Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Continue reading “Boomer challenges”

Poriferan

We like to go to the Foster City Laundromat, and while the laundry is in the machines, we walk across the street, over the levee, and walk along the edge of San Francisco Bay. There’s a great view of the San Mateo bridge to the north, and the Hayward hills on the eastern side of the Bay, but I usually wind up looking at the mudflats, and the long ridge of piled-up seashells making a sort of beach along the edge of the mud.

Usually there are some dead Poriferans, or sponges, washed up on the seashells. These Poriferans are about four to six inches long, and have many branches. Most of them are a dull brown color, but in some of them you’ll see a tinge of reddish-orange in the inner branches — like the one in the photo below:

I believe these are Red Beard Sponges, Clathria prolifera, an invasive exotic from the North Atlantic that was first reported in San Francisco Bay in the 1940s, according to the Marine Science Institute in Redwood City. Red Beard Sponges are the only red sponges in our area with finger-like branches, and “when Clathria prolifera dries out … it generally turns brown,” according to Andrew N. Cohen (The Exotics Guide: Non-native Marine Species of the North American Pacific Coast. Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions, Richmond, CA, and San Francisco Estuary Institute, Oakland, CA. Revised September 2011, online here).

Because these sponges are invasive exotics, and because the ones washed up on the shore are already dead, I felt it was fine to bring one sample home with me. There I was able to take a reasonably good close-up of the surface of the organism; the porous texture of the organism makes it obvious why this phylum of organisms is called Porifera.

I continue to be amazed at the wild diversity of life forms on this planet: Poriferans, animals which don’t have mouths and which remain rooted in place like plants for most of their lives — and Cnidarians like transparent Moon Jellyfish and bright blue Vellela vellela; arthropods from vicious predators like dragonflies to migratory pollinators like Monarch butterflies, crustaceans including large lobsters and tiny sand crabs — molluscs from Banana Slugs to octopuses, several different phyla of worms — and recently I’ve been reading about Bryozoans, or “moss animals,” colonial invertebrates which I’d never heard of before, yet which are apparently quite common and may be mistaken for seaweed.

Recovery

A follow-up post to Illness.

A big recovery milestone: on Monday, they had me stop taking anti-coagulants. I say “they” because whoever called to tell me to stop wasn’t from my primary care physician’s office, it was some person from the health plan’s anti-coagulant group. Every time someone has called about the anticoagulant drug, it’s someone different; they all seem to be reading from a script, and I imagine these people sitting there in a windowless office wearing headphones making call after call after call: “Hi this is So-and-so from Kaiser mumblety-mumble anti-coagulant mumblety, and I want to confirm that you have stopped taking your mumble-bumble.”

I was glad to confirm that I had stopped taking the anti-coagulant on schedule. And I was glad to be no longer taking that drug. Some of the fog cleared out of my head within twelve hours of taking the last pill, and suddenly I only needed nine or ten hours of sleep each night, instead of eleven hours of sleep plus an hour or two nap; I have suddenly gained two or three hours of waking time. It’s a good thing, too, because vacation ended on Sunday, and with the end of vacation I needed all my energy and all my waking hours to go to work and come home and recover enough to go to sleep and get up the next morning to do it all again.

It continues to astonish me the extent to which my energy has been sapped by this illness. Yesterday, I started organizing our tiny storage room, something that has never gotten done after we moved in November. I worked away for a couple of hours, and it wasn’t particularly strenuous work, and suddenly I was done. I had to sit down. Part of the problem, Carol pointed out, is that I’ve lost a lot of muscle tone — I just didn’t have the energy to exercise. I lost five or ten pounds, and it’s not like I had a lot of extra body mass before I got ill.

Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself that I have indeed been ill — not really ill, it’s not like I had cancer or major surgery — but ill enough to affect most aspects of life, ill enough that it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal.

Oddly enough, I don’t feel this illness is a waste of time. I certainly have lost a lot of time to sleep and lack of energy. But it has been good to slow down. I tend to work fifty or so hours at my job, and another ten or twenty on projects that relate to work but that aren’t part of my actual job, and then another ten or twenty hours on hobbies and volunteer activities that sometimes feel like jobs. Because I cut back on everything, and because I haven’t had a lot of energy, I actually have had time to sit out in our tiny little back yard and just stare into space.

