Monthly Archives: April 2014

Making right turns

matchstick cave figuresHere’s a story I liked about what might make a happy life. It’s by Michael Gartner about his family, in particular his dad and the things he did. I’ve shortened the story a little bit, I hope without losing the main points.
My father never drove a car.
I should say I never saw him drive a car.
My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walked the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.
My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938. Sometimes, my father would say, “As soon as one of you boys turns 16, we’ll get a car.” It was as if he wasn’t sure which one of us would turn 16 first.
But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet and it more or less became my brother’s car.
Then in 1952, when she was 43, my mother asked a friend to teach her to drive. For the next 45 years or so my mother was the driver in the family and my father appointed himself navigator.
When he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, “Do you want to know the secret of a long life?”
“I guess so,” I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.
“No left turns,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, we read an article saying most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”
“What?” I said again.
“No left turns,” he said. “Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer. So we always make three rights.”
“You’re kidding!” I said, and I turned to my mother for support. “No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”
But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”
I started laughing. “Loses count?” I asked. “Yes,” my father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”
I couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can’t be put off another day or another week.”
My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90. She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102. He continued to walk daily and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.
Once in 2004, he told my son, “You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred.”
Not long after that he said, “You know, I’m probably not going to live much longer.”
“You’re probably right,” I said.
“Why would you say that?” he countered, somewhat irritated.
“Because you’re 102 years old,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “you’re right.”
A short time before he died, my father said clearly and lucidly,”I want you to know that I am in no pain. I’m very comfortable. And I’ve had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.” 
I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. 
I can’t figure out if it was because he walked through life.
Or because he quit taking left turns.
Michael Gartner has been editor of newspapers and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Yeast Power

I don’t drink a lot, so I’m going to pass this along as a public service for people who do drink a lot. Plus, I’m fascinated by the main idea that’s in the Esquire magazine article, “How to drink all night without getting drunk.”

Of course the idea this idea isn’t for everybody. For some, the whole point of drinking is all about getting drunk. I haven’t tried out the idea in the article yet, but I will. And you might want to as well when you need to drink but don’t want to get drunk.

The article’s author spends time with Jim Koch, the chairman of the Boston Beer Company, sampling beers and talking about beer culture and the author claims (I’ve done some abbreviating):

I’d long noticed Jim was always lucid, always able to hold court, and hold his own with those much younger, and was doing likewise with me at 4 PM on a Thursday afternoon despite the fact we were both now several beers deep. So what was the secret?

“Active yeast. Like you get at the grocery store.”

Koch told me that for years he has swallowed your standard Fleischmann’s dry yeast before he drinks, stirring the white powdery substance in with some yogurt to make it more palatable. “One teaspoon per beer, right before you start drinking. And it’ll mitigate – not eliminate – but mitigate the effects of alcohol!” Koch told me. 

He’d learned the trick from the late-Joseph Owades. With a PhD in biochemistry and an early job in the fermentation department at Fleischmann’s, Owades probably knew more about fermentation and alcohol metabolism than perhaps any man who’s ever lived. He became good friends with Koch, helped perfect Boston Lager, and passed on to Koch his little yeast secret.

It turns out that active dry yeast has an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH). Roughly put, ADH breaks alcohol molecules down into their constituent parts of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the same thing that happens when your liver metabolizes alcohol. Owades realized if you also have that enzyme in your stomach when the alcohol first hits it, the ADH will begin breaking it down before it gets into your bloodstream.

Go forth and experiment.

The Catalyst

Sugar cubeClean water in a clean container won’t freeze, even at temperatures well below freezing. Even though the water is cold enough and ready to freeze, water needs something to rally around before crystalizing into ice. A piece of dust, a leaf, or a lost eyelash can seed the process. The water will start arranging itself into a solid around that catalyst.

That’s often how writing works for me – the water’s cold enough to solidify but just needs a starter to get the process going. In my mind, what I want to write might be close to ready to be put down on paper, but the writing starts after looking at an outside idea as a catalyst, usually something I’ve heard or read.

