseball had gone wrong in 1993 but it could still be corrected easily). His ideas are excellent (revenue sharing, salary caps, etc.), but I haven't really followed MLB closely enough to know how many of those ideas are still viable. And even if they are, a lot of other things have happened in the past decade that would probably impact the specifics of Costas' ideas. So Fair Ball is a good book, but it's more of a period piece.

I wouldn't say reading this book was a waste of time, though. For example, Costas' argument against the wild card is still quite relevant. Essentially, baseball used to be all about the pennant races -- more so than any other sport -- and introducing the wild card playoff spot destroyed this dramatic and critical aspect of the game. The second-place team just isn't going to fight as hard going down the stretch when they know they'll still make the playoffs regardless of whether they catch the first place team. The "Loose Ends" chapter near the end also provides good commentary on topics like designated hitters, Pete Rose, instant replay, and commercialism.

Big baseball fans will find useful arguments and perspectives in Fair Ball, but I presume most big baseball fans would have read it 10-12 years ago when it was more topical.

BC2012: Ask Click and Clack by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

I bought this from a clearance table at Borders before the fall. I chose to read it now because of the recent announcement that the Magliozzis are retiring from their radio show, Car Talk, after 35 years (the first 10 in Boston and the last 25 on NPR)*. Somehow I missed the NPR train that all my liberal and/or intellectual friends boarded many years ago, so I've only heard Car Talk three times. Actually, while driving around in the desert Southwest, I picked up the same episode three times in different places over the course of a weekend. So maybe that means I've only heard the show once.

Whatever. Regardless of my previous inexperience with Click and Clack, I love this book. The guys answer all sorts of car-related questions in a hilarious yet informative style. My favorite chapter is one where they dispel a bunch of myths that I've been hearing since before I could even drive. It's also a quick read; I knocked it out in one long afternoon at Costello Sandwiches & Sides.

* Although the brothers are retiring, their producers plan to put together shows from un-aired material they've accumulated over the years so the show will go on for a while.

BC2012: The Secret Lives of Hoarders by Matt Paxton

This book scared the hell out of me. It really kicked my efforts on 2012 goal #7 -- clean and declutter -- into high gear.

Paxton says there are five stages of hoarding. I fear that we are already at the first stage, although I may be overreacting (I'm not sure whether my self-awareness may mean that I'm not really a hoarder). Hoarders have a strong attachment to things, but I haven't really felt a strong attachment to my stuff for many years now, maybe a decade. For example, I donate or give away most of the books I read once I'm finished; I don't feel any need to keep them around. But on the other hand, I'm out there buying more books when I already have enough to keep me busy for years.

Paxton doesn't just tell stories about hoarders; he describes the traits and behaviors that lead to hoarding as well. This book would be especially helpful for someone dealing with a hoarder in the family because he offers tips for how to handle both the person and his/her mess. The key is to recognize that hoarding is a psychological disorder, if not in itself than as an offshoot of several others Paxton names.

I gave my parents a dozen bottles of barbecue sauce last weekend. I still have about eight bottles, which I'll be hard pressed to consume before their expiration dates. I don't want to be a barbecue sauce hoarder anymore. I forced myself to let go of those bottles even though I would love to taste each of those sauces, and now I never will. I don't even cook on the grill -- I use barbecue sauce for one thing: dipping chicken nuggets. Why would I need 20 bottles of sauce for that?!?

Am I a hoarder, a compulsive shopper, or just a lazy bastard who doesn't clean up after himself? (I should make clear that I am not talking about leaving food and dirty dishes all over the house; our messes are relatively sanitary.) One interesting point that Paxton makes is that hoarders don't have a problem with stuff, but rather they have a problem with processing stuff. When I get the mail, do I immediately throw the catalogs and charity solicitations into the garbage, or do I set them on the table to sort later? It starts as a stack on the table, and eventually it consumes everything.

I spent three hours in our 95-degree attic last weekend sorting things: keep, recycle, donate, or toss. I made progress, but there's still a lot of stuff in the attic. While talking on the phone Monday night, I went through some of the stuff on the dining room table. I found the instruction manuals for a cell phone I purchased in December 2004, which coincidentally is the last time anyone dined at our dining room table (my sister-in-law was visiting from California, several years before she became persona non grata).

