The Day I Almost Became a Legend

The bad guys were all over the barren boulder-strewn desert battlefield. It was so dry that you could see the dust kick up off the ground from the shots that hadn’t found their bloody mark. Beads of sweat popped out on my forehead in the heat of the mid-day. With no breeze, the air was stifling. Just breathing was hard. But the adrenaline pumping through my body let me go on.

The enemy was coming for us and they had the numbers. They had about 40 guys. We were down to five. We would have been six but Chuck was gone. The initial shots from the enemy had taken him down. His crumpled and bleeding body lay on the ground in front of the boulders we had run to for cover.

The enemy knew what they were doing. Their advance was text book. One person would shoot a burst of fire in our direction just before a few of them would quickly move up and take cover behind a boulder closer to our position. They were making steady progress.

Even more alarming, I could see some of the enemy making a flanking maneuver on either side of us. If the enemy got all the way to our sides we were dead men. We would have nowhere to hide.

With nothing to lose I hatched a plan. I’d put myself at extreme risk. Sure, I wanted to save my fellow soldiers, my buddies. But I also wanted the glory: I wanted to be somebody. If my boldness got us through this mess I’d become a legend. And the more of the enemy I could kill the better. Kill counts matter.

So I nodded to Pat and Eric, my two buddies who were behind the same boulder with me. I told them to give me cover. I was going to bring the fight to the enemy. They gave a grimace of understanding, switched their guns to rapid fire, and laid down cover. The noise was deafening.

Just as the covering fire started, I took off at a sprint towards a rock outcropping that slanted upwards. As I ran up the incline I leaped at the top for extra height and pivoted toward the enemy’s position. They were now in clear sight. In rapid succession I picked off the man nearest us. You could see the blood splatter from his body as he went down. I managed to hit three more of the enemy before I landed. I bent my knees to cushion the fall and rolled with the impact.

But when I looked up I saw that I was in mortal danger. One of the flanking enemy was right in front of me with his gun swinging up into firing position to blow me away. Instinctively, I jumped to my left and swung my own gun into position. I had time for just one shot.

And then the worst possible thing happened.

Alan, can you come down for supper now?” called out the woman’s voice. Crap! My mom’s question took my attention away for just a fraction of a second. But that was enough time for the bad guy to get the drop on me and riddle my body with machine gun fire. Dammit! Killed!

So I typed my new buddies a quick message: “Gotta go”. I was dead anyway. My Call of Duty game was over for now. I then yelled down to my mom: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m coming.” I didn’t even bother to hide the irritation in my voice. She had just ruined my chance to become a legend.

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How to Kill Your Marriage

dead bedroom

Killing a marriage takes time and real work, especially if you want your spouse to be the one to end it. Frustratingly, your spouse will probably try to resist your efforts to end the marriage and even try to “do better”.

So what to do? Well, what you do not do is be honest with your spouse. You could easily end up looking like the bad guy, especially if you don’t really have a good reason for wanting out of the marriage. For example, being bored with married sex doesn’t exactly count as a good reason to most other people.

So … what you need to do instead is slowly drive your spouse crazy until they’re the ones who want out. If you play it just right, you can even hold yourself out as the good guy who wanted to save the marriage and leave your spouse feeling vaguely guilty about wanting the divorce.

My education on these kill-your-marriage techniques comes from the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve had 33 years of married life spread over three marriages. Two ended in divorce. The third one is a happy one. I also earned extra credit with a broken-off engagement.

So below are my eight underhanded, blame-shifting, sure-fire steps to kill your marriage. Start with step 1 and then work your way down the list. Hopefully, your spouse will give up on the marriage by the time you reach step four or five. For good measure, push forward on several steps at the same time.

Step 1. Start before you’re married by not really caring.

 The person who cares the least about a relationship has the most power. So be diffident about marrying the other person. This will give you control over the marriage dynamics. You can then act with impunity because in your heart you really don’t care. In contrast, your spouse will bend over backwards in an effort to please you.

Importantly, the above dynamic will let you more readily take the steps that follow should you want out. Make not caring work for you.

Step 2. Turn off the light.

Do you remember the time when you were first in love with someone? Remember how your face would light up when you saw them? How you responded to their slightest touch?

 Well, don’t do that. Turn that light off. For example, give minimal attention to anything your spouse says. Don’t smile at them. Don’t be enthusiastic about any activities they suggest. Don’t laugh at their jokes. Only kiss with a quick meaningless peck on the lips. All-in-all, don’t do the 1,000 little things caring lovers do for each other.

If your spouse tries to cuddle up at night, perhaps with romance on their mind, just lay there and don’t respond. If that’s not enough to cool their jets, yawn and say how you’re so sleepy. Grab a bedside magazine to idly read to show your disinterest.

Take the no-cuddles pain further. Tell your spouse that if they can turn you on then go ahead and try. Then keep reading the magazine. Add in more yawns as they try their best. Trust me, they’ll give up before too long. The end result is you will have given the appearance of being agreeable to romance but the problem was your spouse just couldn’t get you over the line.

Remember that at this stage you’re not trying to openly criticize. You’re just showing no interest in your spouse and trying to make them doubt themselves.

“Tuning off the light”, while a good start, is probably not enough by itself to get your spouse to kill the marriage, especially if you have young children. So ratchet up the pain by adding on the next step.

Step 3. Believe you’re always right.

 If you and your spouse disagree on an issue explain to them (repeatedly) why you’re right and they’re wrong. Take the underlying attitude that you’re superior to them. This means that whatever your spouse says essentially has no merit. In contrast, what you say is dead-on due to your superior insight/intelligence.

At the same time, do listen to your spouse’s view. But only listen enough so that you can tell them why their thinking is wrong. This pretend listening also helps to give a façade of making it look like you’re playing fair even though you’re not.

Be sure to remember to keep your spouse in their place when you’re “listening” to them. Nonverbal communication works best since you can deny what you’re doing. So cross your arms to show that you’re blocking out what they’re saying. Give a slight role of your eyes when they try to make a major point. A bit more pointed, interrupt your spouse before they’re finished in order show that you think your thoughts are more important than theirs.

Step 4. Put the kids ahead of your spouse at all times.

For example, if you’re on vacation have the children sleep in the same bedroom as you and your spouse. Do this even if the kids have their own bedrooms.

When your spouse objects, falsely frame the issue as being whether or not your spouse loves the kids. This lets you avoid the elephant in the room that you’re really just looking for a way to not have sex with your spouse. Talking about the “elephant” could lead to a tough conversation with your spouse that could actually get to the root of the problems in the marriage and — God forbid — save it.

Step 5. Show disrespect.

Now we’re getting into the really serious stuff. … Disrespect your spouse by showing what little regard you have for them.

For example, if you’re a woman use this joke: You’re at a bar with your husband: Order a drink straight up. Pause. Then give a sly smile to the young handsome bartender and say “the same way I like my men”. Be sure to give a good chuckle so you can get away with this as just being a joke. This joke will help show that you don’t care about your husband’s feelings nor the marriage for that matter. For bonus points, when your husband objects to the joke criticize him for not having a sense of humor.

And if you’re a guy, openly ogle other women when you’re with your wife. If your wife calls you on it just say that’s what men do. That gives a two-for-one disrespect “win”. You’re showing both your interest in other women and also dismissing what your wife has to say.

Step 6. Criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.

This one is so good that it will pretty much kill off any sexual chemistry between you and your spouse.

Be sure to criticize negatively. Don’t criticize in a positive way. For example, if you say “I like it more when you do XYZ instead of ABC” your spouse might not even realize they’re being criticized. Instead, just tell them how lousy their ABC is.

A bit more subtle, tell your spouse they aren’t romantic. Offer no specifics they can work on. Just say that it’s an attitude. Importantly, say that it’s all their problem. Cut off any attempts by your spouse to question your views on what romance is all about. Refer back to step three (on believing you’re always right) as needed.

Step 7. Don’t apologize. Attack!

