Archive for May, 2013

SOME GOOD READS

May 22, 2013

Recently my favorite blog writer introduced me to some comments about “Depth of Faith” and the superficiality of many persons ostensibly committed to an organized religion; comments put forth by Tariq Ramadan in his book, “Islam and the Arab Awakening”. The book covers a number of topics growing out of last year’s widespread political changes throughout the Middle East, and provides what I, as an amateur viewer, believe are practical and necessary solutions to the continuing upheaval.

However, my interest was especially piqued by his speculation about an individual’s commitment to religious beliefs, whether such commitment is real or only imagined. Coincidentally, I have been re-reading Mark Twain’s skeptical commentary contained in the short story, “Letters From the Earth”, a highly-acerbic attack on religion in general. In the story, archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Satan are observing a certain degree of restlessness in God, and become concerned when He decides to experiment and create a planet (they don’t really know what the term means). They then see Him follow up with making all sorts of things, some he calls “animals”, and his final act is to create some beings he calls “humans”. Becoming increasingly ill-at-ease about these activities, the three decide that one of them must visit this new creation, and Satan draws the assignment. He is to go to this “Earth” and write letters back to the other two, commenting upon what he observes. Many of the letters focus on the erroneous (to Twain) beliefs of humans that God is forgiving, loving, etc., while at the same time sending things like pestilence, drought, plagues, and other nastiness. Satan can’t understand how humans continue to imbue God with all these good qualities when they can see that his real actions fly in the face of those qualities.

I plan to have my own copy of the Ramadan book, and read it in comparison with Twain, to further my own closely-similar opinions about religion. I greatly admire those persons who have a true commitment and who totally immerse themselves in the underlying practices decreed within their particular code. I personally consider myself to be deeply committed, but to concepts that developed within my own being and only include elements unintentionally from the organized belief systems, as appropriate to my personal perceptions. My blogger “resource” is one of those individuals of deep faith, and I take her commentary as “Gospel” (yes, that’s a pun!).

Speaking of books, a number of years ago (1964) I was fortunate to have lunch with Norman Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and author of many books and articles including the small commentary, “Anatomy of an Illness”. This latter had an influence on my thinking about the nature of dying, in that Cousins had faced the prospect of imminent death by immersing himself in a cornucopia of humor, his idea was that laughter and its associated physical effects on the body would forestall the intrusions of his particular disease. He watched lots of Marx Brothers and Three Stooges films, he read humor from a variety of sources, he listened and watched radio and TV comedy, and involved himself with anything else that would add to this arsenal. And Lo!—his illness went into remission!

And so, over the years and particularly with the florescence of technology, I have personally amassed a large collection to use if ever it needs be. With my current health situation, I have been considering turning to those resources, “just in case”, but after my first day at the Mayo Clinic today, things may be looking up a bit. Tomorrow and Friday I continue, with a number of tests on both days and even one next week just prior to my returning home. The purpose of the testing has the partial intent of validating the neurologist’s opinion that the CIDP diagnosis is not correct, that while there is still a version of neuropathy present, it may in fact not be progressive. At the same time, I was informed that MGUS is common in persons over 70 and is generally classified as a “benign condition”. If no bone tumors are evident, then all that will be done is an annual checkup to make sure none have appeared, and this happens in only about 15% of MGUS cases for all age groups.

And speaking of humor, I recall when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 60’s, I was walking by the library at our school and heard someone laughing. I looked in and saw one of the staff, Mr. Shetty from India, sitting alone and laughing out loud. Now think about that; people don’t usually laugh out loud when they’re alone, so whatever he was reading must be really good. I asked him about it, and got my first taste of P. G. Wodehouse, the creator of the “Jeeves the Butler” stereotype along with his master, Bertie Wooster. I began to surf my way through all of Wodehouse’s writings, eventually reading everything he had written. I developed a great appreciation for the way he created phrases with which I could empathize: “I was sitting in a warm bath, and raised a meditative toe”, or “I took my cigarette for a stroll in the garden”, images I could easily apply to my own activities.