For years I’ve been collecting stuff I hear or read. I usually pull out something from that collection and it’ll act like the starter, helping the story in my mind start solidifying onto the page.

Along with explaining my writing process, I want to acknowledge the help, usually uncredited, I get from others. When I save stuff, I’ll put it into my words sometimes, or update the style, or remove bits and pieces I don’t relate to. It gets changed from the original form. And I mostly don’t  write down where I ran across an idea or who expressed an idea I was stuck by enough to jot down, because if it rings true to me, it doesn’t need to be validated by a well known person. So much of the starting seeds are hard to recognize or give credit to, but I’m very grateful for these pointers and starters I often use.

Big Snake, No Rattle

earth as seen from marsFor a long time it seemed like climate change was like a big snake with no rattle.  Industrialized countries have been pretty much oblivious to their contributions to the growth of this big dangerous snake. Now the big snake has a rattle, and it’s getting louder.

The unpredictability of our weather feels like we’re walking through the tall grass  with lions and tigers lurking and ready to pounce. It’s hard to say how and when the next bad thing might happen, but something bad seems to be lurking out there somewhere.

At the root of our contribution to climate change is the number of humans scurrying around. How many people is too many? I don’t know the ideal number of people, but there’re certainly too many people now. Without kids, your carbon footprint can become more like a carbon thumbprint if you don’t consume excessively.

An overwhelming majority of scientists consider manmade contributions like pollution to at the least to be a factor in climate change. It’s a numbers game, the more of us there are the more pollution there is. Seven billion plus people either striving towards or maintaining a western style of living is tough on our only planet (in the picture, that’s the Earth as seen from Mars) and it’s showing.

People considering having fewer or no kids would be a huge benefit for climate change. We could even continue polluting without much concern if here were just a lot fewer of us.

The journey is the reward

valley stairsJeremy Jones is an accomplished traveler and outdoorsman. He was selected by National Geographic Magazine as a nominee for Adventurer of the Year in 2012. For years he’s been a top professional all- mountain snowboarder, he owns a snowboard company, and he travels extensively.

Here’re a couple of good tips from a Jeremy Jones interview on the Made Man site:

What’s your No. 1 travel tip for adventurers?
“What I tell my kids is, the most important thing to bring is a good attitude. That’s how I pick my travel partners. And I have very low expectations. Nothing’s worse than being with someone on a trip, and the trip is pretty darn good, and they’re complaining because it’s not the best day ever. In the backcountry specifically, it’s super important to know your objective for that day. I go in thinking I’m probably gonna get turned around, and I’m mentally prepared for that. I’m thinking, If everything works out perfectly, maybe we can stand on top of that thing, we may get to ride it. I’m not emotionally invested in the summit.”

What’s one piece of gear you never leave home without?
“I’d say a mid-weight puffy jacket. That’s always with me in the backcountry and on a plane. The comfort it provides for the weight makes it a very efficient piece. From New York to the Himalayas, there’s no reason to not have that.”

Jeremy values a good attitude and a warm lightweight jacket. Good advice.


Lean in, lean out

lean in lean outGood health is simply the slowest way a human being can die. Right?

Not smoking is the best thing to do for your health.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s  proclamation that smoking is a serious health risk. As part of the commemoration the CDC is posting  new health consequences of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

Smoking is fundamentally negative savings. If you think of savings as current discomfort in exchange for future pleasure, then smoking is the opposite, it’s exchanging current pleasure  for future pain.

The number of healthy years of life, your healthspan, is more important but harder to measure than your lifespan. You can’t blame people for doing things they don’t know are bad for them, but when they know better they should do better.

The Rules We Live By

let it outWhen my grandfather got very old, he seemed to be depressed and sometimes angry.  His wife passed away a few years earlier, so like lots of our old people he was alone, or not around family, much of the time.

I’d have dinner and visit with him every Thursday night, and my dad would see him more frequently each week. Most of the family was too busy with their lives to visit him much, plus toward the end my grandfather was a bit cranky too, so he wasn’t a magnet for visitors.