Apologize? No way! That would mean you’re admitting to being wrong on something. And don’t defend yourself either. Playing defense is a weak position. Instead, go on the attack. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.

For example, suppose your spouse finds that you’re carrying around condoms in your briefcase when condoms aren’t used in your family planning. Do you respond by apologizing and having a heart-to-heart talk? NO! Go on the attack instead. Immediately make the issue be that your spouse invaded your privacy. Demand an apology!

Failing to attack will put you on a slippery slope that leads to you exposing your affair(s) that you’ve put so much effort into hiding. So you must attack.

For good measure, throw in some seemingly plausible non-affair reason you have the condoms. For example, you could say that the condoms were just a gag gift at work. The only downside here is that if your spouse is still in their “save the marriage” mind frame they will believe almost anything you say. Oh well. At least you’ll still be able to have plausible deniability about your affair(s) and retain the “good guy” image, however false.

Step 8. Kill off trust.

This final step is the nuclear bomb for ending your marriage. For good reason trust is commonly seen as the # 1 need for a sound marriage. So you really have to find a way to kill trust off. Go for the total kill. Leave no foundation for possibly rebuilding the marriage.

If you’ve already had an affair you’ve already done the “big one” for killing trust (if you get caught at any rate). But don’t stop there. Make it worse. Do so with false confessions (i.e. lies). Just confess to known facts. As more facts come out expand your confession as needed. At each stage of lies be sure to look your spouse in the eyes and earnestly swear that you have now told them absolutely everything. By the time your series of big time lies are done your spouse will never ever be able to trust anything you say.

Despite your affair(s) being known – and despite your big time lies resulting from the details on your affair(s) unraveling – you can still save face. Save face by claiming you want to keep the marriage. Sure, it’s a false claim but honesty isn’t the point here. Taking this false stance lets you say it was your spouse who wanted the divorce despite your willingness to work on it.

You can kill off trust in more subtle ways also. It just takes more time. For example, use selected parts of something your spouse has shared with you in confidence to cast them in a poor light to others. Eventually your spouse will realize they can’t really trust you with their inner thoughts nor trust that you are on the “us” team in your marriage.

*  *  *

So there you have it. If you follow these eight steps I can all but guarantee that you’ll kill your marriage and largely look blame free. Manipulation, deviousness, and outright lies can work for you too.

A Better Way to Live

Paradise found? Not quite. But damned if it doesn’t feel close to it.

My wife and I recently bought a small one bedroom co-op down in Florida. As retirees in our mid-sixties living in New Jersey, we thought we would enjoy being snow birds. And we have. We just got back from spending two months down there during the winter.

What we weren’t expecting was just how much we fell in love with our new place.

We feel like we’ve found not just a nice place to live but a better – much better – way to live.

And that “way” is to live in a place that has friendly social connections and a sense of community. Our Florida co-op does just that.

Now I need to add that beautiful views and lots of activities also contributed to our enjoying our new Florida place. Florida sunshine in the winter also undeniably helps. But as good as all that is, it still comes in second place to the friendliness/community factor.

The above attributes are relevant to anyone wanting to more fully enjoy where they live. So let me expand on just why I so much loved our new place and what the underlying forces were.

*    *     *

People are social animals. That underlying fact is what makes this friendliness/community factor so important to enjoying where you live. Everyone needs to interact and connect with other people to feel happy. This fundamental human need is why isolating someone from human contact is such an extreme form of torture.

A well-known psychological theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, got this social need thing right. According to Maslow, once you get past the basic physical survival needs of food, shelter, and security, the next most important need people have is the psychological need of “belongingness and love”. He defined this need as “friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group.”

Our Florida co-op provides – big time – that social need Maslow explains so well.

But we didn’t just have the good luck of happening to stumble upon an exceptionally friendly group of fellow residents at our co-op in Florida.

The design of the building itself is a big part of what makes everyone so friendly.

pb courtyard
The courtyard with pool and palm trees for shade.

Briefly, the structure has two separate five story curved buildings that surround a large central courtyard with a pool in the middle. Open covered walkways run along the interior of the two buildings for access to each unit. Palm trees in the courtyard provide shade along with some level of screening between the two buildings.

The building setup promotes social interactions and friendliness in a variety of ways. For starters, the front door of everyone’s unit faces each other across the courtyard. Add in the open walkways on each floor and the result is anytime you go in or out you’re likely to see someone. You’d be surprised how much a cheery “good morning” makes a great start to your day.

In contrast, the design we saw at some of the other places we looked at had internal dimly lit hallways that felt sterile and closed off. No thanks.

Further connecting everyone is the spacious central courtyard with a pool and lots of turquoise colored patio chairs. But this area is used for more than just swimming and lounging around. Every Wednesday night the residents informally meet on the pool deck to share dinner. People grill their favorite food on a large common-use grill and then grab a chair to eat and talk. Stories are told. Food and wine are shared. People come and go. Everyone takes delight in meeting visiting friends and family and especially any new residents.

Another great place to chat with others was, surprisingly, the shared laundry. Now in buying our co-op, the idea of having to put up with a shared laundry had been a decided turn-off. I was decidedly not expecting to enjoy it.

But the reality is that I ended up looking forward to doing laundry (well, almost). A bench outside the laundry room sat next to the building’s entrance. I rarely got through one of the magazines left at the laundry for everyone to read. People coming and going would stop by to talk. Often you’d end up with a group of people talking about anything and everything.

In contrast, the setup of the typical American suburb often isolates people. Standalone houses keep people closed off from their neighbors. Fences add to the isolation. Many neighborhoods also lack sidewalks that would encourage walking and chance meetings with others. Instead of walking, people get into their own portable isolation chamber (otherwise known as a car) and drive to wherever they’re going.

*    *     *

There’s more to why we like our new place so much. The friendliness and new connections, per above,  still come in first. But then …

PB wiindow shot
The ocean view out the window.

The sheer beauty of our place is quite something. Right out our window are gorgeous views looking down the length of the ocean and beach. Palm tree fronds sway in the gentle breeze. This beauty is what initially attracted us to the place.

PB sunrise - full shot
The sunrise from the window.

Every morning I would get up early, make coffee, and then watch the ever changing sunrise start a new day. The most stunning sunrises were when a distant cloud bank would hide the sun but rays of brilliant sunlight would shoot out from behind the cloud. Often a V shaped formation of gliding pelicans would slowly go by the window.

Seeing the sheer beauty of nature – the wonder of it all – felt almost spiritual. Maslow captured that thought with “aesthetic needs” being on his hierarchy of needs. He defined those aesthetic needs as “appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.” Bingo. For me, that’s my sunrise.

*    *     *

There’s still more as to why we liked our new place so much.

The range of walk-to-it activities we enjoyed were seemingly endless. Now you won’t find “fun things to do” on a Maslow list of needs. But perhaps it should be.

In addition to the pool, the whole Atlantic Ocean beckoned just steps away. Swimming? Yep, all you could want, walks on the beach included.

A favorite non-sandy walk was along the boardwalk shaded by large sea grape bush/trees.The destination of our walk was often one of the restaurants just past the neighboring park.

One restaurant in particular, situated on a pier jutting out in to the ocean, had awesome breakfasts. The always cheery waitress would greet us with a big smile and ask “What can I get for y’all?” Invariably, I’d order my favorite: roasted shrimp and grits with just a hint of garlic. Add in a steamy cup of coffee in a heavy porcelain mug. Listen to the caw of the sea gulls and the slapping whoosh of the waves. Ahhh … shear contentment.

Every Saturday morning a farmers’ market opened up just a block away. Some of the things we got were vine ripened heirloom tomatoes, various squashes, and fresh fish kept on ice. A French bakery booth had great pastries such as flakey chocolate filled croissants and apple tarts. The bakery also sold a deep dish quiche that was out of this world!

Another walk-to-it activity — reached by going over a scenic bridge that crossed over the Intracoastal waterway — was the events the neighboring town held.

