Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Few people fully appreciate the magic of reading a good book.

I'm not talking about e-readers or audible books. I mean the old-fashioned, enriching experience of holding an honest-to-goodness book in your hands and viewing the pages with your eyes.

No doubt there is benefit from listening to an audible book. It's better than listening to other people whine about life. But the sound of a droning voice in your ears is hardly stimulating. Most of us can recall being at a lecture or in a class where the sound of a voice alone was enough to put the entire audience to sleep. One of the television ads expounding the benefits of audible books suggests listening to the latest book while working out or running errands. I personally would prefer listening to music.

I always enjoyed books but was not as enthused about the process as some. Books reminded me too much of classroom requirements. I relished exposure to such literature as Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage and Lord of the Flies when it occurred in school, but the thought of picking up one of these books for recreation did not occur.

In college, I delved into literature on a different level, falling for the great Russian writers and the Romantics. Reading and analyzing what Dostoyevsky meant in The Idiot took introspection. But free time was taken up with trying to finish my degree and prove myself a worthy young housewife. Evenings in the 1970s were spent with the television, not curled up with Tolstoy.

And so life rolled on busily. It wasn't until I lived in Washington, D.C. and had to endure long daily commutes that I rediscovered reading as a supplement to life. In cities where people ride public transportation and have time to fill, reading is valued. I recently read that people in cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. are the most literate folks in the country. It's because they are trapped in some type of conveyance and must find something to do. The same does not apply to large cities where commuters rely on driving, of course.

Recently I found myself in an undeniable funk, brought on by several difficult experiences combined with the winter doldrums. I turned to my stack of unread books and found comfort among the pages there. A long-time reading advocate, I often attend library sales and used book stores, purchasing books which appeal to me. They are at the ready when time allows. Books are often found at yard sales or, of course, at libraries, so be on the lookout. Keep a library card. You never know when it might come in handy.

Yesterday I finished reading Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey. Written ten years before his death, Brando weaves a fascinating story about his Hollywood career and life in general. Following Brando's stories of working in film, living in Tahiti and the aftermath of a dismal childhood helped me forget my troubles as I became immersed in his words. Good writers can do this. Once they've hooked your interest, readers tend to become entwined in the printed word.

Next time you feel tense or troubled, consider picking up a book. It just might help.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


in-com-pe-tent: 1. BAD AT DOING SOMETHING lacking the skills, qualities, or ability to do something properly…n. SOMEBODY BAD AT DOING SOMETHING somebody who lacks the skills, qualities, or ability to do something properly

People today seem to be fearful of many things: identity theft, dropped phone calls, bad hair. Fear is widespread and usually shallow in nature. Meanwhile, there is at least one pressing problem that threatens each of us on a daily basis.

That problem is incompetence.

Once you start taking notice of its presence, you will be shocked to see how prevalent incompetence has infiltrated into our existence.

As pundits have tried to assess what has happened to our economy in the past few years, they have hit upon one theme -- the good old USA no longer produces many goods. Fifty years ago, countless products were manufactured here -- appliances, electronics, apparel, shoes -- in fact, most of what we needed for a comfortable life. Foreign imports were poorly made and viewed as second rate.

In recent decades, however, the balance of trade has tipped to the point that nearly everything we buy is imported.

As a result, practically the only goods produced here relate to the service industry. That means that bank tellers, wait staff and health care professionals represent a large percentage of all employers. The tasks they perform keep the country functioning.

Too bad that such a majority of these people is incompetent.

I could cite a significant number of incidents to confirm this fact, but that would mean giving specifics and would necessitate my enrollment in the witness protection program.

Begin today to pay attention to those you encounter who are incompetent, whether it is providing poor service, giving incorrect information or staring at you with blank eyes and a look of incomprehension. "Did you not hear me?" "Did you not know I was asking what side dishes are included?" "Is the question too hard for you?"

