Thursday, July 17, 2008

Beauties from my Garden

Taking pictures of the amazing profusion of beauty in my garden has become a minor passion. These are just a few of the more spectacular ones.

Crepe myrtle

Water shrub on Eastern Shore

Water lily blossoms

Water Lilies in my pond

A bee visits a cone flower (echinacea purpurea)

A visiting butterfly


Cranesbill blossom -- it's a rampageous plant!

Second Lotus blossom (note first Lotus seed pod)

First Lotus Blossom

Epiphytic Bromeliad, El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Recent pictures

A Fern, El Yunque, Puerto Rico

View from climb of El Yunque, Puerto Rico

Dove, the hunted

Poonsy, the Hunter

Some Summer Pictures

My new camera has found some wonderful images:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

California Supreme Court did the Right Thing and Took the Right Road

Today's Washington Post featured a column by E.J.Dionne, Jr. entitled Two Roads to Gay Marriage, wondering whether the right thing was done the wrong way.

Here was my answer: As with the dissents in California and the majority in New York, EJ Dionne is taking the road more traveled in his "Two Roads to Gay Marriage". First, constitutional law is above all about protecting minorities from dominant majorities. Which means to weigh the harm to the minority against the possible injury to the majority.

Second, judicial leadership is just as important as "democratic" leadership, and because operating more often in the realm of facts, logic and law, has a better chance of being more farsighted than voter leadership, be it from electors or elected representatives.

Third, as has become a popular phrase, the arc of history tends toward justice: we will eventually get there; the question is not whether, but when. This case presented a prefect moment in history for the largest state in the union with a conservative bench, to see through the obfuscations and prevarications of the majority, intent as it is to cling to its privileges.

Fourth, the heterosexual majority suffers no harm. As the Court majority in California pointed out, allowing gay men and lesbians to marry takes nothing away from heterosexual marriage. It simply adds the dignity of marriage to those for whom that fundamentally social status has been denied. And that is what the California court focused on as its central premise. Under California domestic partnership laws, same sex couples already enjoy virtually all of the state level rights of marriage of opposite sex couples, but they lacked the basic equality of having their relationships honored in the same way, to the same degree, as opposite sex couples do. And, importantly, their children will not be second class children of a "domestic partnership" or "civil union."

Nattering on about whether the practical effect will speed or slow social progress misses the importance of leadership. The road more traveled is by definition more congested and slower.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Nature, Gardens, Logic and the Future of Earth

In March I wrote about Douglas Tallamy's book, Brining Nature Home, on the basis of a book review and a pod cast. Having read about 1/3rd, I feel an urgent need to expand on the basic point.


The reason is amazingly simple: non-"native" plants have not co-evolved with the insects and birds and animals in a given area. They are immune (good selling point in the bad old days) from "pests." They are like plastic flowers to local insects.

Birds need massive amounts of protein, particularly when they are raising they hatchlings. Insects, particularly those that eat leaves, like caterpillars (that turn into butterflies) and the like, are a higher source of protein than beef.

So, when the insects go, can't survive on the plastic diet of non-native plants, the birds vanish. Slowly, perhaps, but vanish.

At the same time, non-native plants, that don't have "pest" insects to keep their numbers in balance by eating their leaves, (and trunks, and sap, etc.), proliferate in their new environment. No enemies. Wheeeee. Plus, the birds that eat the fruit of the non-native plants fly away and poop elsewhere, fabulously spreading the seeds of the non-natives, who begin to flourish in a new area, clear of "pests."

Finally, he makes the point that the importation of non-natives, beautiful exotics, has inevitably brought plant diseases with them. No amount of protective agricultural laws can keep out microscopic infestations. The imported plants co-existed and co-evolved with the imported exotic. But, domestic plants didn't. They had zero evolved protection from predation by the new plant diseases.

And, voila, the death of the American Chestnut, majestic trees that populated the whole east coast, the death of the elms, the approaching death of conifers native exclusively to the Smokies, and so on.

So, we have kudzu, pansies, giant irisis, Japanese Maples, peonies, roses, any plant from any where else but where it co-evolved in the web of local natural life. All of which contribute to the death of nature around us.

Kill all the English Ivy you can find!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I'm Late For Work But Had to Post this: Is Belief in God and in Evolution Compatible?

The New York Times didn't even bother to make one read the article before submitting a comment. I couldn't resist: are belief in god and evolution compatible? Since I am a compulsive commenter on that topic, here are my comments:

Creationism is not -- and can never be -- science. As a matter of epistemology, one can believe that creationism is true but cannot prove that it is true. Science makes propositions that are testable and turn out to be either true or false, regardless of any belief in their trueness or falseness. For example, believing that a bridge is strong enough to hold up a car is not the same thing as knowing that it will hold up a car: the belief may either be true or not, but knowledge that it is true or not depends on knowing that the bridge held up the car or not (or that it has the tensile strength or doesn't have the tensile strength predictably to hold up the car). With creationism, the notion of "intelligent design" is not a proposition that can ever be proven to be true. Evolution, on the other hand, is demonstrable in millions of ways, the evolution of viruses and bacteria being one example or the devastation created by non-native plant species, where it is impossible to create a balance in the complete cycle between plants, insects, birds, mammals over short periods of time, is another example.

The proposition that god exists is ultimately never provable. However, belief in god's existence does not rest on whether it can be proven to be true or not. It can simply be held in the mind and heart.

The compatibility of science and belief in god will depend on one's definition of god. A god that has direct intervention in the lives of humans is probably incompatible with evolutionary theory. However, a god that exists as inherent in the universe, a spiritual dark matter, a force that exists within all material things, from light waves, to time, to crystals, to viruses, to all forms of life, known and unknown, to a meta morality that springs from the evolutionary nature of the animal and human ways of being, is compatible with science and evolution. But neither belief is a testable or provable proposition.

— Christina Forbes, Alexandria VA

Recommend Recommended by 101 Readers


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I Kept Reading About "Forbs" and Wondered What They Were

Douglas Tallamy, author of the new bible, Bringing Nature Home (see my earlier post), used the word "forbs" enough times that I had to look it up. Since my blog's name comes from plants (that live in the air, without visible means of nutrition), I had to know what my Scottish family's name came from. Here is is: a non taxonomic (feeling verbally taxed?) name for a grouping of herbaceous, flowering plants, like clovers, wild flowers, grasses and the like. Like my brain.

Here's from Wiki:
Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes). The term is frequently used in vegetation ecology, especially in relation to grasslands, to refer to broad-leaved (dicot) herbs. Forbs represent a guild of plant species with broadly similar growth form, which in ecology is often more important than taxonomic relationship.

In addition to its use in ecological studies, the term forb may also be used for subdividing popular guides to the wildflowers of a region, together with other categories such as ferns, grasses, shrubs and trees. This approach is not followed in formal regional floras, which are usually organised taxonomically.

Some example forbs: clover, sunflower, milkweeds.

I wonder what my siblings and cousins will think? (My parents are dead.) Without pride of ownership, I think we need a lot more native forbs in this world!

I Think I Can I Think I Can Can

Bob Herbert in today's New York Times addresses the brouhaha created by Obama's use of the word "bitter." Herbert says it was a surrogate for admitting that some non-middle class whites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia can't vote for a black man. And that Obama should go back to his uplifting message of hope. Two thoughts.