My favorite event was a two-day sidewalk chalk art festival that’s held each year. The town closes off their downtown streets and lets artists create their own masterpieces on the street. Food vendors are all out. Live bands play in the central plaza. Great time!

pb-chalk art
Chalk art on the street.

*    *     *

The takeaway here is not a “come to Florida” sales pitch although I know I’m sounding like that a bit.

Rather, the takeaway is how you can make your current home a more enjoyable place to live by improving the way you live.

Add more friendliness/community to your home life. Organize neighborhood block parties. Use the sidewalks to walk places whenever you can. Talk to your neighbor. Personally welcome anyone who moves into the neighborhood. Join local groups you have a common interest with. All this might not seem like much but collectively it will make a difference.

Also, add more beauty – aesthetics – to where you live. Clean up your place. Hang up art work you enjoy. Plant flowers where you go to and from your house. Put up a bird feeder. You might not be able to enjoy a flight of pelicans but blue jays and cardinals are pretty special in their own right.

The scariest panhandler I ever met

panhandler

“Do NOT worry. I will not hurt you. All I want is a little bit of change.”

The menacing words boomed through the subway car just as I looked up. The door at the end of the subway car had been opened with a loud bang.  A huge guy had come in to our car as we pulled out of the station and into the tunnel.

His words were spoken slowly, sort of like he wasn’t altogether there mentally. His words sounded more like:

 “Dooo NOT woorree. I will not huuurt youuu …”

And he spoke with no expression. Retarded? On drugs? A cold blooded killer? Hard to say.

The guy didn’t just sound dangerous. He also looked the part. It wasn’t just his enormous size, a combination of fat and strength such that he filled the entire aisle in the subway car. He was also unkempt looking. He wore a ratty T-shirt and had a dirty knitted cap pulled down over his head despite the heat.

Whatever his story was, he immediately had everyone’s full attention on the subway car. As for me, I tried to ignore him like he wasn’t talking to me.

But he was. He was talking not just to me but to every single person – some 30 in all – sitting there in the car.

He quickly walked up to each person. He put his body in close to you; leaning just far enough in to break the bubble of comfort zone space people normally keep between themselves.

He then stuck out the palm of his empty hand and expressionlessly looked at you square in the eyes. He held a large cup in his other hand.

This aggressive panhandling – more like a shakedown – worked. Nearly every person in the subway car gave him money. Some even gave him paper money, I presume out of fear from not having enough change.

When he came to me I didn’t look him in the eye. I then shook my head side to side to say no. I was betting on my being just half way “in line” as he made his way through the car. I felt fairly sure he wouldn’t waste time on me and end up missing out on the money he was going to get from everyone else still left. Plus I’m a large size guy in my own right.

But still, every sense in my body was on high alert as I shook my head no. I wasn’t sure my “no” wouldn’t spark his craziness. Was he going to pull out a knife? Would he try to smash my face in? Or was his “craziness” just a well calculated act to get money? I’m not sure. At any rate, he went on to the next person and didn’t attack me.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

The above was back in the late 1970s in NY City. That was a time back when the subway cars were covered with graffiti. The subway air conditioners rarely worked. Beads of sweat would form on your head as you sat in the stifling heat.

All-in-all going down in the subway was like going to visit hell. And on this day it was like I had seen one of the devil’s minions at “work” on my visit.

Step-parenting … the dream vs. reality

step-parent

He had me in a death choke hold with his arm tightly around my neck across my Adams apple. He was pulling with every ounce of strength he had. Although he was “just” 15, at 6’1” he had some serious strength and leverage. The 15 year old man/child trying to kill me was my stepson. We were in the doorway of my own bedroom.

It’s amazing how lightening quick your mind can work when you’re in an emergency situation. In an instant my mind flashed back to a high school seminar on how to defend yourself if attacked. And I also remembered that being in a choke hold was a critical situation. You can black out in just 10 seconds and then you’re at the total mercy of your attacker. Immediate measures are needed.

So I twisted my whole body around and at the same time shot my arm up under his arm through the small gap my twisting motion created. This got his arm off my neck. I was then able to roll him to the ground in a body grab lock hold, taking advantage of my larger size and strength. I had to hold him for some 10 minutes before he could calm down enough and promise not to attack me if I let him go.

– – – – – – – – – – –

How in the world did I end up in the above situation? The immediate answer was that my step-son (I’ll call him Rick, not his real name) had been having a huge fight with his mom all day long. She had grounded him (quite justifiably). He didn’t like it. He wanted his skateboard so he could take off. His mom had hidden it.

So Rick was going around the house looking for the skate board in open defiance of his mom (and me). When he went to the master bedroom I followed him and told him to leave the room. I even went so far as to tell him I knew his skateboard wasn’t in our bedroom. He wouldn’t listen. He finished searching the room as I stood there repeatedly telling him to leave.

When he got to the doorway (where I was) I thought I knew a way to put this nonsense to an end and keep him grounded at home. I reached down to take off his shoe. And that’s where Rick, already agitated, grabbed me in a severe choke hold.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

The aftermath was a mixed bag. Rick’s mom – my wife – called the police somewhere in the midst of all this. They came. A policeman lectured Rick about how he really had to listen to his parents and do as they said. The police then left.

I said nothing to the police about Rick trying to kill me. I had a good reason. In just a few days Rick was heading off to a specialized school for troubled adolescents. If an adolescent had any history of violence the school would not take him.  In other words, if I made a report to the police (on Rick trying to kill me) I would jeopardize Rick’s going to the specialized school. This special school was the end-of-the-rope step Rick’s mom (with my agreement) was taking to try and deal with her unmanageable son.

Later that day I had a serious talk with my wife. I told her that no one gets a free shot at trying to kill me. I told her, as said above, how the only reason I didn’t press attempted murder charges on Rick was because it would stop him from going to the specialized school.

My wife made light of it all. She said Rick was “just upset”. He was just a child and wasn’t really trying to kill me. As it is, the only thing she actually saw was me holding her son down. And further, I had brought it on myself (in trying to take his shoe off).

I assured her I knew when someone had snapped and was trying to kill me. Granted, the situation was not black and white. But still, she just wasn’t seeing or appreciating the reality and seriousness of the situation.

So we lived with Rick in the house for the next few days until he was off to his specialized school. At night I piled up boxes against the bedroom door so that if Rick tried to come in to our bedroom I’d hear him first and at least have a fighting chance if he attacked. My wife thought my doing this was silly and totally unnecessary. But I had no choice. I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t have those “early warning” boxes at the door.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The above incident was some ten years ago now. Rick’s mom and I divorced some five years ago. As for Rick, he came back from his specialized school after nine months but was only marginally better. As he said, the biggest thing he learned was how to play the system better. But at least that meant he also “played at” being better behaved (most of the time).

At any rate, ultimately, it looks like Rick got his act together. Last I heard he got married and is now a successful sales person for an industrial company. Good for him. I have no contact with him or his mother for that matter.

As for lessons learned from all this … well … I really don’t have any good ones. Life can take turns in ways you don’t expect. When I married Rick’s mom he was a cute seven year old boy (albeit a bit disrespectful towards his mom). I had visions of recreating the wonderful relationship I had had with my own stepfather. I can’t begin to count the hours I spent with Rick throwing a baseball back and forth, going to his games, or just shooting basketballs. But he was, how to say it, a very independent minded kid. But then perhaps I could have been a better father to him. I just don’t know. I tried.

When Your Self-Image Collides with Realty

self-image

We all have our conceits that help let us feel good about ourselves. Typically, they’re just “small” ones. However, these conceits can also be “big” ones, so big that one’s self-image is simply delusional.

For example, a person might take pride in thinking they’re a really good singer. So what happens when the  reality is they aren’t so good and they’re undeniably confronted with that reality?  The person with the “small” conceit just gets their feelings a bit bruised. But they’re able to accept and deal with the real world feedback.