My final year in Ghana, I was living alone in the most isolated part of the country, but as one of my responsibilities was a 5000 volume school library, I was able to continue my Wodehouse study as a vehicle to help me maintain my sanity. Upon returning to the US, I wrote him a letter thanking him for providing that support, and I was highly pleased that he thought enough of my letter to send me a note thanking me for thanking him. I had hoped to meet him when I worked briefly in NYC, and he lived on Long Island, but that meeting did not materialize. However, I include Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Agatha, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and the others in my personal collection, and I even have the videos of the BBC’s “Jeeves” series among my treasures. They are supported by my Mel Brooks’ Collection, Pink Panther tapes, “Some Like It Hot”, and a few others, even some TV variety shows such as Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows”. I think that everyone should have one of these collections, it could be a important as a well-placed shelter from Nature’s calamities.

Always Be Happy!         To Our Youth!

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NOTHING COULD BE FINER THAN…..(Part 2: Charlotte and the Golf Tournament

May 17, 2013

From the time I landed in Raleigh, light rain, cool temperatures, and drizzle seemed to be the order of the day, or should I say, days. There were about seven of them, replete with widespread flood warnings throughout the whole region in which I was to travel. The best descriptor was “soggy”, as the falling waters combined with the ugly orange of the Southern clay and eagerly caked onto whatever footwear you sported.

I arrived early enough in Charlotte to check in to my hotel before picking up my golf tournament volunteer credentials and passes and heading to my grandson’s baseball game, a hotel which I had booked through one of those online “lowest price guaranteed” websites that don’t tell you the name of the hotel until you’ve paid for the lodging upfront. Never again. When I clicked on “Hotel.com” it sent me to “Bookings.com”, and after completing some information and making two phone calls, succeeded in getting a nice LaQuinta lodging for five nights. However, I had to buy some extra insurance to cover costs in case I had to cancel the reservation, or check out earlier than planned. Given my current health status, this was a minor possibility. I was instructed to carry with me a copy of the insurance policy, which printed out to 15 pages! Ultimately, the lodging cost at least as much as it would have had I booked directly with the hotel, and had a lot more hassle. Furthermore, I discovered that since I had booked through a third party, I couldn’t receive any credit in my LaQuinta account toward free nights.

The credentials pickup area was located in a mall contiguous to Carowinds, the huge amusement park straddling the South Carolina/North Carolina border, and most noticeable from a distance by the terrifying monster of a coaster ride rearing up in spirals and loops over the surrounding landscape. For the first five days of tournament action, the Carowinds parking area was to be used in conjunction with shuttle busses as the major parking venue for attendees. Another area was set aside for persons with Special Needs, closer to the tournament site at Quail Hollow Golf Club. Weekend parking would be elsewhere, but with the same shuttle busses wiggling their way through the sometimes-godawful traffic during rush hours. One had to be patient and generally, I was. After all, I used to have dial-up on my internet connection.

I bonded with my son and grandsons at the ball game, played in a continuing alternation between merely damp and a light mist; my 11-year old grandson’s team giving up five unearned runs on throwing errors didn’t help make for a pleasant evening. However, I soothed the savage beast inside me with two hot dogs; the younger grandson worked me for several items which his mom would probably designate as “non-essential”, including grape soda and a large pretzel. But he’s so cute, for a 7-year old, how could I resist?

Charlotte is a beautiful city, and one of the few I can tolerate. Particularly in the spring of the year is it draped with a cacophony of colors surrounded by green, especially the azaleas blazing their smorgasbord of hues throughout the well-landscaped city. I use that verb intentionally; some of the plants are so vivid that they almost shout out for attention: “Look at me”. I’m always happy to come to Charlotte, further enhanced on this trip and for future visits when I discovered that there’s a Nordstrom’s Rack discount store in Charlotte. Naturally, I helped the local economy when I dropped in, “just to look around”. Two pairs of shoes later, I went on my way.