Paxton says hoarders are set off by triggers, such as the death of someone close. Part of dealing with a hoarding problem is helping that person to deal with the grief or stress that they have been avoiding. I asked my wife how much of a mess our house was before our dog Teddy died in 2005, wondering if that was our trigger (we both gained a lot of weight after he died), but she couldn't remember.

I could ramble on about my hoarding and decluttering escapades for pages and pages, but writing about it is really just a way to avoid confronting the looming piles. As for the book, I hope it's a life-changer for me though it's obviously too soon to tell. I'd recommend it to anyone dealing with hoarding or just curious about it (and judging from the conversations I've had lately, the latter group includes almost everyone).

Thanks for the Reminder

We're in the process of getting a new dog. We took Rosco to meet a few prospects from a rescue group on Monday. He was largely apathetic, but at this point -- he's 14, and he's always been kind of independent -- we don't really expect much more. Anyway, we decided on one, and we're going to pick him up within the next week. I'll write more about that when it happens.

This morning I opened my e-mail and found a message from Petco: "It's Gracie's Birthday!"

She would have been five today. So now I'm feeling sad all over again.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

BC2012: A 1000-Mile Walk on the Beach by Loreen Niewenhuis

Since I was traveling along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan earlier this month, including Green Bay, Door County, and Sheboygan, I thought it would be good to read this book about a woman's walk around the perimeter of the lake. Unfortunately, most of my vacation reading consisted of tourist brochures and guidebooks, so I was unable to finish this book during my own journey. It's looking to be a weak month for BC2012.

This is yet another printed volume based on a blog I hadn't heard of (which currently documents the author's latest trek -- go back to 2009 in the archive to follow her around Lake Michigan). I was disappointed that there were no photographs, and I had to wait until literally the last page of the book to learn of her blog and its "many photos." Argh! That information should be in the Introduction for anyone who wants to follow along with the photos on the blog as they read the book.*

I'm trying not to bash her too hard for bypassing the Door Peninsula, which IIRC she never explains. That seems like a major geographic feature to ignore, especially considering her dedication to sticking to the lake shore elsewhere. She didn't even go to Sturgeon Bay**; she just arbitrarily cut a diagonal southeast from Green Bay to Manitowoc. It appears that she was more interested in hiking 1000 miles along the lake rather than hiking the whole perimeter of the lake.*** Oh well, I suppose that's her loss (as well as the readers'). And having spent several days in Door County recently, I think it's a big loss.

Despite those complaints, it isn't a bad book. I learned a few things about wildlife and land use, and I'm sure some of her thoughts and observations will come to mind the next time I'm walking along Lake Michigan.

Something I thought was cool: the author's appendix list of independent bookstores she has visited around the lake includes Sandmeyer's Bookstore in Chicago's South Loop, which is where I bought her book!

* The only excuse I can think of is that weird "meta" thing where writers wrestle with whether to acknowledge their writing within something they are writing. But I was wondering throughout because she'd sometimes refer to people who were following along with her adventure. How where they following along? IMHO she should have revealed the blog right upfront, but maybe she thought that would have obliged her to write about updating the blog, and you can see how that weird meta thing can get complicated.

** At least then she could have argued that the combination of the canal and the bay make the rest of Door County into an island, albeit man-made, which could justify skipping it.

*** In that case, the subtitle of her book should have been "One Woman's Trek on the Perimeter of Lake Michigan" instead of "One Woman's Trek of the Perimeter of Lake Michigan".


Cougars on the Rampage!

Okay, not exactly, but a new study shows that cougar sightings are increasing in the Midwest, especially west of the Mississippi. I got a little freaked out when I read this article this morning, not because I fear cougars but because I had dreamt about a cougar right before I woke up. The image was probably planted in my mind by the caged cougars I saw in Wisconsin last week, but it was still a weird coincidence.

