Saturday, August 25, 2007

20,000,000 Shares, 200 Pages, 20 Laps

After the intensity of the past week and half (which I will explain a bit later), I gave myself permission to be utterly lazy this weekend. No obligations whatsoever. I could just stay in bed and read or watch DVDs if I want. The hardest activity I was going to give myself was deciding between continuing to read Michael Crichton’s thrilling anti-global-warming-scam novel, State of Fear, or watch one of the Peter Sellers movies that recently arrived from in a four-movie set, “Peter Sellers: MGM Movie Legends Collection”, The Pink Panther, Casino Royale, What’s New Pussycat?, and The Party. If I choose Peter Sellers over Michael Crichton (for now), it will be The Party, a movie I remember as being one of the most hilarious movies I have ever seen, but for the life of me, I can’t currently think why. It must be because of Peter Sellers, himself, and “birdy num-num”. Anyway, I can use losing myself in outrageous, helpless laughter.

But I was waylaid by getting my mail and receiving another incomprehensible stockholder information booklet from Magna, a company I bet no reader of this blog will have ever heard of. I certainly hadn’t heard of it before it became touted by an investment newsletter I subscribed to (but will not renew--I’ve proven to myself that I do much better picking my own stocks than listening to these self-claimed “experts” no matter how good their hype sounds). Magna is a “car manufacturing company” based all over the world, but primarily in Canada. They either assemble entire cars, or sometimes portions of cars (such as interiors) or sections of cars, like installing sunroofs or dashboards or whatever. The automobile business has changed dramatically since the simpler days of the fifties, say, when you understood WHO manufactured what car, and in which country. Now they are all global hybrid affairs where so-called Japanese Hondas can be made in Ohio and German BMWs can be made in South Carolina and American something or others can be made in Mexico or Australia or wherever...or pieces of them are assembled in Ontario. I suppose all this makes economic sense to somebody, although NOT to the average consumer...or auto worker.

I’ve been reading about the impending bankruptcy of General Motors and maybe Ford, too, and Magna was touted as the one company best positioned to pick up the pieces of those dying companies, and now Magna is best known as the most likely company to buy Chrysler from Daimler, which is apparently eager to dump it as a white elephant. Why somebody would want to buy a company that the maker of Mercedes wants to dump I can’t fully understand, but apparently Jeep (primarily), but also Dodge (secondarily) are valuable brands that Magna would love to own. The brand of Chrysler, itself, will possibly disappear.

By the way, a quick aside...the 17-year-old boy who was in my sailing class last weekend was a huge Stanley Kubrick fan and I got to impress him (one small advantage of my now ancient age) with the fact that when I was approximately his age, I got to see Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out, in CINERAMA (as it was intended to be seen). (Actually I was 20 when it came out.) He was suitably impressed and agreed that that was truly the way to see that movie. My ancient age also gave me the perspective that allowed me to understand the irony that all of the corporate brand names mentioned in that film and expected to be around in that futuristic time are now GONE, which I told the boy. (For example, the airline that had the space craft taking people from Earth to the Moon was “Pan Am”. While we DON’T have commercial travel to the Moon even now in 2007, Pan Am as a brand didn’t even last to the real year of 2001.) Something that Kubrick would have thought of as unlikely, if not impossible. For the boy’s part, he simply might not recognize any of the brands and might assume that they were likewise a science fiction creation, not major and presumably long-lived fixtures in everyone’s life at the time.

So yeah, I don’t think it is strange at all that someday there might not be a General Motors or a Ford or a Chrysler. And even some of the brands that we still have today really AREN'T the original, despite the adoption of the name. “AT&T” is really (wait while I vomit) “Cingular”, which is really “SBC,” which is really “Southern Bell”. “Bank of America” is really “Nations Bank”, only now yet somebody else bought them out but I forget who; Citibank, maybe? And going back to cars, Rolls Royce only makes airplane engines, whereas the Rolls Royce car is made by, who, Volkswagen, I think? Or Audi...either Audi owns Volkswagen, or Volkswagen owns Audi, so I mix up who is really the owner but either way, that’s where Rolls Royce now comes from. So enjoy your $450,000 automobile purchase.

I really (unintentionally) insulted a snotty man one time who proudly bought himself a very expensive model of Jaguar. I said, “Now that it’s made by Ford, maybe it will be reliable.” He didn’t like that all. But my uncle used to say, “If you want a Jaguar, buy two; one to drive and the other to have in the shop.” So while there are those who feel that Jaguars are so beautiful they may as well be made by Lalique, I’d rather have a car that I could actually drive somewhere and know that I would reach my destination.

So an investment in Magna seemed like a good bet, but about a month ago I got a multiple-paged booklet from them explaining that they were going to get involved with a horribly named Russian company called “Russian Machines” (maybe in Russian it sounds better), entirely owned by one man who wants to buy a billion and a half dollar’s worth of their shares of stock and Magna wanted to have this happen because somehow this would give them entrance into the “rapidly growing Russian automobile market.” We stockholders had to vote whether we agreed with this plan, or not.

I read that and thought, I own stock in a company that is getting involved with a Russian gangster! Well, I don’t want to libel the man, I really have no idea whether or not he really is a gangster, but what would you think? Forbes Magazine’s expose of the world’s top 100 billionaires (can you believe that there are now over a thousand billionaires in the world?) that pegged him very high in that list didn’t ease my mind about him at all. For example, Homeland Security won’t let him set foot in this country. The Forbes biography said something cryptic, like “after the fall of Communism, when he was 24, he acquired Russia’s aluminum industry at the end of Russia’s ‘aluminum wars’ which left hundreds of dead bodies in its wake.” Just HOW does a 24-year-old former Communist “acquire” a country’s entire industry? (With a machine gun, apparently.) And now he owns that nation’s largest automobile manufacturing company and whole bunch of other industries, too. He is now one of the richest people in the world. Pretty good for a person who used to receive his share of rubles along with all the other “comrades” in the worker’s paradise.

So I thought about it and thought about it and finally decided that if we attempted to avoid doing business with gangsters, we’d keep all our money in a sock under our mattress. I mean, this very computer I am writing on (an Apple iBook G4) was made in China (remember, Communist China), and there was one twentieth century regime crueler and more bloody than Hitler’s, and that was Stalin’s, and there was one twentienth century regime crueler and more bloody than Stalin’s, and that was Mao Tse Tung’s. So this “Russian Machines” man is probably a Gandhi compared to them. This may sound like a hypocritical self-serving justification on my part, but so be it. It’s not as if I am making a ton of money on this stock; so far, it hasn’t really been all that great of an investment, believe me.

But today, I received another long and incomprehensible booklet from Magna, this time an explanation of an offer to buy MY stock. Oh, I see, WHERE the “Russian Machines” man is going to get his billion and a half dollars worth of stock is from people like me who already own some! But he’s not going to buy it on the normal stock market (I guess a former Communist but now multi-billionaire isn’t going to participate in capitalism whole hog)--buying 20,000,000 shares on the open market just might make the selling price go through the roof! So they’re going to see if they can get it from little guys like me through a peculiar system called a “Dutch auction”. Now I ask you, doesn’t that sound suspicious?

Apparently how it works (although perhaps somebody who understands it more can further enlighten me) is that we are supposed to say that we are willing to sell it at any price we choose between $76.50 and $91.50 a share. So why wouldn’t somebody simply say they want to sell it at the higher number, $91.50 a share? Well, for one thing, the Russian Machines man wants 20,000,000 shares, but he is going to pay no more than $1,536,600,000 total for them, which divides out to be $76.83 a share. But gee whiz, I originally paid $80.58 a share for this, so I’m not going to simply volunteer to take a loss. And right now, that stock closed at $88.99 a share--a small profit for me, but very near the high end of the selling price that the Russian will pay. What they are going to do is tote up all the selling price “asks” and if they all average out to $76.83 a share, then fine, your stock will be bought at the price you asked for it, but if not, then they won’t buy it at that price. So I suppose if you REALLY want to sell this stock, then you would ask for the average price, or below. I guess. Or, there is yet a more cryptic choice, and that is to simply say you will take what they decide to pay for it, which I THINK is figured out this way: $1,536,600,000 minus the total of all the specific ask prices divided by the number of shares of non-specific ask prices equals the price they will pay per share for your stock. Which is bound to be somewhere near the lowest price of $76.50 share, a loss for me.

And the damned investment newsletter than recommended that we buy this stock in the first place (due to its likelihood of picking up the pieces of a bankrupt General Motors) has been totally silent about this whole Russian Machines affair. So they spew these recommendations out there and then leave you high and dry when it comes to future developments. So thank you very much, Stansberry & Associates.

Well, I said I did better on my own anyway, so I thought this one through and decided to simply keep the stock. After all, I don’t HAVE to sell it to the Russian and didn’t they just last month go through explaining why this Russian deal was so good? So why wouldn’t I want to stay on board? If the Russian involvement was going to make the price of my shares of stock collapse, why would the board of directors want to go along with it in the first place? Maybe there’s much more to all this than meets the eye. And I said today was supposed to be a lazy day. I just wanted to laugh with Peter Sellers.

Okay, so what all happened this week?

Well, it was the first week back on the full work schedule and this was the week that ALL employees would be back, including our huge number of new hires whom I will be paperworking and orienting and explaining to them complicated insurance benefits and enrolling, and so on (next week, but the preparations for it had to be this week). However, in the middle of it I decided to take two whole days of water safety training, something that ended up being very worthwhile, helpful, and I am very glad I did it, but it was also stressful.

These courses were offered to the P.E. department, but anyone was welcome to take them, if they wanted.

The water safety training was actually two different courses leading to two different certifications, intensified into one full day each. Remember, only last weekend I had taken the American Sailing Association’s first level of sailing training condensed down into one 16 hour weekend, so I was a bit sunburned and brain fried. But I figured that these YMCA water safety courses presented at our school were an opportunity too good to pass up, and, while my training in it might possibly be of some benefit to the school, it especially would be of benefit to me personally for the sailing, in which class we had spent quite a lot of time training for “man overboard” (not with actual people, thank goodness, but with buoys that we’d throw overboard and then turnabout to come rescue) and one thing I learned was that you did NOT want to fall overboard off of a sailboat and the likelihood of such an occurrence was not at all beyond the realm of possibility. So I felt that an uptick in my water safety skills might truly be lifesaving, and for myself, especially, should I ever be the one who was overboard! (Panic is the major cause of drowning.)