Now for the golf. Over a year ago, when my son suggested that I become a volunteer helper (read “Ambassador”), I filled out the application and waited a reply. Finally it came, a rejection, indicating my name would be added to a 700 name waiting list. I promptly forgot about it and drowned my sorrow by acquiring a new set of Callaway clubs. So I was surprised this past March when I received a message of “Greetings. You have been selected…..” Breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t from my Draft Board, I immediately accepted the invitation and sent a check. For what, you may ask? Well, one must wear the “official uniform” whenever on duty and, as it goes through Ralph Lauren Polo, it was a mere $92 for the hat, knit shirt, and short-sleeved pullover rain jacket. And that wasn’t the end of it; if you were working during a rain, you had to wear the “official” rain suit, at $141. On the bright side, all Ambassadors receive a free pass for one day of the tournament for a guest, and have free entry for themselves on any day. They also get free parking and, when working, $12 per half day lunch vouchers.

I had to think long and hard about which schedule to sign up for; after all, I wanted to have some time with the family during the few days I would be there. A volunteer must work either four half-days or two full days, sometime from Monday’s practice rounds through Sunday’s final competitive round, and maybe even Monday if there is some delay in finishing. I decided that I would spend Thursday afternoon getting acquainted with my supervisors, colleagues, and the course layout; work Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., enjoy the family on Saturday, and work again on Sunday, 6 a.m. – 6 p.m.

So, on navigating the shuttle maze and getting to the golf course on the Thursday afternoon, in the rain, I found my way to the trailer where Ambassadors get their assignments, and met Paula, Ginger, and Mike, the coordinators of volunteers, and they are a delightful trio. Out of curiosity, I asked how many volunteers it takes to operate this event, and was astounded to hear, “2300”. In probing into that answer, I discovered that virtually everything except the food venues is run by volunteers, from trash can emptying teams through transportation of players and officials; laser operators at each hole to measure driving distances, snack bar operators for the comfort of Ambassadors, information booths, parking lots far removed from the tournament site, and of course, marshals on each hole.

My sense of personal importance was diminished a bit when I found that I wasn’t really that unique, but I persevered. Paula is a year-around employee of the Tournament, sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank, and she also does a similar activity for the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois later in the year. One of the other Ambassadors told me that he works a number of tournaments annually, some of them due to his association with Paula. The degree of organization would have made my wife proud, as she enjoys a widely-recognized talent in that area too and would have fit right in.

I had been assigned to something called “Paula’s Pool”, which turned out to be the best assignment I could have. It’s one of those things where any need that arises dictates what one will do; I was happy not to have to stand in the rain at one of the holes, holding up a sign that says “Quiet Please” when a player is ready to hit. Instead, I sat at a table with a colleague selling raffle tickets to the other Ambassadors, for a golf vacation at the Golf Hall of Fame in Florida. After a few hours of that, I was reassigned to the practice range area, to supervise the mostly-middle school age kids allowed to be in a section close to the players warming up, and ideal for getting autographs. The kids were to be “12 and under” so when an apparent “borderline individual” appeared, we were to ask, “What year were you born?” The expressions on some of their faces were interesting as they attempted some rapid calculations and, in general, failed. While we were doing this, we were also casting penetrating stares at adults in the grandstand who were holding their cell phones; the PGA doesn’t want pictures taken of the golfers when they’re on the course due to either camera clicking or cell phone flash disturbing the players in the middle of their swings. This prohibition is widely known but as you might imagine, there are some who try to sneak. One of my colleagues, a trim and fit middle-aged lady who works for Wells Fargo, had an eagle eye for the offenders and warned them that some of the local law enforcement available could escort the person out of the tournament, and confiscate the cell phone. And the rain continued.