This is the saddest part of the article:
Researchers theorize cougars are inhabiting the Midwest again following a “stepping stone” dispersal pattern — moving out of a dense population, stopping at the closest patch of available habitat and examining it for mates and prey before moving on. One male cougar made its way as far as Connecticut, where it was hit and killed by a vehicle.
So this cougar walked all the way to Connecticut just hoping to get laid, and then someone ran the poor bastard over. And I thought I had a rough time when I was single.

Of course, the cougar that visited Chicago four years ago didn't fare any better.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Duh! IDOT Says Left-Hand Ramps Suck

After decades of research, Illinois Department of Transportation engineers have figured out what every driver on the Eisenhower Expressway figured out the first time they drove through Oak Park: the left-side ramps at Austin Blvd. and Harlem Ave. are really dangerous!

And just as surely as IDOT is stating the obvious, those contrarian boneheads in Oak Park cannot accept it. First their assistant village manager says, "We're not sold that the left-hand ramps are inherently more dangerous," because he apparently never actually drives on the expressway. Or perhaps he thinks that 49% more accidents is "normal" because he's used to it. Then there's the obligatory moron-on-the-street quote:
Shanna Philipson, 43, of Oak Park, said the left-hand ramps are part of what makes Oak Park unique. "I love them. I always tell people, 'We're so liberal in Oak Park, we even exit on the left,'" Philipson said. "It's a distinct community, and we enjoy it. I'd be sad to see them change."
If dangerous freeway ramps are what defines your community, maybe IDOT should just make the Eisenhower 24 lanes wide and plow the whole damned suburb under. That, too, would be distinct.

Friday, June 01, 2012

May - BC2012 and Other Goals

May was a decent month overall, though it certainly could have been better.

1. Book Challenge 2012: It was a great month for reading -- 15 books! -- but I went a little crazy shopping in the last week. I always buy too much at out-of-state bookstores, and I wound up splurging on 10 books in 18 hours in Madison, WI. I also added to the challenge by committing to purchasing at least one book from my local independent bookstore each month. And thanks to a coupon in the Chicago Reader, I discovered a "new" bookstore in the South Loop that is celebrating its 30th anniversary. In the end, I broke even. May totals: 15 books finished, 15 books purchased. Overall totals: 54 books finished, 35 books purchased.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I don't know what happened here. Although I unsubscribed from a bunch of lists in January, my inbox is the worst it's been since I switched over to Gmail two years ago. I've gone from less than 50 unread messages in December and January to more than 350 now -- and it would be worse if I hadn't deleted about 60 messages without reading them. Last week I finally bit the bullet and quit two daily AlterNet e-mail lists, replacing them with one weekly message. That should help a bit.

3. Drive less: This one is still going well, aside from that trip to Wisconsin.

4. Physical activity: I took a few decent walks, but that's about it. I did one light workout with weights to test my troublesome left arm, and it seemed to be okay.

5. Drink more: I drank more water this month, but I only had a few glasses of liquor.

6. Dine and shop locally: As I mentioned above, I am going to buy at least one book at my local bookstore each month. I bought two in May. I also dined locally quite a bit.

7. Clean and declutter: It was a good month overall. First I went through the kitchen drawers and removed rarely used utensils. They went into plastic storage bins that will soon (I hope) reside on a new bookcase on the far side of the kitchen. I also sorted through stuff from my grandparents' house and eliminated a couple of boxes from the dining room. And I set aside a huge pile of bike stuff to donate to Working Bikes since I learned that they take accessories, not just bikes. Finally, I stowed my touring gear in a plastic storage container so it's all together and won't collect dust.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: I didn't add anything to my sites, but I sold three ads and made over $200 this month! (By comparison, GoogleAds on this blog and elsewhere on have earned $15 in 21 months.) I have a few ideas that I hope to implement soon, possibly including my Route 66 trip from 1990 -- I have a lengthy narrative but I've been dragging my heels about scanning hundreds of photos. I also picked out new web development software, but I haven't purchased it yet.

9. Figure out my professional future: No progress.

10. Floss regularly: I haven't missed a single day in two months! When I used to floss infrequently, my gums would bleed if I dug too deep. Now I can dig pretty aggressively with no blood at all. Too bad my sadistic former dental hygienist can't see me now (she doesn't even clean teeth anymore -- she sells supplies to dentists).