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Valued Social Butterfly


Message 1 of 3



Hebrew University to the Rescue

The last stop on our tour of Hebrew University at Givrat Ram was the bookstore/general store. At first, there was little to interest either my wife or me. All of the books were written in Hebrew, and we did not need any more cosmetics or household products before leaving for North Carolina at the end of next week.

But I made an astounding discovery. I saw bunches of packaged wooden Q-tips. Because of their danger to infants and toddlers, this type of cotton swab is no longer sold in the United States. Nor have I ever seen them when I have traveled in Europe—at least not in France or Italy. For too many years, I have had to suffer using the limp flexible replacements—although the Wal-Mart generic ones aren’t too bad. I have even thought of going on EBay to procure the banned sturdy swabs that had done yeoman work for me throughout my life. But now in front of me were eight packages, each with eighty precious, authentic Q-tips. I crammed all of these containers into my arms and bought every one of them.

I was so enthralled with my catch (quite a cache) that I told my wife that if I had my druthers, I’d like her to place one wooden Q-Tip with me in my coffin.


Not Spooked by a Rebuke

Cigarette smoke nauseates me. So I try to avoid inhaling it when I pass by any smokers. To show my distaste for having to endure second-hand smoke, I either hold or blow out my breath in front of these polluters. None of them have ever said anything to me about my symbolic protest—until yesterday. I had to walk through a gauntlet of smokers standing on the street. I was wearing my exercise outfit. They ignored me as I blatantly blew out a huge breath. Next to them, a young guy was lying down on the pavement while he profusely smoked. When he saw me, he snarled: “Go get ‘em, champ.” Although I was taken aback, I will not be deterred. Smokers beware. I will continue to show my displeasure, despite any blowback.



Maneuvering outside the Lines

Last week at Food Lion, as the cashier was ringing up a heap of my groceries, a scruffy man suddenly appeared beside me. Without saying anything, he handed me a crumpled five-dollar coupon that I could use on the spot. Just as I was about to thank him, he scurried off. I had already bought enough merchandise to warrant an eight-dollar discount. Now I had amassed five more dollars, courtesy of the random kindness of a stranger.

After leaving the store, I realized that my car was located in the same area where not long ago, I had neglectfully parked it a bit outside the white lines, prompting someone to put a scurrilous note on my windshield. But this time, as I approached my car, I saw that I had parked it correctly. Then I had a fanciful thought. Perhaps the man who offered me the five-dollar coupon was the same one who had written that nasty message. But now he decided to reward me because I had properly positioned my car.

I tend to stray outside the boundaries in other areas besides parking lots. The house where I babysat as a teenager was chronically filthy; without getting permission, I would clean it thoroughly after the children went to bed. The drunken couple never complained. Years ago, my wife and I frequently visited her parents’ coal-heated farm house in Ohio. One day after my in-laws had left for the afternoon, I decided to rid the kitchen of loose-leaf and encrusted layers of coal dust. I scrubbed scrupulously for a few hours. My mother-in-law was initially outraged; my father-in-law was amused.

Today, I violate boundaries with my trusty lawn and tree limb clippers. If I see that the off-the-beaten path to the beach is cluttered with branches, I behead them. If dead wood and thorns from my neighbors’ yards are encroaching upon my property, I vigorously bushwhack them.

Sometimes I’m not sure whether I am a good citizen or a vigilante— whether someone will give me a coupon or clip my wings.


The Arc of the Barometer

I steadfastly scour weather websites that plot the path of hurricanes, especially as they affect my and my wife’s condo in Honolulu, Hawaii, and our home (and the homes of our immediate family) in eastern North Carolina. I especially like to be informed about the dramatic variations in a hurricane’s barometric pressure.

While I was in my last year of elementary school, I had an extra-curricular task: telling the teacher when the barometer in our room had a dangerously low reading. Every time the sky got blotched with menacing clouds, I scurried to the barometer. Usually, the barometric pressure didn’t markedly plunge. But it sure did get low (a bit below 29 inches of mercury) one windy, overcast afternoon. Dreading the onset of a tremendously powerful storm, I alerted the teacher.