Friday evening was special. My son was taking his wife to dinner to celebrate her birthday, so I engaged in some real grandfatherly activities, i.e., taking the kids to see Iron Man 3, and having them spend the night with me at the hotel. The movie constituted a series of explosions, at least that’s what I got out of it due to not having seen Iron Man 1 and 2. But it finished late enough that they went right to sleep, and in the morning I was the first one to awaken. After a family breakfast, I took a few hours break and then headed once again to the ball fields, for another baseball game. In the rain. This one was a bit more successful, garnering a win. After the game my son and I headed for the tournament, he to entertain a client and me to wander about. I verified the next day’s assignment, which would again be at the practice range, my venue of choice. With the prediction of more heavy rains on the final day, some major schedule adjustments had been made including an earlier start, threesomes instead of twosomes, and half the field starting on the back nine. The intent was to finish before the late afternoon rain, and it proved fairly successful although there were some intermittent drizzles off and on during the day following some real rain around sunrise, when I was working.

My assignment at the practice range was shorter and less involved than the day before; watching people hit golf balls during a downpour is not my choice of entertainment but the job had to be done. Very few kids showed up; perhaps the word had gotten out that an ex-principal was running the show and one could be put in in-school suspension for misbehavior. Or, they just wanted to stay dry. And given that there would be no one using the range after about 9:30 a.m., as everyone would have teed off, I looked for other tasks. And I found one that also was just right for me, ferrying new Mercedes SUV’s and 500 series sedans across Charlotte to a fleet staging area at the airport. Six of us were selected for this assignment, and spent a few pleasant and dry hours going back and forth. The vehicles were part of an approximate 100 vehicle fleet provided by Mercedes Benz, for the use of players and officials. The ones we were driving had been used by players who did not qualify for weekend play; all the cars were silver grey, and loaded with extras.

When we finished, it was still fairly early in the afternoon, and there were no more things for us to do so we were dismissed. One of my colleagues visits Wyoming each summer, and stays on a ranch belonging to people I know and in fact I’ve also stayed at that ranch for an education conference. She also knows my brother-in-law and sister-in-law quite well, from working with them in theater projects on Hilton Head Island. We decided to have dinner together later, and I strolled out onto the course to see what was happening. I got there in time to see Phil begin his downfall on the 16th and 17th holes, and I watched the eventual winner climb into a tie for a playoff. I then left the course, preferring a dry shuttle to staying out in the rain, and went back to the hotel to change for dinner. All in all, a great day.

My summary is this: if you volunteer, don’t expect to see much of the tournament. Quite honestly, I’d rather watch one on TV than be there; I like to see what all of the golfers are doing. But if you want to see what kind of atmosphere prevails, or pay premium prices for food and merchandise, you’ll love it!

Part 3: Atlanta, Duke, Clayton, and the trip home

I have to stop for a few days; this is the week I hit the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, and I found out today that they have me scheduled for at least three days of testing and etc. beginning Wednesday, with some potential follow-up the next week. I’m still vertical, able to walk at least nine  holes carrying my clubs, and haven’t yet noticed anything significant affecting my arms, hands, or upper body. Except my chip shots around the green, but that may only be Operator Error. The hope is that they can halt the progression of this stuff; my appointments seem to be split between neurologists, about the CIDP, and haemotologists, for the MGUS. Or maybe they’re just testing my spelling ability. Watch this space for breaking news!

Always Be Happy!               To Our Youth!

NOTHING COULD BE FINER THAN…… (Part 1 of Carolina)

May 14, 2013

NOTHING COULD BE FINER THAN………. Part 1

Ah, travel! There’s nothing like it, all those preparations—when to go, how to go, what to take—and as one gets older there are often new decisions to consider, such as how many of those damned meds have to be counted out, and will there be enough for the whole trip or is another visit to the pharmacy necessary, just to be on the safe side. Which shoes and how many pair—let’s see, what kinds of social events will I have? Does everyone wear shoes in North Carolina, or do they dress like Opie and walk barefooted with a bamboo fishing pole over their shoulders, regardless of where they’re going? Do I need rain gear? I live in Wyoming, so what’s that thing called an umbrella that they have in volume, in Raleigh? Will it ever be cold there, in May?

