Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Friday
Aug122016

* * Closing in on the end of a life well lived

 

A timeless river. A john-boat. Camera. Canteen. Binoculars. Father and son. Elemental stuff.

Dad and I took the morning on the New River on a hot summer day. We parked and unloaded at the landing near I-81 and dropped the propeller of his electric motor into the green water. Traffic thundered overhead on the massive parallel bridges, yet it was calm and serenely peaceful on the water. As it should be.

Dad has had a terrible year, in and out of seemingly all the area’s hospitals. I joke that he should apply for the bed equivalent of frequent flier miles. He had prostate cancer twenty years ago and it was treated successfully with radiation. But at this stage, his bladder has failed, likely because of it. I’m guessing his doctors at the time never thought he’d live this long. He’s been wracked with infections since then, necessitating the hospital stays.

I mean no disrespect to the wonderful health care people of our community, as most are caring, thoughtful, and well-trained. But hospitals are awful places. Dad’s bad days have been at the hospitals. The good days have been on the river.

Bob has made a reputation for himself as an extraordinary wildlife photographer, with his specialty being birds, especially water birds. When you go on a wildlife trip, you never know what you’ll see. Sometimes you don’t see much of anything. But if you don’t go, you guarantee that you’ll never see anything.

I was hopeful of seeing an osprey or two. Ospreys, or “fish eagles,” are the avian world’s most adroit fishermen. They soar overhead on broad, massive wings and plummet feet-first into rivers and lakes, emerging with fish in their razor-sharp talons. They are dark on the back and wings and bright white underneath. They have curved beaks and piercing yellow eyes.

We went downstream first, under the bridges. Dad had me scouring the shoreline for sights of an otter or perhaps a mink. I saw an occasional great blue heron in the distance and a kingfisher, but the only good sighting was of a kingbird, a robin-sized flycatcher.

We turned upstream and the tiny motor propelled us slowly and silently through the current. Dad knew there were osprey nests on the dam’s upper structure and thought we might see a bird or two.

Dad’s resume might read something like this: Born in 1928 in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. Married Doris Sara Tatarsky of Richmond in 1950. Graduated from VPI in Forestry. Worked briefly for the Forest Service, but then made his home in the New River Valley and worked most of his career in his own company, Christiansburg Printing, which he founded in 1957. Four children: David, Michael, Richard, and Karen. Traveled to two-dozen countries. Loved scuba diving, wildlife viewing, and photography. Lived the American Dream.

Then we saw an osprey! He was a bold specimen, circling around in the area just below the dam. He flew overhead and then perched on the branch of a dead tree on the south side, near the road below an abandoned quarry. We circled towards him and he flew again to the other side, the north forested side, where the lighting was better for photos. He was a stunning, large bird, regal, as if cloaked in a tuxedo.

Dad stopped the motor and grabbed the camera from its carrying case. Attached was a lens maybe 18 inches long, dwarfing the camera. He started shooting. Click. Click. Click click click click… the bird turned towards us and stretched its wings. Click. Click click click. Dad took dozens of shots, perhaps hundreds. “Back in the film days, I’d take two rolls of 36 each and hope for a few good ones when they came back from the developer. Now with digital, I take hundreds every time I go out,” he said.

And so it went for the next hour or so. He pulled to shore so I could get out for a moment and swim to cool off. Dad used to be a good swimmer, better than me, but the risk of infection is too high now for him to swim any more.

“I’m near the end of my life,” he said in an emotionless, matter-of-fact way. “I’m not eager to go, but I know I’ll die soon. Everybody dies eventually.” He’d already beaten the odds, besting the actuarial tables.

I asked him whether he’d fulfilled his “bucket list.”

He said, “I have some short-term things I’d like to do. A couple of trips to make with friends and to see family. But I don’t plan too far ahead. If I feel well enough, I’ll go.”

We turned and headed back to the landing. The sun was hot, directly overhead.

“I’ve had a good life. I have a loving wife and four great kids. I’ve had great opportunities and done lots of exciting things. I love where I live.”

We waved at a couple of guys relaxing by their boat on the shoreline.

“And,” he said, “I love this river.”

 

 

Friday
Aug122016

* * Motorcycle rider knows when to quit

 

I suppose it was fitting that my friend and fellow motorcyclist Bill Sowers and I had this conversation on my birthday. Bill and I love the feeling of leaning a bike through a fast set of sweeping turns, but now 82 years old, he’s decided it’s time to change directions, so to speak.

