Thursday, August 25, 2016

Isn't there enough to worry about?

I had a minor surgery earlier this week, if there is such a thing.  It seems there’s a progression to skin cancers, ranging from basal cell carcinomas to the deadly melanoma.  I had the one in the middle, a squamous cell spot above my right eyebrow, and I had it removed.  Advice to all, use sun block lotions and get regular checkups with your dermatologist... but that’s not my thought for today.
I was given an antibiotic as part of my treatment, and it led to a discussion about superbugs, or strains of bacteria that have become immune to antibiotics.  There are several, but the most commonly referenced superbug is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).  This nasty creature started showing up in hospitals years ago.  It appears that over time, bacteria can adapt to the drugs that are designed to kill them, and change to ensure their survival. 
That’s just what we need—smart bacteria.  Don’t we have enough to worry about without having micro-organisms targeting us?  Millions of people are infected each year by these superbugs, leading to everything from diarrhea to death.   
You can reduce your exposure to superbugs by taking antibiotics ONLY when you need them, and when you do take antibiotics, make sure to take the ENTIRE course of treatment.  Other than that, wash your hands and avoid unsanitary conditions.  Personally, I try to avoid going to the doctor’s office or hospitals unless I absolutely have to.   That’s where sick people hang out!
Life was much simpler when I was a kid.  Sure, medicine has advanced dramatically the past 50 years, but it now appears the diseases are getting smarter right along with us.  This comes at a time when we have more than enough to worry about—economic uncertainty, terrorism, rising worldwide divisiveness, and worst of all, the prospect of Hillary or Donald as president. 
Come to think of it… I’ll take my chances with superbugs.       

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Virginia is for Lovers... and Speeding Tickets

I confess. I was speeding. I was going 76 in a 65 mph zone, but then, so was most everyone else careening downhill on this section of I-77 in Wythe County, Virginia.
I’ve driven through Wytheville, Virginia dozens of times in the 20+ years I’ve been making the trip from our home in North Carolina to visit family in the Midwest.  More often than not, the Wythe County Sheriff’s department has been lined up in the median, hiding behind hills, before darting out to pull drivers over, sometimes two and three at a time. I’d avoided getting tickets in the past, but not this time.   
It was 9:00 a.m. Sunday.  My wife Claudia, our dog Milo, and I had driven for about an hour. We had 400 miles to go to reach Louisville where I was dropping my wife off to spend a few days spoiling grandkids.  I was then driving another 300 miles to tend to my 87-year-old mother in Illinois who had knee replacement surgery three days prior.  She was scheduled to come home from the hospital the next day.
Having just passed a slower moving car, I continued to gain speed, going downhill on the mountain highway.   I saw two county patrol cars tucked behind a roadside hill and glanced down at my speedometer.  I was going 76 and immediately braked and glided into the slow lane.  The two cars behind me did the same thing, but it was too late.  I watched in the rearview mirror as one of the patrol cars pulled out and came our way.  Wondering which car he was after, my heart raced as he closed the gap between us.  Finally, he slid in behind me, and the top of his car exploded with multicolored lights.  My more than 10-year hiatus without a speeding ticket was about to be over.  I pulled to the roadside.
Wise-ass comments passed through my mind as the stocky sheriff’s deputy lumbered up to my driver’s side window.  
Glad to see you were able to run down this 4-cylider Civic.
Just my luck.  I pass through town when your donut break is over.  
So, are you targeting grandparents hopped up on Metamucil this morning?   
Fortunately, I never said any of them.  I was madder at myself than the deputy.  I knew to be careful traveling this section of interstate.  There’s even a blog warning drivers about Wythe County  The 65 mph speed limit (most of I-77 is 70 mph), the long downhill section of highway and the large number of out-of-state drivers adds up to a good source of revenue for Wythe County.
After introducing himself as J.P. somebody and informing me of my serious crime, I handed the deputy my license and registration and he walked back to his cruiser.  While we waited for J.P. to return, a couple other drivers were caught in the Wythe County Sheriff’s net.  The scene was beginning to look as if there had been a multi-car pileup.  With the heavy traffic on I-77 and the county patrol cars darting on and off the highway, it was a miracle there wasn’t a serious accident.  I wondered what the larger risk was, me driving 76 in a 65, or the backup of traffic resulting from the multiple roadside arrests.  
J.P. needed only a couple minutes to call in my license plate and fill out the two-page Virginia Uniform Summons.  After he returned, it took him less than 30 seconds to explain it to me.  His staccato memorized spiel blended together, sounding like Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.  
I thought this must be the Wythe County Sheriff’s equivalent to calf roping.  Nearby, one of the other deputies must be holding a stopwatch.  As I pulled away, I looked back expecting to see J.P. throwing his hands into the air, signifying his calf had been successfully tied.
I handed the ticket to my wife.  She informed me that the total cost of my brain fart was $132.00.  Only $66 was for the fine. Another $51 was for “processing” and $15 for local fees, a.k.a. county windfall.  Not bad for roping one Civic.    
As we were about to leave Virginia, I saw a sign displaying the state’s motto, “Virginia is for Lovers.”  
Yeah, I thought, and for speeding tickets.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Car Travel - Then and Now