However, if the core part of the person’s self-image is wrapped up in seeing themselves as a good singer (i.e. it’s a “big” conceit) the person often reacts with total denial. They will do things like blame the singing judge for not seeing their great talent.

If you’ve ever watched the TV show American Idol you have seen both of the above types of behaviors that result from “small” and “big” conceits.

So what drives these off-base self-images, especially the “big” conceits that are simply delusional?

From what I see, people are typically compelled to protect their self-image no matter what reality says. At its most basic level, people just innately need to see themselves as a good/worthwhile person. It’s built into our DNA. It’s almost a matter of survival. A highly negative self-image can put you on a psychological slippery slope, the bottom of which is such a dark place that you virtually can’t live with yourself.

As a result, people will often protect their self-image by twisting the reality of their actions to conform with their positive self-image. That twisting of reality can be so extreme that the person creates their own false bubble of reality to live in and fiercely defends that false reality. Ownership of their bad behavior is not taken because that might damage their self-image.

Fortunately, most of the time a person’s good self-image is valid. For example, most people take pride in talents that at least have a decent basis in reality. Similarly, most people’s standards of morality are reality based in that their personal standards are in sync with society’s standards.

BUT this write-up is about the invalid ways people so often protect their self-image. Below are some examples I have personally seen. Let me start with some relatively “little” self-image conceits, starting with myself.

1. The person who thinks they’re good looking.

The (self) observation: I think of myself as a good looking guy. And I still basically think this even though reality somewhat burst my bubble.

The reality: A number of years ago when I was single I put a picture of myself on a dating web site. The site let people rate how good looking you are. I was expecting something like an 8 out of 10 rating. Well, the reality was some 100 people rated me as a 5 (just average).  Even then, despite this objective reality, I still hold to the self-image that I’m at least a 6 or even a 7. But if I’m really honest with myself, I have to own up to my being a bit vain given how my self-image doesn’t quite square with reality.

 

– – – – – – –

2017 edit: I have deleted several other examples. The reason for this is I gave a copy of this write-up to a writers’ group I was in. They thought the examples I gave — except for the self-depricating example I left in above — were off base. Most of the other writers didn’t agree with what I thought was the reality in a situation I observed. And they all thought I was coming across as judgmental.

Well, I don’t want to leave a write-up that results in me looking like a jerk to most people. Further, I need to do my own reality check on just how judgmental I can be, perhaps driven by an over-inflated sense observational powers. … So, for now, I’ve killed the rest of the examples.

Why be Moral?

hoimer

WHAT is even moral in the first place? For something to be seen as moral I think it needs to pass both of these tests:

  • Society’s standards are followed. In other words, the rules and standards of the society you live in largely define what’s “moral” and “right”. An example makes my point. Is killing babies wrong? Well it’s not seen as wrong in the Pygmy tribe in Africa. If twins are born one is killed. This is done because the conditions they live in are so harsh that both children will invariably die if both stay alive. Thus you just can’t say killing babies is a universal wrong. “Wrong” is societal dependent. … But the next point is also relevant.
  • No other people are unnecessarily hurt. I take this point from the famous writer Robert A. Heinlein who wrote: “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other sins are invented nonsense.” By that definition the killing of babies by the Pygmy tribe is okay (per above bullet) because it’s necessary.

With the above definition of morality in hand, here’s WHY you should (and should want to) behave morally:

  • Psychological self-reward. Doing the “right” thing makes you feel good about yourself. In other words, doing “right” boosts your self-image (in seeing yourself as a “good” person). Note: What one sees as “right” usually equates to the societal standards you were raised in (more later on this).
  • Feeling that you fit in as a member of society. We’re “pack animals”. We’re hard wired to be part of a social group. By following your social group’s rules and standard you fit in that much better into your group. You also gain survival advantages from being part of a group.
  • Risk/reward pay off. Following society’s rules/standards is usually a net benefit to you. Typically, if you go against society’s controls on your behavior the risk will outweigh the reward. For example, if you rob a bank the risk of getting caught (and jailed) generally outweighs the reward.

Notice that the above bullets (on why to behave morally) are pretty much selfish in nature. That’s no accident. I think people are indeed generally motivated by self-interest.

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But, but, but what about …

1. Religion.

Many think religion defines morality. I don’t. Religion does not define morality for a society. Rather, it’s the other way around (with society defining religion).

For example, the religious standard of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is generally a good moral rule to have (and one that many societies have independently developed). Such a rule helps keep the family unit strong and thus helps children be raised to be productive members of society. This societal based need (to keep parents together) then got pulled into being a religious standard (and not the other way around).

2. Personal morality.

Many see their own personal morality as being the way to define what’s moral. In other words, as long as they are following their conscience (their personal standards) they see themselves as a moral person. These personal standards may or may not overlap society’s standards (which also pulls in religion).

But the problem with personal standards is they can too easily become a whatever-you-want-it-to-be standard that lets you justify anything. Often a person will expand their personal definition of morality to include their behavior (even if bad).

For example, let me use my bank robbing example again but in a different way. Suppose your personal standards see robbing a bank as okay? Does that then make it moral? It might to you. But the far more relevant view of the morality here is society’s standards. And society’s standards say robbing a bank is so immoral that you’ll go to jail.

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I have a longer blog on this same topic at: http://njncmandotcom.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/why-be-moral/

The Power to Regulate is the Power to Destroy (as done with my inn)

 

I had no idea that the knock on my door was my doom. But it was. After a perfunctory hello, the state regulator told me that he was so glad my bed & breakfast – my inn – was currently not opened (we were doing renovations). He told me that if we had been opened he would have had to start fining me $5,000/day. In other words, we were closed for business.

The resulting disaster

The results of being so summarily (and un-expectantly) closed down were a disaster both financially and to my marriage.

We couldn’t go forward or backward with how the property operated. In an instant the regulator at our door had turned our property into a white elephant. The economic viability of the property was now gone under any scenario we had.

Going forward was a “no go”. Our plan had been to focus on short-term (under 30 day) stays similar to what a B&B does. Such short-term stays earn considerably more revenue than long-term stays and was the basis for our extensive capital improvements. But the regulator said we could not have short-term stays since our rooming house license only allowed long-term (over 30 days) stays. In fact, the regulator went on to say that if we ever had just one short-term stay he would fine us $5,000/day. And for good measure he said he would make unannounced visits to check on us going forward if we were to reopen.

But going backwards – back to strictly just taking long-term rooming house type stays – wasn’t really an option either. There wasn’t really a “back” to go to. The previous owner for years (well over a decade) had taken a goodly amount of short-term B&B type stays. (She had even gone so far as to advertise her place as a B&B at times.)  The price we had paid for the property had factored in the higher revenue stream from these short-term stays. But with these higher revenue short-term stays now “killed” (per the regulator at our door). The property could never be profitable (not at the price we had paid for it plus our capital improvements). We wouldn’t even be able to cover our costs.

Also not feasible was going way back to when the property was a private home (70+ years ago). The building’s configuration and 16 bedrooms made trying to convert the building back in to a private home not feasible.

So as my wife and I listened to the regulator at our door we could see our dream (of a first class inn) — a dream that we had poured our sweat & blood into as well as our money — start to disappear before our eyes. And going forward there was no recovery. Everything the regulator said stuck.

We had little choice. We cut our losses by selling the property at a fire sale price (for not much more than just the value of the land). As for the property’s ability to earn income from guest stays (or the enticing vision of the property being a luxury inn), we had to limit ourselves to just saying the property came with a rooming house license.

Our loss was enormous (at a level that amounts to the life savings for many people). We got back about 30 cents for every dollar we had invested in the place.

Another loss was our marriage. The financial loss from the inn — added to our other issues — was just too much for the marriage to bear.

“Stupid me” for getting into such a regulatory mess

Now you might well think I was pretty stupid to even allow myself to be in the position of being at risk to having a regulator tell me I had to close down, especially with such a large amount of capital at risk. And with hindsight, yeah, I was stupid. What the hell was I doing trying to use a “rooming house” license as if it were a “B&B” license?