The first course, Tuesday’s class, was for the water safety assistant certification, and our school requires all P.E. teachers to pass that certification. Since I had already had quite a bit of swimming training in my youth, having earned my way through American Red Cross lifesaving and water safety instructor ratings to the extent that I taught swimming one summer when I was in college, I was pretty blase about that course, expecting it to be easy and fun. Well, it was fun, but it wasn’t really that easy. For one thing, we had to take a written exam, but I had never been exposed to the 200-page manual, and while the lecture portion of the course was a great summary of the material, it couldn’t really cover every single testable point. However, all of us did pass, thank goodness, much of which required logical thinking, although some of it actually required specific knowledge that the average person would be unlikely to know. For example, do you know how deep a pool has to be before you can allow diving off of the deck? (Nine feet.)

Interestingly, I learned how lucky in many ways I had been to have been a youth in my era rather than now (although in many ways, it is better now). While I generally was not athletic and hated P.E., where I was bad was mostly in team sports (football, softball, basketball), but I did manage to excel in individual sports (swimming, trampoline, and boxing), most of which are NOT ALLOWED nowadays! Because of liability issues, many schools don’t have swimming pools anymore, and those that do, have very shallow pools, so they can’t have diving boards (that is true in home pools, too, most of which nowadays aren’t deep enough for a diving board). A regular one-meter diving board requires a pool to be at least 11 1/2 feet deep; I don’t know the required depth figure for a HIGH dive, but the high school I went to had a high dive (and our pool at home had a regular diving board; we also, by the way, had a trampoline at home, too). While I wasn’t by any means a great diver, I was able to do some dives off a high board and I can’t imagine people nowadays not even having had that experience at all. That was one of my tests of courage as a child, 8 or 9 years old, being able to climb up the ladder of a high dive and then actually execute a DIVE off of it. I wonder what kind of stuff like that tests a child’s physical courage nowadays? (Diving off of a high dive is not a protected activity--you CAN get hurt and therefore it requires some skill, so the test of courage is meaningful.)

At least at our school, team sports is taught better nowadays than it was when I was young. If you didn’t start out good, you never had a chance to GET good in P.E., because the good players made sure you NEVER had a ball passed, tossed, or thrown to you (winning was what mattered over every other thing). All I ever did in football or basketball was “block”, and in softball, it was “you go way out into right field”. Nowadays, you would be put on a B or C team with players whose ability (or lack of it) matched yours and then you had a chance to develop some skills (and confidence).

But I didn’t have this problem with individual sports and therefore could do well in them.

Getting into our pool at school last Tuesday immediately brought back to me all the happy memories I had of being in big pools like that throughout my childhood. For almost all of my adult life, I have been swimming in only small home or motel pools. This pool here in my apartment building I can swim the length of with just about three crawl strokes. Not so the pool at school! It’s not an Olympic pool or anything, it’s 25-yards long, but that puts us more in the class of high school pools and public swimming pools.

There was a swimming test required for this water safety assistant certification, and that amounted to four laps of the pool. Well, it wasn’t as easy as I had assumed, because I was now so used to three-stroke-laps at home! I figured I would just bang these four laps out lickety-split, but suddenly that wall seemed to be very far away as I kind of struggled through the four laps, and completed them with a little bit more respect for this test! I COULD say that, well, I am a few months shy of being sixty years old, I’m not eighteen any more. But I didn’t like feeling that, or seeing it from that point of view. I refuse to allow age to be an excuse.

Another physical test that I thought was going to be a “phtt” was another lesson in humility--treading water for two minutes. Treading water? Gee, I could do that forever! Well, what made it hard was that we were supposed to do it with our arms up in the air. Uh oh! I am very much an “arm” water treader; using no arms and only kicks was a real test of my endurance; those were a long two minutes. But I passed that, too.

After we (all the P.E. teachers and me; I was the only non-P.E.-teacher to sign up to do this) passed all the qualifying tests, we then had the in-pool lessons, one of which was the back-boarding lesson for injured swimmers for whom we suspected spinal injury (which could occur after a fall from a height, or after diving or coming down a pool slide, or if the victim were found unconscious). I volunteered to be the first victim (ultimately, everybody in the course had to play each of the three roles, victim, lifeguard, and assistant). Uh oh, another “test” for me. I border on claustraphobic and as this exercise progressed, I slipped closer into panic mode.

The gist of it is that you are floating on the water and then held up with a rescue tube, and then a back board is pushed under you (held up by the assistant) and the rescue tube is moved under the foot of the board to help hold up that end. So far, so good. But then you are strapped to the board with a waist strap, then a cervical collar is installed around your neck, then your arms and chest are strapped to the board, then head immobilizers are squeezed tightly to either side of your head, then a forehead strap is installed and a chin strap is installed and second rescue tube is placed underneath the board and finally your legs are strapped down to the board. By now you are thoroughly and helplessly immobilized and strapped to this board from head to foot and I didn’t LIKE it at all. Yet there was still one more major operation left to do, and that was get the board up out of the pool and lying down on the deck. Since this was the first time we did this, everything was done incredibly slowly. I almost succumbed to full-on panic and actually did complain to the instructor, but she calmed me down.

After having gone through this, I have amazing empathy for some poor person who actually DOES have a spinal injury and while I could finally be freed from the backboard after I was safely up out of the pool, the real victim will have to stay mummified on that thing until the paramedics get there, and probably will still be bound immobile all the way to the hospital. It’s nearly unthinkable to me...although I know of something much worse (which thank God, we didn’t have to experience). When I went to take my final open water dive test in order to get my NAUI scuba diving certification (in the late 80s), the dive shop in Mendocino where we got our air tanks had an ominous-looking pipe outside next to the parking lot. This rusted iron pipe was about seven feet long and possibly two-feet feet in diameter, or thereabouts. One end was completely closed, and the other end had a round hinged door on it with a large wheel-valve, like a hatch on a submarine that would be screwed closed. There was a little glass window in the pipe about a foot and a half or so down from the valve-door.

“What the hell is this?” we asked our dive instructor.

“Oh, be glad they have one of those,” he told us cheerily. “That’s where they put you if you get the bends. It’s a pressure tube; they close you in it and pressurize it to equal the pressure of the depth of the ocean you just came up from, and you are transported inside that in a helicopter to a hospital that has a pressure chamber.”

Not me, they aren’t! I’ll just die from the bends, thank you very much. Or put me back in the water and let the sharks eat me. No way could I stand being stuffed into an iron tube the edge of which would be one inch away from my face and with there being no way to even move an arm and then have the door screwed shut and keep me in it for a undeterminably long helicopter ride.

Maybe the bends is so painful that it just knocks you out; maybe you are entirely unconcious and have no idea where you are until you wake up in the hospital. I don’t know, but just the sight of that thing made EVERYBODY suddenly truly UNDERSTAND their dive tables (that tell you how long you can stay under water at what depths in order to avoid getting the bends, which is what about 80% of scuba diving training is all about).

Being strapped onto the backboard wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that bends tube looked, but it was in the same realm. The major difference was that I was willing to be strapped on the backboard. But it WAS potentially dangerous, by the way. One thing that led to my being so uneasy was that it constantly felt like it was going to tip over, leaving me helplessly face down in the water. The instructor told us afterwards that instructors are not allowed to serve as victim in a lesson, because one died doing that. That instuctor was strapped on and the board DID turn over and the whole arrangement with the instructor face down sank to the bottom of the pool. The students didn’t know enough to know how to undo the straps to get the instructor free or get the board back up to the surface, so the instructor, bound there on the board, was unable to move and therefore drowned. I’m glad she told us about that afterwards.

So I passed all that, and when the course was over, I heard myself say that I would come to the LIFEGUARD certification course that was next. Why did I do that, I asked myself later that night. For THAT course, which was optional for our P.E. teachers (but all but one of them went for it) and certainly entirely optional for ME, had a much longer, harder, and much more serious written test (with some fill-in questions, not all multiple choice) and a swimming test that consisted of TWENTY laps! Didn’t I struggle through the four laps of this first course? What made me think I could do twenty? The test was actually four laps each of five specific strokes, which you could perform in any order: four laps of crawl, four laps of breast stroke, four laps of sidestroke, four laps of sidestroke with one arm up (like you are pulling a rescued swimmer in) and four laps of elementary backstroke with both arms up (again like you are pulling a rescued swimmer in). This time, at least, I would have a chance to read the textbook, but that meant that that night I had to read (and learn) 200 pages of the YMCA lifesaving manual. But something in me just wanted to do this and I justified it by saying “if I don’t pass it, it’s no different that if I didn’t do it at all except that I will learn some things.”

But that justification did not work for me when I was home that night reading those 200 pages. There was no way that I could go into this thing without passing it, and yet it seemed hopeless. I was worried about the written test, yes, but what really stressed me out was the 20-lap swimming test. All of the P.E. teachers were worried about the swimming test, too, and that added to my worry, because they certainly were in better shape than I was. Fortunately, I discussed this with one of the P.E. teachers (who happens to be a national tennis champion, but who was also worried about the test) and when I told her how I planned to do my strokes, getting the hardest one, the crawl, over in the beginning and then relaxing into the easier strokes, she said that my plan wasn’t good and she told me HER strategy, which was opposite of mine. She said that I should do the easy strokes first, that way I would bang out the numbers without exhausting myself and would mentally be more relaxed because the majority of the laps would then be done and then I could concentrate on the crawl, which would be the hard stroke. I honestly wouldn’t have thought of doing it that way, but fortunately I have FINALLY gotten to the point in life where I am willing to accept the advice of people who know better than I do, instead of thinking that I know a better way or am otherwise somehow “different”. No, I right away figured she knew more about such an athletic endurance test and I would follow her strategy.