Below the usual Email Print Save Share links is a link to one of my most favorite groups, Young @ Heart.
(I wanted to have the same link but don't have the clip chops to get it. Oh well.) The movie is going to be shown at the E Street Cinema in downtown DC starting this Friday, April 18! I can't wait!

Bitter is a word seldom used in our happy days lexicon. But Obama was right. Herbert may be right, but I think doesn't go to the bull's eye on this one. "Bitter" is what a lot of people are. Whether black, white or any one of our multi-hued humans running around struggling in this economy. We need to admit it, say it, speak about and to it, directly.

Bitter has the connotation of a feeling that never leaves you. That stays in your gut, despite the smiles and the jokes. That includes the obligation to hide it, lest you scare people away.

And a lot of people I know are bitter. Not my well-off friends and acquaintances, not my clients with dementia. But my clients in the middle, those whom fate has pointed a dagger at and said, "not you, you don't get to share in the benefits, in the revelry, in the unbridled joy of our times."

The bitterness of the undocumented aliens who live under the myriad swords of Damoclese that the anger of those who are bitter about a variety of things have hung over their heads. The bitterness of those on the other side, those who pound the table accusingly "they have disobeyed the law," a surrogate for "I want mine, particularly because what is (was?) mine is shrinking."

The bitterness of those who were promised much but who were shoved off the train just as it got rolling. As a white woman sitting on the Metro a few days ago, tired and on my way home, I watched a black man, standing impassively, rocking with the rhythms of the train. And I saw the dual lives black people must live: the black family world and the white world. Two universes separated and in opposition, sistered together like two joists in one soul.

How can a white person -- who has no thought about race, for whom doors close only because of bad behavior or bad luck or the luck of the draw -- understand a black person -- who lives with race every nanosecond of the day, where the color of your skin elicits some kind of reaction, however infinitessimally small and "imperceptible"? And how can a black person feel the insouciant freedom a white person feels at never having to think about race, and if he or she does, it's to say, "well, race doesn't matter. We all swim at our own strength."

I wondered how hard it would be to cross that divide and look white culture in the face and say, "hey, I'm jumping over all that, I'm going to set aside the embedded racism that leaks out of every pore of white society, and play on your team, play by your rules." And I wondered about how it would feel to be solidly within a black family, or a black church, and feel the warmth of myriad common bonds that link the pains of a people, spoken and unspoken because known in the bones, that could envelope everyone. I wondered what it would be like to live in those two worlds. "Bitter" would be only one of many words that come to mind.

Not that Obama and those he speaks of and to are bitter in the overt sense. Bitter is an underlying condition, more often hidden than shown, repressed than felt. For a lot of people. For many reasons. Felt by whites and people of color, equally, for different reasons.

Bitterness is a close cousin to anger, which is born of hurt. How one feels and handles hurt.

And not to say that bitterness is an early bus stop on the road of pain, but just go to my friend Judy's blog, Remembering Matters, to read yesterday's post. A poem about hurt, Death Poem, from Poems from Guantanamo
. Hurt beyond bitterness. Bitterness includes a component that says, "I deserved better, and I got shafted." There is an element of being wronged. Death Poem and those in the collection speak of a hurt way beyond bitterness. Beyond post traumatic stress. Victims of torture. For sure. A soul branded for life.

A meditation on pain. For today. For the other end of the pendulum swing, go to Young @ Heart, octogenarians defying both gravity and time (how do you explain that, Stephen Hawking?)

Apology to all who would read racism, bitterness, one-sidedness or other tendentious feelings on my part. Pains live in mosaics of many feelings. None are bigger or better or less painful than another. Take my post at face value. I wrote about these today because these were the ones that came to mind that I could write about.

PPS: Roger Cohen in today's Wash Post looks at the brouhaha from a different angle: Obama's mistake was to link together people "clinging" (that was the poor choice of words) to guns, religion, etc. who are bitter. Truth spoken (from my vantage), but not very political. Ed Koch always supported the end of rent control in his head but opposed any measure to eliminate it with all of his political muscle.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Miracle Enveloped in a Tragedy

Juan Augustin was hit by a car. Or perhaps attacked by thugs and beaten and robbed. He was taken to a hospital. He was given a name. Juan Augustin. It may or may not have been his real name. Actually, it turned out not to be his real name.

He was sent to a nursing home, a hopeless quadriplegic, with some eye movement, living on a feeding tube, breathing though a tracheostomy tube, his hands sometimes tied to the edges of his bed to keep him from pulling out one of his tubes.

A few times Juan came down with pneumonia and would be sent to hospital where he would be pumped full of antibiotics, put on a respirator machine and left to get well. Then he would be sent back to the nursing home.

I had been appointed Juan's guardian. That meant that I had responsibility for making medical decisions since he couldn't communicate and to all outward appearances would have had no ability to evaluate the choices.

At the nursing home, I consulted with all of the medical staff to determine what the best regime for him would be. Basically, not much more than was being done. I wondered whether and when he might die. That is part of my job. The nurses, mostly men, said that in the mornings he would perk up and open his eye and respond to questions. I never saw that side of him.

He came down with pneumonia again and was sent to a different hospital. I was called and went to see him. The hospital staff wanted to know what his advance directives should be. DNR, full code, no code, what about other procedures? pain medication, antibiotics, biopsies, all of the myriad questions one faces when in a hospital today. I went to see him in his hospital bed. He was his usual very comatose self. I spoke to him. In Spanish, since he doesn't speak English. When I asked him how he was he remained still and silent. When I asked him -- as I must -- whether he wanted to be kept alive, he reached up and grabbed my hand on the side of the bed. I held his hand for a while, until he let his drop. I told the nurse, Full Code.

A few weeks later, I received a call from a social worker at the hospital. Could I help with his financial information so they could discharge him back to a nursing home. A much more appropriate place than a hospital. I had no information. A week later, the social worker called again. This time to tell me that because he was -- apparently -- an undocumented alien, the city wouldn't pay his medicaid so no nursing home or other facility would take him. He was, effectively, stuck at the hosptial.

I visited Juan sporadically. Toward the end of six months there, I discussed the possibility of starting hospice, since it didn't look as though he would be getting any better and he had been losing weight and showing other signs of "failure to thrive." He was still essentially unresponsive to my talking to him. The doctor said he would undertake an ethics consult, of several doctors, to evaluate what the longer term next steps should be. I would of course be involved.

When I visited a few months later I asked about the ethics consult. The new doctor -- they rotate in and out every month -- said with a big grin, that Juan had shown remarkable progress lately, that a volunteer had been able to communicate with him, that he was from El Guateduras, in Central America, that his name was not Augustin, but Acevedo and that he had family in the region.

I raced into his room, greeted him, found him responsive, took up the paper with the alphabet written on it, and since he opened one eye, started to talk to him. He could take a pen, as a pointer, and hold it in his crippled hand, and point at letters and numbers. He could nod yes or no to questions phrased simply. I confirmed all of the information and learned that he didn't want to stay in the hospital, that he had had a passport, that he had been robbed, not hit by a car as the hospital records said, that he even had a work permit. At one point, he also opened his other eye. Something he hadn't done in two years.