Perhaps incompetence is generational. Older workers know when to provide information in response to a question or when to identify someone else who can handle the situation. Younger workers must believe that if they say and do nothing, the matter will resolve itself and they can move forward to the next problem.

A friend of mine observed that people would rather provide incorrect information than admit they didn't know the answer. If you doubt this, ask someone for directions and see how often they say that they don't know. It will not happen. Instead, they will take a stab at an answer, even if it is wrong.

Doctors provide the best "guess" to your question rather than admit they don't have the answer. The physicians' guide must include a reference such as "Say something to pass the time and placate the patient." I have seen this too often to doubt that fact.

If the US has become exclusively a provider of customer service, why can't we make more of an effort to provide customer service? If all we produce is good will, why not make sure that correct information is given to the customer?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sorry, But You're Over-Qualified

"I'm sorry, but you're over-qualified for this position." The suited man across the table smiled sincerely, then folded my resume and placed it on the other documents at the corner of his desk.

I smiled, trying to break the tension. "Well, I have had over 40 years of experience in the field. That should count as an asset, shouldn't it?"

"We cannot pay you for that experience. It wouldn't be fair to the rest of the staff."

"I will agree with you. But I'm not asking you to pay for my previous experience."

"Sorry. There is nothing I can do."

It wasn't the first time I had heard the phrase "over-qualified." Perhaps that phrase deserves examination.

Scores of retirees and other experienced workers are looking for work. Perhaps they grew bored by retirement and hope to find part-time work. Other workers may have reached the top of their employers' salary limit and became disposable. Thousands of workers with an overabundance of experience are in the job market, encountering situations like this on a daily basis.

What is wrong about being over-qualified?

Say you are a restaurant owner and have thought about adding some nice dinner music for your patrons. You run an ad in the local newspaper seeking a pianist and in response receive several applications. You then ask two finalists to audition.

Applicant 1 is young and arrives wearing jeans and a polo-type shirt. He plays well. However, his hygiene is weak. He is wearing large spacers in both earlobes and has visible tattoos on his arms. You try to picture how his performance might be received by diners. Will his appearance alter the type of guests who visit your establishment?

Applicant 2 is also a man, middle-aged with short, stylish graying hair. He arrives in a suit and has brought a prepared resume. His experience includes having played at a local restaurant as well as several years performing as a concert pianist. You ask what took him away from the concert circuit. Applicant 2 replies that he wanted to raise a family and settled down to teach music at a local college. He plays very well but as you are listening, you worry about his expectations. He might think this position is mediocre and will leave when some other opportunity comes along. Perhaps he will think that the salary is inadequate.

So you tell Applicant 2 that he is "over-qualified" and you select Applicant 1. Your business suffers as a result of that choice.

If someone offers you the choice of fine wine served in crystal stemware or a can of beer -- for the same price -- wouldn't it make more sense to take the wine?

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Nearly every home contains some type of device to measure the time. If there is no clock on the wall or mantle in your house, there is probably a digital readout on the stove and/or microwave to indicate the time. Perhaps you wear a watch or note the passage of hours on a cell phone. If you are required to maintain a rigid schedule, there is likely a clock near the bed encouraging you to wake up each day.

Time is important. It regulates when we sleep, eat, exercise, and are entertained in our daily lives. Time measures the work week and the school day. It's pattern of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years has formed a framework to help us cope with life's rhythm while accomplishing tasks along the way.

It is the passage of time which signals crocus bulbs to announce the arrival of spring and the orange and red leaves to publicize autumn's chill. Time ebbs and flows to remind us when to carve pumpkins, dye Easter eggs, wrap gifts for birthdays, Christmas and special occasions.

Unfortunately, despite the importance that time occupies in our lives, we tend to ignore it. During many of our busiest years, we are so focused on other tasks at hand that we miss the passage of time. It merely drifts away. Many of us have become the people who overlook the beauty of entire forest to glimpse the individual trees.

What a shame.