Car travel has changed dramatically since the days when my family drove cross-country on our summer vacations.
With the trunk of our new 1962 Ford Galaxy packed tight, a stack of board games in the backseat between me and my sister, and mom armed with a Shell Road Atlas, we took to the highway.  Weeks perusing dozens of glossy brochures preceded our departure.  Most of them were now stuffed in a brown grocery sack at Mom’s feet in the front seat. There was no Internet to research our destination or MapQuest to chart the course.  
These trips always started filled with optimism, which usually lasted until the first pee break, about an hour down the road.  “Didn’t I tell you to go before we left home?” was Dad’s rhetorical question.  Of course he told us, but my sister’s breakfast orange juice would not be denied.
There weren’t a lot of four-lane super highways in the early 60’s.  Travel was on two-lane roads, winding through every small town between home and our destination.  Signs foretelling fast food restaurants at each upcoming exit did not exist.   In fact, fast food was rare then.  My dad would seek roadside cafés advertised on billboards 50 miles in advance.  A ten-year-old could starve waiting for Kelly’s Shiny Diner to appear on the horizon.
There was always at least one point where we’d get lost. Mom would have the road atlas unfolded in her lap, flapping like an unfurled flag as Dad shouted out passing road signs.  An argument would usually ensue before we pulled into a gas station to re-chart our course. Kids today don’t appreciate how iPhones and navigation systems have improved family harmony.   
My sister and I got along pretty well on these trips, even without video games, which were yet to be invented.  We’d make lists of the states found on license plates, challenge each other to find roadside objects, and play Old Maid.  However, we were ten and eight years old.  The silence wouldn’t last 1,000 miles.  It was usually around mile 300 that the first, “I’ll turn this car around right now!” would come bellowing from the front seat.
We knew Dad would never reverse course. He was driven by a timetable in his head--St. Louis by lunch, Joplin for dinner, hotel in Kansas City by nightfall, etc.  I think most men were like this, but my dad was fanatical.  I dreaded getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck.  It usually meant skipping the next restroom break to make up for lost time.  Hang on bladder!  
Dad loved to calculate our gas mileage on vacations.  Cars back then were the size of whales and had huge, inefficient V-8 engines, but then, gas was only 38 cents per gallon.  At each service station, Dad would fill up and then provide the number of gallons pumped and odometer reading to my mother.  She would do the calculation.  “Seventeen point eight,” she would announce. “Not bad. Up a mile per gallon,” Dad would proudly reply, and our journey would continue.  
I assumed gaining one mile per gallon was a huge windfall.  It wasn’t until my math skills improved a couple years later that I realized we were talking about 50 cents per tankful.  Today’s cars calculate gas mileage and display it continually.  I’m glad this technology wasn’t around in the 60s.  It would have robbed my father of one of his simple pleasures.  
We always made it to our destination and back home with the car and the family intact.  Memories of our time on the road eventually faded, replaced by happy photos of the vacation.  I’ve often wondered if today’s families could survive similar ventures.  Somehow, I doubt it.          