I had then never heard of an adrenaline rush, but that’s what I felt. My school was in Revere, Massachusetts, and I imagined myself as Paul Revere shouting “The storm clouds are coming, the storm clouds are coming.”  The teacher, after consulting with the principal, told us to rush home before the weather became worse. A mass evacuation followed. Despite some gales and a cloudburst or two, the storm soon weakened. But I still saw myself as a hero, a protector of my flock. All of those gold stars that I had amassed on my forehead for academic achievement paled in comparison.

Ever since that day, my BP rises every time the barometric pressure precipitously falls. And if there is a deluge of biblical proportions, NOAA will be my trusty guide.


A Lament not to be Taken Too Literally

During this week, many people have dutifully complimented me as I pick up trash on the sidewalks of Waikiki: “What a good job you are doing,” “Thank you so much,” “I do the same thing.” Even a guy selling trinkets who at first snarled at me for plucking up a discarded plastic bottle right next to him, but soon realized that I was not trying to steal any of his wares, said “Go to it, brother man.”

After a while, however, I get tired of such lame kudos. Why is it that not one of my admirers has bothered to join me? I guess that my well-wishers must have trouble bending over; their joints must be painfully arthritic. Or perhaps they are allergic to litter. Otherwise, they would surely help clean up the mess that either they themselves or others have made at their feet—whether it be an overfilled pouch of dog poop or some slivers of a doily.

Sometimes I feel like the little red hen in the nursery tale. Before I leave Waikiki to revel with family in North Carolina, I’d like to have a party celebrating my invariably solo anti-littering campaign. Not one of the people, tourists or otherwise, who approve of my efforts but do nothing to help will be invited.


A Bittersweet Farewell

My last day at the bus stops in Honolulu (before leaving for the mainland) was a lulu. Someone wanted to give me a parade; someone almost rained on my parade.

While I was waiting for my bus to the gym, I scavenged for litter near the bus stop. While doing so, I made quite an impression on one of the biddies on the bus stop bench. She told me that she thoroughly enjoyed watching me pick up so much trash. Then she effusively congratulated me: how wonderful it was that I took the time to gather so much litter.  I was a fantastic role model. Everyone should follow my lead: the world would be such a better place. She was on a roll. Moreover, she informed everyone else on the bench that I was an outstanding example of civic virtue. All of the praise that she was heaping on me made me a bit uncomfortable.  And I must admit that I was irritated that she had interrupted me in mid-stream. I thanked her for such kind words and then resumed amassing the rest of the debris.

On my way back to my condo, I found another bus stop area filled with rubbish. I noticed a grubby, mean-looking old man sitting on a bench by the bus stop. He seemed harmless enough, so I reached around him to pick up crushed cigarette packs, grimy bags, crumpled plastics, and a few shards of glass. Just as I dumped the stuff into the trash bin, I was taken aback. Liquid was unaccountably spilling out the opposite side of the receptacle. But as I looked up, I realized what was cascading. The gruff man, who had wandered from the bench, was urinating onto and between the slats that housed the trash bin.  Luckily, he didn’t decide to splash me as I made my own deposit.

I quickly rushed to the curb at the bus side, regretfully letting the remaining litter fend for itself. I did not want to tangle with the unsavory, unashamed derelict. After relieving himself, he went back to the bench, spewing out nasty verbal volleys at passersby. The bus none too quickly arrived. I got on it; he stayed where he was; I was relieved.

I feel compelled to remove any litter in my path, no matter where I am. Sadly, I never get any help from anyone. In fact, sometimes I envy the prisoners on work detail who methodically bag up litter in my mainland home: rural North Carolina. I am sure that if I ever were incarcerated for a minor offense, I would gladly join the roadside clean-up crew.






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Message 2 of 3




My wife and I have been without a car for over two months--thanks to a defective computer cluster module and copious body work to repair the damage that our car sustained in a minor accident. So when we finally got a loaner car last week, my wife, who hates to be cooped up, scooped me up and off we went to an undisclosed destination an hour away.  If I had known that we would have landed at a mall with a Barnes and Noble, I would have taken my inventory of CDs (over 800 items) in case I could find some classical music bargains. But even without my dossier, I decided to stay at Barnes and Noble while my wife shopped for clothes. Whenever I am at a record store, I get tremendous satisfaction (okay, call it a rush) to reorganize the classical music CDs that either the clerks or the customers have misfiled. At first, I was amazed and somewhat disheartened that the composers were for the most part meticulously arranged alphabetically and by genre.  But I was not foiled yet. Next to the classical music was a large section called "music"; perhaps I could find some misplaced CDs there. I was overjoyed to locate bunches of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich CDs scattered among country, pop, and rap music. What a mess! Classical music didn't belong with such riffraff. Undetected (I am good at this), bit by bit I rescued all of the classical CDs from the inferior company that they were keeping. Then I properly assigned them to their rightful place in the classical music pantheon. This process took over half an hour, and I relished every minute of it. By the time my wife was ready to leave the mall, I had surveyed my handiwork and saw that it was good.