I mentally rehearsed the swimming test at home that night several times in the pattern that I decided to do it that worked best for me, following the P.E. teacher’s strategy: four laps of side stroke with my arm up, four laps of elementary back stroke with my arms up, four laps of side stroke, and then alternating restful laps of breast stroke with the hard laps of crawl until all four of each had been done. I figured I would do them slowly and meditatively, thinking of “pumping” these muscles the way the heart pumps, in which the muscle of the heart is resting more than it is pumping. The heart goes “pump”, “reeeeeeest”, “pump”, “reeeeeest”, “pump”, “reeeeeeest”, eternally; I imagined myself swimming like that, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiide”, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiiide”, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiide”.

I didn’t succeed in reading all 200 pages, but got too tired somewhere around 11:30 at night. Okay, I figured I had done enough, read the majority of the textbook and would pick up the rest in the summary lecture and use my still-somewhat-rested brain to figure out the rest if I could. Also, I needed some sleep in order to have good energy for the 20 laps.

The next morning at 6:00 when I woke up, I did one more mental imagining of the swim, then got up, took my shower, and ate a large protein and fat breakfast (two pieces of bacon, two ounces of turkey, and three eggs, all fried in coconut oil), because I knew that the body’s fuel source for sustained energy is fat.

At school in the course, we had a couple of hours of lecture and review, and then the written test. I was the first one finished with the test, so I turned it in and the instructor began to grade it. The questions were in textbook chapter order, so she was able to check the questions, chapter one, chapter, two, chapter three, all the way through. Then she said, “I’ve corrected the first nine chapters and you haven’t missed ONE question. I have never seen that before.” Wow. As it so happened, the first nine chapters were all that I had read, whereas chapters ten and eleven I had not read. But this beginning seemed good!

It ended up that all told, I missed a total of three (you could miss something like 20 and still pass). Well gee, I had been worried about the test and now I wished that I could have gotten a 100%, which maybe I would have if I had been able to read the whole book. But I’m not complaining! I passed the written test. And, fortunately, so did the others, as well.

Now it was time for lunch (which the school was providing, since this was in-service week), after which we would have the swimming test. Everybody said, “Aren’t you coming to lunch?” and I said, “No, I can’t eat, not with this swimming test right after.” But the instructor said, “You HAVE to eat. If will help you with the test.” So, once again, I followed the advice of someone who knew better. I didn’t eat a HUGE lunch, just half a tuna sandwich and some salad. I skipped the fancy-looking chocolate dessert. I finished lunch in fifteen minutes, which meant there was now 45 minutes of digestion time before the swimming test.

Then it was time to go back to the pool. One of the P.E. teachers said, “if anyone vomits an egg-salad sandwich, that will be me.” We all laughed, and I wondered if I would add my tuna to his egg salad.

I slipped into the nice clean water and admired the sparkling blue beauty of the pool. I told myself, “remember you are a heart, pumping and resting, easy does it, no worries, enjoy the smoothness of the water and shining sun, you are as smooth as a dolphin, gliding effortlessly through the water.” And that’s what I did. Four laps of sidestroke with my arm up. I paid no attention to the distance, but as I reached each end, I’d add to the count: one, two, three, four. Then I did four laps of the elementary backstroke. That one was harder than I thought, I had to frogkick my legs harder than I wanted to just to keep myself afloat. I thought I was a better floater than that, but maybe I have a greater lean body mass than I thought. However, I didn’t let it bother me. If I got a little tired, my next stroke would be an easy one, the side stroke. One, two, three, four laps.

The side stroke truly was easy, compared to the others I had done, it was almost like resting, it was the first stroke of the test in which I was able to use both arms. I moved slowly but breathed fully. However, I was conscious of how I was struggling for air, I definitely wasn’t the same as fully rested. But I kept going and kept my good attitude up. One, two, three, four laps.

Now the majority of the test was done, just like my friend the P.E. teacher said. I only had my easiest stroke and my hardest stroke left to do. I had to do the breast stroke first because I really felt like I needed to breathe; without a whole lap of full breathing, I don’t see how I could do the crawl, which I planned to breathe on every third stroke, as is taught in swimming class.

So I did my first lap of the breast stroke, breathing as fully as I could. All too soon, I got to the wall and now had to do my first lap of the crawl. I turned at the wall and started doing the crawl. It was immediately clear that I couldn’t wait three strokes to breathe, it had to be every time just before stroking with my right arm. Okay, so that’s what I’ll do. I really felt how hard it was to do this, it was a struggle and I had to gulp very hard each breath, but doing this now instead of at the beginning WAS so much better, because now all I had to do was use whatever I still had left in me. If I had started with this, I would have been too fresh and therefore would have put too much energy into it. However, amazingly, the pool's wall came up very fast. I realized what a fast stroke this really is, that even though it was tough, it made up for it by being quick. That was a great revelation.

I turned and did my second lap of breast stroke. Such a nice rest, almost like napping on a soft mattress! A great opportunity, again, to breathe breathe breathe...fill up those oxygen tanks, clear out that lactic acid, fill me with energy. Then the wall came up and I turned and was now in my second lap of the crawl, breathing prior to every right arm stroke. My arms ached. All I knew now was that somehow I just simply had to do it no matter how I felt. Just keep those arms churning and don’t let anything stop me. I knew the wall would come up quite fast, and it did, and then I had the pleasure of the third breast stroke, which was time to rest, breathe, and recouperate again.

I’m the kind of person whose mind can stop my body. I remember the first time I went skiing and I was successfully flying down the hill. It was glorious, but then suddenly my mind thought, “hey, you are a beginner, you’re not supposed to be doing this so well," so then suddenly I fell, sabotaged by my reasoning mind. Or I will try to jog and my body will feel the pain, feel exhaustion, and my mind will say, “this pain is bad, you don’t like it, you really don’t have to do this,” and I will stop running, with my breath pounding and my heart fluttering.

This did NOT happen to me while swimming. Just the opposite. Somewhere in the third crawl lap, my mind just slipped away. I don’t remember it, or remember my fourth breast stroke lap. My body simply swam, executing the plan that I mentally rehearsed several times the night before and then early that morning. This is something that as machine age humans we don’t normally get to experience (or I certainly don’t); movement is natural to the body and it actually likes it and knows how to do it. How else did nomadic tribes cross the veldt on long hunting journeys that lasted for weeks, if not much longer? How else did soldiers march from continent to continent? How else do marathon runners, triathletes, iron man participants succeed in multi-hour-long prodigious feats? My body moved into that realm and my mind didn’t interfere.

I completed the third crawl lap, and then filled my lungs and muscles with the fourth breast lap, and then turned into the fourth and final crawl lap. I honestly didn’t even really know where I was until my hand touched the far wall and as I turned in the water, I heard the instructor call out my name and say that I had finished it.

I had finished it. I had passed the test. Twenty laps. Almost a quarter of a mile.

There are far worse swimming tests. I know that. There are triathlons out in the open water, the ice cold, frothy ocean, competing for space against hundreds of other churning racers. Or Jack LaLanne, swimming to freedom from the impossible-to-escape-from-Alcatraz across swift San Francisco Bay currents towing a rowboat. Somebody swimming across the English channel in fog and no sight of land. Or The Iron Man, what is that, swimming completely around an island in Hawaii?

But this was amazing. I, an almost sedentary, nearly sixty-year-old non-athlete who will think twice about going up three flights of stairs in my apartment building and mostly will just use the elevator, I did this. That young person that I once was, bad in sports but I WAS a good swimmer, I could feel that self was still inside me, and it felt really good.

Time went on and one after another, the other swimmers completed their laps, too, so that ultimately, every one of us completed the task and passed the swimming test. It wasn’t easy for anybody, but we all did it. That, for me, became another part of the test. It wasn’t good enough for just me to pass it, everybody had to pass it.

Then we had the in-water lessons and practices of all the lifeguarding skills: how to rescue active and passive swimmers from the front and from the rear, how to rescue those who were partially under water, how to rescue those who had sunk to the bottom of the pool, how to rescue multiple swimmers, all the various ways to get into the water to rescue somebody, and all the ways to get rescued people OUT of the water. A full day of lessons.

One more test--swimming under water for fifteen yards. We didn’t even know they HAD that test, but it was easy for all. I’m an underwater swimmer from way back, so that was like going back home.

Then we each had to do several final “mystery” rescues. We’d have to scan the pool and other students would decide what kind of situation they were in and we’d then have to recognize who needed help and choose the correct pool entrance for that rescue, rescue them properly, and then get them out of the pool.

And then we were done. We all qualified for the YMCA lifeguard certification. I felt utterly exhausted physically and utterly exhiliarated mentally; an odd combination of feelings. I went home and felt like I would sleep for a week. But the next day was still a working day.

The next day there was a moment at the beginning of the in-service meetings when the headmaster asked each administrator if he or she had an announcement. When he came to me, I said that I had no announcement, although I FELT like saying “Guess what, I passed the lifeguard certification course!” But there would have been no point in saying that, that was only a personal achievement. However, he kept asking me, “Are you sure you have no announcement?”, as if he knew that I really did have something to say, but I don’t think he knew. Anyway, I said I had no announcements.

Later, several people said, “Oh, you should have said you completed the lifeguard training!” But it wasn’t part of my job. It COULD help my job, I can imagine a scenario where it would come in handy, but still. However, others in the P.E. department really appreciated the fact that I did fact, I think they were very disappointed that NO ONE ELSE did it. But I don’t blame anyone for not doing it. It was a very busy week and this swimming stuff really was a P.E. thing. It was intense, that’s all I can say, intense, which has become the word for the week.

However, after that morning with the headmaster asking me if I had any announcement, several in the P.E. department must have felt the same thing I did, that this was WORTH that announcement (as was their getting certified, too). So then for the rest of the day, I couldn’t walk into the auditorium or sit down to lunch or pass a group of people without one of the P.E. teachers announcing, “there he is, one of our new lifeguards!” And then I responded with something along the order of “me, and ALL of us!” So for sure the word did get out.