Ecstatic, I called the El Guateduras embassy and spoke to the consul. The consul said he would be willing to visit Juan at the hospital and see what he could do. He thought he could locate the family in El Guateduras, if he knew where he was born and what his full name was.

At the same time, we had to get him documented so he would qualify for public benefits so he could be moved from the hospital. It was also clear that he was very, very depressed, that his body wracking cough was due to his inactivity, and that with physical therapy he could regain some movement. He was, after all, only 37. I retained an immigration attorney.

The consul, the attorney, a relief worker from El Guateduras and I visited Juan. We talked at length with him. Near the end, the consul, who had been on his cell phone for some time, said they had located the information on his passport. He would give that to the attorney who could then use it with Homeland Security. I asked the doctor to order antidepressants, B-12 shots and provigil, a drug given to those with dementia to perk up their mental functioning.

While in my office on Saturday afternoon, I got a call from a woman who spoke virtually no English, and very fast Spanish. She was Juan's cousin. A sister of Juan's in El Guateduras had called her to tell her where Juan was, and to alert his mother, brother and sister, all of whom lived nearby. Juan's mother wanted to talk to me.

I called the number for his mother, and got his brother. We talked a long time about all of the issues. The family wanted him taken from the hospital. I explained that Juan would need insurance, qualifying documented status or a very rich relative. Because there was no safe discharge home or anywhere else without a lot of money. But, that we were working on improving his life.

His mother was at the hospital. She had persuaded the staff to allow her to spend the night with her son. His brother told me that Juan told him he wanted to die. That he was in terrible pain. What could be done?

This was now, not only a miraculous reunion, but one of many tragedies being played out in this country at this time. Whole families living under the dark clouds of fear. And this one anchored, now, to an ailing son and brother, a quadriplegic in a hospital, unable to be moved.

This story isn't finished yet. It is hard to know where it will lead. My hope is that between the El Guateduras government and my excellent immigration attorney, we will put Juan on a road to improved medical care. I see him, in my mind's eye, zooming around in a motorized wheelchair, guiding it with his right hand on a small stick, as so many are doing now. We just need the resources. And lots of luck.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Birds Need Ecologially Sound Gardening

Puzzled about how to shift our lifestyles (note the presumption of choice that we have in the early 21st century, versus the contingent reality of millenia of human life) from anti-life to pro-(no, not falling into that trap) environment?

I am burning with realizations that all around us we can make changes. The big question is how?

Here's a start for gardening: Douglas Tallamy has pushed the frontier by linking native plant species to the kinds of insects that survive on those plants to the birds and beasts that we love to watch.

You can read or order his book, but here's a clip from a radio interview that says it all.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Finally, Anti War Demonstrations that Do The Job!

When I walked out of my office building this afternoon to get lunch, I landed right in the middle of this anti-war demonstration, coming straight down K Street, NW.

My heart leapt, I nearly cried with the joy of seeing kids taking up banners and placards -- and later on, their bodies -- to protest the obscene war we wage against . . . who knows anymore? McCain sure doesn't know, and he;s supposed to know. And Bush is so simple minded that we only know that it's against the bogeymen. I guess it's against terrorists, people who are so blown away by American blindness (as well as their own stunted sense of how to lead an effective life) that they strap bombs on themselves and detonate them in crowds of mothers and children and babies and fathers and lovers and shoppers. And kill a lot of people.

It was pouring rain, but that didn't dim the energy and dedication of these youngsters, who have got it right.

Later, when I ran into my friend and colleague, Amina Khan, and we plunged into the intersection of Connecticut and K Streets, the heart of Washington DC's most traffic'd zone, where the kids had chained themselves in a big circle and heavily drummed dance music (if you can call it music, it sounds more like the roars of motorcycle platoons to these ancient ears), we talked a bit with the cops lined up facing the demonstrators. One cop was taking it all seriously and screaming about the billions of dollars this whole thing was costing, forgetting, of course, the billion billions we are pumping into Iraq. Other cops said they were the friendly face of DC police, nice neighbors. The plan was to let the cold and the rain disperse the marchers, not attack, not try to break it all up.

One young woman -- who had a Masters in public policy but who thought she could change people more by teaching yoga and meditation at the Ronald Reagan Building with its banks of government offices -- who took refuge under Amina's umbrella, had her first demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan. Amina was demonstrating against aparthied. And I of course showed my age by recounting the demonstrations against the draft busses entering the Oakland Induction Center, against the Viet Nam war. So long ago.

The display of police power was chilling. They may have been jovial fellows, for the most part, but the massing of motorcycles and cop cars, all with lights flashing, enhanced by the rain on the pavement, was scary.

Why do we need to have so much firepower against our own children, who happen to disagree with some of their parents? Too much money into police power and not enough into education, health care, environmental protection. Where are this nation's priorities?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Third Phase of Our Lives

The most important thing is to try and enjoy life—because you never know when it will be gone. If you wake up in the morning and you have a choice between doing the laundry and taking a walk in the park, go for the walk. You’d hate to die and realize you had spent your last day doing the laundry!

—Christine Lee, 67

Wise Women -- a book of photographs by Joyce Tenneson -- is a celebration of the power and beauty of women in the third phase of their lives. These remarkable women from all walks of life were eager to show what it means to be an elder in this new millennium.

Wise Women was the best selling photography book of 2002.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Eat Locally, Eat Sustainably, Where oh Where?

Switching from tobacco farming to organic farming, sounds great, down in Southwestern Virginia.

I feel like a little girl looking into the window of a fabulous store filled with dazzling delights. But, have a very hard time getting in.

Living in the Washington urbia of Alexandria Va (which when I lived in New York City I thought of as being virtually on the shores of the Mississippi), I would have to travel umpty ump miles to get to a "local" farm from which to buy fresh vegetables and grass grazed chicken or beef or pork.

Yes, we have our "oldest open market" in the country every Saturday, but many vegetables aren't organic and the meat is frozen solid. Wonderful in many ways, but where are the chickens running around? And the goats looking expectantly?

It's a quandary. Not totally hopeless, but when the tobacco fields of Fairfax County have not stopped at Go, but have gone directly to McMansion development, it's harder.

Perhaps the Washington Post should do a Weekend section on all of the organic farms within 60 miles of DC? Yes, they come to us but it would be great fun to go to them, and good for you too.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Why Stanley Fish Writes Columns in the N Y Times

Stanley Fish wrote his column this morning to explain why he writes his invariably interesting and thought provoking columns. His core message was that he writes to look at an issue in a logical or analytical way, and not to put forward his opinions, or even any opinion at all.

Much of the column was devoted to foiling critics who accuse him of being pro this and anti that and excoriating him for being so obviously wrongheaded to try to look like he didn't have an opinion when in fact his agenda was as clear as a case of measles on a kid's face.

It is a thoughtful, taughtly and elegantly written column. I actually recommend it because it points to a more dispassionate way of at least starting down a path to looking at the building block that could form an opinion about something. And has had me thinking all day.

So, I also post my own comment to his column, from this morning. My contribution to trying to think clearly.

March 10th,
9:53 am

Leaping to judgment is something we humans invariably do before we actually think about something. It is a hard habit to observe in the doing, much less to curb it long enough to actually think logically and coherently about something in order to do a 360 degree look around before we leap.