“I was born in 1933,” he said, noting that everybody always thinks he’s much younger. He has a perpetual gleam in his eye and a bright, healthy spirit. “I went into the Navy and got married and then went to college (at Concord University in West Virginia), so I only dabbled with bikes when I was younger.

“In 1971, a movie called On Any Sunday was released. I was totally hooked from that moment on.” The movie featured motorcycle legends Mert Lawwill, Malcolm Smith, and movie star Steve McQueen having the times of their lives riding and racing motorcycles. Bill saw the movie with some friends and all of them bought dirt racing bikes.

Bill has a degree in teaching with expertise in sociology, biology, mathematics and general science. He taught school for a few years and coached sports that he’d played in high school: football, basketball, and track. He taught throughout Virginia and West Virginia. He was living in Georgia when he caught the bug. “I rode enduro races, through unimaginable obstacles in the woods. These are timed races so the object is to go at a consistent speed, neither too fast nor too slow.

“Riding fast, jumping things, racing through the woods… it was fun! A friend and I could outrun anybody. It was thrilling. I was not into thrill sports prior to that. I was athletic, but not big enough to be a real football star: 5’9” and 128 pounds in high school! We’d ride every other weekend or so. We’d drive 200-300 miles to ride dirt events.

“I eventually transitioned to riding on the road.” The motorcycle industry and Honda in particular went through a difficult patch from 1982 until around 1986. He was able to find a new 1982 Honda CB750 that by 1985 had never sold and he got a great deal on it.

“I had lots of bikes after that. One of the best I ever had was a Yamaha FJ1300. I had two of them. One I rode to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, past Fairbanks.”

His significant other, Mona, is an enthusiastic passenger with him. “We’ve been all over the United States and Canada,” he said. “We’ve been together 20 years. She’d never ridden before we met. Motorcycling has always been a big part of our relationship. Every Sunday we’d do 200 to 300 miles in loops around the area.”

In recent years, time began catching up to him. “When I turned 80, it was like a switch was turned on. Fortunately I was smart enough to realize that. I’ve never had a serious crash in my life. I started not feeling comfortable handling the bike. I ride with lots of buddies, but I’m the oldest. I dropped the bike a couple of times in parking lots and things. I started thinking about it and I realized that my upper body strength was waning. I had a hip replacement and I never totally recovered as far as strength. Even when I get up from this table, I’ll limp a bit.

“A motorcycle is inherently unstable, always wanting to fall down. You’ll think you’re strong enough to handle it, but you’ll get to a point where you can’t. I chose to look at something different.” He bought a three-wheel trike, a Can-Am Spyder, with two steered automotive-style wheels up front and one powered wheel at the back. “To be truthful, I’d much rather be riding a two-wheeler. I really would! But I know I can’t, at least safely. I’d be concerned and I’d never put Mona on another bike with me.”

I asked what advice he had for others.

“Start to look for those signs and patterns in your riding, your inability to do certain things. Listen to what your body is telling you. If it says, ‘I can’t do this any more,’ then you need to believe it.

“The Can-Am is so stable and fun to ride that I’m not sacrificing much. It’s has unbelievable engineering.

“I hate getting old. I hate it. I once rode a 1605 mile trip in 23 hours and 30 minutes. I can’t do the things I used to do. When I stand, I wobble. I realize it, but I don’t like it. I want to do the things I used to do. I’m still young in spirit. Most folks guess I’m younger than I am. I’ve been fortunate to be able to ride for all these years.”

Friday
Aug122016

* * In God many of us trust

As you’ve probably heard, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors recently voted to decorate the wall of its meeting chamber in the County Government Center in Christiansburg with the words, “In God We Trust,” along with mottoes of Virginia and the County.

This was passed 4-3 with the 4 Republicans voting for it and the 3 Democrats voting against. I personally sided with the Democrats, and I argued my point of opposition at a recent public hearing before the Board. I would have voted against it if I’d been on the Board.

Why would I have been opposed? For this simple reason: it is not inclusive. Let me explain.

From the earliest days of our republic, our national motto was, “E Pluribus Unum” (which means “Out of many, one”) chosen by Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams. Our founders, while many of them were religious people, strictly ordained that the new nation of the United States of America would have a firm wall of separation between church and state. E Pluribus Unum is the very definition of inclusiveness.

Congress put “In God We Trust” on the currency in 1955 and then adopted it as our national motto, replacing the original, during the anti-communist Red scare of that era. Our country never should have done this, as it violates the founding principle of separation of church and state.

Court cases since then have challenged it, but the Supreme Court, in Aronow v. United States in 1970, ruled that it could remain, saying, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. … While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.'”