Two other cool things happened this week. One of the parents was on campus and she ran into our staff accountant, whose office is next door to mine. The parent was so happy to see her, this being the beginning of the new school year, and the parent said to her, “You are my children’s FAVORITE teacher!” The staff accountant teaches a wonderful and innovative crafts class after school that quite a few kids love to death and some of them take again and again each trimester. And they will even come up to our offices just to see her, they like her so much. But for her to hear that she is considered some kids’ favorite teacher, to even be considered in the same category as the other “real” teachers, is a very gratifying accomplishment. She said to me, “you know most people on campus don’t even know that we up here are involved with the students at all. They think all we do is juggle figures all day.”

Later that day, when the mail came, I saw that a wonderful student that we all know and love had sent a postcard from a foreign country he and his family visited this summer. He sent this postcard to three people whose names were written in three lines above the school’s address: to the person who was his teacher last year, to a school administrator who is from the country they were visiting, and to me. I showed it to the accountant and said to her, "Look at this, see the people in this school he thought to send this to." And my name was the first one on the list.

The staff accountant was right; most people on campus don’t know that we are involved with the students and the educational process at all. But the students know. And we are greatly rewarded by their recognition of that involvement.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Back to Work, New Theater Season, and Beginning Sailing Lessons

I expect this to be a rather short entry, because I ought to go to bed in an hour. But this past week was so good, it deserves a mention before the moment passes.

First was going back to work after my summer vacation. Of course, I'd rather still be on vacation, but I'm also realistic! But it was great. I timed it so that I would get back a week before everybody has to be back, that way it's an easier slide back in. There were only a few of us there last week (just "us" so to speak), and it was the last week of our summer schedule, so the days were shorter and Friday was off--the last Friday off of the summer. There were a few teachers slipping on in, getting their rooms ready, and it was good to see them (hugs all around). By Wednesday of this coming week, they will all be back. We can still dress very casually, but then a week from Wednesday, classes will start so it is back to long pants, dress shirts, ties, and dress shoes. I don't think I'll buy any "back to school" clothes this time, though.

Friday, which was off, I did what was probably my last sunbathing-on-my-air-mattress-floating-on-the-swimming-pool of the summer. I did "put the air mattress away", but it is easy enough to pull it out again if weather permits. However, I probably will just get into "autumnal" things which the start of the school year lends itself to (regardless of the weather). September in L.A. is usually a "summer" month, but there is a big difference between summer when you are on vacation and summer when you are working full time.

Mostly what I did on Friday was study my sailing textbook. I started sailing lessons this weekend at the California Sailing Academy in Marina del Rey, so I was getting ready for Saturday morning. This was something I had expected to begin during my vacation, but it ends up they get booked up quickly so there weren't any open spots until now.

But meanwhile, I had a play to go to Friday night, the first musical of the season for Reprise, which I think is the best theatrical season ticket in Los Angeles. This will be my fourth season with them. In years past, they offered three musicals a season, but this year they have expanded it to four. Their shows are absolutely amazing in quality and enjoyment. I marvel at there being so much talent expressed in every avenue, but of course, this is Los Angeles, so there is way more fantastic talent than can ever be fully used! But what I see with Reprise blows me away every single time.

This play was a musical I wasn't familiar with, On Your Toes, although it ends up it had two songs I knew, the charming There's A Small Hotel that I only knew as one of my favorite songs played by deceased jazz trumpet great, Chet Baker (so I didn't know it had lyrics), and Glad To Be Unhappy that Barbra Streisand recorded only once, for her television special, Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments. So it was a great to hear where these songs actually came from.

There was something else musically in the play that I was very familiar with, something I had loved ever since I was a child, but always thought it was a separate musical work; I had no idea it was from a Broadway musical: the ballet Slaughter On Tenth Avenue. Wow! As a child, I had always put Richard Rodgers's Slaughter On Tenth Avenue in the same category as George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue--maybe they were presented on the same record album in my parents's collection? Anyway, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is the grand finale of the musical, On Your Toes.

This play was the first time classical dance was performed in a Broadway musical, and also the first time that jazz dance forms were introduced into a ballet. There was one utterly amazing dance number in the show (what the performers referred to as "the dance off") in which American music students are demonstrating their jazz and tap dance talents to a group of dancers from the Russian Ballet, who, in turn, are demonstrating their ballet prowess to these American music students. Seeing these different dance forms move back and forth, entwine, and interact was indescribably beautiful and powerful. And the choreographer for this production did an outstanding job.

Something I hadn't known about this production until I sat down in my seat and looked at the program, was that one of my favorite actresses and one whom I had long considered the most beautiful woman performing in television, film, and theater, Stefanie Powers, had a lead role in this show! And I also hadn't known that she was a singer and dancer, as well. Apparently she refers to that as having been a closely-held secret, but thank goodness, that secret is now out of the bag! And yes, it was certainly wonderful seeing her, she measured up to whatever might have been my greatest expectation, if only I had known beforehand that she was in the cast!

The Reprise series that I buy is one that includes a little party and reception afterwards in the courtyard of the Freud Theater on the UCLA campus, where Reprise presents its shows. This party is attended by members of the cast, as well, so it gives us a chance to meet and speak briefly with the performers. I usually use that opportunity to praise a more beginning performer who might have done a notable job in a smaller role...although at this point, I don't know if it is correct to refer to any performer in Reprise as a "beginner". Even though their name may not be generally known (or not known by me), they are often far from beginning. Anyway, more unknown performers are usually extremely pleased to obtain this recognition and I am always excited to give it. But with this reception, I was eager to see Stefanie Powers, although I figured the likelihood was that a performer of that stature would either skip the reception entirely (as others have done in the past), or else breeze through very quickly. However, most amazingly, Stefanie Powers was one of the first performers to come out through that backstage door! Of course, she was immediately inundated by other reception guests, so I held off on speaking to her and spoke with some other great performers, instead. And on this show, there had been several that I had been eager to talk to, so I got to do that and everybody was extremely gracious and, incidentally, shockingly beautiful in the close-up flesh. That is something, the effect of which, I seem to forget until I face it again and then I get to enjoy it "all over again for the first time". Very talented actors and actresses (and singers and dancers) in Los Angeles are almost god- and goddess-like in their appearance. I guess that's why they are here...this might be what separates them (those who "come to Hollywood") from those who maybe dream of it, but never get that impetus to actually come here and try it. I've never seen this anywhere else, although I am sure it is like this in New York, too. Well, I know it is...for one thing, many of THESE performers are actually New Yorkers.

Okay, now it was time for Stefanie Powers. She still had a circle of people around her, so I maneuvered into the outer edge of it and listened to her as she talked about an upcoming one-woman show she is going to be in. This was something I was interested in, so it gave me an opportunity to ask, "And it's going to be at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts, right?" This brought Stefanie's, and the circle's, attention to me. Stefanie confirmed that was its location and I said that I would be sure to go see that. She said the tickets were going to go on sale in a couple of weeks. Then a man in the circle said, "We're members of a Stefanie Powers fan club, would you like to join it?" I said, "Absolutely, I feel like I am a charter member of it," and I said, to Stephanie, "I have loved you for such a long time and you are the most beautiful woman performing in all of show business." Everyone (including Stefanie) really liked that, and Stephanie smiled broadly and offered me her hand. Then one of the women in the circle asked me if I would like Stefanie to give me her autograph. That wasn't something I ordinarily would ask for, but since this woman made the suggestion, it seemed like it would be okay, so I said "Yes, please," and offered Stefanie the appropriate page in my program. One of the women dug out a pen, which Stefanie used to give me her autograph (after asking me my name), so I came home with that, certainly something I had never expected when that evening began! But it was exciting and I left there floating on a huge emotional high. I actually would have liked to have leapt across the UCLA campus to the tune of Slaughter On Tenth Avenue which radiated throughout my head, but I kept my (jaunty) pace as normal as possible.

The next day, I got up early and drove to Marina del Rey for my first sailing lesson. This was the beginning course (I signed up for the series of the first four) and this particular format was a weekend intensive. Emphasis on intensive. This was not a private lesson, but a group class, but the group classes are very small; they put no more than four students in a class. As it turned out, one of the four who had signed up never showed up, so we were only three, which gave each of us a greater amount of time in performing the various sailing tasks, such as serving as the helmsman, or trimming the mainsail, or sharing in trimming the jib. So we got more for our money, so to speak.

It was a varied bunch. There was me, the oldest one there. Then there was a woman, a nurse, who was probably somewhere in her thirties. She had taken the same course at another sailing school seven years ago, and now wanted a refresher. She asked everyone to treat her as a beginner. The third student was a seventeen-year-old boy from Oregon, but who lives with his mother in L.A. during the summers. It was actually his mother's boyfriend who had signed up for the lesson, but it ended up his workload didn't permit him to take the time for it, so he gave his lesson to his girlfriend's son. He was a quiet but smart boy and I enjoyed having him in the class.

There was also another guy there who had signed up for a private lesson, but the school had him join us for all the lecture portions. For the boat portions, he was with his private instructor. We more or less considered him part of our class even though he wasn't on our boat (but we'd see each other working out there in the marina channel and wave and shout back and forth, "looking good!"). And today, Sunday, I had lunch with him and he certainly was an interesting person to talk to. He was British.

There is an amazingly large amount to learn (and this class was only the beginning!) and it felt for all the world like working to get a pilot's license (as in flying airplanes). Sailing is working with an "airfoil" (the sail, whose curvature you have to learn how to shape and manipulate) that is vertical rather than horizontal, and you get a log book in which you log your sailing hours and into which rating stickers are placed after you pass certain tests. There are many levels, certificates, ratings, or standards: Basic Sailing, Basic Coastal Cruising, Bareboat Chartering, Coastal Navigation, Advanced Coastal Crusing, Celestial Navigation, and Offshore. It's also very serious business, as ultimately you will be able to skipper a sailboat across any ocean in any condition to any destination in the world, by yourself or with other people on board.

I enjoyed it very much, but it also fries your brain and all four of us (including the man getting the private lesson) would reach "check out" time in which we just could not process it any more. Still, I think everybody did really well, and, in this course, anyway, the growth curve was nearly as vertical as the sail. Just this weekend, we four have finished the 16-hours of course work for the Basic Sailing Standard, and once we pass the certified test (which each one can schedule to take at his or her convenience), we will be able to rent the school's sailboats and sail them by ourselves during the daytime, not far beyond the marina or away from the shore, in light to moderate wind and sea conditions. Do I feel comfortable doing that? Hum...I think so. But there are times that get scary.

