Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Two Remarkable Events

Today's conversation relates two events which occurred during this past week. Twice in one week I have had appointments with medical professionals who seemed to care about me and listened to my opinions.

O.K. So maybe they didn't actually care as much as I believed they did. But in this day and age of "You-have-3-minutes-to-tell-me-why-you-needed-an-appointment," I was extremely impressed.

Attitude is important when convincing a patient that you value your time together. Whether any reader relates to this observation depends, of course, on where he/she lives.

Location is a major indicator as to the type of health care provided these days. There are perhaps several reasons for this disparity of care. Many regions have difficulty keeping experienced health care professionals. (I will use the term "health care professionals" to include such fine folks as physicians' assistants, nurse practitioners and others as well as doctors.) A small community does not always limit the quality of care received. However, size is definitely a factor.

In the present example, I saw two physicians in connection with some kind of silly, persistent respiratory problem that seems to be lingering.

The first appointment was late last week and the physician was someone I had not seen before. He was pleasant, energetic, a good listener and seemed to have some ideas about treatment almost immediately. He ordered a breathing treatment -- which I must have needed and have received only once before in 65 years -- which helped a great deal. I was surprised about receiving this treatment because it actually requires about 10 additional minutes, 10 minutes which few doctors appear to have. After a few minutes of meeting with this doctor, I asked, "Excuse me, are you new here?" He smiled. "Yes." He then indicated that he is a "traveling doctor" who is looking to secure a position in a nearby city and is filling in where needed until then. The appointment included a great deal of interaction and discussion. He prescribed some medication and told me to come back if I wasn't better in a week. As he stopped to shake my hand, I said, "I'm not used to this type of information sharing." He smiled and said, "I know."

The second appointment was with an allergist in a nearby town, for which I had waited nearly two months. It was time to have this allergy issue revisited and turns out that some of my respiratory issues are definitely tied to good old-fashioned allergies. This physician was a true, seasoned professional who put me at ease immediately. My appointment last two hours during which I endured "scratch tests" and was advised of the results and how to proceed. After explaining what my options were to get control of my allergies, he said there are two things he aims to do with patients: give them choices so that they can feel in charge of their treatment and do so with no more medicine than is absolutely necessary.

No doubt some people reading this will not find these two physicians and their comments to be too unusual. But trust me, they are. I'm not a hypochondriac. Far from it. But I've relied on myself and my trusty old body to keep going for decades. Like an older model car, sometimes I've had to rely on "mechanics" to keep it tuned and moving on down the road. I've seen some real interesting "mechanics" along the way.

One time several years ago, I visited a physician with concerns that I was taking too much medicine which seemed to cause insomnia and nervousness. Apparently he was not used to having patients question his decisions. A few minutes into the appointment, he said, "If you are so smart, you don't need my help." He took a pen and wrote "No charge" across my chart and told me to find another doctor. I was heartbroken, having been a patient of his for over 10 years. I left and, of course, did find another physician but never forgot that episode.

Patients do have rights: to be respected by the health care provider and to trust the advice that he/she provides. But patients should keep in mind that health care providers are not infallible. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you have ideas about treatment options, share them.

Health care is a two-way street. Or at least, it should be.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stop and Look Around

Recently I caught up with an old friend I hadn't seen in years. Ironically, she lives in a nearby state about two hours away. She had emailed a description of the town where she lives and I looked it up on a map. The area was located in a region that I had not visited before so the route was duly noted and I headed over for a visit.

When we finally met, I couldn't help but gush about the locale where she lives. It is a hilly area compared to where I live, nearly enclosed by dense forest and breathtaking views. "Wow. What a drive," I smiled. "You didn't tell me how lovely it is here."

"Really? You think so?" She shrugged. "I've been here so long I hardly notice it at all."

This isn't the first time I have encountered this nonchalance about where one lives. Visiting folks on Kauai, I was told that they "got used to" the incredible beauty of the region. Friends in Las Vegas said they got bored with all the hoopla about the nearby restaurants and entertainment and only visited the night spots when they were showing visitors around.

Too bad. But I guess it's human nature to fall into a rut and ignore the charms that surround us on a daily basis.