It took retirement to show me the true significance of time. Once I stepped off the work-day treadmill, I discovered some of what I had been missing for 46 years. Many fascinating events routinely occur outside of the eight-hour day, events that go unnoticed while we are consumed with earning a paycheck. There is magic in each moment.

Time has been with us for a while now. Consider all of the expressions we use regularly hear:
It's about time.
Time waits for no man.
Time's a-wasting.
Time out.
Time's up.
It's quitting time.
A time to every purpose under the heaven.
Time is money.
No time like the present.
That's a waste of time.
Time flies.
The time has come.
Time is on our side.

Unfortunately, time is not really on our side. It hovers around us like a cloud, waiting for us to stop and take notice. But whether or not we notice, time is fleeting and won't be around for long. We need to occasionally stop and pay attention to what matters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fascinating People - Part 2

I have always been fascinated by Jack LaLanne, the original exercise guru. Sadly, Jack passed away a year ago on January 23, 2011, at the age of 96. His story is remarkable and warrants our attention.

I remember watching him on TV when I was a child. LaLanne's TV exercise program ran from 1951 to 1985. What always impressed me was his contagious enthusiasm. The man not only practiced what he preached, but he was one of the first who tried to convert the rest of us to healthier lifestyles.

Jack LaLanne once said, "The only way you hurt your body is not using it. Take care of the most important thing in your life -- your body."

He was the picture of fitness and loved to perform "feats" to drive home the point. At the age of 60, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman's Wharf while towing a 1,000-pound boat. At the age of 70, he towed boats across Long Beach Harbor while being handcuffed.

Some of Jack LaLanne's tips for longevity include:
Exercise 30 minutes a day, three to four times per week.
Change your exercise routine every two to three weeks to avoid boredom.
Set short-term fitness goals and stick with them.
Change a few bad habits by starting good habits.
Eat foods in their natural state and in as many varieties as possible.
Pass on caffeine, sugar and cigarettes.
Drink plenty of water.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Truth is that getting fit is not difficult. But it requires sacrifice and commitment. Jack LaLanne believed that "Exercise is king and nutrition is queen; together you have a kingdom."

Along with walking, LaLanne continued his two-hour daily workouts into his 90s. LaLanne died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia at his home. He had been sick for a week but refused to see a doctor. He had been performing his daily workout routine the day before his death. As mentioned before, he was 96 years young.

In this day of extreme overweight and rising diabetes, it's obvious that many of us are on the wrong track. Jack LaLanne, however, was ahead of his time and by golly, it appears he was right. It's too bad that so few of us actually "got it."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Nothing has Really Changed"

A friend of mind recently observed how tired she gets having to come up with ideas for meals everyday. "I get so bored with cooking," she sighed. "Honestly, for all the talk about women's lives being improved, nothing has really changed since the end of the 19th century."

Of course, my friend was venting out of frustration. Cooking and meal planning can be drudgery, especially because they occur three times daily, day after day after day.

But her comment got me thinking about how lucky we are to have modern materials and technology to help with nearly every household task.

My maternal grandmother was married prior to the end of the 19th century and bore three children during the first decade of the 20th century, just before World War I.

Comparing her life to that of today's homemaker is an interesting contrast. In my grandmother's day:

1. There was no central heating. Heat was provided by a "pot-bellied" stove in the small living room. Winters were cold and dressing took place either in front of the stove or hurriedly by the kitchen stove.

2. There was no air conditioning. Electric fans were becoming popular but were basic and provided little relief from summer's heat. Many public buildings, like churches, provided cardboard fans to visitors. These were equipped with a wooden handle so that the individual could fan himself in an effort to keep cool.

3. Women dressed in layers of long-sleeved clothing, petticoats, corsets, cotton stockings and high button shoes. They even wore cotton tunics, pantaloons, stockings and caps while swimming. Going to a public event usually included wearing a hat.

4. Women rarely went to the doctor. Medicine was still relatively primitive and few procedures were performed in the area of preventative exams. My mother and her siblings were all born at home. There was little "down" time for the new mother and lots of household tasks were left undone during her recovery.