I started this trip by relishing the thought that I would finally be able to use some of the 160,000 frequent flyer miles I had accumulated on United Airlines, many which had come from staying at Holiday Inns over 20 years of traveling for my various school districts, and the rest from the past few years of overseas travel to accredit schools in widely-dispersed parts of the globe. I have been carefully hoarding all those miles, with a few of my “bucket list” destinations under consideration—New Zealand, Australia, Scotland among them.

This trip had a number of components—-visiting my older brother near Raleigh, who has been dealing with a severe health issue for 11 years; working as a volunteer for a few days at a big golf tournament in Charlotte, visiting and playing golf with a long-time friend from my Peace Corps days, in Atlanta, attending the Hooding Ceremony at the Duke University Law School, where the son of a family friend was graduating, and spending a small slice of time visiting my eldest son and his family in Charlotte. I guessed that this journey would encompass more than two weeks, and as I approach its conclusion I’m somewhat glad that the three week trip planned to lead up to this one had been cancelled due to a potential health issue, but one which turned out to be nothing needing significant attention. I’m tired.

After counting out enough of the meds and supplements for 17 days, packing far too many pairs of shorts and short-sleeved shirts, adding more than enough pairs of pants, and selecting two kinds of sneakers, I drove the 120 miles to Casper, Wyoming, where one of the hotels lets you leave your car for the duration of your trip if you stay there overnight. Last spring, I was gone for five weeks! And, as my flight was to leave at 6 a.m., staying at the hotel was strongly advised.

The Flight

I put in a wakeup call for 4:15, just in case I needed awakening, but that was completely unnecessary. You see, the United Airline Information Service woke me with a 3 a.m. phone call to let me know that the plane would be leaving on time. I naturally muttered a few comments about that alert, and went about the rituals associated with waking up, personal ablutions, and getting dressed. My packing had already been done; I always have a small overnight bag separate from the travel bags, to use for my pre-flight hotel stay. For the trip, I would be allowed one checked bag free due to my Silver Premier status on United Frequent Flyer miles. That bag was precious, as it contained a carefully-padded bottle of Wyoming Whiskey, being lovingly transported for my son to proudly display to his Carolina circle of friends. And it cost $45. My other two bags were the Nike duffel bag received years ago as a tee prize in our local Labor Day Golf Tournament, and the backpack with wheels which the cat had urinated on three years ago, and was only now becoming acceptable in polite company. These two objects have been my constant companions throughout all the traveling I’ve done in the past few years, and have been all the way around the world. With that backpack, I always felt safe from assault; for some reason lots of people seemed to want to maintain a reasonable space away from us, except maybe some who had a head cold.

The flight from Casper to Denver left exactly on time, and was in one of those sleek Canadian jets that are extremely fast and fly high. The trip was uneventful, which is what you want when flying. It usually takes about 45 minutes of flying to Denver, but we went so fast that we arrived about 15 minutes early, and had to wait until the folks who operate those loading ramps decided to appear, about 20 minutes after we landed. My layover included breakfast, and the next flight also left as scheduled, to Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh airport was interesting only that there were very few people in evidence, and the atmosphere within the terminal was somewhat dark and dreary, producing a shabby, unwelcoming appearance to the pausing traveler. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many folks. I had to waste about four hours until the flight would leave for Raleigh; outside it was a drizzling rain casting a glistening sheen over the surfaces of any planes parked at gates , awaiting their turns to flee into the drier regions above the low-hanging cloud layer. Finally, it was time to board for the final leg, an hour trip to the Raleigh-Durham airport 45 minutes from my brother’s home in Clayton; again, everything was on time and a smooth flight.