But our “stupid” business plan is only stupid in hindsight. At the time, I had thought (wrongly) that we had satisfied the regulatory concerns. Here’s why I thought our plans were okay:

  1. My own reading of the regulations showed we were in compliance with the regulations. …  As best as I could understand the regulations, at least 15% of your stays had to be long-term and ergo the rest could be short-term.
  2. We had a letter from our state okaying our business plan. … The wording in the rooming house regulations was unclear and thus subject to interpretation. So I spoke with our state’s department that was in charge of enforcing these regulations. That department, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), was most helpful. They agreed with my understanding on the mix of short-term and long-term stays (per item # 1 above). They had some other suggestions (such as to call ourselves an inn but not a B&B). And, the “nice” regulator was kind enough to put all this in a letter to us. I was delighted. Our business plan had a green light.
  3. Two other “rooming house” inns in town also took short-term stays. … In other words, we had precedent. Having our “rooming house” property also take short-term stays wasn’t a case of plowing new ground (regulatory wise or as accepted by the town). One of these other “rooming house” inns had even been the basis for our own business model (given how the other inn had some 80% of their guests be short-term stays). We had just wanted to do a more luxurious version of what this other inn was already doing.
  4. Our inn had already been accepting a good number of short-term stays for many years (as said earlier).

Hmmm … Doesn’t the above seem to cover regulatory concerns? I certainly thought so. I was wrong. Let me explain why.

The “green light” I thought I had in the letter from our state’s DCA department changed to all red with the different DCA regulator at our door. You’d think the official DCA letter we had in hand (from the earlier “nice” regulator) would cover the matter and put a cork in the mouth of the regulator at our door. It didn’t. Two reasons:

  • The regulator at our door simply dismissed the DCA letter. … The regulator didn’t care about the letter even though he was from the same DCA department. He interpreted the rooming house regulations quite differently and far more strictly. And apparently his interpretation carried more weight than the “nice” regulator we had dealt with (see next bullet).
  • The earlier DCA regulator reneged on his letter. … The “nice” DCA regulator who had okayed our business plan changed his mind. I’d presume he reneged on what he said with the “help” of someone else, presumably the regulator at our door. Legally (per the lawyer I later talked to) regulators can flip flop like that.

That’s pretty horrendous. But it gets worse.

What really blew my mind is that the regulator at our door had apparently come up with a just-for-us strictest possible interpretation of the rooming house regulations. For one, he dismissed as irrelevant that two other rooming houses in town also took short-term stays (per point # 3 above). Irrelevant? That defies logic.

Further, the regulator at our door dismissed the fact that the previous owner of our inn had also taken short-term stays (point # 4 above). As he said, just because the previous owner had also had been in violation of the regulations (in his view) didn’t make our own violation acceptable. That stance at least has logic.

BUT then why weren’t those earlier short-term stay regulatory violations “discovered” in the past for what was now our inn? Well, the easy (and obvious) answer is because the DCA had not used such a strict interpretation of the regulations in the past. It’s the same  reason (presumably) for why the other two “rooming house” inns in town had been allowed to take short-term stays for years.

The above facts pretty clearly say that the DCA regulator who came to our door was simply  on a mission to  close us down, to “get us” if you will. That’s also in alignment with the regulator’s demeanor. Per my opening remarks, from the moment I opened the door the regulator was hostile. He had no wish to discuss issues or even consider what we had to say. He was simply there to close us down (in so far as ever taking any short-term stays).

Wow! We were in deep trouble. Opening my door to the DCA regulator was like opening a one-way door to hell.

How the fire department began the regulatory destruction

The start of our regulatory destruction began with our local fire department. They sand bagged us as the new owners. When we protested, they got upset with us and (as best as I can determine) called a friend of theirs at the state DCA to “get us” (i.e. close us down).

I know. Most people love firemen. I had too before what happened with me and the  inn. I now have a deep distrust and antipathy for the town’s fire department. More precisely, my distrust is with the department’s administration and fire marshals who enforce the code (not with the fire fighters putting out fires).

What started things off was the fire department LIED to us that the property we bought met the fire codes. I’m totally serious. The fire department had let the previous owner (an elderly widow) be out of compliance with the fire codes. Yet the fire department had still given the property a certificate — the one hanging on the wall at the inn — that said the property met the fire safety codes.

My wife and I had relied on that (false) fire inspection certificate when we bought the place.

What then happened next still stuns me to this day. A few months after we had bought the place the fire department paid us a visit. They ended up giving us a 25 point write-up on fire code violations and improvements that had to be made. The improvements ranged from having to replace every internal door (some 40 doors) to enclosing the magnificent three story open staircase of our inn with sheetrock walls. All together, the costs would be well over $100,000.

When I asked the fire marshal why they were only now enforcing the codes (and had not done so on the previous owner) his only answer was “I don’t have a good answer.” That’s a word-for-word quote. I’d call the response pathetic but for the disaster his response meant for us.

At any rate, we contested the fire department’s actions. We protested so strongly that the end result was the state took over administering our fire code compliance. The state was far less stringent on what we had to do. For example, they didn’t think we needed to enclose the entire staircase in sheetrock. Note: It helps to understand that many parts of the fire code are subject to interpretation.

Well, the above series of events ticked off our fire department. I could see it in how terse their dealings with us became. Any doubts I had about this were removed when someone in town  later told me (on a second hand basis) that the fire department had been seriously upset with us, especially with how my highly assertive wife had dealt with them. It seems that the fire department had also felt miffed that we had somehow finagled a way to not have to dance to their tune (by having the state oversee our compliance with the fire code instead of them).

Hmmm … miffed. Sure, my (ex) wife can be overly assertive. (It’s even part of the “other issues” behind our divorce.) But screw that. For the fire department to have felt “miffed” about how we reacted to what they had so unfairly done to us is ridiculous. It’s like someone getting miffed at their rape victim for not just laying there and passively letting themselves be terribly violated.

And so I think our local fire department saw how they could get in the last word with us with a mix of punishment and revenge.  As said above, I think the fire department called up a buddy of theirs at the state DCA and asked them to “get us” (close us down).

Now I of course I can’t prove that the above is what happened. But the dots connect pretty well.  One of the larger “dots” came from the DCA regulator at our door when he made a slip of the tongue. The slip was when I asked him why he wasn’t enforcing the rooming house regulations in the same way on the other “rooming house” inns in town. His reply was that no one had called about these other inns (meaning someone had called about us).

Hmmm … “someone”. Now who might that someone be especially for the DCA to have responded to so strongly and with such severity on us? Again, my best guess is that “someone” was the local fire department. But it has to remain as just being a guess because the regulator at our door wouldn’t tell me who (or even what area) had called the DCA. (I asked). Nor did this information show up in an OPRA document request I made months later for the DCA, the fire department. and the town’s administration.

The inn reopens with the same business model

The new owners of my inn finished up our renovations and … get this … reopened with the same business model we had used (focusing on short-term stays). They operate with a rooming house license (just as we had done). They’ve even kept the same name for the inn. They’ve operated this way for some three years now.

In other words, the ONLY difference in “our” inn and the inn that reopened is the owners (and whether or not the owners  were liked or not  by the regulators). Here you have the same regulations (even some of  the same regulators) dealing with literally the same property and situation. Yet the regulators (apparently) have come up with totally opposite dictates for what the owners could do (and not do).

What other conclusion can any rational person reach? The regulators had unfairly (even maliciously) been out to get us and used their regulatory powers as a weapon.

Understand that the new owners have not been hiding how they operate. For example, they have a fully functional web site that lets people reserve their short-term stays (just as with a B&B or a hotel). The inn has received favorable press as a wonderful B&B/inn. Tripadvisor.com reviews give the inn five stars as a top notch B&B (as we had also earned).