However, all was not well. I noticed that above the "music" sign there was another notation that I had overlooked: "Only $7.98--was $12.98." Those classical CDs weren't misplaced after all. There was a rationale for them to have been mixed in with the other kinds of music. I had goofed, big time. I could have rounded up the classical CDs and inserted them in their original slots, but that procedure would have been laborious; and my wife was waiting. Anyhow, I rationalized that it was no sin to put all the classical CDs together, regardless of a special sales price on some of them. If I had seen the price reduction initially, would I have still re-stacked the CDs? Knowing my lifelong devotion to classical music, the answer is a no-brainer: yes.



Cat and Mouse

My condo has a bookcase in the lobby containing free paperbacks and hard covers. When I return any book that I have finished reading, I like to place it on the far right upper shelf area—call me OCD. Every time that I add an oversized book to the pile, I expect it to remain where I put it—unless someone takes it out. Well, I guess there is another resident who is just as OCD as I am. He or she, evidently distressed by the asymmetry of my filing system, keeps placing my bulky paperback with similarly sized ones on another shelf. I don’t appreciate this affront, so I put my book back where it belongs. This reshuffling game has been going on for over a week: I enjoy taunting my fastidious rival just as much as he or she must delight in unnerving me.

Well, today the book is gone. Either someone wanted to read it or my nemesis, to get even with me, decided to remove the book altogether. In either case, I will continue to implement my God-given right to organize” my” books as I see fit. On the other hand, who am I to fault anyone for categorizing anything? When I have spare time at Borders or Barnes and Nobles, I love to rearrange the classical cd’s so that all the works (by genre) of a given composer are together, no longer scattered about by careless browsers or by the ignorant people who stock them in the first place. Even when I am waiting for my wife to try on clothes, I pick up items that have fallen from the racks and put them where they are supposed to go, facing in the right hanger direction and in the appropriate size sections. I guess I shouldn’t blame the person at the condo who is so devoted to sorting out the books. In fact, I hope I get to meet my alter ego—we could compare notes and even team up to make order out of chaos.


Of Mice and Men

The story If You Give a Mouse a Cookie has always appealed to my grandchildren. The mouse eats a cookie, drinks some milk, looks in the mirror to see if he has wiped up his face sufficiently, but then realizes that he needs to trim his mustache. After doing so, the mouse gets a broom to collect the hairs. But he is not done. He launches into every room with a broom, sweeping like mad; and then he washes all of the floors.  The mouse just can’t stop his exhausting and exhaustive momentum until he finally takes a nap, wakes up to draw a picture of his family, and returns to put up the drawing on the refrigerator, where he asks for a glass of milk, which entails having a cookie—and the process begins once more. 

I can all too well relate to one part of this cause-and-effect story: without premeditation, the mouse obsessively cleans everything around him.

I got caught up in the same cycle yesterday and today. I set out to remove a few tree droppings that had landed on my car. Although my Waikiki condo building prohibits car washing, I am allowed to use any cleansing agents that leave no residue on the floor of the parking garage. I figured by using some Windex and a few paper towels, I’d soon be done eliminating the stains on my Toyota.  After rubbing them out, however, I noticed other blemishes: black smears, yellow scars, and streaked layers of embedded dirt below the doors. I could have stopped right there, but like the mouse, I felt compelled to do more. I retrieved stronger detergent and a thick cloth from my condo. I was then able to laboriously expunge all of the black marks etched in between thick black scrapes formed when a motorist had once accidentally gouged the side of my car. After depleting gallon drums of elbow grease, I could have stopped there, but like the mouse, I had to continue. Nearby were the yellow scars. Weary but determined, I scrubbed them away in a few minutes. Galvanized by my success—as persistent as the mouse cleaning up one mess before discovering another one—I tackled the last barrier, the caked-on dirt underneath the doors. It looked like an easy task, but either my arms were failing or the grime was baked into the car’s finish. For over a half hour, I struggled and stewed. Eventually, with a faint flourish, I prevailed; and like the mouse, I was ready for a nap.