Today we got to go out into Santa Monica Bay beyond the marina breakwater and it is a different animal out there compared with the relative calm of the protected marina waters and channel. I don't know, THAT is going to take some getting used to! The water was choppy and there were waves and a lot of the time you have no control of the rudder, because it is up out of the water. The boat doesn't sail smoothly, but jumps all around. If you are at the helm, it doesn't really feel very secure. I found it hard today to imagine even sailing the boat out to Catalina (a six-hour journey for a sailboat), let alone to Tahiti! But like everything else, it is something where your knowledge, ability, and feeling of competence and security continue to increase.

I'll tell you this, there are sure some pretty amazing and beautiful boats out there! Million dollar yachts in some cases. Just being out there among them and among ALL the other kinds of boats--everything from kayaks, Zodiac boats, and jet skiis through to every kind of powerboat, including yachts so big they seemed liked small ocean liners, to every kind of sailboat from little dingies with sails up to boats with more than one mast, this put me into a world I had seen from shore, but never before had been out in the middle of. Well, today we WERE out in the middle of it, and we were performing with a certain level of competence and I could be proud of that.

Well, oops it's now an HOUR past the time I wanted to go to bed and, well, I am pretty darn tired and it is a working day tomorrow. Everybody in the sailing class told me they conked out early last night (the seventeen-year-old boy didn't even have supper), so I know TONIGHT when my head hits that pillow....

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Edisonian and Socratic

My long yearned for, anticipated, and held-up-on-a-pedestal summer vacation is all but over and I should feel a lot more depressed than I am. This doesn't mean that I'm not depressed, because I am, but not debilitatingly so. It's just great to have all the time off and I don't want to give it up.

Having been a student from about the age of 5 up to somewhere around 27 (with a few years off in there after graduating from college before I decided to go to law school and then dropping out of that two years later), these are all hugely formative years, and then having worked at Stanford University for something like five or six years in my mid-30s, and now, currently, that I have been working at an elementary school for nearly ten years, my inner clock definitely works on a "September to June" annual schedule, with what it presumes will be a long summer at the end before "the new year" begins again. Of course, as an adult (and not a teacher), I don't GET a long summer at the end, so there is always a period of shock when what is really the time of the summer blips by quicker than a blown flashbulb.

Children, no less than adults, or maybe I should say adults no less then chiliden, NEED that long, drawn out, nearly infinite time of freedom and I think it is harmful when they don't get it. I very much believe that it is those times that put you in touch with who you really are and why you are here. Of course, you ought to be able to maintain touch with that essential self no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing, but people are rarely able to, because there are too many distractions, too many obligations, and it takes too much concentration and effort. Perhaps the world is designed this way on purpose, because then it forces you to develop that strength and focus, and strength and focus are good things. One might say that a major difference between us and God is that God (whoever, however, or whatever you imagine this force to be) is infinite strength and eternal focus, whereas we all are very weak or scattered. So becoming stronger and more focussed about who we are and keeping to what our true purpose is in the midst of this "gymnasium of distraction" makes us closer to God.

Or maybe it is all part of some negative grand design to entrap and mesmerize a slave class who know nothing more than to shoulder the distractive burdens of a leisure class who themselves then have the time and freedom for individual pursuits. Sometimes for sure I think that and there is almost a preponderance of evidence to back that up, except there is also the tiniest chink of light piercing through that that shows that people DO have the freedom to break out of that, if only they would, and people definitely do. Particularly in the United States, still, but also in other countries, even if in the case of other countries in order to do so takes leaving there and coming here. The United States still receives more legal immigrants than any other country in the world, three times more than the country that is in second place, nine times more than the country that is in third place. And then there are all the illegal immigrants, sometimes estimated as many as twelve times our legal ones. So that's a heck of a lot of individuals choosing THIS country as their place on the planet to find freedom, and many, many of them do a better of job of securing that freedom than do our citizens (or maybe I should just speak for myself).

So, just as happiness is so often touted as a personal choice, so is freedom. But in order to have either, you have to know what you want and you have to have the courage to reach out and grab it. What was that fairy tale that as a child I always thought was very peculiar? It was something about a voice that kept saying, "Give me that bone!" and the person just hid under the covers of the bed. "Give me that bone!" the voice insisted (the person hid under the covers and quaked with fright). "Give me that bone!" the voice got louder (the person quivvered and shook under the covers). Finally the voice shouted at the top of its lungs: "GIVE ME THAT BONE!" (If that had been my mother speaking, it would have been "Goddam you, give me that fucking BONE!", but that's not what it said in the fairy tale.) So finally the voice shouts at the top of its lungs, "GIVE ME THAT BONE!", and the person shouts back, "TAKE IT!"

What on Earth does that fairy tale mean? I never knew. But now, maybe I do. There is some kind of very powerful force within you that WANTS something and all you are doing is hiding from it. "It's hard," I'm scared," "I don't know how," "I'm not sure that's what I really want," "I might fail," and so on. I know, because I have said them all millions of times. But finally, the desire just gets so insistent that you can't hide from it any more, so you throw off all resistance and surrender to it. "Take it!" Or another way of saying it, "Okay, I've so far failed, so why don't YOU just take over?" Probably a good idea.

So THIS time, instead of my using my summer vacation to go on a glorious trip (HOW many people said to me, "Are you taking a vacation this summer?", "Yes.", "Oh, where are you going?" as if "vacation" and "going somewhere" were synonymous), or doing what most people think is second best, "just relaxing" ("I've got some books I want to read," or "I'm going to do all the things in town I never had time to do before" or "I'm going to spend every day at the beach, soak up some rays, and improve my surfing skills", all very acceptable to the average questioner), I said, "I'm going to go within," knowing that answer wouldn't cut it, and it didn't. But that was my plan.

If anyone wanted a greater explanation, I would say that I felt like melted butter, a puddle so thin that I was almost nonexistent, and I wanted to use the time to coagulate into a recognizable shape again. But that was merely greeted by a blank stare. What, doesn't anybody need to get it together anymore, or are they already together? I must be the only person on planet Earth who doesn't feel together. Me and maybe the homeless people and the crazies in the mental institutions.

So, in all honestly, I approached this vacation with absolutely no set plan at all other than throwing the covers off and saying to the voice,"Take it!"

So how did it turn out?"

Very, very interesting.

One thing the voice kept saying was that I wanted all my stuff! Just like that, "I want all my stuff!" I was dead tired of having my possessions in gigantic spilled piles all over the floor, or in countless boxes buried in a storage unit or hidden in a closet, or under the bed, or in such a mess all over the couch that it takes an hour to find anything. I wanted to have it all, in one place, organized, and neatly put away where it belongs. But I couldn't do that here, oh no, I had been complaining for years that in this one-room studio apartment, there is no room to PUT anything, there is no room to DO anything.

The solution to that seems irritatingly obvious to the average stranger: "well, move to a bigger apartment."


For one thing, when I moved into this apartment (which was probably lifetime move number 51), it was such a nightmare, it was the move that finally broke the camel's back, that I vowed, "I will move just ONE more place after this, because you can be sure that I will move out of here, but when I do, it will be to a house that I own and one where I plan to stay for the rest of my life." Now, of course, even I knew that I could never make a promise that would say that the house I moved into would be the one where I would stay for the rest of my life, but to simply move into a bigger apartment (ANOTHER apartment!), would be to violate very single element of that particular vow. So I just did not want to do it.

I had to buy a house, that was the only solution.

Yeah, right. This is LOS ANGELES! Does that mean anything to anybody? $700,000, $800,000, $1,000,000, $1,500,000 houses, unless you are willing to move to "drive by central", Compton, in which case it would be a hideous tiny shack with a razor wire fence around it for $350,000.

No, ain't gonna happen. Not now, anyway,

So hey, how about further out? Houses must be cheaper, there, right? I like listening to Books On Tape, two-hour commutes are doable, aren't they?

Well, yes, it is true, I found that there were pretty nice houses that I could afford in places like Taft, California (a bit west of Bakersfield) or California City (a bit east of Mojave), three hours away. Well, maybe I could just live in one of those houses on the weekends and commute to work from the apartment I have now. Is that affordable? Well, maybe, kinda. A bit of a pain, but that could be a solution.

Except doing a check revealed that those houses that are now selling for $250,000 were once upon a time, oh, say three or four years ago, selling for $35,000 or $50,000. Now, $35,000 or $50,000 I could do! But what on Earth economic fundamentals would make a house out in the middle of nowhere increase in value FIVE TIMES in four years? Absolutely nothing. That VIOLATES economic fundamentals. It is totally nonsensical, and I think I would be a stupid fool to get myself in 30-year debt for $250,000 in order to buy a $35,000 house. That's the way I see it. These are houses that nobody would buy for that kind of money except for the fact that they are desperate to live in Southern California and think it's either this or nothing and hey, they're going to go up in value anyway, right?

But I'm not desparate to stay in Southern California--not THAT desperate. I could see living in Florida, or North Carolina, or even Upper Michigan, say on the lakeshore around Traverse City (except for the winters...yikes!). Or maybe even a foreign country. (How about the lake region of Italy, say near Lake Como? I know, even less affordable than L.A. How about some island paradise in the South Pacific? Hum....) There ARE other options besides Southern California. But I DO have a good job here, let's not forget about that. But that takes us to problem number two, "why don't you just get another job somewhere else in a place that you can afford?" Well...I don't really WANT another job, not like this one. This gets into a discussion I don't have time for right now, but the gist of it is that along the lines of "I vow that I will only move to a house that I own and want to stay in forever" is the idea that "I vow I won't get another job, but next time want to be earning a living through some kind of enterprise of my own (such as making a living from my writing)." I've DONE the employment bit for way too long, now, and it was only meant to be "for survival". But now I actually could be retirement age, so it's time to finally grow up and be fully me.

So that REALLY makes it hard--I not only have to move somewhere else, but I also have to make a living there through some means other than getting hired and working for somebody else. But that's what that inner voice wants and I don't have a lot more time to keep on ignoring it.