I’m sure it helps that one of the new owners is a national celebrity. The regulators are probably a bit star struck. Also, I’m sure there’s just no way the regulators would impose a just-for-you overly strict interpretation of the regulations on the celebrity. The blow-back they’d receive wouldn’t be worth it. Who needs an angry call from the mayor or — who knows — perhaps even the state governor? As it is, the regulators have no ax to grind with the new owners (as they had with us).

The thing here is I only wish the new owners of my (formerly owned) inn success. Their buying my property at least let me move on. I’m even glad to see the inn be in the national media at times as a wonderful place to say. But it’s a bittersweet feeling.  I’m also reminded of the (unwarranted) destruction visited on me by the regulators.

But it’s not just a matter of the celebrity status  of one of the inn’s new owners insulating them from a regulatory nightmare. The other “rooming house” inn in town (the one that had served as our business model) continues to operate as it always has (focusing on short-term stays). (Note: the other “rooming house” inn in town — a cheaper somewhat rundown place that only took a modest number of short-term stays — closed down a couple of years ago due to its poor economics.)

Regulators are untouchable

You can’t fight regulators. In other words, they have all the power.

I went to a top lawyer with the intent of suing the DCA as well as the fire department. But the lawyer explained to me that the laws give extensive protection to regulatory agencies and their regulators. Unless a regulator is doing something egregious (like seeking a bribe) they (and their department) are protected from being sued.

Sure, I could still legally sue. But suing was a “no win” for me. I’d probably just add to my loss.  Even if I somehow won (not likely), I’d still lose given that my legal costs would likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further, putting a dollar amount on how much the regulators had harmed me was problematic. The real estate market had tanked since I had bought the property (due to the Great Recession).

Circumstances help let the regulators “get away with it”

Not only could I not sue (per above) but I couldn’t even hold the regulators accountable.

Frankly, I think the town’s fire marshal who had lied about the inn’s fire certificate should have been fired.  Also, the head of the fire department should have suffered consequences for running such a loose ship. Similar consequences to the careers of the DCA regulators should have also happened, especially if the (presumed) underhanded collusion of the DCA and fire department to “get us” could be proven.

But the reality is there have been no career consequences to any of the regulators whatsoever.

I went up the chain of command for the regulators to protest what had happened but to no avail. It seems that “protect your own” triumphs rational thought.

For the local fire department I protested to the leadership in town. It got me no where. It helps to understand that the town’s  City Administrator was a former head of the fire department. I’d presume that he probably felt protective of his friends there. He gave empathy but took no action.

But I didn’t just speak to the City Administrator. Other people in charge of running the town (while also empathetic) took the view that the fire department was sacrosanct. After all, the fire department saved lives and thus had license to do whatever they felt was needed. The fact that the fire department had lied to us (over the fire inspection) and had probably helped destroy a small local business was seemingly lost on them all.

My protests to the DCA also got me no where. They closed ranks, stone walled me, and basically just didn’t care. All that my vigorous protests got me was a letter from a senior DCA official that basically just said tough luck and didn’t even bother to address my specific issues.

I felt like a rape victim trying to turn in their rapist only to have it fall on deaf ears.

I thought of trying to go public as a last resort way of holding the regulators accountable. I thought about going to the newspapers or state legislators for the sake of publicity and help.

But I didn’t go public. For one, I’m confident that I’d yet again just be greeted with indifference.  Other than me (and my ex wife) no one really cared. No one else’s ox was being gored.

But perhaps more important, going public would probably — at “best” — only result in hurting the innocent owners of the other “rooming house” inns in town (including the new owners of my inn). Even if I succeeded in making the regulators feel the heat from being in the public spotlight they’d probably respond with a regulatory crackdown on the other “rooming house” inns in town. They could throw up their hands in feigned horror that these other “rooming house” inns had managed to hoodwink them over the years as to how they were operating (in taking short-term stays). That would let the regulators claim that they were consistent in how they enforced regulations. They’d thus protect their jobs.

Now the above would of course be utter bullshit mind you on the regulators’ part given how openly the other “rooming house” inns in town have taken short-term stays for years.

But bullshit often wins.

So trying to go public just isn’t worth it (back then or now).  I win nothing. Again, at best I’d probably just “succeed” in hurting the other “rooming house” inns. As it is, I wish the new owners of my inn nothing but success. I’m glad they bought my place. It let me at least move on with my life.

But it’s all still so frustrating. By not taking the last resort of “going public” I’m in some ways helping the regulators get away Scott free with what they did to us.

Also frustrating — like adding salt to the wound — is how the local fire department is so often lauded in public for being such great protectors of the public. And those accolades go to some of the same people who through ineptitude (and probably also malicious revenge) helped to destroy my inn. Hmmm … Lauded? I think being fired is more appropriate.

Summary

The bigger point in telling my story here is as the title says. The power to regulate IS the power to destroy.

The personal story I’ve told here about my inn vividly illustrates this point. The regulators I dealt with vis-à-vis my inn had all the power. They used that power to destroy my inn with impunity and probably even malicious intent. And the regulators are essentially  untouchable, both legally and due to circumstances.

Dealing with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

I can feel it starting as I lay there in bed. A full leg cramp is coming on. In a few seconds my right leg will become rock hard and unusable.

Fortunately, there’s little pain; it’s more just a matter of discomfort. It also helps that these leg cramps pretty much just happen when I’m in bed. Typically, I’ll have five or so cramps each night, usually just after going to bed and then when I’m waking up.

I hide these cramps from my wife as best I can (as I do with any physical issues I have with MS). I’m not being dishonest with her. She knows about the cramps and everything else that involves my MS. Before we got married two years ago I even had her speak with my MS doctor so she fully knew what she was taking on in my having MS. Fortunately, she looks at the glass as being half full (i.e. focusing on what we can do together rather than on what we can not do together).

Nonetheless, I try to make my MS issues be as unobvious as I can. I don’t want to look infirmed in some way. Infirmed is not sexy.

Now an occasional leg cramp is hardly “infirmed”. But that’s just the start of a list of MS symptoms.

– – – – – – – – – –

By far the most frustrating MS symptom I have is what’s called dropped foot syndrome. It never goes away. It only gets worse over time (as with all my MS symptoms). For me, it’s my right foot that “drops”.

A dropped foot means  your foot “drops” when you walk. What happens is your toes drag the ground as your leg swings forward when you take a step. Your mind is telling your foot to pick itself up. But your foot just doesn’t fully respond. Your toes are pointing down a bit such that they’ll catch on anything that’s not totally flat on the floor and trip you.

But calling it “dropped foot” only partially describes the condition. More broadly, having “dropped foot”  feels like your foot is attached to your leg with a loose ball and socket joint that you have little control over. In other words, your foot mostly just dangles. it’s not just a matter of your toes dropping (front to back). Your foot can flop sideways also. For example, I wouldn’t dream of jumping up in the air even for just a few inches. I’d be afraid of landing on my “bad” right ankle sideways and breaking it.

This “dropped foot” condition is how I first knew I had a problem (some ten years ago now). I went out for a jog and I kept tripping on every little damn crack in the sidewalk. I ignored it at first. But after a few months (and a fair amount of my skin being left on the pavement) I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I went to the doctor. After two years (and seeing some six doctors) they finally figured out I had MS. MS is not an easily made diagnosis.

This tripping has gotten worse over the years. A bit over a year ago I managed to break three toes even though I was just walking on a smooth carpet inside. What happened is I was walking barefoot. I took a step with my dropped foot and caught my toes on the carpet. The toes curled under my foot as I landed with all of my weight. That one hurt.

Fortunately, wearing a foot brace helps my dropped foot syndrome. I actually wear two braces. One is just a standard ankle brace (mostly helping with lateral support). The other one is a cleverly designed simple device (called Foot-Up) that — you guessed it — holds my foot up. The heart of the device is just an elastic cord that goes between my ankle and my shoe (thus holding up my foot). The elastic cord is held in place by an ankle wrap and a small plastic device that goes under your shoe laces. The elastic cord snaps into place between these two holders. … But the braces are not a cure all. I can still trip.