It’s been a very long time since I spent any amount of time doing nothing, and it turns out to be quite enjoyable. While I can’t recommend developing a pulmonary embolism, I certainly can recommend doing nothing.

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn

…begins a poem by E. E. Cummings. The poem ends…

SLoWLY SPRoUTING SPIR
IT

…and the “o”s in the poem graphically convey what the moon does from the time it first rises to the time when it is overhead: it appears to grow smaller.

We were driving home as dusk turned into night, and Carol looked into the rear view mirror and said, “Look at the moon! It’s huge!” It had just appeared over the horizon. She wondered aloud, Why did the moon look so huge? Why did it get smaller?

I explained the optical illusion that makes the moon look big on the horizon. “If you hold out a piece of cardboard at arm’s length and put two marks on it showing how wide the moon is — and then hold that same piece of cardboard out at arm’s length when the moon is overhead and looks so small — you can see it’s exactly the same size all the time, even though it looks so much bigger near the horizon.” I actually did just that many years ago; even though I knew, intellectually, what was going to happen, it was astonishing.

Carol said that explanation takes all the magic out of it. But I disagree. How amazing that we see the world in that way! How amazing that there is more than one way to see the world!

When we got home, we walked out into the cemetery and watched the moon rise further into the sky, moving slowly up between two dark clumps of eucalyptus, just touching the point of a smaller Douglas-fir tree. You could see the distance between the Douglas-fir and the moon slowly grow greater. You could see Mare Ibrium and Oceanus Procellarum and Mare Fecuditatis and Mare Nectaris; you could also see the Rabbit in the Moon, grinding with its mortar and pestle; you could also see the Man in the Moon, with his lopsided grin. You could see the night grow darker and the moon grow brighter. Everything changed in a quarter of an hour. We stayed outside watching until it grew too chilly.

Illness

Back in mid-February, during a long drive up to Seattle, a blood clot formed in my leg, dislodged, and traveled up my veins to settle in my right lung. Or so it now appears, for this is somewhat hypothetical. But it was a long drive, and we didn’t get out and stretch every hour, as you’re supposed to do during long drives; and when I got to Seattle, I started coughing, and thought to myself how unfair it was that I was getting bronchitis again, since I had already had it in November and I never got bronchitis more than once a winter.

Thinking it was bronchitis, I didn’t worry when the cough and the general feeling of being tired stretched out for a month, then two months. So many people were having serious respiratory infections this past winter that what I was experiencing didn’t seem all that bad. Until finally it got so that it hurt to breath, and I was talking to Paul, who was also having pain while breathing, and he told me that he went to the doctor and found out that what he had wasn’t a respiratory infection at all. It was only then, in mid-April, that I decided to go to the doctor, and after a series of tests and a trip to the emergency room, I learned I had a pulmonary embolism. Mine was not a particularly serious case — I did not require surgery, and I didn’t even have to stay overnight in the hospital — but still, a pulmonary embolism can kill you. I actually took two days off from work.

The doctors put me on a course of anti-coagulants: I had to inject myself with one anti-coagulant for seven days, and then I started taking another anti-coagulant orally twice daily. I am still taking the pills, and will continue taking them until the doctor tells me to stop. And by the way, I thanked Paul, several times, for prompting me to finally go to the doctor.

Now that I had this diagnosis — a rather frightening diagnosis, if truth be told — I began to realize just how tired I felt. I had been pushing myself as hard as usual, both at work and in the rest of my life, but now I realized that I really couldn’t push that hard. (I wonder: had I not gotten the diagnosis, would I have just continued pushing myself until I collapsed?) I finally realized that I needed to slow down. I dropped several big commitments, including a big family reunion, and felt some guilt and shame for doing so. Then I dropped some smaller commitments. I worked at home whenever I could. I discovered that I needed to sleep ten to twelve hours a night, and still take a 3 hour nap in the afternoon most days. Basically I felt fine; but if I pushed too hard, or worked too long, I would become exhausted very quickly. This was an odd sort of illness: no pain, no real symptoms aside from some shortness of breath; I was mostly tired.