Monday, August 1, 2016

Dangers of Insomnia

I’ve never been a sound sleeper.  I wish I were, but I seldom get more than five hours a night, typically waking in the early morning, unable to fall back to sleep.  I’m writing this at 4:35 a.m.
My physician has warned me of the health risks linked to lack of sleep: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and other ailments.  What he didn’t tell me was that insomnia can also be associated with nocturnal stupidity, at least in my case.
I have the bad habit of using the time normal people are sleeping to surf the internet—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news sites, and yes, infomercials.  None of this is very productive.  In fact, it's dangerous.
Keep in mind, I’m a mature retired man who ordinarily uses good judgment.  You wouldn’t think I could get into much trouble sitting at a keyboard at 2 a.m., but you’d be wrong.  I’m embarrassed to admit what I did recently, but confession is the first step to curing what may be addictive behavior.
Of all things, it was a pop-up ad for wrinkle cream.  But not just ANY wrinkle cream.  This one used snake venom as one of its active ingredients.  I guess the theory is the venom will paralyze wrinkles. It was the snake venom combined with the before-and-after pictures that captured my attention. If this stuff could produce such amazing results, it was worth taking a further look.  So, I clicked on the ad.  Big mistake.
This wrinkle cream claimed to have been featured on the Dr. Oz Show.  Surely, that gave it medical cred over other wrinkle erasers.   I was becoming more convinced.  When I read you could get a 30-day supply for only the cost of shipping, I reached for my credit card to pay the $5.95.   Minutes later, I had been emailed a receipt, and was on my way to rediscovering my youth.
The cream arrived in seven days.  The only instructions were on the side of the bottle. Cleanse your face, pat dry, and apply lotion two times daily.  It seemed simple enough.  I used it every day for the next two weeks, carefully inspecting my sagging eyes, crow’s feet and lines on my forehead. My skin did feel tighter after applying the miracle potion, but I didn’t see results similar to those before-and-after photos. Not even close.  My face was stuck in the “before” position.
Upon closer inspection of the bottle’s contents, I discovered water was the first ingredient and “actual” snake venom wasn’t included.  Instead a synthetic ingredient with “characteristics” of snake venom was listed.  Huh? There are chemists with this kind of time on their hands?  I’m not so sure I would have ordered a wrinkle cream containing “fake” snake venom.
My embarrassing story could have ended there, with me out $5.95 for shipping and a bottle of half-used fake snake venom cream in my bathroom cabinet, but no.  Less than a week later, I noticed an $89.95 charge on my VISA account for something I didn’t recognize.   It turned out it was for the wrinkle cream!
I immediately called the product’s toll-free number and reached a young man with a distinctive East Indian accent and an uppity attitude.  “I’m sorry, but our ad clearly states you will be billed the full price in 30 days if you don’t cancel your subscription.”
“Subscription? I didn’t sign up for a subscription!” I argued, asking repeatedly to speak to his supervisor.  His supervisor was busy—no surprise to me.  Nearly 45 minutes later, I was successful in getting a 50% refund, but I was still out more than $50.00, including shipping, and my face still looked like a dried-out catcher's mitt.
I went back to the wrinkle cream website.  If I had scrolled far enough past the fancy ad and read the small print agreement, it did state I needed to cancel within 30 days to avoid further charges.  I wonder how many people actually do this, especially at 2 a.m.   It was a lesson learned.
Hmmm.   I’ve always wondered if these non-stick cooking pans actually work.  They must.  They have Cerami-Tech technology. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Free Time - Is It Really?