My question is where in the scheme of things does Dr. Fish square his views with the biopsychologists’ discovery that the human brain functions more as a justifier than as a decisionmaker. That is, action precedes thought; thought describes what we just did, not the reverse, contrary to millenia of belief in our rationality (or attempts at it). In fact, I barely knew what I was going to write before I wrote it, or that I would feel compelled to write something at all.

Yes, mathematics is not an emotionally driven descriptive scheme; logic, presumably, is also not rooted in gut reactions. Perhaps logic, science, clear-eyed analysis are the evolutionary steps of mental evolution from a carbon dioxide to oxygen dominated world, the stromatolites of the human mind.

— Posted by Christina Forbes

Sunday, March 9, 2008

My religion is nature

Oliver Sacks, protean man that he is, had some gems in the Sunday New York Times. Actually, fossils, thoughts about fossils and other gem-like thoughts. This post is cribbed shamelessly from an interview by David Colman.

Sacks collects fossils, and he has a slice of fossilized stromatolite, one of earth's earliest life forms. It dates from the Archean era, more that 3 billion years ago. Long thought extinct, a colony was discovered still alive in Shark Bay in Western Australia.

Stromatolites are made up of large colonies of bacteria, blue-green algae and sedimentary deposits. Stromatolites are thought to have converted the abundant carbon dioxide of early earth's Archean-era atmosphere into oxygen. “Over the years, they made enough oxygen to make life possible for the rest of us,” he said. The stromatolite is the fossil in the middle.

“I am horrified by transience,” Sacks told Colman. “If you’re religious, you can believe in the eternal. For me, the next best thing is the enduring.”

Sacks said he came to the natural sciences as a refuge from a chaotic boyhood. He cherishes these sciences when their integrity is under attack by religious fundamentalists.

“My religion is nature,” he said. “That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Sacks also loves ferns and cycads, believing that plants that make a garish show of their sex organs — what we call flowers — are perhaps a bit vulgar. “I feel that flowers are Johnny-come-latelies,” he said, noting that ferns predated flowering plants by more than 200 million years.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Go Hillary Go: Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island!

Hillary drives the roller coaster. Go girl go!

I still like Barak a lot, but she's turned the tide on him. Which is strategically important, either way. He needs to be toughened up if he is to fight McCain, and she needs to be very tough to fight McCain. The Dems, as Karl Rove said and I have been thinking for weeks, will stay on page one with their titanic struggle between two of the most qualified and brilliant candidates we have seen in decades while McCain will fall to page 8. Not that everyone reads the newspapers, but it's as good a barometer as any on public attention. Just add up the numbers of voters who turn out for the Republican primaries versus the Democratic ones. Astounding difference in favor of the Dems two to one.

Keep the long term in mind. It's security and the economy. She has the right mantra now: national security and economic security. And she's turned the tide on "hope." "Let's turn hope into reality!"

How exciting!

Two Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

She is my favorite poet for the last several years. Here are two of them:

Instant Living

Instant living.
Unreahearsed performance
Untried-on body.
A thoughtless head.

I am ignorant of the role I perform
All I know is it's mine, can't be exchanged.

What the play is about
I must guess promptly on stage.

Poorly prepared for the honour of living
I find the imposed speed of action hard to bear.
I improvise though I loath improvising.
At each step I trip over my ignorance.
My way of life smacks of the provincial.
My instincts are amateurish.
The stage-fright that is my excuse only humiliates me more.
Mitigating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and gestures that cannot be retracted,
stars not counted to the end,
my character like a coat I button up running ---
this is the sorry outcome of such haste.

If only one could practice at least one Wednesday,
repeat a Thursday!
But now Friday's already approaching with a script I don't know.

Is this right? -- I ask
(in a rasping voice
since they don't even let me clear my throat in the wings.)

You're deluded if you think it's only a simple exam
set in a makeshift office. No.
I stand among the stage-sets and see they're solid.
I am struck by the precision of all the props.
The revolving stage's been turning for quite some time.
Even the furthest nebulae are switched on.
Oh, I have no doubt this is the opening night.
And whatever I'll do
will turn for ever into what I have done.

Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski from her collection, People on a Bridge.


Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

trans.: Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

And, a link to her Nobel lecture.
Nobel for Literature, 1996.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What Jeanne Steig's Husband Saw

William Steig's drawings always seemed to plumb the depths of the soul. I kept this drawing for nearly five years. And now I have something I can do with it besides look at it every six months as it gained the dust and newspaper yellowing of age on my shelf. Never put away, always ready to be pulled down, in case I could share it with someone.

Jeanne Steig wrote then, right after his death, "Bill frequently drew men thinking. They were often leaning on rocks and their thoughts were somber thoughts. This drawing is a happy combination of rock and man, with a few leftover heads for good measure. Or are all three of them just rising up from the ground, over the horizon, already grim about what they might be letting themselves in for?"

Follow the link. She writes in as lovely a way as he drew. But the linked article doesn't have the drawing any more. It was sandwiched on the Op-Ed page, between Nicholas Kristof's "Secrets of the Scandal" about the Valerie Plame leak, on the left, and David Brooks, on the right, "Bigger than the Nobel" lamenting that Pope John Paul II would never receive a Nobel Peace Prize, even though Brooks quoted the Pope as saying, "the evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverizaion, of the fundamental uniqueness in each person."

I am still going to keep my yellowing copy of the page out at the ready, in case anyone might like to see it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Run Don't Walk to NYC Before March 16

We have only two chances to see the William Steig cartoons in full glory: until March 16 in New York at the Jewish Museum and then San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
After that, it's the book/catalog.

Here's why we should go.

Drawings courtesy New York Times, March 3, 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Which Way is She Whirling?

My sister Alex sent this image to me. It was accompanied by a discussion of right brain and left brain. I don't remember which was which.

The image is whirling. Either clockwise or counterclockwise. Click on the image to see her whirl. For some reason, she only whirls off-page.

The question is does she sometimes go the other way? Can you make her go the other way? And, if you can, or if sometimes it happens, how does it happen? What is in the mind's eye that makes it change direction? Can you make it change direction at will?

Where is the thing seen? On the screen or in the mind?

The Fear Machine Revvs Up

The Republicans are building up to a thunderstorm of criticism of the Democrats, and particularly Barak Obama, on the question of terrorism and security. For example, today's Washington Post carried the following lead:

TYLER, Tex., Feb. 27 -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of making ill-informed comments about Iraq and al-Qaeda in Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, signaling that a general-election brawl between the colleagues would center in part on who has the foreign policy experience to lead a country at war.
The NY Times article about Colonel Davis, the former chief bulldog colonel for the military trials against Guantanamo detainees who has turned detainee supporter, quotes him stating the obvious: top Pentagon brass discussed timing the upcoming trials to match the run up to the 2008 election. Duh. How many salvos of fireworks can they keep coming? Building up to a crescendo in September, with the cooked "evidence" of these dangerous terrorists (who have been held in stinking hell holes in Guantanamo for the last 6 years and must look withered and wizened by now). Another round of fireworks in the hellish bouquet of attacks and fear-mongering being hatched by the Republicans.