Every time I fly on a domestic airline, I wonder how the foreign airlines are able to provide the much better amenities than ours. Lufthansa, which is a United partner, often flies the same routes from Denver to Frankfurt, but the service is quite different. Before a meal, for instance, the attendants come around with moist, hot towels to use to cleanse your hands. Then there is a tasty choice of two meals which include “extras” not seen domestically, such as cheeses, desserts, and other additions to the main course. United’s breakfast usually is a cellophane-wrapped small sweet roll, a small cup of yogurt, and juice. Lufthansa has a cheese omelet, sausage or other meat, and a variety of other goodies. At any time during flight, one can ask for a free glass of wine or a beer. After dinner, cognac is offered along with the coffee. Domestic airlines charge for everything except the lavatory, and that may be the next step. I asked if the airline is subsidized by the German government, and was told no. Similar service I have enjoyed on ANA (Japanese), Turkish Air, British Airways, Egyptair, and Saudi Arabian Air.

The Car

It was raining lightly when we arrived, and I took the shuttle to the Advantage Car Rental site in order to initiate a sequence of activities that were generally a bit stress-producing over the next few weeks. The first change appeared when the agent informed me that the Nissan Versa, which I had reserved, was unavailable and would I be happy to take a VW Golf instead? Well, as a former Golf owner (we had two) and someone who wouldn’t mind having that title on a car I might be driving to major tournament, I said “sure”. Golf VW’s are fun to drive, and I didn’t mind at all. The agent and I circled the car, looking for any damage to document prior to my taking the car and, as it was dark, she moved it into a lighted area. We noted nothing of significance until I was getting ready to leave, when she saw that the airbag light was on. “You can’t take this one, I’ll give you the other one next to it”. So I switched cars, but the walk-around was done in the darkness and no damages were seen—until the next day.

After reaching my brother’s home, we spent some time chatting and went to bed. The next morning I went out to the car, and was not pleased to see two door-dings and a large chunk of plastic knocked out of some trim around the driver’s door; subsequently a couple of days later I also discovered a small, three inch crack low on the passenger’s side of the windshield. The car itself informed me, from the message system in the dashboard, “Service Now!” Being prudent, I called the car company and was told to mark the damages on the rental inspection receipt, and as I was to head to Charlotte the next day, I could trade the car there for another if I so chose. They also said to ignore the “Service” instruction, and I guess it had been some automatic alert after the 25,000 miles had been recorded.

Anyway, since the car was fun to drive and seemed to perform well, I decided to keep it for the duration of the 17 days. And while the temperatures remained no higher than in the 60’s, with daily continuous moisture or its threat, things were fine. But when the temperatures suddenly soared into the upper 80’s with plenty of sun, that little crack decided to grow up, and over three days became a vertical scar reaching about 15 curving inches up the windshield. Even though there were only three days left, it was time to trade it in. I attempted to do so at the Charlotte site, but they were so swamped with new travelers that I went on to Raleigh, where I had first rented it, and exchanged it for a new Ford Focus. This car was fully equipped with everything including Bluetooth, so I left with a big smile of satisfaction and had no more problems.

I only spent a day in the Raleigh area, pausing long enough to accompany my brother and his wife to the Duke Medical Center where he went through some various scans to see what effect recent treatments have had on is condition. As I was going on from there to Charlotte, we drove in two cars. After they had left to go home, I wandered through the Medical Center seeking the exit point where I could head to the Duke Bookstore to buy some Blue Devil decals to replace the ones wearing out from too much admiration on the back windows of my vehicles. My wanderings were depressing; I had no idea how many people are really, really sick! Every “nook and cranny” of the building was overflowing with patients and I assume many of them were there as a “last resort”, seeking help from one of the medical Meccas of the US. My attitude was not further buoyed by the fact that the floor levels and corridors were so confusing that I expected at any moment to run across a Minotaur. As I look back, I was remiss in not leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that I wouldn’t constantly be retracing my route. Anyway, I finally was directed to the right place, exited the Center, and ambled in the rain to the bookstore. Naturally, I had to pause at the hot dog stand on the way, to assuage the inner beast in the best way I know. And, in the bookstore, Duke t-shirts were selling at $6! I only bought one.

Next: Part Two will be Charlotte and the Big Golf Tournament, and include a listing of explosions from Iron Man 3, to which I took my two grandsons, and a behind-the-scene look at what goes on to support a TV golf tournament.

Always Be Happy!  To Our Youth!