So, sigh, I began this vacation feeling like I was living in a logjam and I thought about it and I thought about it and finally concluded that maybe, just maybe, I had to take just one more intermediary step...move to a nicer, bigger apartment where I would have some ROOM to get my head together and THEN I could work on manifesting the final solution. I could at least look, right, and see what exists out there.

Well, I tried, I really truly did. I devoured various apartment rental sites on the Internet. I poured through Craig's list. I studied the listings in rental magazines. I drove around looking at signs. Most of this effort was heartbreaking. In order to make the move at all worth the energy and cost, I made a list of things I had to have; without these, I may as well stay here. Air conditioning, a usable balcony (I mean by that that you can eat out there), a swimming pool, covered parking, two bedrooms, walk-in closets, a decent kitchen with lots of cabinets and counter space, and a fireplace. If this could be in townhoue mode (that means that the bedrooms are upstairs), all the better.

Oh, and it had to be "affordable".

Well, most of the elements were findable. The hard elements were a usable balcony (most of them were just narrow slips useful for only standing out there in the morning to determine if it were raining or not) and a fireplace. Covered parking was somewhat rare, too. At least that narrowed the looking down quite a bit...just scan for fireplace, which eliminated 99% of the offerings, then check out the balcony.

Price. Unfortunately, that had to keep creeping up. When I started this search, I wanted it to hover around $1,000 a month, with $1,300 my absolute top limit. (Right now I am paying $747 for the apartment, which includes a space in the parking lot, and $200 a month for a storage unit elsewhere, which I could eliminate by having my stuff WITH ME). Soon enough, that passed. It became clear that in order to get what I wanted, $2,000 a month made it easy, but keeping it down to, say, $1,500 a month was a chore. Basically, there was NOTHING decent at that rental range, and being in L.A. was about $300 a month more expensive that outer areas.

Finally, I found a place that seemed to be the answer, but it was more expensive than I wanted to pay, $1,650, but with all the other add-ons that were required (for example, you HAD to get renter's insurance, and in my apartment here, some of the utilities are included, which they wouldn't be at this new place), it would have gone up to more like $1,800 a month. It was a relatively new, glorious-looking immense apartment complex (they had something like 80 buildings and 4 swimming pools), in Santa Clarita, in the middle of about seven new housing developments in which all the houses were listed for $800,000 on up to a million and a half. I wanted it. I filled out the application, chose my renter's insurance policy, paid $35.00 for the credit check, gave them a $200 deposit to hold the townhouse I had chosen (an "Ibiza" model, which was three levels starting with the garage on the ground floor). This even had more than I wanted, such as full-size washer and dryer in the unit. And then left them all excited; they were going to run my credit check and call me later.

I called my friend Kate on my cell phone as I merged onto the 14 freeway, told her all about this gorgeous place and finally I would be able to have people over, I would have lots of room, now I could begin to live again. I purposely ignored the unmoving parking lot that I could see going in the other direction, from L.A. to Santa Clarita (and Palmdale and Lancaster), what would be my going-home-from-work route.

I was fine until I got home and waited for their call (which didn't actually come until noon the next day). It got to be 7:30 and they still hadn't called, so I thought I would go out to dinner "to celebrate". But instead I felt so sad. I noticed thoughtful little touches to the design of this apartment as I got ready to go out. Down in the lobby over the mailboxes, the manager had written one of her cute little notes on the notice board like she does. I was reminded at how clean, safe, secure, and well-managed this building is. As I walked by the swimming pool, I marveled over how clear and blue the water was, and how pretty the tropical garden in the courtyard was. A teacher I know (who works with disadvantaged kids for the L.A. public school system) approached me from the parking lot and I said, "How are you doing?" He said what he always does, which I like: "Can't complain about a darn thing!" We chatted for a moment about our respective school schedules and he told me some of his upcoming plans of what he was going to do with the kids. He's great, I love seeing him.

As I nosed my car out of the parking lot and down Franklin Street, and went past the coffee house, sidewalk cafes, and wine bar, I noticed with renewed eyes how "cool" and "funky" the neighborhood is and I was reminded of why I moved here in the first place. It's a place that draws a certain artistic and "film industry hopeful" crowd, some of whom actually make it, and regardless, their creative energy is good.

Then I arrived in Silverlake and went into Casita del Campo, a Mexican restaurant that I like and used to go to a whole lot, but lately hadn’t been to in over a year. The patio where I had hoped to sit was completely full, but as I was looking, a waitress that I like very much and am always happy to see saw me and said, “You want to eat outside?” I said, “Yes, but all the tables are taken.” “Here,” she said, “I’ll take you to another patio we have,” and she took me to one that in all the years I had eaten there, I never even knew existed. It was a quiet, beautiful space with nice lights strung back and forth overhead. It had a very private feeling. Besides me, there was just one other couple out there, over on the other end. I ordered a frozen margarita and started to feel better, although instead of a celebration, it felt like a good-bye.

The waitress took my order, but another waiter (one whom I also like a lot) brought it out to me. When he brought it, he smiled broadly and said, “It’s YOU!” Then he explained that the waitress who took my order had said to him, “Why don’t you take this outside to the side patio, you will be happy to see who is there.” When he asked her to explain further, she only said, “It’s a regular, just go see.” Apparently my presence there was a happy occasion, or at least, that’s how they were acting. That made me feel really good. It got me to thinking how often I would ever go there after I moved to Santa Clarita. Probably not too often, if at all. That didn’t seem right.

I enjoyed my meal and as I ate, I wondered if I could string lights overhead on the balcony I was going to get. That might be nice. But somehow I didn’t feel too excited about it. That whole evening after I got home, I felt that I was dreading my upcoming move, not looking forward to it. I looked around at the piles of mess surrounding me and instead of feeling relief that finally I was going to be able to straighten it all out, I felt like I had somehow failed in some kind of ancient dream. Moving just didn’t seem like the right answer.

The next morning I would have expected that I would have gotten up early, maybe even started packing for my upcoming move. Instead, I just stayed in bed until noon, when the phone rang and it was the guy from the new apartment calling, letting me know that my credit check had cleared and I could move in. “You are coming in to sign the lease today, aren’t you?” he asked. I said, “Yes, I guess I HAVE to come in today?” “I thought you wanted to,” he said. “Well,” I responded, “you said that I couldn’t get the keys to the townhouse until I had gotten the electricity and phone turned on and had obtained renter’s insurance. I don’t know if I have time to get all that done today.” “Do you want me to change the move-in day to Monday, then?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I don’t want you to go into any trouble. I’ll come in today. Later.” Then I hung up.

I realized that I really didn’t want to move there. I felt like it was too expensive, more than I wanted to pay. I felt like I didn’t want to live out there in Santa Clarita. I felt like there was something wrong with the place, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I worried that the commute would be horrible. I felt like I didn’t want to go to the effort of packing up everything, having my Internet and phone moved, and changing my address everywhere. I also felt like I didn’t want to leave HERE, this tiny apartment, this neighborhood. At least, not NOW, not if I weren’t moving into my own house. This median transition suddenly didn’t make as much sense as it had at first.

But on the other hand, I had been more or less stuck here for over a decade, accomplishing very little, living only a partial life and blaming it all on these crowded conditions. What was wrong with me, was I just too lazy to make the effort of moving, or was I too phobic about change, or perhaps overly sentimental? It was time to move on, wasn’t it?

I really saw myself facing a fork in the road and I didn’t know which way to go. Finally I decided to meditate, really go inside and seek an answer to the dilemma. The thoughts that kept moving across my inner vision was that the truth of my life’s experience was that where I lived or how much room I had had been irrelevant to the level of my accomplishments. For example, when I lived in a DORM ROOM at U.C. Berkeley, I accomplished almost more than I have ever done in my life. And then in the apartment I rented when I lived in New York, that was smaller than where I live now, I managed to write a whole novel there, quite easily, in fact. To contrast to that, when I rented a three-bedroom house that sat on five acres of land in the mountains and that had TWO two-car garages, one of which, which I could have turned into a studio if I had wanted to, was, by itself, larger than the living area of this one apartment, I hardly ever wrote a word. So if I had argued with myself that SPACE was the issue, that argument was a lie. (After all, I know, for example, that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in a cafe, so where there is a will, there is a way.) I had to have a better and more accurate explanation for my problems.

I finally got out of the meditation with the idea that I ought to now take my mind off this issue and help somebody else for a while. I knew there would be e-mails from employees asking for help, so I logged on and saw that, indeed there were three people asking for help, so I took care of them. And then suddenly I got the idea to check out that apartment review site I knew about and see what the residents of this Santa Clarita apartment complex thought about it.

Boy! The site had 51 reviews of that townhouse complex, and the total positive score was 29%. If you took a test and scored 29 out of a 100, what grade do you think you would get? That’s probably an F minus minus minus.

Every single thing that can make you hate a place seemed to have been represented somewhere in those reviews. Noise all the time, all-night rap music from gang members, drug dealing, ex-cons, beautiful-looking but crappily-built apartments falling apart all the time (toilets flooding, doors falling off, refrigerators stopping working, garage doors stuck open, or closed, at least one security gate always broken so that nefarious strangers were always roaming around at night, this area of town, despite all the new million-dollar houses was, apparently, a ghetto); unresponsive management, noise from either the nearby freeway or else the Metrolink train that goes by several times a day and night, frequent burglaries (no wonder the management MAKES you get renter’s insurance), a sheriff has to visit the complex daily. Oh, regarding that sheriff, it’s funny, I remembered that while I was there in the office, a sheriff DID come. One of the office staff said to him, “You are here about the domestic disturbance?” “No, I....” “Then it must be to investigate the crack dealer?” Gee, somebody else was taking care of the domestic disturbance and another sheriff was taking care of the crack dealer, THIS sheriff wanted to pick up a map of the complex to keep at his desk. Without at first getting it, I guess that investigating something at this complex was the main task of this particular sheriff’s unit. And I was going to LIVE there?

While I was reading these reviews, I got another call from the guy at the apartment complex. He said, “I made a mistake when I told you how much move-in allowance we grant you. I had told you $300.”