The Republicans will run on two themes: security and taxes. On security, not war but security, who can better protect the nation? A McCain who knows the guts of war, who supported and supports the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing war or Obama, who was against the war?

Obama has to posit a totally different mythology of America in the post Cold War, flat earth reality: it has to be rooted in a view of the world that says that the war should not have happened, the it has inflamed rather than doused anti-American sentiment around the world, that it has cost way too many lives and will have mired us in an intractable position in the Middle East for decades to come. And that it is ruining not only our standing among nations but brand "America" and our capacity to export our brain products (no matter how low the dollar sinks). A vision that says that we not only should not have gone to war and brought down Saddam Hussein, but we now have to reverse the outcome, make it all better? Make it so the middle easterners like and respect us (but allow us to continue full support of Israel). Make it so that militant Muslim terrorism calms down to a whisper? A policy that makes it safe to be an American abroad again. That vision is going to not only have to be compelling, it has to SELL and counter act the fearful and fearsome vision the Republicans paint.

That is a tall order, when we are a nation that feeds off the notion of our superpower strength, our righteousness, and are more than willing to defer to the one who pounds the drum the loudest. Bush still dominates the debate. (Is the Democratic Congress impotent or what?) He will have to defend the war all the way to election day. It's his war. And he intends to assure his legacy.

Taxes on the other hand is easier to reframe and change the subject from "it's your money; they will take it away and spend it on bloated boondoggles" to the Democratic fear machine: "health care is a disaster, education is a disaster, the infrastructure is a disaster, we have allowed the richest 1 percent to siphon off all of the wealth of the nation that could go to reducing infant mortality, increasing literacy rates, improving inspection of slaughterhouses to assure humane animal treatment and healthy meat, etc., etc."

How can it be that the richest nation in the history of the world can't afford to pay school teachers? or care for the disabled and the elderly?

My Democratic friends think Obama can bring in enough new voters who aren't going to respond to the Republican fear machine and who will support the Democratic fear concerto to win the election.

I am worried. Fear is a poison and a stimulant. At least the Democrats can point to actual visible problems and actual, acceptable, visible solutions. So the fear can be alleviated. The Republican fear seeps into the country's bones. It aims at the lowest common denominator. It uses bogeymen to scare us. We are a nation addicted to fear and to the aggressive response. All adrenalin all the time. The Swift boating of Kerry may look like amateur hour compared to what will be mounted against Obama.

PS: I am sad about Hillary. She would have made a much better president in terms of dealing with problems. Whether she could lead is another question. She has the chops on the war issue that Obama doesn't. Hillary is a realist. Iraq IS. We have to deal with it. "I was against the war from the start" means Obama has to create a whole new vision that gets us out of the very dangerous quagmire the Republicans have put us into (along with Democratic complicity).

PPS: The issue isn't who is right but who can paint the most compelling vision of how to deal with the world as it is (while painting the picture of what that world IS to suit the proposed remedies). The Republicans will paint a dangerous world that only more aggression can make safe. The Democrats have to paint a vision of a world with different premises and different outcomes. The US has seldom opted for the kinder gentler vision.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Abu Graib of American Food

The NYTimes, Wash Post and LA times at least, as well as numerous TV news reports, featured stories about the “largest meat recall,” focusing on the fact that most experts thought there were no safety risks and that most of the meat had already been eaten over the last two years with, obviously, no ill effects. The scare was particularly vivid given that the meat from this particular company is used for school lunches.

A Humane Society of the United States staffer filmed it. If you haven’t already seen some of the footage, here it is. My soul went into anaphylactic shock seeing it. It's rough stuff.

What does this say about our nation? The solution may or may not be to stop eating meat. I'm not sure that gets us into the end zone where the animals that we eat are treated humanely. We need to radically change the way America raises the food it eats and the way we each choose what we eat.

I commend one book on the subject that has a gentle title for a not so gentle issue, The Omnivore's Dilemma
, which may be the Silent Spring that helps to turn this ship away from its many cruelties as well as toward much healthier ways of eating. I'm a convert.

PS: Both because of the humaneness issues, but also because of health issues. The meat we eat that comes from mega-slaughterhouses, whether beef, pork, chicken, etc., is not healthy for human beings.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My daisy: Hillary, Barak, Hillary, Barak, Hillary, Barak, Hillary, Barak . . . .

I must confess to terminal ennui with this election.

I can't tell whether Barak will draw so many new and once hopeless voters to the polls that he can beat the Republican terror and taxes machine. Or whether we need a Democratic candidate with chops on the issue of security, namely Hillary.

Here's how I see it: Actually, Bush said it: they will run on taxes and security.

Taxes is easy: "it's your money, and you know how to spend it. They want to take your money and spend it on government boondoggles."

Security is the anti acid to The War. The security line goes: "we haven't had a suicide or other attack on American soil There is a vast radical Muslim conspiracy that wants to crush America. We need a strong defense. And the best defense is a strong offense." This message will be delivered from every loudspeaker in America, over and over and over and over. Loud and clear. If there is one thing the Republicans are good at creating, it's fear.

So, the question is how does the Democratic candidate either win the debate on security and change the subject on taxes? Or, change the subject on security as well?

Changing the subject on taxes isn't too, too hard. (Our little version of fear): schools are crumbling, millions have no health care, our infrastructure is aging, etc., etc.. So we need targetted investments (shades of Al Gore and the oak tree versus the dandelion schools of economics). More fear of public failures than fear of having your money taken away. That's the easy one.

Security: not war. NO, not war. Only Democrats raise the issue of war, and they do it by being against it. Republicans support strong security. And, we could be attacked any where any time any place by virtually any means. We can all imagine where the terrorists could strike. And kill, maim, create chaos and real fear. Just tweak an American and he or she can tell you their favorite predicted terrorist attack. So, the question is change the subject or be able to point to strength on the security issue.

Being against the war is easy. It's like being against taxes. Against waste. Against, well, evil.
Doing security well, and with visible action and results is hard.

On this last score, Hillary has chops and Barak is weak. He can be painted as McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Tsongas, Ed Muskie. In a flick of the Republican brush. Obama is weak on security (whisper, he was weak on war). Hillary, on the other hand, voted to authorize the president to use force. And SHE HASN'T APOLOGIZED FOR IT. She has taken a principled stand. She has all of the chops a Democrat needs to counter the Republican fear mongering. And double them on diplomacy and restoring respect for America.

But, here's the rub. Hillary is not an attractive candidate (particularly in the beauty contest with Mr. Universe, Obama). Obama is ravishing. As EJ Dionne pointed out in the Washington Post, Barak Obama has had one message from day one. Hillary has had umpteen and they keep changing. Bill overstepped (he was right in what he said, but he shouldn't have said it (how often are we "right" but "wrong" to say it?)). Her venues look set up. She is distant with the press. She is distant from most everyone. So? And actually, her best message is "we need a president who is ready on day one." But that can't compete with the litany of examples of where hope and courage changed history, as Obama is fond of parading in soaring rhetoric.

So, what's a person to do? Chops on security or mountains more voters?

(PS, if Hillary has to use the super delegates at the convention and twist a lot of arms, she will loose horribly. She can't do that. Lots of the old power politics are off the table for the Dems.)