Of course, it only has “spiritual and psychological value” and “inspirational quality” for those who believe. However, by some estimates from the research I’ve done, over forty million moral, ethical, patriotic citizens don’t. Forty million! Belief in God is neither a requirement for citizenry nor for public office.

Furthermore, if the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact, then what’s the point of it?

Our dollar bill has “In God We Trust” on it, but we know it’s not really totally true. So in truth, this line should read, “In God many of us trust.” And of course then it has no meaning whatsoever.

Montgomery County was founded in 1772. For 244 years we’ve gotten along fine without these words on our wall. It seems increasingly to be a penchant for one particular political faction to present solutions to problems that nobody is having, bringing unnecessary controversy, divisiveness and scrutiny, and providing another distraction to the important business our Board members were elected to address.

The proponents of this measure, as I heard at that same public hearing, believe that our decline as a nation, as they perceive it, is a result of the removal of God from our public sphere. This notion took me back to my days at Christiansburg Elementary School when my parents removed me from Bible classes in the public school, arguing that public schools were no place for religious education, particularly since, as is inevitable, the education would be slanted to a particular religion, one that we were not part of. We have great places in our society for the practice of religion, including churches, synagogues, mosques, and in the minds and hearts of all of us. I daresay the number of previous non-believers who have come to believe because “In God We Trust” has been on our currency for the past 60 years is likely zero! There seems to be a population of our neighbors who feel their faith, rather than being a personal matter between them and their Creator, is only real if validated by governmental entities.

In practical terms, my guess is that this action will change nothing about the way our County Board of Supervisors does its business. However, I suppose we can receive some comfort in knowing that if Board members are duly stimulated by the “inspirational quality” of these national motto words on the wall behind them, perhaps they can better achieve the level of honor, integrity, and efficiency we’re now enjoying from our federal government.

Monday
Jun202016

* * Shoot me if you must

 

You can shoot me if you must. I’m unarmed.

As our nation is again rocked with a senseless mass murder, this time in Orlando, anybody with a shred of empathy is washed in agony, wondering when or if it will ever end and what if anything we can personally or collectively do about it.

We live in a nation where murders, mostly by guns, are at an epidemic level, higher than almost all other nations and at the top of the developed ones.

I don’t want to die; I’ve never met anybody who did, except those in constant pain or abject misery. I don’t want you to shoot me. But I’ve reached some conclusions about its potential.

I don’t own a gun. I never have and I suspect I never will. I don’t subscribe to the notion that my safety and security comes from having more firepower than the next guy. In my over six decades of life, I’ve never encountered a situation where I felt having a gun would have provided a better outcome than not. Moreover, it is practically unheard of for a person to defend himself or herself from a determined, pre-meditated attacker.

In Orlando there were good guys with guns, several of them, including an off-duty officer working as a bouncer. He returned fire the best he could, called immediately for help from two more officers, and still 50 people died. It took an entire SWAT team three hours to take down the killer.

A couple of years ago, a well-armed and trained county sheriff was having lunch in his parked police car in Williamson, West Virginia, when an assailant walked up and shot him in the back of the head.

If somebody wants to kill me, or you, good luck stopping him.

As I said, America stands alone at the top of the developed world in gun violence, and I believe it is the ownership of and mentality about weapons that is the cause. Here are a couple of examples of how things differ elsewhere.

In Australia, twelve days after that nation’s worst mass shooting in 1996, the government passed a law banning semiautomatic and self-loading rifles and shotguns, and required all firearm-license applicants to prove a “genuine reason” for owning a gun. Their Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, wrote, “The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun. It is easier to kill 10 people with a gun than with a knife.” The country then instituted a federally-financed, mandatory buyback program, purchasing and then destroying 700,000 guns. Gun deaths dropped dramatically since then, and they’ve never suffered another similar massacre.

In New Zealand, gun ownership is rare and citizens cannot own semi-automatic or automatic rifles. People can own pistols, but they must be a member of a licensed pistol club and the pistols cannot leave the club’s premises. Citizens can own rifles for hunting, but the owner must pass a qualification test, undergo a background check, and have their characters vouched for. Rifles must be registered and stored unloaded at all times when not in use in approved, locked safes. Licenses are expensive. Cops don’t carry guns; only members of the national SWAT team do. Gun violence per capita in New Zealand is about 5% of ours.

Other developed countries have similar policies. It’s amazingly refreshing and relaxing to wander in crowded public spaces and know nobody’s armed.