I thought maybe some counseling  would help him out. But it wasn’t my call, so that didn’t happen. Why not? Probably because of the stigma attached to reaching out for help for psychological  issues and the feeling that it probably wouldn’t do much, if anything. So my grandfather stayed kinda cranky and sorta unhappy at the end of his life.

Maybe counseling would’ve helped. It’s hard to say, sometimes it might help a lot, while other times you can’t see the needle move – at least to an outside observer. It’s like taking a multivitamin tablet, you probably won’t see anything dramatic happen but it’s likely to be doing some good.

It’s been a long time since my grandfather died. I started thinking about him after I watched a documentary called “Slomo.” Slomo is the nickname of a doctor who stopped his successful neurology to do what he loved, skating every day on the boardwalk in San Diego.

The video is embedded in the NYT article, “Slomo.” In the article the videographer says, “Disillusioned with a life that had become increasingly materialistic, he had abruptly abandoned his career as a neurologist and moved to a studio by the beach. The locals called him Slomo, knowing little about his past life, but cheering and high-fiving him as he skated by in slow motion.” And “I’ve long been fascinated by people who make seismic changes late in life. It goes against the mainstream narrative: Grow up, pick a career, stick it out, retire. I was also curious about Slomo’s concept of “the zone,” a realm of pure subjectivity and connectedness that he achieves through his skating.”

My grandfather wasn’t a skater or a doctor, but he was part of the “Grow up, pick a career, stick it out, retire” narrative most Americans buy into. It’s interesting to see how people deal with the template that’s laid out for them, or the rules they choose to live by.

Fast-tracking Financial Independence

Black man heading outThere’s a small, but growing, group of people fast-tracking their way to financial independence. Some people who’ve been really serious about their goals can stop working, if they want to, while still in their thirties.

I’ve run across three good blogs about this, one from someone in his early thirties, the second one from a mid thirties guy, and finally one from a sixtyish year old.

The steps are pretty simple. Save 50% or more of your income. Invest the savings in a low-fee indexed stock fund (and don’t touch it). Avoid debt. Nothing too radical about those.

Then, after saving 25 times your average yearly living cost (which has likely been dropping along the way) you’ve reached financial independence and can safely (without running out) withdraw up to 4% every year from your (accumulating) saving.

That’s the broad brush picture. Some like owning rental homes too, or not owning a home at all. The particulars vary from person to person, but they all follow the simple three-part recipe I just mentioned.

It seems shocking to the average overspent American, and even to those who aren’t overspent. The people who’ve done this lived well below their means, drove old cars, stopped eating out a lot, and that sort of thing, but they didn’t endure hardships. They lived and continue to live like their grandparents or great-grandparents did, simply and frugally.

“What if everyone saved more, consumed less, and worked less after financial independence?” some will ask. I’d say it’s not an issue because most people won’t do it.

Over the years I’ve been asked for advice on how to live the way I do (similar to the fast-trackers, but slower). I found that after sharing a few steps and mentioning they’ll need to live on a bit less money while increasing their available time and quality of life, no one I can think of really wanted to pull the trigger. That’s why I don’t think most people will change their work-to-consume mindset.

Most of the fast-trackers seem to find that after stopping real work, they do a similar amount of productive stuff each day, it just doesn’t feel like work anymore.

The like-minded people building financial independence might create a “successful revolution” that has nothing to do with protestors taking over the government, but more to do with an uncommon idea becoming common in a short period of time.

P.S.  A side benefit of all this is bringing people back to the rhythm of the planet. Anyone with a scientific background can see how quickly we’re affecting our planet, but most consumers are blissfully unaware of the direct connection between shopping and destroying. For example, the world loses thirty something football fields of forest in any given minute while during that same minute we’re producing 114 cars…

The one shoe solution

one shoeLots of folks these days are trying to simplify their lives by owning less stuff.

What about owning just one slightly bigger shoe instead of owning a pair of those shoes? Bam, half the stuff on your closet’s floor is gone!

Some will say, “Well, if everyone did what you’re doing the footwear economy would collapse.” I disagree, and think the economics would work out surprisingly well if we all stood around more.

At least on the first day of April every year.