Also helping a bit is a drug (Ampyra)  that helps lessen the dropped foot syndrome. I started the drug  three years ago. At first it helped quite a bit.  But now I’m back to where I was. I don’t know if I’ve built up a tolerance to the drug or if my MS has just gotten that much worse.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

But “dropped foot syndrome” type problems are not just limited to my foot. I have similar problems with my whole right leg. My leg is weak and spastic (i.e. uncoordinated).

I could almost win a patent from the Department of Funny Walks (referring to an old Monty Python comedy skit). When I walk I pick up the whole right side of my body so my right foot can safely clear any hazard.

My “bad” right leg, aside from giving me a funny looking walk, has more direct undesired results. For example, if I’m walking by something (like a chair) I often accidentally kick it. What happens is my “bad” right foot and leg both flop out sideways by a few inches as I’m walking. That’s enough to catch the chair with my foot. It’s a little weird. My mind is telling me I gave the chair enough room to easily walk by it. But it’s false information. I kick it.

But the most serious problem with my “bad” leg is how it makes it hard to catch myself if I trip. Normally, if you trip you quickly put your leg out to catch yourself. My right leg just doesn’t shoot out quickly. It tries. But it’s slow and weak.

The worst incident I’ve had so far was when I tripped and took my wife down hard when I went over. I was walking with her on what looked like a smooth sidewalk. But one cement slab was slightly slanted. When I stepped on that uneven slab with my “bad” right foot my ankle unexpectantly rolled under me. In an instant I went flying down to the ground on my right side. My “bad” leg couldn’t move quickly enough to catch me. Nor did my “cane” (a rolled up umbrella) do any good.

Unfortunately, my wife was right where I went falling down. Worse, she saw me going down and turned towards me to try and help me stay up.  She took a direct hit just above her knees. It was as if I had made a hard football tackle on her (and I weigh almost twice as much as her).  Everyone on the sidewalk immediately ran to her aid. A car going by on the street even screeched to a halt and the guy jumped out to see if she was all right.

She wasn’t alright. She ended up in the emergency room with what at first was thought to be a broken ankle (but was “just” a severe sprain). It’s amazing how much an ankle can swell up to the size of a grapefruit and turn all sorts of colors.

To wife’s great credit she never got mad at me for hurting her so badly. She’s rational enough to know that it was just an accident. But yikes! I almost wish she had unloaded on me. I’d then have at least felt like I was properly punished for having hurt her as badly as I did. Making me feel even worse about it is that I only had a slightly sprained ankle from my fall (and no skin abrasions). And that was in large part because she had cushioned my fall so much. Yikes again.

At any rate, per my suggestion, she now usually walks with me on my left side (the side of my “good” leg). If I trip (or roll my “bad” ankle) I’m probably going down on my right side. So stay on my left.

Using a cane can also help. A cane — especially a real weight bearing cane (not an umbrella) — gives me better balance and thus helps prevent falls.  A cane also lets me walk with less of a lurch. But I don’t like using a cane because I think it it makes me look like an old man.  Hmmm … pride vs. practicality. I should let practicality win out. I more and more am.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Another frustrating MS issue I have is lessened hand dexterity. It’s just a problem for my right hand (going along with my right sided “bad” leg and foot). The symptoms are similar to dropped foot syndrome.  Basically, my hand flops. I have limited control. You’d think I was doing a bad imitation of a gay person the way it flops so much.

I used to enjoy using chop sticks and prided myself on being able to easily pick up individual grains of rice. That’s impossible now. I can’t even pick up a whole piece of sushi. I’m better at chopsticks with my left hand but not good enough to eat a whole meal going lefty. So I (embarrassingly) ask for a fork whenever we go out for sushi. So much for being sophisticated Mr. Cool.

It’s not even that easy to use a knife and fork anymore either. Utensils too easily just fall out of my right hand. As a result, I’m more and more going lefty. If I need to cut something tough I’ll use the knife in my right hand like a four year old (with all four fingers wrapped tightly around the handle) and then saw back and forth. This lets me use a knife without it coming out of my hand. It looks like no one taught me good table manners. But what the hell. It works.

Also a problem is trying to button my collar button on the occasion I have to wear a tie. I dread it. It’s amazing how much dexterity you need to do it. When my wife isn’t around I’ve even had to leave it unbuttoned and then find someone I know to button me up once I get there.

And a last problem from having less dexterity in my “bad” right hand is I write much more slowly now.  Typing is also slower (fortunately not as bad off as my handwriting) and more mistake prone.

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The above physical symptoms limit what I can do for fun (and exercise).  I can’t jog anymore (something I used to really enjoy) much less play the occasional round of tennis. Nor can I play basketball anymore (not even h-o-r-s-e). With my “bad” right hand it’s hard to even hit the backboard with the ball from just ten feet away. I used to have a decent shot.

Nor can I go on any kind of hikes involving rough terrain. If the path isn’t reasonably smooth (few roots or rocks) I’m simply unable to walk it even with a cane (or as I prefer to say, a “walking stick”). I’d just fall down at some point.

Up and down terrain is also a real challenge. Going uphill is difficult because I can’t easily pick up my right leg (and my dropped foot then more easily trips me up). But in going uphill I can at least easily catch myself with my hands if I fall.

Going downhill is harder and far more dangerous. If I trip going downhill I can’t readily catch myself with my hands (the distance before you hit the ground is much farther).  My “bad” leg also has even less of a chance to catch myself. The result is I could take a serious fall. So far so good though.

The same problems I have in walking up and down hills applies to steps. Going down steps could also lead to a serious fall. Thank god for hand rails. They’re essential.

But MS’ limitations on what I can physically do still leaves a lot. I can still work out at the gym. Elliptical cardio exercise machines are a big help (you don’t have to pick up your leg or foot). I can also play golf. An electric golf cart makes it doable.  I can even walk a short (and flat) par three nine hole course if I use a push cart to hold my clubs. A three wheel push cart makes a half-way decent walker. Using your putter as a cane also helps (just take care to not to dig the handle it into the green).

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(That’s me on the golf course. MS, while a pain the ass, doesn’t stop you from doing things you enjoy, not all of them anyway.)

Now if I could just break 100 in golf as I could back when I was  a young teenager … But no excuses. Hell, a month ago I played golf with a one armed 70 year old guy who was randomly added to our group to make a foursome. He shot in the upper 70’s and out drive everyone. Just amazing. (2017 update: I usually break 100 now. Hope to do better.)

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But the frustrations that come with having MS aren’t just physical. There are also psychological frustrations.

I worry a bit about where I’ll physically be down the road. MS just gets worse with time. My type of MS — primary progressive — is a more rare type of MS (often cited in the press as the worst kind to have). My symptoms never go away.  My type of MS just steadily gets worse (hence the term “progressive”).  The more common type of MS (relapse-remitting) can fluctuate quite a bit on a day-to-day basis (but still the secular trend is it gets worse).

MS can affect people in so many different ways. It all depends on what nerves the MS damages. Some have MS so badly that they end up in a wheelchair. MS can even cause blindness. Others have considerable pain from MS. More commonly, people with MS are easily fatigued (I have a touch of that). Another common MS symptom is “fog brain”. I want none of the above thank you very much.

Another back of the head worry I have is concern about how much my MS could harm my marriage. Let’s face it; having MS makes me less “fun”. Also, my wife sometimes ends up being in the role of a nurse to me. For example, with no fanfare, she automatically helps me down stairs that don’t have a rail. (She goes down one step ahead of me and lets me put my hand on her shoulder for balance.)That’s a big help and most certainly appreciated. But still … a “nurse” role? I’d prefer being such a robust guy that she is physically drawn to me on a primal level.