Although I presumed that I was done cleaning the Toyota for a while, I did have one more thing to attend to the next day: adding water to the empty window wiper fluid container. Trouble is, when I opened up the hood, I spied a lot of filth on the white areas covering the inside part of the hood and surrounding the engine parts. Instead of ignoring the grit, I, as the scrupulous little mouse in the story would have done,  got out a wet rag and spent over 30 minutes squirming as close as I could manage to clean the crud afflicted spots (without banging into the rod that keeps the hood up). Some grungy stuff remained, but the area inside of the hood looked remarkably better.

So was that the end of my car caretaking? Not yet. Today, I surveyed the work I did yesterday. Everything on the outside of the Toyota was pristine—except for those black slashes (some indented, some not) from the accident. Why not cover them up? My grandkids’ mouse friend would certainly approve. So I relied on the old standby that I once used successfully on my white Ford on the mainland: whiteout. This remedy has a few flaws (it gets a little crusty, and it doesn’t completely match the damaged white paint). Nonetheless, the whiteout obscured the worst black swaths.

When I visit my grandkids in North Carolina, I might relate to them a variation of the mouse story, If You Give a Man a Cleaning Rag.


Entitlement Gone Wild

I get annoyed and angry having to wait (often up to fifteen minutes) for some young fierce guys to finish their sets on the weight machines that I use at the fitness center in Waikiki. I wish there were a time limit—say five minutes—enforced perhaps by a severe electric shock.  If I am rarely not too intimidated, I ask their permission to let me in for a bit so that I can do my measly 12 reps. Occasionally, they accommodate me. Otherwise, they just stare me down. But looking at it philosophically, at least these hogs are using the machines—except when they take a short bathroom break. To make sure that no one else butts in, they drape a sweaty towel over the machine, just as a cat marks it territory. 

Last night, while I was zipping along from one machine to another, I spied an obnoxiously self-satisfied man monopolizing the last machine on my checklist. Finally, he stopped his regimen (without getting up) to talk to one of his stuck-up friends. They chatted for nearly 15 minutes (at least three electric shocks worth) before the man rebooted his extensive work-out on the same machine that I so longingly awaited. How insensitive can you get? The man felt no compunction lording over a machine as if it were his fiefdom. I felt like throttling him, but I just stewed until he had either met his objective or was too exhausted to go on. The moment he left, I took sole possession of the machine. The seat was hot and slimy, so I grabbed my towel and furiously wiped away any trace of the arrogant **bleep**.

But then I realized that in one way, I was worse than he was. He let someone interrupt his regimen for a lengthy period of time, and he didn’t seem to mind. I have never been that indulgent, that gracious. I would have continued to exercise while listening to the intruder and, in turn, would have said little to him or her. In fact, I would have tried to ignore what that person was droning on about so that I could silently count my reps.

Ask not for whom the dumbbell tolls; it tolls for thee.


An Exercise in Mobility


On a Sabbath afternoon yesterday in Jerusalem, I decided to walk vigorously on the new extra wide bike/pedestrian path nearby, an area that is sparsely populated during the week. At first, there was lots of room as I took my strides. But soon the place got dangerously crowded with little kids erratically riding trikes, older kids zipping around on bikes, spastic dogs given free rein on long leashes, parents pushing super-wide baby strollers between lanes, other parents running after supercharged toddlers. In order to keep my balance and avoid collisions, I had to dodge, dart, duck, squirm, and swivel for most of my walk. I remained intact but continued to be on edge until I saw some empty space near the end of my last lap. But my relief was interrupted. An old man who had been sitting with three women on a bench got up to urinate against a wall just as I passed by. I just missed the splash. Maybe next Saturday, I’ll take a sabbatical from walking the gauntlet.