My ennui has turned to perplexity and a wish to get to go and to have it be over with. (Plus, I haven't even begun the chapter about the horrific sexism that pervades reporting about Hillary that she simply can't charm her way out of. They did it to Geraldine Ferraro as well. It's a kind of pervasive, leering, ever so thin veneer of sneer. Disgusting. And women columnists do it too -- Dowd, for example, but she does it with knives.)

What think you?

Happy Valentine's Day

Monday, February 11, 2008

Don't You Wish You Were a Dog? I Doo.

You gotta believe. Another world from mine at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Going on this very moment while men and women and children are being killed in Iraq, two towering Democrats are dueling for the nomination while Bush sets off his last series of fireworks, to keep the nation on the edge of fear, starting the trial . . why so late? why now? of 6 Guantanamo inmates (put McCain several notches higher on the ladder). That will go on during the whole campaign and beyond. Just to remind us which party is focused on our SECURITY.

How I would love to live in a world where some buttleresque, so very proper gentleman, would stand by me while I eliminate next to a fire hydrant, placed there just for me (and my pals, so we can smell who's been there and leave our scent for the next guy). Wouldn't you?

Or have someone sew me a perfect cold winter weather suit, my favorite warm-ups to keep me toasty AND to handle my hair, every last strand. No more tired, listless hair.

Or to have personal coiffeurs attending to my every look.

I must be in a very curmedgeonly mood right now to begrudge this clan their joys and fun. Yes?

Have I taken too serious a road? Have I lost my joi de vivre? Have I equated grumpiness with virtue?

My main goal right now, in the animal world, is to habituate my very neurotic cockatoo, Cleo, poor thing, to Poonsy, my young Maine Coon boy who circles around her with visions of some atavistic triumph in his eyes. If only they could be friends. Stuart, my other lovely boy cat (domestic short hair) doesn't alarm Cleo. Maybe someday they will be friends.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Art and Copies

La finalidad del arte es dar cuerpo a la esencia de las cosas no el copiar su apariencia.

Loosely translated: the point of art is to embody the essence of things, not to copy their appearance.

But what about life imitating art?

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Graceful Death; Death with Dignity

Jany Brody writes in today's New York Times about people who want to die and those who help them (within the boundaries of the law, of course). Her Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit opens the door to thinking and talking about the death of an older person.

I wrote her an email that I quote below because I can't really say it better:
I read your column on a Graceful Exit. I had two thoughts. One is that as I age -- I am now 64 -- I am becoming much more aware of the differences between me and younger people. I have led a very dynamic, active life, and in fact, I believe I look, feel and act a lot younger than I am.

But, the actual fact of age, of having lived a lot of years, of having had hopes and dreams and disappointments, of having invested in love and seen it both succeed and fail, of having an aging body, of the difficulty in rebuilding muscle after a total knee replacement and the like, are inhabiting my mind in ways that makes me look at life very differently.

When I watch young people, the children of friends, young men and women striding on sidewalks, riding in elevators, chatting it up in restaurants, I am struck by a feeling of how little they know of what will come to them with life, with time. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

As a young person, I looked at life from the rim of the volcano, from the front edge of the white water on a wave. Tomorrow was a real but empty concept. My energy and love of life would carry me forward through whatever I aspired to.

As a sixty-year old I see life from the top of a rise on a big long hill, overlooking fields and bays. There are more mountains to climb and valleys to hike through, but it is at a higher altitude.

As I read Ms. Brody's words about eighty and ninety year olds talking about wanting to die, it seems so obvious that from the perspective of the lives they have lived, that death would be the most natural next step. Not something to be feared, or fought against. And that younger people can't really understand how it feels to be that old. Not simply the body feelings but the whole package of awareness, knowledge, understanding of the arc of a life.

Much as people in their twenties, thirties, forties haven't a clue what it's like to be sixty, even at sixty I can only imagine what it would feel like to be eighty or ninety. Not everyone feels that way, of course, but I imagine a lot do and the issue is not with their feeling that they want to die but with their younger family members who can't imagine that state of mind and so translate it into the feelings of a younger person. Of something that must be desperate or depressed or hopeless.

It's not like that at all. Death is not so far away. Not so much to be avoided.

My work takes me close to the dying; in fact, much of my work is helping people to die (not from a medical point of view but as the decision maker when there is no one else). My awareness and knowledge of death is very different from when I was young. It will be much closer still if I live to be eighty or ninety.

Jane Brody closes her column with a plea for her family to have the wisdom to allow her to die with dignity. My reaction was that each one of us must build that into our health care powers of attorney and advance medical directives. And, more importantly each one of us must talk to family members and possible caretakers and make sure they understand that they are not to substitute what they think is best for what you have said you wanted.

So often, so much damage is done to the elderly -- and those are my clients and wards -- by seemingly well intentioned family members (and other court appointed guardians, conservators and trustees) who think they know better.

It is cruel to be stripped of everything in life except one's joy in the moment (dementia having often robbed one of memory) and the ability to decide what one wants. To then have relatives and caregivers dictate what one can or cannot do is truly unkind.

Part of my law practice is pushing back against such misguided caregivers on behalf of an older person or a disabled person, and trying to get the caregiver to align him or herself with the older person they are caring for and not to substitute his or her own ideas and values for those of the older person.

So, I admonish every reader to be very clear and very firm with your family members about their not doing what they think best, but rather what you know you will want and have told them orally and in writing.

See my earlier post on The Right to Folly. Soon I will write a post on the hell of dying in America. Hell is on This Side of Death, not the other. Also, another post on how to think about advance directives and health care powers of attorney.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why I'm For Hillary (and still love Barak)

Here's my take. I vote on Feb 12, and it may be all over baby blue by then.


1. Until I had to actually earn a living, I loved to fly in the high skies of broad groupings of related ideas, overseeing the globe and the universe, being an idealist, optimist, frowning on the fearful pessimists.

When I started to actually work for a living, I had to abandon my high flying ways and get down into the weeds and look at every detail, every third and fourth order consequence of one or another action. In other words, I became invested in reality.

Hillary is invested in reality.

2 Hillary has been excoriated on her vote on the war. Jeffrey Toobin explained it in great detail in the New Yorker a few months ago and came out thumbs up. She did what she has said she did all along. Many criticize her for failing to admit to a mistake. NO. Holding to the principle that she did the analysis appropriate to the time and making a tough choice (yes, driven by politics, but you can't govern if you can't persuade. It's great to be "right" but better to get things done.). It is much easier to be anti war than to deal with the tough problems of a dangerous world. She says she would vote differently now, had she known then what she knows now. That is very very different from saying she was wrong then with the hindsight of today. Until they invent a future prediction machine that actually works, the best one can do is to do the analysis and make the tough choices. Those who are running against their own records are craven cowards bending with the wind. The principled one is Hillary on this one.

3. One of my favorite lines: don't confuse the arrow on a wind vane with an arrow on a compass. Follow one and you'll go in circles, follow the other and you may get to where you want to go.


4. That said, I am thrilled to have such an excellent choice.

5. If Barak Obama is nominated, I will heartily campaign for him (and donate money because campaigning for a Dem in Virginia is a bit like watering flowers in a desert. It takes a LOT of water).