5. Cooking was done on a wood-burning stove and nearly everything was made from scratch. Bread was made at home (without a bread machine). Many kitchens had sinks which were equipped with short-handled pumps for water. Families either butchered their own meat or knew someone nearby who did. A slaughtered pig could mean miscellaneous cuts of pork, plus pork chops, roasts and sausage for months.

6. Very few women worked outside the home. The homemaker's job was to tend to the family. That mean she would cook, clean, launder, iron, sew and perform other tasks as needed.

7. Grocery shopping was carefully planned and done only occasionally. There was no dropping by the store for one or two items. Her life eventually became easier as more "prepared" foods were available. But my grandmother made her own mayonnaise and marshmallows, plus many more items which we now pick from the store shelf.

8. There was no radio until my grandmother was an adult and no television until she was elderly. Entertainment was relegated to church activities or an occasional movie. However, these events were infrequent.

I'm sure you get the message. We complain a lot but our lives are a great deal easier than our ancestors. It's sometimes easier to whine about things than to really think about what we are saying. Life -- well, housekeeping anyway -- is a breeze compared to the "good ol' days."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Send in the Clowns

It's official. Christmas is over and spring is nowhere in sight. Gardeners can't yet begin their annual outdoor decorating. In many parts of the country sportsmen can participate only in sports confined to a gym or other indoor venue. It will be months before warmer weather arrives. What's a person to do for entertainment?

Fear not! It's time for the merry politicians/clowns to tumble in and woo your vote. A full 10 months before the general election, the political candidates waltz across your TV screen on a daily basis. Like a clown car filled with jesters attired in brightly colored costumes, the candidates are searching for an audience.

It's a strange parade. Political candidates will do just about anything to get media coverage. Say something shocking or controversial. Support an unpopular issue. Rally for a local cause in [insert name of next campaign stop]. The typical candidate wants only to see his/her own smiling face on the flat screen so they can advance in the polls.

The polls. Nearly every network, independent station or wire service has its own "pollster" who draws a sampling from the day's potential voters, can massage the date to get the desired outcome. It's a little like an expression I happen to appreciate as a pet owner: herding cats. That maneuver is a study in wasted motion as the cats scatter and run to a location where they would rather be.

I had a friend who was describing a new man in her life, one that she eventually married.
"What does he do?" I asked.
"He's a pollster."
"Oh, he repairs furniture?" I assumed.
She smiled stiffly. "No, he reports what is happening in the world."
Seems to me there is more need in the world for men who repair furniture. Pollsters can make an audience believe what they want them to think. Men who repair furniture, on the other hand, can help you get a few more years out of a sofa.

Remember the old days of political convention balloting? Power brokers in smoke-filled rooms made and broke candidates and helped certain people get elected. No doubt careers turned on a whim as everyone tried to come out a winner. At least there was some suspense right up until the nominating convention.

I'm not about to show my political leanings. I hope that by November not everyone is so tired of all the preliminaries that they decide to skip the trip to the polls. But who can blame people after all this rhetoric?

There are already sound bites when a candidate misspeaks, looked tired or wears a "busy" necktie. How can we continue to listen to this drivel when the country is in a rather precarious position? We have high unemployment, disappearing jobs, evaporating budgets and dwindling hope for the future. I'd say we need to refocus on more important issues than whether the photo of a certain candidate was airbrushed.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Decision

A few days ago, I learned that someone from my past had committed suicide.

Absorbing such news is difficult to say the least, evoking a flood of somewhat predictable emotions. Shock. Disbelief. Sadness. Confusion. Others who have received similar news may have reacted differently depending upon their relationship with the deceased individual, their own age at the time and various other circumstances.

First of all, suicide is a great waste. A life has been lost. Homicide at the hands of another individual is a horrible crime. But suicide is even more atrocious because the victim had a choice in the matter and the final decision might have been avoided entirely.