Too Much Input


Recently, I have joined the AARP on-line forum, where I belong to many groups ranging from classical music to politics. I get up to 50 postings a day, and attached to those messages are anywhere from one to 75 replies. I tell myself that I am obligated to read each comment and, when appropriate, respond. Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus, straining to get through every posting before other ones pop up on my computer screen. I frantically try to sort out which ones I agree or disagree with and then which ones I need to address. The more elaborate my response, the less time I have to spend on reading and evaluating other postings. And when I do reply to someone’s viewpoint, I sometimes get so enraged that my heart pumps overtime in confronting anything from grammatically flawed ramblings to vicious, anti-Zionist rants. I unleash my indignation with histrionics and sarcasm. In my arsenal of epithets, I’ve called some people inane babblers, unredeemable guttersnipes, and moral degenerates. Boy, can I get wound up. Even though all comments are anonymous, I sometimes fear that one of my adversaries could track me down from the incriminating information on my public profile. The AARP forums too often consume me, even though I have sworn to diminish the stress in my life. So what am I to do?  I have resolved to take a Sabbatical from all my on-line groups –one day a week (routinely the same day every week), I will not click on AARP. At least that way, I can regroup and regenerate.



Two of my Idols

I have fallen prey to greed (my obsession to amass an unparalleled collection of classical music) and vanity (my monomania to prolong my life through strenuous exercise). Being devoted to both idols has left me with indelible scars—physically and psychologically—scars that are nonetheless ever-so-gradually healing as I have rearranged my priorities.

About my greed. I have always had an insatiable desire to collect classical music—whether it be medieval or post-modernist, orchestral, choral, tonal or atonal. At one point, I’d frantically drive home after class in order to be in time to tape a cd on WTEB. Luckily, I didn’t run over someone in the process.

But the most harrowing (and humbling) experience I have ever had at the altar of classical music occurred when I first began teaching at Craven Community College. I found out that one of the instructors there, Pete Townsend, a fanatic mathematician, had an extensive collection of rare classical records—from Albinoni to Zwilich, each one in flawless condition—no pops, scratches, or crackles. Boy, did I salivate. Maybe, if I played my cards right, he would let me tape some of them!

I soon got my chance. Once when we listened to music at his house, I innocently asked him if I could borrow a few of his less cherished records. No problem, he said. I taped them that night, returned them the next day, and hoped that he would let me borrow more and more and more of these treasures from the holy grail. He complied, until only his most favorite records were left, ones he said he’d never part with. I accepted his position, but I still fantasized that one day he would relent.

A week later, while we were hearing one of his special recordings, he seemed unusually downcast. Lo and behold, he said that I could tape those prized records. Did I ask him why he changed his mind? No. Did I ask him why he seemed so glum, so resigned? No. I was flushed with the rush I got when he lent me those longed-for records. The next day, the police called me. Pete had committed suicide, and since I was the last person to see him alive, they wanted to interrogate me. I felt so much guilt—I had been oblivious to his depression: all I cared about was getting my hands on those last few records. Perhaps if I had talked to Pete, he might have shared his distress with me, he might have felt less miserable, less alone, less hopeless. I was beating myself up with remorse.

But it got even worse. When Pete’s mother came to New Bern, she recalled that Pete had been so fond of me that she decided to give me his complete record collection!!  What bitter irony. All that taping was unnecessary. All he had to do was die. Yes, there is a downside to worshipping idols—you can lose your soul in the process—I now realize that thou shalt not covet is more than abstract moralizing: it can hit home, brutally. I still collect classical music—now, of course, it’s CDs. I have more than 700 of them, stacked up to the ceiling. When I have a chance to purchase a new CD at a bargain price, I feel my heart flutter; but it no longer pounds. Thanks to what I learned from my experience with Pete Townsend, collecting CDs is more of a pastime than an addiction.

But I have to admit that I replaced one idol for another as I entered mid-life: I worshipped at the fountain of youth. Hoping to live at least as long as my wife would, I decided to exercise vigorously—until it hurt, and, oh vey, did it hurt. First I tried swimming. I didn’t just swim; I swam as if my life depended on it, kicking my feet ferociously to get an extra edge, craning my neck at the clock to see if I could cover a half mile in less and less time. I wasn’t very fast or graceful, but I was competitive, always trying to out-swim anyone else, especially women and children. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but never did I let up. One day, a man 80 years old told me that he regularly swam a mile, twice my distance. I was astounded and ashamed. Not to be undone, I tried to go that far. Why if I did that, maybe I too could live to be 80 and be in such good shape to boot.

Well, I got repaid for my chutzpah. Instead of slowly increasing my distance, I tried to swim a mile much too quickly. The result was a torn rotary cuff that got reinjured every time I ventured to swim again, and those times dwindled considerably, despite physical therapy and injections. Ten years later, my left shoulder still plagues me when I bother to swim at all.