Owning a gun for hunting should be allowed but difficult, like getting a driver’s license. Owners should prove that they’re safe, trained, and competent. If you truly believe your safety is enhanced by carrying, in spite of volumes of research to the contrary, you should be forced to prove your competency. This is completely consistent with the “well-regulated” phrase in the Second Amendment.

If you’re arming to protect yourself from a tyrannical government or a foreign invasion, you’re living in a fantasy. Our nation has the greatest weaponry the world has ever known and can put a cruise missile in your living room in 20 minutes. Who are you going to shoot? If a foreign invader has overcome our military, you sure as heck aren’t going to stop them with your AK-15. If you’re afraid of a tyrannical government, don’t elect tyrants.

My personal protest against arming myself is a choice I’ve made in how I want to live. I could be killed any day by a drunk or inattentive driver; I ride motorcycles, remember? I choose to seize each day and not live in fear. And hope my country one day becomes a saner, more peaceful place, and in the meantime I’ll take my chances.

 

Monday
Jun202016

* * Your dentist knows what you’ve been doing

 

Amy Hunter, DDS, has been my dentist for twenty years, having taken over the practice of the late Dr. Howard Stanton. She told me as she finished my exam a few weeks ago, “We can tell a lot by just looking into your mouth. Everything, actually. Habits, good or bad.”

I was intrigued by this, so I asked her to tell me more about it. We arranged a meeting where she discussed her practice and her patients in detail. “I can tell if you’re a soda drinker. Whether you suck on candy all day. Soda is worse because it has acid and sugar. There is a certain type of decay from that.

“Smoking. Smokers can get nicotine stomatitis. These are small red bumps on the soft palate. With smokeless tobacco, the body forms a callus wherever the user puts the dip. It’s a white, pre-cancerous area.

“Sodas: one liter of soda has one cup of sugar. So when the patients come in who drink a lot of soda, we can see lesions at the gum lines or between the teeth that we see on the x-rays.

“Drugs like crystal meth produce lesions. Meth users often have poor diets as well. We can see poor diets like iron deficiencies and anemia. Their tongue is fissured. They have dry mouth.”

“Are we a well-treated society from a dentistry standpoint?” I asked her.

“Yes. I know from doing extra work in the area helping kids to get off to a good start in dental and overall health. Joe and Margot Thompson of Thompson Tire have started a program for the children and we’re now doing screening at all the schools in the area. I’m involved with that. We look in each child’s mouth just with a pen-light and do a quick exam. We characterize each child as either having no decay, moderate decay, or serious decay. There are only a few that have serious decay in Montgomery County. And that’s wonderful!”

Amy is a trim, ageless woman with curly black hair and a dazzling smile and an occasionally salty tongue. Concluding her exams of me, she always says nice things about my teeth.

She continued, “Education. Diet. Fluoride in the water. These all contribute to better health. I started in dentistry in 1993 and the rate of decay has declined greatly. It’s exciting; it’s great, especially for the children.

“It is thought now that poor hygiene and poor dental health can cause heart disease or strokes or diabetes. Overall, when you look at somebody’s health that is immuno-compromised, they get sick easily. Problems do show up in the mouth. So dentists can see serious things perhaps more readily than other doctors.

She described that our bodily health and our mouth health are to be thought of like the skin’s reaction to a splinter. “It swells up and turns red. It’s the same response. Your body is constantly fighting the bacteria in your mouth and it can’t win until you get a cleaning and change your habits. Your body is always compromised because it’s using its energy to fight the infection.

“I got here in 1996. I have had the opportunity to follow lots of patients for two decades. I have watched them move forward in life. I see positive and negative things Oral health is a map of health. We can follow it. There are numerous red flags in dentistry.”

 “Your patients become friends and family. I see the four-year old who (decades later) has graduated from college or gotten married. People become sick or they die. It’s not easy.

“When a young attractive female comes in with problems and we can get her fixed up and she looks in the mirror, it’s happy for all of us. When hygiene changes, everything changes. It’s usually a choice. Oral hygiene is a reflection of overall health. People should brush and floss regularly. If you limit your sugar, you won’t have cavities. And see your dentist regularly. Don’t suck on soda or candy all day; I carry a bottle of water with me and drink from that. I can tell if somebody drinks sodas or eats sugar all day; it’s black and white.”

Amy is from the Harrisonburg area that she considers similar to the New River Valley economically and culturally. “I feel very much at home here. This community has embraced me. I enjoy my job and my patients. 

“When people have good dental health, they smile. That’s it in a nutshell.”

 

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