I was sure he was going to say, “I am sorry, but it is really only $100”, and if so, that would give me the perfect excuse to cancel the whole thing. However, what he said was, “It is really $500.” My mind thought, Yeah, right, you picked up on the hesitation in my voice before and that is what you are instructed to do when people balk. Really, all they need to do is get you the sign that lease, then you are stuck. From the reviews I read, NOBODY wants to renew after their year is up, and many of them get out of there anyway, even when that means paying off the balance of the lease. So I didn’t fall for it. I told him I didn’t want to rent it after all.

“I suppose that means that I lose my $200 deposit,” I said, but no. He asked if I were coming in today to pick up my $200 check, and I said “Yes” and high-tailed it up there before he changed his mind or found out he wasn’t supposed to give it back to me. It kind of hurt me to go back to that place and see what it looked like and ask for my deposit back. It looks so appealing, but now I knew the truth of what was going on underneath the surface. Thank God I WASN’T moving in there!

After that, I completely gave up on the idea of moving to a larger apartment.

Ever since then, I have felt like that was the best thing that happened to me. I was saved from making a terrible mistake. But, much more than that, I got other benefits out of it.

At first, I did feel that I had ruined my precious summer vacation. Instead of going somewhere nice, I chose to devote my time to finding an apartment to move into. And I had failed in that. But then I viewed that as an “Edisonian” failure, which I take from that story of Thomas Edison’s lab workers complaining about the 1,000 experiments that FAILED to find the proper element to use in making the filament for the incandescent lightbulb [the eventually-found answer was tungsten]. “We have FAILED a thousand times,” they cried.

“No, we have NOT failed,” Edison said. “We now KNOW of a 1,000 elements that won’t work.” Wow, I absolutely love that attitude. “The cup is half full” has nothing on Edison! “We now know of a thousand elements that don’t work!” That is positive and useful knowledge despite the fact that so far, no lightbulb has been produced.

Well, now I KNOW that the answer is NOT finding and moving to a bigger apartment. And the positive knowledge of that has made a huge difference in my attitude about this one, and in what I need to do to move forward with my life. It’s funny how an obstacle doesn’t have to be real, but only an idea that you have, such as the idea that I could not function in this tiny, cluttered apartment (well, it’s not that tiny). Now it doesn’t seem so cluttered (and, for one thing, I’ve found the energy to do some cleaning up), but for another, I can see how clutter can be an advantage, or I have made it into one. I don’t HAVE to take the time to maintain a certain standard of appearance; “clutter” takes a certain level of pressure off of me. This is my own private domain, like an eagle’s nest, and the only person it has to suit is me.

Well, I really would like it to be much more organized, but suddenly now that I am not going to have to pay $1,700 a month in rent, I feel amazingly rich. There is lots of storage potential in this place if you build shelves high up around the upper third of the wallspace. Buying the wood to make those shelves, even buying a skill saw for cutting the wood, is cheaper than that extra rent would have been. Heck, I could even hire somebody to make them for me, if I wanted.

Okay, so I don’t have air conditioning (but suddenly air conditioning units seem cheap), or covered parking (the car will just have to deal with it), or a fireplace (not essential, anyway). True, I don’t have a balcony, but lately I have been enjoying the table down by the pool. I’ve taken to bringing a book or my laptown down there, and I carry along a plastic souvenir pool-side drink glass from my Carnival cruise filled with a vodka drink or whatever and it’s really quite acceptable for now.

I really don’t want to take up the time to write about other things I managed to accomplish during this vacation after the apartment episode came to an end, but suffice it say, things that I had procrastinated on for YEARS I suddenly found the desire and the energy to do. I’ve also hammered out for myself a plan (“new year’s resolutions”) on how to do my writing that I think of as publishable . It doesn’t matter now if I take a year, or longer, to make this place more liveable and to get stuff published--success in miniscule increments is fine if that is what it takes. Having the kind of a house somewhere that I want, making my living by what I am supposed to do instead of survival work, will be mine when the time comes. What it has taken is understanding myself better, and I am much more self-knowing, now, about my self and its tricks and foibles and fears and laziness. Socrates, who said, “Man, know thyself” would have been pleased.

There is a metaphorical image that I have long had, based on the San Francisco Cable Cars. Cable cars, you may or may not know, don’t have their own motive power. All that comes from a central power station (that is pretty fascinating to visit) that pulls cables that run in slots in the streets along the various cable car routes. How the cable car moves is that the operator manipulates a device that GRABS onto the cable (think, maybe of a beginning skier grabbing onto a cable at a bunny slope and then getting pulled uphill). A full-tight grab causes the cable to pull the car at full speed, but grabs with less friction cause slower progress. So the cable car operator doesn’t grab on tightly at first, that would make the car move with a huge jerk. Instead, it is a gradual process of tightening the grip on the cable and the car increases speed.

Stopping the cable car is a matter of releasing the hold on the cable and putting on a brake.

As individual people, like a cable car, we don’t really have our own motive power. Sure, we can move around and accomplish things and even cause a lot of havoc, but that’s almost like a cable car that has let go of the cable and is now running amok, perhaps crashing down the hill of a street in San Francisco. It’s MOVING alright, but is it in the proper direction?

Ultimately, to go uphill, to progress in the right direction, you have to grab onto the cable, and that cable is found inside you and IT’S motive force comes from a central generating station the identity of which I will leave up to you.

Think what I should tell people when they ask me what I did on my vacation was go to San Francisco and ride the cable cars?

Saturday, August 4, 2007

It's Slavehood That's Inconvenient

People who know me have long heard that from the very beginning of my earliest baby memories, what I most wanted to do was learn how to read and write. I grew up in households filled with books--my parents and both sets of grandparents had huge libraries filled with books--whole walls covered with books from top to bottom. I remember crawling over to the bottom shelves of my parents' bookshelves where I'd routinely pull a book off the shelf, open it, and attempt to decifer the mysterious heiroglyphics that I could see there. When I was a little older and could manipulate a crayon or a pencil, I'd try to copy the tiny letters I'd see printed across the page. One of my grandmothers (whom we called "Ma") was fascinated by this interest of mine, so she decided to see if she could teach me to read, and did so in one afternoon with A.A. Milne's "Christopher Robin" book, Now We Are Six (when I wasn't yet). I can't explain how I learned it so quickly, although uber-educator John Taylor Gatto says that reading is extremely easy to learn and explorers and anthropologists in Africa were able to teach African children living naked on the veldt how to read in less than 40 hours. I believe the same experience was mirrored by South Seas missionaries, who taught Polynesians how to read the English Bible very, very quickly. There are those who say, "If you can talk, you can sing," well I say, "If you can talk, you can read." All you need is to learn the sounds of the letters and then vocally apply them to words you see and your already existing vocabulary will make the correlation. This task would be a lot harder if the words you are trying to read are in a language you don't speak, which is why I think it took "so much longer" for Africans and Polynesians to learn reading than it took me, who already at least knew the language that I was learning to read.

The way we teach reading in school, Gatto says, is purposefully designed to make it difficult and frustrating (he often quotes Plato, who said that once we start paying people to teach, they will make learning increasingly difficult--that's job security!). He's got a lot of more serious explanations for that other than one that is cynically against teachers (who, as a whole, are quite dedicated to their tasks, although often hampered by adminstrations and school boards--and remember, Gatto himself was a professional teacher), one of which is that the heavily moneyed class, who control the government by putting forward and marketing only the candidates who will do what THEY want (when was the last time YOU actually had a good choice of candidates, and don't go by what they promised, but but by what they ultimately delivered), and what they want is a severely dumbed-down population (who won't be any competition for the already extant moneyed class) of easily manipulated low wage slave-workers (who will not have the time or inclination to turn to reading complicated texts in order to learn outside of the box they are stuck in, but will be satisified to get their "news" and "opinions" from mass media owned and controlled by that very same heavily moneyed class). These educational limitations don't apply to the children of the moneyed class, of course, who attend special private schools who are generally prohibitive for those outside of this class.

I haven't been able to stomach television at all for the past decade (and now movies have pretty much followed along with that, too) and the only time I even (am forced to) take a glance at television is when some coffee shop or restaurant I might happen to go to has the blasted thing on right in front of my face with subtitles running across the bottom of it. And seeing even that little bit is enough to give me indigestion.

Nowadays, magazines are just as bad, and even the poor Internet is overrun by this kind of thing--do people really think that people in the media-owning moneyed class are going to leave the Internet alone? After all, Google, you know, prepared it so that China could filter out all the objectionable content that the Communist government didn't want the Chinese people to be exposed to. Google, of course, is in it for the money and don't kid yourself, "cool, wonderful search engine" that it is, this search engine (and the associated advertising revenue) was enough to propel its founders up into the financial stratosphere. Just for fun, check to see what Google stock is selling for, and how much it rose since its initial public offering. I didn't invest in it, because I won't directly invest in companies whose social conscience I don't approve of. While I, too, love money, I'm not IN it for the money. There is a difference.

I am sure that the process is NOT being used to mask and filter the content that Americans are exposed to. For one thing, while I am not certain, I am pretty sure China has only one government-controlled or approved internet service provider, so controlling content would not be all that difficult. In the U.S., it would be a lot more difficult--but NOT impossible. I don't know if people understand this, but remember how Al Gore was laughed at because he claimed to have "invented" the Internet? (I wonder how all those acolytes who now get down on their prayer rugs and pray to him five times a day would feel about this if the memory of it comes back to their minds?). Well, the truth is that he wasn't really wacko in making that statement, there was some kind of truth to it, although in typical Gore fashion, it was an example of limitless self-aggrandizement and also typically had contained within it a disturbing kernal of fascism.

The history of Gore's "inventing the Internet" was that in its infancy, what we now know of as the Internet, which was (and is) a linking up of individual computers across a wide geographic spectrum, was mostly in existence for the military and some universities. When I first heard of it and used it was when I worked at the Stanford University Medical Center. Stanford (uh, notice, private university now central to what was to become Silicon Valley) was involved in creating a national medical database through which surgeons and other doctors would be able to share mortality statistics and other medical data. (Nowadays, even some SURGERIES can be performed remotely, such has been the advancement of this particular technology.) But this technology was on the brink of exploding into a truly universal use and the federal government was quite concerned about it. Republicans point blank didn't want the people to have it. Too much empowering technology--the elites could have it, of course, and would, but they felt that otherwise this could be very dangerous for national security.