So, enjoy tonight. I am sure that at least twice as many Democrats as Republicans will turn out to vote. That's a tidal wave of change in and of itself.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Aging Smaging, Just Do It Your Own Way

Two days ago we were told that the older you get the worse your judgment becomes. You are tricked and fooled into making dumb choices. But, by my lights, the study was deeply flawed, since the parameters of choice are different for every individual (by definition).

Now comes news, in the New York Times today in Staying a Step Ahead of Aging, that we can exercise ourselves into being and staying younger. Some people can run faster at 60 than they could at 50!

Apparently the secret is hard exercise that teaches the heart to pull in and distribute more oxygen. Hard and often, if you can. But, if you have to choose between the two, chose hard. Several times a week. Forever.

Of course, as you age and exercise hard, some may say you are making a bad decision because you could get mugged, or have a heart attack, or have some other deadly calamity befall you. Guess what? I'm gonna do what my body wants me to do, whether it's make foolish decisions to stick with a poor choice or exercise like there's no tomorrow, or both!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Right to Folly

There are two kinds of people: those who think they know best what an old person needs and those who know that what the old person wants is what he or she fully deserves to get.

Old people have lived their lives. Their resources are their own (whether they inherited them or earned them). Their bodies no longer give them the ability to do everything they can imagine doing. The are going to die sometime soon. The order of priority, IMHO or IMNSHO, should be: 1. happiness. 2. health. 3. financial security.

For an old person, happiness comes from being treated with respect and love and they are allowed to choose what they want: where to live, what to eat, whom to spend time with, where to travel. Even when they are cantankerous, difficult, persnickety, tempermental and what they want is "impossible." "Protecting" them from "hurting" themselves or keeping them from spending their money "foolishly" only adds to the insults of being trapped in an aging body.

But sometimes, mirabile dictu, the law is on their side.* The District of Columbia code requires that:

(a) The court shall . . . encourage the development of maximum self-reliance and independence of a protected individual and make protective orders only to the extent necessitated by the protected individual's mental and adaptive limitations and other conditions warranting the procedure.
In my experience as guardian and conservator and attorney hired to help a person under a guardianship or conservatorship, the biggest challenge is to protect an old person from those who would "help" him or her. BTW, this applies to persons who are mentally ill or mentally retarded, as well.

One lovely man, a veteran, died a lonely death, frustrated and alone in a VA hospital, because his guardian/conservator would not help him to move to where he dreamed of living. Yes, his dream, anchored by dementia, was impossible, but there were many intermediary places he could have been allowed to go to.

My client raged, helplessly, that his guardian wouldn't give him $100 dollars of his own money to spend. When I asked the guardian why not, he told me, in a screeching voice, "I'm not going to give him any money when he is going to turn around and give it to a nurse and ask her to go buy him chocolate. I am not going to be responsible for his dying of diabetes from eating chocolate." So, of course, I pulled $60 cash out of my pocket and gave it to him.

My client was 86. He was alone. He had no joys in life but to call his wife, who lived in another nursing home, when his phone worked. After he died, his guardian sent me his cellphone. It was the smallest cheapest cell phone on the market. This for a many who couldn't see well and who had large hands and big fingers.

Another client got caught up in a fight with his daughters who, in their minds were doing the right thing and seeking court appointment as his conservators and guardians. Yes he had dementia and couldn't remember anything that happened yesterday. And he couldn't walk faster than a turtle, perched precariously on two wobbly legs. But his mind was still roaming the world he had traveled as a scientist, explorer and big brain about town. He didn't want to live in a facility where everyone was "demented, except moi, of course." And, he didn't want either daughter to be appointed his conservator or guardian.

When he wanted to travel to a geological conference in northern New England, his daughters intervened because it was still muddy and he might fall. The conference organizers assured me that he would be fine and all travel in the mountains would be by car.

After a final settlement (third court hearing, with daughters sitting with stolid, fierce anger on one side, my client confused and hurt on the other side), one daughter with forced cheerfulness asked whether he wanted to go to lunch and if so where. He suggested a lovely nearby museum lunchroom. The daughter said, "oh parking is a problem, how about the Italian place you love so much?" He looked at me. I suggested they go where he suggested. She said "that's the only one he remembers." I shrugged and walked away, not wanting to be seen to be the ever hungry lawyer billing her client for trivial hallway conversations and interfering between father and daughter. I should have said, "well, yes, it's the one he remembers because it's the one he likes."

When I asked his court-appointed conservator whether she would approve his travel to Europe next summer to another international conference, she wrote back, "Yes, if his health is cleared and he can do it safely." Was she going to get a doctor's certificate that he could travel? How was she going to evaluate the safety? He wanted to go to Europe! He had been invited by colleagues! He had plenty of money and could afford everything he would need. Who was she to impose her value set on him, her protective fears that he shouldn't be allowed to do anything risky or "dangerous."

Care for someone in need of "protection" -- meaning the person lacks the capacity to manage his or her affairs (which most often means not being able to manage the flood of bills, bank statements, advertising mail, etc.) or make sensible health care decisions (meaning not being able to understand the scope of one's health problems or make reasoned decisions about treatment) -- should be guided by the law: "encourage the development of maximum self-reliance and independence of a protected individual."

Substituting one's own judgment for that of an another, whether an older person, or a mentally ill person or a retarded person, diminishes him or her. Not only is it contrary to the law in the District of Columbia, but it is psychologically destructive and spiritually deadening.

It is the charge of the able to nourish and encourage and facilitate the old, the mentally ill or the mentally retarded. The able need to pull back from judging, from knowing what is best, from intervening to "protect," from substituting what I may think is "best" for what he or she wants. Old age or mental illness or mental retardation are what they are; there is no changing it; one can only accept it for what it is. It is for the able to make the adjustments and recognize the full individuality and right to respect, and yes, right to folly, of the older or mentally ill or mentally retarded person.

My friend Judy posted an awesome clip of life and music in Young @ Heart, a group of oldsters who have raised the bar, raised the roof and raised our hopes and expectations of what is possible. Check it out. It is WONDERFUL!

* Title 21. Fiduciary Relations and the Mentally Ill. (Refs & Annos)
Chapter 20. Guardianship, Protective Proceedings, and Durable Power of Attorney. (Refs & Annos)
Subchapter VI. Protection of Property of Incapacitated, Disappeared or Detained Individuals. (Refs & Annos)
§ 21-2055. Permissible court orders.

Monday, January 21, 2008

When a Relative Dies Abroad - What to Do

I recently had to set up arrangements for someone who died in Nairobi. It is relatively easy to arrange to repatriate the remains, or alternatively to arrange for cremation.

The United States Embassy Citizen Services -- at least the one in Nairobi, Kenya -- has an entry on its web site for: Assistance to U.S. Citizens who are incarcerated or have relatives who die in Kenya.

In my case, while there was an eight hour difference between Washington DC and Nairobi, and it was a Sunday before a holiday, a very nice, cooperative and helpful duty officer took down all of the relevant facts and said he would get back to me with information, which he did half an hour later.

He gave me a list of funeral services that could make all of the necessary arrangements. As I learned these include transporting the body from the hospital to the funeral home, obtaining an autopsy from a pathologist (required), embalming and packing the body in a body bag which is placed in a metal lined casket which is then placed in a crate.