Another latent worry is if (when?) MS will make me unable to safely drive.  My right leg reacts more slowly (and its only getting worse). I often assist my right foot on the brake by also using my “good” left foot on the brake to make sure I stop. Also, my “dropped” foot doesn’t let me smoothly push on the pedals.  As a result, my wife usually does the driving. Hmmm … “nurse” role again.

But I still have to count myself lucky. I really do have a relatively mild case of MS. My MS is also not that noticeable. All that people see is a little bit of a limp (and my ankle brace if I’m wearing shorts). It’s all mild enough looking that people often feel free to ask “Oh, how did you hurt your ankle?”.

Also to the good is that the progression of my MS is remarkably slow.  As a result, I don’t really notice it getting worse. I mentally get used to whatever the current status is with my MS.

And besides all that, it is what it is. Why take yourself away (mentally) from enjoying all the good things in life by spending your time being a worry wart?

That doesn’t mean I’m Pollyannaish about it. I try to also make things turn out for the better. I keep myself in decent shape. I also do some volunteer work in order to stay involved. Further, I don’t let my day-to-day conversations be about my MS ailments. If you’ve ever been around a relative who never stops complaining about their bunions, hemorrhoids, or whatever you know just how much such a self-centered conversation is a real put off.

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Another issue I have with MS is how to handle people’s inquiries about my limp. It can be problematic.

My response has evolved to saying this in response: “I have a mild case of MS and it gives me a bit of a limp.” That reply is honest, short, and tends to close out further conversation. I think that’s a better response than when I used to say “I have a leg issue”. That response just seemed to invite more questions (invariably, “what’s the issue?”).

But even my “I have a mild case of MS …” reply can sometimes be a real problem.  For example, I was recently at a large party. A nice white haired lady (seeing the brace I wear on my ankle) asked me what I did to my ankle. I gave her my standard response (mild case of MS). She immediately (a bit too loudly) said how she was sooo sorry and went on to say how she had a relative who had died from MS. She went on to add awful sounding details.

This conversation (more of a monologue on her part) was in front of some dozen people sitting at the table including my wife. I couldn’t get her to stop. Even when I assured her (loud enough for the table) that people don’t die from MS (as my expert doctor has told me) she went on at great length to tell me I was wrong.

I found the conversation very painful. The thing is she was a perfectly nice lady and well intentioned in her concern for me. But she was just clueless (not just about MS but also socially). As far she was concerned, all MS was the same and it was basically a death sentence (and I was thus someone to be pitied).

I really don’t have a good answer for how to deal with such situation. I guess I’ll just have to be glad it’s a rare occurrence. And it helps for me to remind myself that the concern people show (even if off base) is coming from them being a caring and empathic person. But that doesn’t preclude someone from being a social idiot (in not knowing when to just shut up).

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But not having my MS be that obvious can be a double edged sword. The fact that I look fine (just a bit of a limp) lets most people largely dismiss my having MS as mattering. And usually that’s just fine with me and is how I prefer it.

But not having my MS difficulties be that obvious can also work against me. Take the case of my divorce five years ago. Having MS should have been at least a little bit relevant to my divorce settlement. After all, MS can affect one’s future earnings ability and will most certainly increase future medical costs. The relevance of the above (to a divorce) is that I would have less money going forward to pay alimony (as indeed has been the case). Further, my MS arguably cast me in a sympathetic light to the court given the coincidence(?) that not long after I was diagnosed with MS my wife chose to divorce me.

But visual “data” (my looking okay) apparently overrides all else (even a letter from my MS doctor). I had to pay out a large settlement in my divorce (a nine year marriage with no children). The one time I could have used my MS to actually be of help to me was a total strike out.

An example helps to show how the dynamics worked. I told our divorce mediator about how the last time I had traveled into N.Y. City the “dropped foot” from my MS had caused me to trip on the stairs coming up from the train platform. I tripped despite being as careful as I could.  I ended up sprawled face down on the floor with my papers flying everywhere. My point was that any job that would involve commuting to work (by public transportation at any rate) would be difficult for me. … In response, the mediator just laughed. He “jokingly” said how he trips all the time himself. I felt mocked and my having MS trivialized.

Now arguably the mediator’s perspective was valid enough. After all, if I can still drive and play golf I can also work. But, given how he just laughed my MS off I know he didn’t have any kind of real understanding of the difficulties that stem from MS.

And the judge had a similar view of my “so-called” MS difficulties. I suppose I can understand it. It’s hard to feel but so much sympathy for someone who looks just fine (again, just limping a little) and thus seems to only be crying wolf about their physical difficulties.

 

 

Northern Prejudice against Southerners

I grew up in the South and have lived some 40 years now in the NY/NJ area. My experience is most Northerners are prejudiced against Southerners.

Typically, the prejudice is just mild.  It’s mild enough that the prejudice is often a source of good natured humor (as with the comedian Jeff Foxworthy and his “You might be a redneck if  …” routine). Further, this anti-Southern prejudice is much less now given society’s ever increasing homogenization.

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But trust me, this prejudice is quite real. And sometimes it’s not so mild. Having experienced a little bit of prejudice myself makes me empathetic to others who are discriminated against. Although I’m thinking of Blacks, my empathy is not just limited to that group.

I’m not naïve. People pre judge others. We all do it to some extent. It’s a needed survival tool. Pre judging (prejudice) lets you anticipate how to deal with someone (and especially if someone poses a potential threat). For example, if I’m walking down a street at night I most certainly will be a lot more wary of a group of loud meandering teenagers than I will be if a grownup is walking along who is dressed in business attire.

At any rate, what follows are the ways I’ve experienced prejudice.

Naked open prejudice

Being openly prejudiced against Southerners is socially allowed. In a way, it’s a socially allowed white on white thing. It doesn’t have the same social stigma that can hold back blatant white on black prejudice. Two examples I’ve experienced:

  •  “I just don’t think anyone from the South is smart enough to be President.” … That’s how my Northern friend explained it to me back when Carter was running for President. We had debated all of Carter’s qualifications. He agreed that Carter looked good (on paper at least). But my friend was still dead set against Carter. I wore him down to explain why. He finally came out with it. His honest belief was that Southerners – any Southerner – just weren’t smart enough to be President.
  • If I had known you were from the South I never would have gone out with you.” … That’s what my date told me after we had a “get to know you better” talk over dinner. Perversely, her statement was meant as a compliment. I didn’t fit her stereotype of a Southerner. She thought of Southerners as dumb and stupid people who for entertainment did things like have spitting contests. But for her, to the good, I could “pass” as someone from up North given my barely detectable accent. … Note: I suppose I passed enough in other ways also. We ended up getting married. Big mistake. We divorced after a few years.

Semi-naked prejudice

This type of prejudice against Southerners is clear enough but it’s a little more subtle. Two examples:

  •  “Go talk South mouth.” … That’s what my boss told me at the bank’s company Christmas party as he pointed to another guy from the South. His off handed comment was perhaps benign. But I think his comment showed a certain level of disdain for Southerners (“South mouth” … really?) as a general group.
  • The body flinch when I tell a Northerner I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. … I can’t help it. I sometimes do this as a subtle way to say “screw you” to a particular type of “blue blood” Northerner (the snob type who thinks Northerners are superior to Southerners). The typical scenario is the other guy makes a derogatory comment about people from the South. When I comment about being born in Birmingham their response is almost humorous.  They physically flinch. I think the flinch is from a mix of embarrassment and their wondering why I don’t look and sound like a Southern hick. … Note: Although I grew up in N.C., it seems “born in Birmingham” (as I was due my dad doing his medical internship there) has more shock effect.

Hidden prejudice

This is probably the most damaging form of prejudice. You don’t really know if the “problem” was something that was validly your fault or if prejudice played a role.

For example, I remember being squeezed out of my job once by a New York City guy I worked for. I don’t think the “squeeze out” was due to one-off prejudice. But Northern vs. Southern ways of carrying oneself (you could even say cultural differences) played a role. I was (and am) a Southern “polite guy” type. My boss was more of a Northern “get up in your face” type. We clashed.