Democrats, on the other hand, felt like maybe there was a way to bring it to the people, most of whom, of course, (since they KNOW their consitutents) were already so dumbed-down that they would use it only for superfluous entertainment, gaming, communicating garbage back and forth among each other, and the like, and wow, what a marvelous new medium for spreading even more moneyed-class "propoganda"! Besides, it was clear that a TON of money was to be made here. (Even ultra-liberal Michael Moore once admitted, three of four propoganda films ago, that there was absolutely no difference between the two major political parties, who really do represent only the financial top two percent of constitutents, of whom Moore is now a member, I am sure.)

So Clinton, who was president at the time, assigned his otherwise-pretty-useless Vice-President, Al Gore, to "work on that issue," and "Jessie-Jackson-like," Gore more or less served as a broker between the computer industry and government security interests. The Internet that Al Gore "invented" was one that COULD be rolled out to the people, but had buried within its structure the ability of the federal government to shut off the tap whenever it needed to, and meanwhile, was able to spy on every user at will. President Bush gets blamed for all the spying on citizens that is apparently going on currently, and yet built into the very structure of Al Gore's Internet was the exact same thing from its infancy. (I wanted to actually throw up when, while watching Steve Jobs's hour-long infomercial on the roll-out of the Apple iPhone, Jobs blithely demonstrated that he had Al Gore's number on his auto-dial...but of COURSE he would! And oh, Gore is on the Board of Directors of Apple, in case you didn't know, so that was part of his "reward" for brokering computer industry interests.)

So, while the Internet could be for a time a somewhat trusted source (or, at least, an unhampered source...except in public libraries), one has to always keep their evaluative antennae up. You have to utiilize critical thinking all the time. What's shocking, though, is how few people actually do. It's easier to simply turn on CNN or catch the exact same news off of Yahoo (amazingly correctly named if you only knew what the name meant) or MSN (part of the corporate universe of the richest man in the world), or, for those who feel that they are making an "extra" effort, spend some money and go to the movies and watch a so-called documentary by Michael Moore.

Okay, so you have to read uncontrolled sources and utilize critical thinking. Mostly, that will mean reading books. And I have been reading them since before I even went to nursery school. And I don't mean I read "Dick & Jane". If the book was on my parents's shelves, it was fair game in my mind for me to read. By the time I was in first grade and other kids were learning how to copy two sentence "stories" off of the blackboard, the teacher would ask me to be the one to make up and write on the blackboard the stories that the others would copy. The teacher felt that I, being a kid, would write something that would interest the other first graders more than her own. I felt hampered by the "two sentences" limitation, but I think I did okay. Anyway, it was fun and I enjoyed it, and the other students seemed to, too.

I feel that this long background of involvement with books has made me phenomenally wealthy in the currency that books provide. When people are starting out in their working life and the concept of investing for retirement is first introduced to them, what is always pointed out to them is the advantage of "starting early." How much MORE money for retirement does a worker have when he starts saving in his early twenties than if he starts some time in his mid-forties. But when I see that, I think, "Yes, but imagine the advantages if he had started the day he was born?" For example, I gave my godson the gift of $1,000 on his birthday, with instructions to his parents to invest it for him and not even tell him about it until he turned 21. That boy is now 20 years old and he doesn't know that at this point he has approximately $20,000 dollars (what that investment has so far grown into). Next year, he turns 21 and can claim it all, if he wants. HOWEVER, if he's really smart and decides to simply keep that money until he retires (an unlikely choice, but just imagine if he did), at age 62, that money would have grown to be something in the neighborhood of $10,000,000! And all THAT from only one one-thousand-dollar investment begun on the day he was born. THAT'S the advantage of compound interest and starting early, VERY early!

I think of knowledge as working on a basis of synthesis; just as the two diverse elements of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms combine together to synthesize a new substance, water, so do diverse elements of knowledge combine together to synthesize new knowledge. So that's what I think of as the "compound interest" element of knowledge--the synthesis of various discrete elements of knowledge that compound against each other. Now apply that to "starting early". And I started reading very, very early, and never let up.

I have to admit that I have to laugh when stupid and lazy people (who don't understand, for example, a simple logical argument that goes against the grain of some propoganda that they received) accuse me of being "stupid" or "unintelligent". They can't even imagine.

What goes on in the minds of such people can sometimes give me apoplexy. And it is horribly frustrating to have no way to counteract all that, it is such a tsunami of ignorance and intellectual failure that I fear for the existence of ALL truth. It seems that we really are on the verge of another very serious Dark Ages, one much worse than any we have ever had before, and this time that is apt to be global in extent. It is that IGNORANCE that could very well spell the end of all of us, not some political cypher like global warming, heavily propogandized by a POLITICIAN (gee, we all know how concerned and honest THEY are!).

Earlier today, I was glancing through my e-mail and saw that Roger Ebert's latest movie reviews had come out. While my interest in the mass-media of movies has been severely curtailed recently, every once in a while I glance to see if something interesting has managed to be made. I see that Ebert has reviewed some new movie about polar bears, called Arctic Tale. That one might be cute...but oh no, polar bears, there's bound to be something evidentiary about global warming in there, and sure enough, I read this line by Ebert in his review: "The documentary studies polar bears and walruses in the Arctic, as global warming raises temperatures and changes the way they have done business since time immemorial."

Since "time immemorial"? It was all I could do to keep from shouting at the computer screen. Ebert doesn't even offer a way to respond, not even an impotent "comments" section (which would do nothing but garner for me several weeks of hate mail from all the true believers--"it's a CONSENSUS!" they all scream, as if scientists even had a consensus on something important, such as what kind of foods make you fat!). Since "time immemorial"? You see, the party line on global warming is that right now the Earth is WARMER than it has ever been in its entire history, and all this is because of the carbon dioxide emissions of industrial countries and selfish western people who want to drive their SUVs, and presumably this warming is going to continue getting worse according the projections of a precipitously steep upwardly climbing curve, and unless humans REDUCE carbon emissions by 80%, all life on the planet will be destroyed.

Wow, how horrible! And this "truth" is branded "inconvenient." I'll say it's "inconvenient"!

However, what that really is is an "untruth".

This is where reading comes in, and the ability to synthesize understanding. I find that even the simplest WORDS can tell you a whole story, you don't even have to read more than that if you can think a little bit about what the words are telling you. Here's one of those words: "Greenland." What, or where, is "Greenland"? Greenland is a totally frozen-over, very large island in the northern reaches of the planet. Okay, so if it is totally frozen-over, completely covered in ice from one end to the other, why on earth did they call it "Greenland"? Was that some kind of ironic joke? Well, no, it was named that by the Scandinavian explorers who first were able to SAIL on over there, and who then later colonized it. They named it "Greenland," because it was, well, GREEN! It was lush and fertile and beautiful and there were sailors who were very excited about all that available vacant land there for the taking, so they decided to move there.

Why was currently-frozen-over Greenland green and habitable when the Scandinavian explorers first discovered it? Because the Earth was much WARMER then than it is today. Wow that's very important! The Earth was so much warmer then than it is today, enough for Greenland to be green and habitable, and yet the Earth wasn't destroyed! It looks like maybe we won't have to go back to the Stone Ages after all in order to save the Earth.

Other place names tell a similar story--even street names in London. There are many, many "Vine"-oriented names in London, going back to a time when the London area actually had vineyards. England doesn't have a wine industry now, it isn't the climate for it. But it was once upon a time. These vineyard names apparently date back from a period called "The Medieval Warming Period," which was also the time when all those gorgeous cathedrals were being built in Europe. It was a time of great wealth and leisure, because all that warmer climate made for a stronger and more abundant agricultural economy.

It is projected by some scientists that if our Earth once again achieved the same warmth of climate as the planet had during the Medieval Warming Period, then our Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway would be open for shipping all year around instead of freezing over in winter. This would do very much for the economies of our midwestern agricultural states and for all the Canadian cities along this route, and might even revitalize America's industrial might, because many foundry cities also lie along this route. Such warming would do wonders for Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Maine, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. Think what this would mean to the fortunes of Duluth, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Detroit and Windsor, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City.

Actually, that economic value would spread farther than just the areas I mentioned. While all the exportable grain output from the breadbasket states and iron and other minerals from Minnesota could now be shipped world-wide all year around through that "rails to the Great Lakes, by Laker Tankers to the rest of the world" transportation corridor, also included in that economic growth would be coal from Alabama and well, anything from the upper 2/3s, central 1/3 of the nation that could efficiency utilize this newly-opened up and expanded transportation corridor.

Another plus to the melting ice would be the opening up of the Northwest Passage, where the costs of commerce would lessen significantly due to not having to ship material through the Panama Canal, or else all the way down around the bottom of South America which the newer cargo ships that are wider than the Panama Canal can carry currently have to do. This would not only benefit the Seattle and Vancouver areas, but also Alaska, Japan, China, and for Russia, would open up the currently frozen, but phenomenally rich-in-resources Siberia. And NONE of this is detrimental to the Earth, because it has been that warm BEFORE. "Time immemorial?" How far back does Ebert's calendar go? Not very far back, apparently, and his personal library doesn't even include a geographic list of place names. And this man is supposed to be a WRITER! (Pesonally, I don't believe you deserve a wide public forum if you aren't smart enough to spew anything but lies.)

Words--real, honest, meaningful, and true words are the ticket...and books are full of them. They have within their mysterious shapes and meanings more answers than you think. Words, similar to ancient wise-people's tales, have filtered human wisdom down through the charcoal sands of time. What is left is pure, valuable, empowering, and liberating. Turn off the dumb-box of TV, stop reading the gutter press for the vicarious-living masses, pull a serious book off the shelf, open up your mind, and start synthesizing for yourself some REAL knowledge. Then you can break the chains of your slavehood and find that TRUTH is anything but "inconvenient--for you, it will be life, itself.