Ah, the fountain of youth. If swimming wasn’t to be my forte, why not  the bio-climber? Three days a week, I attacked the machine with a vengeance, leaving pools of sweat in my wake. In fact, when I finished, I hyperventilated so much that the guys at Courts Plus joked about calling 911. I was so proud of my endurance and histrionics. Who needs strong shoulders to increase cardiovascular health? I’d be happy to settle for strong legs.   When one of the staff pointed out that I was putting too much stress on my lower body, I ignored such advice. I was hooked on endorphins. No one could topple my idol. Well, the euphoria soon ended. My bio-climbing pyrotechnics led to irreparably torn cartilage in my now arthritic right knee, periodic injections, and probable knee replacement surgery in a few years.

How quixotic was my foray (my last hurrah) into transforming my body so that I could significantly extend my life span. Oh, I still go to the gym, but I have mellowed. In moderation, I lift a few weights and pedal on the stationary bike, methodically, not maniacally.


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My Obsessive Behavior


“Say Not the Struggle Not Availeth”


Today was supposed to be one of my big workout days at the fitness center.  I did squeeze in my exercise regimen, but just barely.  After inhaling fumes surrounding my house as I was waiting hours for the tub glazers to finish their job, after being interminably disconnected from a Walgreen’s pharmacy while I was trying to get some extra but much needed prescription medicine for my wife, after scrounging around in Lowe’s for bathtub fixtures identical to our deteriorating ones (with mixed results), I finally made it to the gym by 7:30, 90 minutes before closing.

Although I don’t limit myself to a specific amount of time to grapple with the weight lifting machines, my first hour entails riding the stationery bike for 36 minutes, and warming up and cooling down on the treadmill for 24 minutes. Normally, I get to the fitness center early enough so that I don’t have to watch the clock. But tonight was a challenge. I would have to complete my weight lifting routine after spending the obligatory hour on the bike and the treadmill. Tonight, there were lots of variables:  I had only 30 minutes to drink 12 ounces of water, to use the bathroom, and to appropriately pace myself during each repetition--as long as the machines would be available in sequence and without delay; after all, there were a few other members in the aerobics’ area.

It turned out that my fears were unwarranted. Within the half hour, in fact precisely at 9:00, I had completed my maneuvers on the last machine. I had triumphed over an incredibly tight schedule. It was a jubilant—if exhausting--ending to an otherwise frustrating day.

I’m not cocky enough to think that I could have been a winning contestant on the old game show “Beat the Clock.” I am not that well- coordinated, and I get flustered easily.  Tonight I may not have whooped time’s ass, but I put him on notice that I am a worthy and weighty opponent.


Ah, Never to be Bored!

While I always delight in reading my favorite pulp fiction on the stationary bike at the fitness center, I can’t read while I am on the treadmill—there is too much jerkiness, even though I wear motion sickness bands. I only stay on it for 13 minutes, but that short period of time goes by very slowly unless I can discretely fixate on someone (of course, in deference to my wife, just the unattractive females) or concentrate on trivia (How much protein should I have for supper?) or a profound thought (If there is an afterlife, where will I be placed?). I have other alternatives: I can eavesdrop on or engage in a conversation with the few people who are not plugged into to their electronic devices.  More distractions include trying to decipher the pop tune lyrics on the mostly inaudible radio station or craning my neck to watch the volatile stock market data on MSNBC or to read the poorly punctuated closed captioning on Fox News. The other day, I latched onto a different ploy: I started to recollect popular TV characters whose first and last names alliterated: From B to W—from Buffalo Bill to Wonder Woman. One of my most pleasant and productive options is to ransack my past for incidents that I can fashion into my blogs.

All of these escapes from boredom while I am on the treadmill are not merely welcome relief. They are a deep-seated need, and not just at the gym.

Ever since I can remember, I have sought ways not to be bored on the treadmill of life. When I used to do homework or housework, I had to have upbeat classical music as accompaniment.  When teaching, I strove to entertain as well as edify my college students—whether the class was studying grammatical niceties, the intricacies of a Shakespearean sonnet, or various business writing techniques.

Now that I am retired, I am even less tolerant of boredom.  If I feel that a book or a DVD movie is getting monotonous—at the beginning, midway, or even near the end—I discard it. I wish that it were that easy to dispose of dull people, but I am working at it.