Recently, I heard someone talk about how they spent their free time.  It made me wonder, what exactly is free time?  And by free, do we mean available or without cost?  I’m not sure it’s either.
Wikipedia defines free time as time spent away from business, work, job hunting, domestic chores and education, not including time spent on necessary activities such as eating and sleeping.
An even broader definition of free time comes from  time available for hobbies and other activities that you enjoy, free from duties or responsibilities.
I guess I’d lean toward the second definition, but is time ever free? Time is like gold dust, slipping through your fingers and captured by the wind.  Once passed, time can never be reclaimed, and therefore, shouldn’t be wasted.
You could easily make the argument that free time, or leisure time, isn’t really wasted. It allows us to recharge our batteries, and makes us more productive when we tackle the “must dos” of life.  Some percentage of our time should be available to relax and recharge, but how much?
Much of our life, our employer defines the ratio of free time to work for us.  If your boss gives you two weeks’ paid vacation per year and you add in all weekends, you’ll average about 30% of each week to use as you wish.  Sounds low doesn’t it?  Well, it gets worse.  Not all of that 30% is truly available.
You probably use much of this time for other duties and responsibilities: home maintenance, domestic chores, volunteering, family commitments, responding to work-related emails, weekend work assignments, etc.  You might be lucky to end up with one day per week to actually do what you desire--maybe less.  But even that time isn’t free, or without cost.  Think about it.  You worked 70% of the year to earn it.
I’m retired after working more than 32 years in corporate America, conservatively averaging 50 hours per week on the job, and often traveling on weekends.  I’m extremely grateful to be healthy and young enough to enjoy my retirement, but I have never considered my leisure time as free or that I’m entitled to it. I earned my retirement many times over, and I try not to waste a single day of it.  It’s one of the reasons I write. It’s enjoyable, gives me a feeling of accomplishment, and doesn’t interfere with my other interests and activities.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all known people who fear giving the perception they have free time, even after retiring.  They believe appearing busy gives them an air of importance.  These people truly waste time, filling it with pretentious sounding busy work.  To them, I share a quote from Henry David Thoreau. It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
I’ve not heard of anyone wishing from their death bed that they’d spent more time at work.  At the end of our lives, most of us would give anything to be able to spend more time with our family and friends.  Isn’t that the best evidence free time is worth more than any material possession? 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shopping Carts - They Can Define You

This may not be the most hard-hitting blog thought I’ve ever posted, but I think it’s a topic to which most people can relate.

I believe your shopping cart habits define you.  That’s right.  What you do with your shopping cart tells a lot about you.
Abandoned carts. They drive me nuts.  What normal person leaves their shopping cart in the middle of a parking lot after unloading its contents into their car?   These discarded carts are a hazard.  They become parking lot torpedoes.  People too lazy to push their cart 50 feet to the collection area must think the world owes them a favor.  Or maybe they believe the guy in the orange vest, snaking the line of carts back to the grocery store, enjoys retrieving them one at a time.   I’m not a governmental controls person, quite the opposite, but there should be a law against shopping cart abandonment.  Anyone caught should be required to don an orange vest and gather carts for the next hour. 
Carnival carts.  These are shopping carts disguised as trains, race cars, buses or other things that don’t belong in a grocery store.  They are twice the size of a normal shopping cart and usually have a couple kids bouncing around inside them.   These monstrosities push other carts out of their way and send produce, soup cans and cereal boxes careening off the shelves in their wake.   The parents at the controls of these carts are self-absorbed.  They clearly think it’s okay to have other shoppers share the pain of parenthood during their weekly shopping experience.  
Gotta bad wheel?  It doesn’t matter to some people.  I’m sure you’ve seen them pushing these defective carts, rattling their way down the aisles.  A shopping cart won’t go straight on three wheels.  It just won’t.  What goes through the mind of someone who keeps a defective three-wheel cart?  It’s not like they don’t have a choice.  There are hundreds of them at the entrance.  These people can’t possibly put much value on convenience or even on personal satisfaction.  Life just gave them a lemon that they could have easily traded for an orange, but they didn’t.
Electric shopping carts.  I know this is a sensitive subject.  Many users of these carts have special needs and have no other option. I’m clearly not judging them.  However, for those unable to walk the aisles of a grocery store simply because of their weight, I’m not sure providing an electric cart to gather more food is really helping them.   I’ve also witnessed ambulatory people of all ages and sizes use these carts, drop them off at the store after unloading, and then walk across the parking lot back to their cars.  For them, these carts represent an entitlement that no one regulates.  The use of electric carts has become so widespread the aisles of some Walmarts look like Shriner’s parades, except the Walmart drivers have better costumes.  
If you ever see me shopping for groceries, I’ll be the one carrying the hand cart.  I try not to be there any longer than necessary.  I guess that means I’m anti-social.    