The cost is around $10,000 and half of that is the airplane ticket. The airlines insist on protecting themselves from the possibility that the fluids from the deceased might, in case of some accident, flow onto all of the rest of the luggage in the hold and contaminate it. I was assured that such an eventuality is virtually impossible, but the airlines have the opportunity to take advantage of the situation and exercise stochastic pricing.

The steps to take are:

  • Arrange with the funeral home to take the steps you want, repatriation or cremation, or hold the body while family members and the legally responsible person are able to sort through the decision.
  • Pay the hospital bill so the hospital will release the body to the funeral home.
  • Assure that the funeral home has all of the relevant information for the death certificate (names of parents, birthplace and birth date).
  • Obtain a Consular Report of Death Abroad. This last is important to assure domestic entities (Social Security, life insurance companies, etc., etc.) that the death occurred as stated on the death certificate. The consulate or embassy will issue the CRDA on presentation of the death certificate and passport of the decedent.
The hardest part is often getting agreement among family members as to what course of action to take. Don't underestimate the difficulty in finding agreement among family members. Repatriating the remains involves not only transport but then the funeral, which can easily double the cost.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Serendipity is an Angel Flying High Above, or How we Escaped Disaster and Landed in the Lap of Luxury

My friend Judy and I went hiking yesterday, Sat Jan 12. It was a beautiful day, even perhaps too warm for January, but with a clear blue sky and gentle winds.

We drove out to the Virginia-West Virginia state line to a wonderful, hidden corner of wilderness owned and managed by a Quaker organization. I had downloaded maps of the trail system, I had studied my 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Washington, and figured out that we could do a shorter hike than recommended in the book because, of course, we were starting late and probably couldn't do the full circuit.

Maps in hand, we strode confidently off into the woods. Judy is my hiking companion and we both love to hike. Particularly now that we have trekking poles, but more on that in a later post. It was truly beautiful: the winter trees spread in every direction allowing the eye to sink deep into the woods, the ground covered with wonderful green plants, blue sky and sun glistening through the naked branches. Clear, wonderful air.

We found the right trail, right off the bat. An easy wide one, following a small power line. We climbed, stopped and extolled the beauty, climbed again, stopped to take off outer layers, climbed again. And kept climbing and climbing. The path got rockier and rockier. We were looking for a trail that went off to the left. We continued climbing. No trail from the left. I took out my Bruntun do everything but whip up an expresso coffee that told me our altitude. Two hundred feet below the cut off. So, resumed climbing. After a while we decided that if we never found the cut off, we'd be OK because we would turn around and go back in time to beat the sunset. So, we continued climbing. Beautiful, beautiful day and hike.

Finally, dripping sweat and trudging ever upward, I saw a clear white blaze to the left. Perfect, here was our trail. The map showed a continued climb of about another 200-300 feet up to an outlook point. So, we scrambled up what by now had become a field of boulders. Deer peering at us, seeming to ask, what are they doing, working so hard at this. We can leap up in a flash. Finally we got to what looked like the outlook point. Wow! Half way home and right on time! The trees obscured the view, but that was fine. we could see the outlines of mountain ranges to the west and valleys to the right. The trail was beautifully marked with white blazes just as far as the eye could see, and some thoughtful person had even put chalk arrows on the rocks in both directions.

So, we pushed on, happy and confident that we'd get back just in time. The rocky trail was still a challenge, but we were on the home stretch. And we kept on going, and going, and going, and going. The trail that was supposed to come in from the left again wasn't just right around the corner. We were hiking along the back side of a ridge that was both beautiful and endless. Trees and rocks and flat stretches. Glorious. Wonderful hike. Soon the turn off would come. Right around the corner. We kept on going, happy and carefree. Except the sun was going down and the light dimming. Only a bit. The trail would be right up ahead.

Finally, it became clear that the trail wasn't going to materialize any time soon. Still guided by those clear white blazes, we pushed on. At some point, out of the back of my mind, I asked Judy, "aren't the blazes on the Appalachian Trail white? Isn't this trail a bit wide and well established for that upgraded deer trail we were looking for?" "Well, yeah, the AT blazed ARE white."

My map showed the same trail we needed to get back home on the left, intersecting the AT as well. So, confidently we plunged forward, picking up the pace a smidge because we would have to do the circuit that I had thought too long to do during the daylight we would have available. And we continued on. Judy said what I was thinking too, "If I were alone right now I would be terrified, but because we are together, I feel fine." Yes. Company dissipates fear.

And so, we pressed on. Finally, we realized that the trail from the left wasn't going to materialize either. So, there was no choice but to continue forward. At some point, the Trail would come to an end at Harper's Ferry. I had a light that I was loath to use because of the boulders and the trees and the distance between white blazes. I had a flashlight but it would be hard to use while both hands were handling the poles. And so we continued on. Not so fast any more, because as wise Judy pointed out, in the dark, we would go more slowly.

We were both imagining how and where we would sleep. We both agreed that we were having a wonderful time, that it wasn't the end of the world, that we would find a cave and spend the night out, if necessary.

At some miraculous point, we came to an intersection of signs and a choice. Back was 9 miles, forward was 13 miles, but, down to the right 0.2 miles was a shelter. Judy thought we should go check it out. It was only a few feet away. 0.2 miles. Easy. So, we started down a steep, zigzag trail as it got really darker, really fast. I kept thinking about the hike back up. But, no problem. plus, there were some lights fairly near, up ahead. The glow of incandescent lights. Hmmmm. As we jumped and leapt the last few feet in what was by now pitch black, it was a house! There were people in the kitchen! It was clearly an Appalachian Trail hostel house for groups. We knocked on the door, seeing about 25 small boys, all in green T-shirts and baseball caps, sitting at a long table, eating dinner. Some men were wandering around a huge kitchen with plates heaped with food.

Was this amazing or what? We were surrounded with offers of food and drink and chips. Judy and I kept saying, "we are lost." Someone brought out a map. Yes, indeed, we were way away from where we had wanted to be. But no matter right now. Dinner! One of the men plonked huge helpings of rice and chile on plates, cleared off counter space, brought up two stools and started asking more and more questions. I was so grateful I was stunned. How could we have gone from being utterly lost and facing a night in the woods to sitting in the midst of 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 994 from Fairfax Station eating dinner in a raucous din?

Finally, a couple of the men said they would drive us back to where our car was. We figured out the way on a map, some surely 15 miles to simply go, what by the crow flies, or even a well guided human walks would be, about 1 mile.

Dinner down, we hopped in a car and off we went. Our driver had worked his whole life in satellites, so we got a bird's eye view of the myriad satellites, some geo-synchronous, at 12,000 plus miles in orbit, the GPS ones, square boxes 15' by 15'. Weather ones, TV ones, military ones, older ones with only one signal, new ones with 4 different frequencies. Some with antennas of 100 feet hanging out in space. Some with more or less propellant that would allow the earthlings to adjust their position.

After several false starts up impossible roads, we made it to where Red Outback was patiently waiting. And the woman behind the glass door was on the phone. She came out. She ran back in to tell the Sheriff that we had just shown up.

We bid goodbye to our kind Scout troop leaders and jumped into Sheila's warm house. We spent an hour chatting about a million things, warmed by her wood stove.

Rested, refreshed, thanking our lucky stars, we jumped in the car and drove home!

What a day.