This recent occurrence was not the first time my life was touched by suicide. But each event has resulted in deep feelings of hopelessness and frustration. Although none of the victims was a relative, the lingering emotions are nevertheless intense and overwhelming.

I cannot imagine how a suicide impacts the family members left behind. Their pain must be horrific. Not only are they reeling from an unexpected death of a loved one, but they are faced almost immediately with the practical issues of funeral arrangements while being inundated by expressions of sympathy from well-meaning folks who have no idea what to say at such an occasion.

Suicide is sadder on another level because friends and acquaintances of the deceased are left wondering whether there had been a sign, some indication of what was about to occur and perhaps no one was paying close enough attention.

It's sad to think that while we are going about our daily routine, someone is in such a state of deep unhappiness or fear or desperation that they are contemplating ending their own life. It is a tragedy that begins as a thought and spins out of control until it cannot be controlled.

How pathetic that we appear to care so little for each other. We tend to think about only those things which touch us directly. Tragedy has a way of punching us in the gut to get our attention. Whether it is in the form of a devastating tsunami, destruction of the World Trade Center or life-altering Hurricane Katrina, tragedy demands our attention, even if only temporarily.

Group tragedies get fundraising and media attention. Personal tragedy is hushed and lonely.

It is important to pause and recall the memory of suicide victims or victims of any tragedy. They deserve to be honored and respected in death even if they were overlooked in life. We need to pay more attention to others and to consider their suffering.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Fascinating People - Part 1

For several years, I have collected articles about intriguing people, individuals who weren't afraid of life's obstacles and as a result made the world a better place. These fascinating people deserve attention and their timeless attitudes are worthy of note. Beginning with this entry, I will sprinkle the blog with some of these stories.

In 1995, I first read about Norman D. Vaughan. One morning, I was riding the Metro train from my home in suburban Virginia to my desk job in Washington D.C. and life was fairly dull. Then I suddenly encountered an article about Norman D. Vaughan, a man who seemed to have his life together. I was hooked.

By way of background, Norman D. Vaughan was 22 years old student at Harvard in 1927. His freshman grades were so dismal that he had been banished temporarily to Labrador to help a medical missionary make rounds by dog sled. Although successful completion of the trip allowed Vaughan to be readmitted to Harvard, he was permanently under the spell of cold weather adventure. The next semester, he read a newspaper article about Admiral Richard Byrd's planned expedition to the South Pole. Vaughan quit school to go along.

During that trip, Byrd discovered a 10,300-foot mountain in the Queen Maud Mountains and named the formation for Vaughan. In 1994, Vaughan returned to the Antarctic and climbed "his" mountain, reaching the summit in time to celebrate his 89th birthday. Oh, and by that time he had a fused right ankle and knee replacement, which made climbing a bit slow.

In World War II, while an Arctic search and rescue officer for the Army Air Force, Vaughan took 209 sled dogs into Belgium to evacuate snowbound soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. At the age of 84, Vaughan finished his 13th Iditarod Sled Dog Race, a feat that took 24 days. At the age of 96, he carried the Olympic torch in Juneau, passing the flame from a wheelchair.

Norman D. Vaughan is quoted as saying, "You don't hear so much about people with a dream today. It's almost as if they're afraid to discover what they're individually capable of and would rather just follow the other fellow. But all of us have more inside us than we believe possible. We have to dream big and dare to fail to bring it out."

Vaughan had a hard time of it through mid-life, just as many other people do. Two years without snow in New England wiped out his snowmobile rental business. In 1974, at the age of 68, Vaughan relocated to Anchorage, Alaska. "The first thing I did was borrow a snow shovel and go door-to-door shoveling snow to make money. Of course, at first everyone said I was too old."

But through the years he had formulated a plan to return to the mountain named for him by Admiral Byrd. And he did just that.

Norman D. Vaughan died in December 2005 just a few days after his 100th birthday. Having sought adventure his entire life, Vaughan's motto was "Dream big and dare to fail."

It's refreshing to read about people who live life to its fullest, regardless of situations or the passing of years.