Thinking that once I started the anti-coagulants, I would be back to normal in a week or two, I told as few people as possible that I was ill, or what my illness was. But I did not recover very quickly. I had to get used to sleeping twelve hours a day, and not having enough energy to do any housework. in fact, once I came home from work I didn’t have much energy to do much more than sit and look out the window. It also began to sink in that I could have died. I had made my peace with dying many years ago, but I discovered that I was not so keen on dying of something I had never heard of before. I mean, a heart attack I could accept, but a pulmonary embolism? So I mostly ignored the whole “I coulda died!” thing; sometimes denial is a very useful tool for living.

Here I am, more than four months after this whole thing started, more than two months after I got a diagnosis. I’m getting better, and so far the doctor is pleased with my progress. But if I forget myself, and overwork, or go for a long walk, or do too much of anything, I’m exhausted for days afterwards. And while the line on the graph of my health is generally trending upwards, the slope of the graph is not nearly as steep as I would like. I have to remember how little I can accomplish: I can go to work, come home, and sleep; if I’m lucky, I can take a walk. It would be easy to become discouraged, or to get depressed; instead, I’m mostly able to enjoy this forced vacation.

The moral of the story? I don’t think there is a moral to this story. Things happen to you, you do the best you can — that’s not a moral. Nor will this even be a story until it comes to an end, and who knows when that will be.

No moral, but I do have some excuses: If I haven’t gotten back to you about something, it’s because I ran out of energy. If I haven’t done whatever it is you asked me to do, it might be because I’m so tired I forgot completely (my memory does not seem to be functioning as well as usual). That’s one very small benefit of an illness like this: I have an excuse for almost everything.

“The universe is a very complicated place…”

For many years, chemists and other scientists thought that the inert or noble gases — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon — could not form chemical compounds and a valence of zero. In recounting how scientists did indeed create chemical compounds with the noble gases, Isaac Asimov, a chemist himself, wrote:

“The discovery of the noble-gas compounds came as a shock to some chemists and as a healthy object lesson to all. The universe is a very complicated place and there is very little of it we have penetrated. Even those portions of the universe with which we feel well acquainted can still hold surprises.”

Isaac Asimov, The Noble Gases, New York: Basic Books, 1966, p. 157.

Process

“We are always in media res, there are no absolute beginnings or finalities. We are always in the process of being shaped and shaping our history and our traditions. We are eminently fallible. We never escape from the precariousness and contingency of existence. We become fools of history if we believe that we can achieve total control by expert knowledge, or if we think we can collectively impose our wills and completely determine our destinies.”

Richard J. Bernstein, “John Dewey on Democracy” (Philosophical Profiles, Univ. of Penna. Press, 1986, pp. 266-7).

“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.

Lichens

Living in a cemetery gives me the opportunity to observe a nice diversity of lichens. I went out this evening to see some of this diversity; my camera served in stead of a hand lens.

This crustose lichen, covering an area about the size of a quarter, was growing on a marble gravestone. The magnification of the photo shows how the lichen has etched an indentation into the stone. To make an accurate identification of crustose lichens, I’d need both a microscope and far more knowledge than I currently have. But this may be in the genus Caloplaca: “The 25 to 30 species [of Caloplaca] reported from California … occur very widely on trees and mostly calcareous rocks. Caloplaca saxicola is common and one of the first crustose lichens collected by beginners” (Mason E. Hale Jr. and Mariette Cole, Lichens of California [Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1988], p. 190).

The foliose lichen above, about an inch across, and found on a piece of granite, may be in the genus Xanthoparmelia. According to Hale and Cole, “Xanthoparmelia is by far the dominant foliose lichen on granites, schists, shale, and other non-calcareous rocks throughout California…. Two species, X. cumberlandia and X. mexicana, are common and collected almost everywhere in the state.”

If I were to get serious about identifying lichens, I’d need to go out and get the K, C, and P reagents, an inexpensive USB microscope, and a few other things. Then I’d have to get serious about studying them: dissecting them, looking at them under the microscope, etc. Is it enough to just look at lichens without identifying them? or do I want to engage in more serious study of them? Heraclitus advised that “those who are lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into many things indeed” (DK35); but how deeply should one inquire into each of those many things? One only has so much time in this world; a serious in-depth study of one topic means less time to inquire into the many other things.