I don’t know how many more years I will live. But I know that I will continue the struggle to outwit and outmaneuver my nemesis, boredom, until the end.


Scaling Back

Over the years, my weight has flip-flopped between 140 and 190 pounds on my six-foot frame. When I first got married, I was so enamored with my wife’s home-style cooking that I proudly gained 20 pounds; after my wife was close to delivering our first child, I perversely lost 20 pounds to weigh as little as she did. For the last decade, because of health reasons and out of vanity, I have religiously (some people would say fanatically) maintained my weight at about 170 pounds, although my goal is about five pounds lighter. Each night and every morning, I get on my state-of-the-art scale to see how well or how poorly I have disciplined my food intake. I am elated if my weight is where I think it should be—I am disgusted if I have gained or lost too many pounds.

I had a sobering dream last night that showed me how much I over value keeping my weight in check.  Let me backtrack a bit. After I woke up at dawn, I automatically got on the scale. I was delighted to see that I had attained my perfect weight: 165 pounds. Still a little groggy, I returned to bed. That’s when I had the dream. A man whom my wife had almost accidentally run over wanted to punish me for her mistake. He tied me up and threatened to kill me with a sharp instrument. Knowing that I was going to die, I could have lamented the imminent loss of the people I love (my wife, my children, my grandchildren) or the things I cherish (listening to classical music, writing vignettes and polemics, witnessing monster surf crash against the rocks in Hawaii, or reading entertaining and edifying news articles on the internet). But I wanted to live for another reason: I exclaimed that I had a few minutes earlier attained the Holy Grail, a weight of 165 pounds. And wouldn’t it be a tragedy if I didn’t have more time to savor this victory?

Before the man had a chance to consider my plea, I woke up. What did I learn from this dream? Not much, it seemed. The first thing I did was again weigh myself.

However, as the day has progressed, I have reflected on my priorities. Is it true, as the dream revealed, that controlling my food consumption is the passion--or, should I say, the consummation--of my life? I hope not. But just to make sure, I’m going to make a minor adjustment: no longer will I weigh myself at night.  Waiting until morning should be sufficient. Let the scale keep score of my weight only once a day, one day at a time.


Was It Worth It After All?

I used to be addicted to cleaning my house. Every Tuesday and Thursday, when I didn’t have to teach any classes or list office hours, I came home to thoroughly scour/vacuum/dust/straighten out my 1400 sq. ft. house. My scrupulous efforts took about eight hours on those two days. On weekends, I’d devote at least one full day to even deeper cleaning: washing curtains, drapes, scatter rugs, comforters; repainting discolored and scraped walls; disinfecting the cats’ litter box; and removing the gunk that accumulates underneath and behind the stove, refrigerator, and dish washer. And when company was to arrive, I labored even harder to make my place spotless and sophisticated. Expecting a visit from relatives was particularly all consuming; after all, I couldn’t help but want them to be impressed with how well I cared for my house. So my cleaning became a crusade against dirt, smudges, and foul smells. 

The first time my in-laws visited me, I was prepared. The house was immaculate: my pride was as glowing as the table tops. Then my father-in-law, a farmer and a trucker, stomped into the living room. As I greeted him, I smelled something foul. And as I looked down at the carpet, I saw gobs of feces that he tracked in from dog droppings in the unfenced back yard. I don’t know if I successfully disguised the look of horror on my face as I lunged for the carpet cleaner. In the meantime, my father-in-law took it all in stride, nonchalantly going back and forth to the car to bring in some more of his and his wife’s stuff and an occasional smear of feces clinging to his boots.  For at least fifteen minutes, I was frantically trying to eliminate the carpet stains. I did a pretty good job; but because I didn’t want to embarrass myself any further, I stopped to engage in the obligatory pleasantries, and let the evening take its course without showing my disgust or my shame.

From then on, my cleaning house has been more of a chore than an addiction. If I seem to be getting too enthusiastic with the dust cloth, my wife reminds me of that night when her father (with the help of those hell hounds in my backyard) in a few steps trampled on my insane desire to display a perfectly groomed house. And, painful as it is, I thank him—boots and all.