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mayberry 2016 ?

What would Mayberry look like today?
I have a pretty good idea because I grew up in a Midwestern town in the 50s and 60s not unlike Mayberry.   Delavan, Illinois is a town of 1,700 residents, a 30-minute drive south of Peoria.
When I was a pre-teen, Delavan was a sleepy little village with one full-time policeman and a couple of barber shops: Bale’s and Whistler’s.  Whistler’s was most like Floyd’s.  There was also a bowling alley, one grocery store and a church positioned every few blocks with taverns tucked between. Our park had two small ponds stocked with fish.  Opie-looking kids dotted the shorelines most weekends.  My beagle trotted beside my bike everywhere I went, especially to the park.  We had one interconnected school building containing grades one through twelve.  Of the 50 students in my 1970 high school graduating class, I started kindergarten with half of them.  Like I said, it was a sleepy little town, not unlike Mayberry.
So, how would Mayberry appear today?  I visited my 87-year-old parents this past Father’s Day, so I can tell you exactly what’s changed in Delavan.  Some of the changes have been for the good, some not.
The first thing you see when you enter Delavan on Route 122 from the east is a new 20-acre medical marijuana plant.  That’s right.  Delavan has become the pot capital of central Illinois.  What would Barney think?
This is not to suggest Delavan will compete with Boulder, Colorado any time soon. There’s no low-hanging fog over the city park, not yet anyway.  The Mary Jane production is for medical purposes only.  Still, my grandparents are buried at Prairie Rest Cemetery a half mile down the road, and I’m concerned with what might be leaching into the soil.  When I meet my grandfather at the pearly gates, I expect he’ll have a Cheech and Chong grin on his face. 
Main Street in Delavan has had a major facelift in recent years, thanks to the investments of a local resident.  Several long-vacant buildings on the west side of Main have been remodeled.  What once were a grocery store, post office, and café are now a pizza tavern, upscale restaurant, a wine store, and a yet-to-open brewery.  Delavan residents no longer need to travel to Peoria to enjoy a good meal and a bottle of $40 wine, and it won’t be long before Delavan’s Otis can stop making his own moonshine.  He’ll be able to buy it on Main Street, within walking distance of his jail cell.
On the downside, Delavan no longer has a bowling alley.  In an era dominated by video games, rolling a ball at stationary pins has lost its luster.  The town is also without a barber. Bale's and Whistler's shops have long-since closed.   The town’s grocery store mysteriously burned to the ground several years ago, having previously lost most of its business to a new Walmart in a neighboring town. 
My dad now gets his hair cut at Great Clips by a revolving cast of “stylists” with names like Tracie, JoJo and Tina on days when he and my mom drive to Walmart to buy groceries.   It’s not the same as gossiping with neighbors while you wait your turn at Floyd’s—I mean Whistler’s.
Mayberry may not have gone down the same path as Delavan, but it’s not hard to imagine.  I hear they recently opened a Walmart in Mount Pilot.