Letting Go

While on the treadmill at my local fitness center, I noticed that the side door was open, allowing damp hot air to swoop into the air-conditioned aerobics room. I wasn’t going to stop my well-regulated routine to close the door; I hoped that someone else would do so to allay my building anxiety.  The most likely candidate was a man who was watching another person lift weights. He seemed pretty intent, so I bided my time. In a few moments, he sat down on an upper body machine, ready to begin his own workout. Just as I was going to ask him to close the side entrance, he got up, headed toward the door, and shut it. He did what I wanted him to do without even looking in my direction for an encouraging word or gesture. When he did turn around to face me, I gave him the thumbs up. He nodded and returned to his machine.

This incident is perhaps more than just serendipity. I like to have as much control as possible in my life. But as Al-anon has cautioned me, sometimes it’s best to surrender that impulse; just let things take their course. All might be well without my intervention.


A Tale of Two Machines

The sleek stationary bike at the fitness center accurately calculates calories, depending on how much force (rpm’s) I exert on the pedals during my 36-minute workout on level 6. I can reasonably aim for 275 calories—sometimes I bottom out at 250, sometimes I soar to 290. This bike (my Easy Rider wannabe) enables me to challenge myself as obsessively and compulsively as possible.

When I have finished working out on the bike, I proceed to my favorite treadmill. I had always assumed that this machine amasses calories as precisely as the bike does. By putting the speed at 4.0, I accumulate 66.6 calories at a distance of .77 miles in my 14 minute regimen. Yet no matter how quickly or how powerfully I walk on the machine, I get the same results.

Yesterday, I tried an experiment. Staying off the machine, I set the speed at 4.0 and just watched the screen—by the end of the 14 minutes, the distance was .77, and the calories totaled 66.6! Accordingly, I have no idea how many calories I really burn (or how much distance I have actually walked)—an aerobic bummer that I have to live with.

Today, however, I exacted some vengeance: I outwitted the rigged treadmill. I disabled the calorie and distance button, leaving on only the time and speed display. Of course, I continued to ignore the heart rate numbers because they are notoriously distorted.

My only regret is that I can no longer scoff at Michelle Bachmann by stopping the treadmill at 66.6 calories.



Can’t Help Myself

Throughout my life I have relished the rush I get from collecting various things. When I was a teenager, I bought and traded heaps of stamps from every country. Just the thought of adding to my collection got my heart racing. When my mother gave away all of my stamp portfolios while I was in college, I grieved for weeks. No more stamps for me.

Since then, I have aggressively pursued other things. I used to fanatically buy classical music recordings from all eras, almost swooning in anticipation of adding one more album to my collection.  But there was a drawback. Too many of my records were filled with pops and crackles. I frantically sought to preserve my treasured records, so I bought a high-tech dust remover. I palpitated with delight at the prospect of having flawlessly flowing sound on my recordings. Instead, the dust got intractably caught deep in the grooves, creating even more racket.  I was horrified that I had ruined my prized collection. I pouted for weeks and eventually discarded every record.

At Emerald Isle, I used to scavenge for mammoth, unusually contoured seashells to decorate the outside wall of my house. At one point, I canvassed a few miles of beach to locate hundreds of shells washed up after a storm. With a sturdy pail on each arm, I scooped up and hauled away this mother lode, making so many trips to my car that I became deliriously dehydrated. My seashell binge ended abruptly when my wife encouraged me to dismantle my handiwork. To her, it was an eyesore. Now they are buried in the underbrush.

I soon found another preoccupation. During my power walks, I picked up litter along the beach here and in Hawaii and even in rural Ohio where my mother-in-law used to live. I did a superb job. Nothing escaped my clutches—from candy wrappers to metal pipes. I met my downfall, however, when I reached for a can embedded in some weeds. A thorn scratched my cornea in the process. It took six months for my eye to heal. Now litter and I mutually coexist.

Every time that I get fixated on collecting things, my quest boomerangs. Nonetheless, I keep on collecting—it’s in my blood. I now fanatically preserve everything that I have ever written and will continue to do so in the future. But this time, I have taken many fail-safe precautions. I have saved my writings as documents on my hard drive, posted them on the AARP on-line community and, added them to my Hotmail account, and e-mailed them to selected relatives and friends. Only a fierce electro-magnetic pulse could destroy what I have memorialized in writing.

What a frightful prospect! Perhaps I should make hard copies of the thousands of pages I have collected and put them in a fireproof vault. Ah-ha! I’m getting a rush just thinking of that possibility.


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