This time of year is admittedly a bit dismal. I read the other day that mid-January is considered to be the most depressing time of the year. Something about the post-holiday winter doldrums and the length of time before the arrival of spring.

But, hey. I already have daffodils shooting up near the front porch. The weather has been quite sunny though bitterly cold in recent weeks, but those little flowers are going to try to make an appearance, even if they get stopped in the process. Their perseverance is encouraging and shows me that another season can't be too far off.

No doubt other yards in the area have signs of spring peeking out. Buds on tree limbs. Crocuses about to open. I even saw a large rabbit hopping around despite air temperatures in the teens.

The trick is to pay attention and notice what is around you.

Perhaps the stimulation of undiscovered areas is why some people love to travel and experience new things. They buy a camper or RV and drive or even fly to recapture the thrill of some former encounter. Discovery and the experience brings excitement.

We might all benefit from taking a fresh look at our surroundings. Instead of spending money to transport ourselves and perhaps our families to distant locations, we need to stop and refocus where we live. I'll bet there are restaurants and other establishments right in your own community that you haven't tried or visited. During this lull in the seasonal change, do yourself a favor and walk through the door of that store or eatery. Try something new and different and see if that isn't a little refreshing.

Recently I visited a small store in my town that had always intrigued me. For one reason or another, I hadn't been in it before. I was pleasantly surprised by the huge inventory of collectibles and antiques! I found several items to purchase and as I was paying at the cash register, the owner asked me where I was from.

"Right here," I smiled awkwardly. "Been here for 15 years."

"And you have never been in before? Why not?"

I had no brilliant response. "Well, I was working and now I'm retired. Just didn't get around to it, I guess."

That was about all I could say and even that response sounded fairly weak.

Next time you are longing for a trip to another area, even hoping to find a new restaurant or store in which to browse, stop and take a look around. There is probably somewhere new and exciting within a short drive. It might have just what you are looking for and will almost certainly broaden your horizons.

The experience might make you better appreciate what you have. That's not a small thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Compromise: The Key to Happiness

This year's Presidential Inauguration is now a chapter in the history books. Everyone who was involved in planning for the big day must be glad it's over. The public will likely never know the full amount of time and money expended to make the events go smoothly. It's now time to remove the bleachers and get back to work.

However, getting back to work does not necessarily mean that any work will be accomplished. The Congress seems intent on undermining attempts to solve fiscal matters, health care and gun control. In fact, few of the numerous matters needing attention is likely to be resolved.

The Congressional standoff is presently the most highly visible example of a very old problem: in order to get things done, we need to work together. This step may require compromise on the part of everyone involved and for some, the very idea of compromise is a bitter pill to swallow.

Anyone who has ever lived in or near a family understands how compromise works. In order to get a meal on the table, compromise must occur. We might really want meat loaf for dinner. But a savory chicken dish has been cooking in the crock pot all day. We can fuss all we want for meat loaf. Do we fuss? We can fuss, but what good would that do? Anger the cook and create a scene? Risk getting sent to bed without dinner? Why not just say, "I'd like to have meat loaf one of these days. It's always so good." Then smile, sit down and eat the chicken. Everyone gets to eat, no one is upset and you have made a great compliment to the cook.

We grow up learning to compromise. It's the give-and-take approach that gets us through grade school, dealing with friends. We learn when to give and when it might be necessary to stand our ground. It's not a good idea to always give in to the other option. When we feel strongly about something, we should sometimes stand our ground and make our point. Of course, we might eventually have to weaken and cave in. But learning when to relinquish our opinion is part of the compromise process.

As we grow up and enter the work place, compromise is still possible, though often less frequently and less often resulting in an option we would choose. Still compromise makes the world go around. Then by the time that marriage and raising our own family comes along, we are (hopefully) well-schooled in compromise tactics.

Everyone deals with compromise all the time even without recognizing it. You have driven into an intersection with a four-way stop and none of the cars seems willing to proceed first. You might be convinced that it is your turn to cross the intersection but another driver begins to creep forward. Rather than race for the opportunity, you smile and wave the impatient driver to proceed. Compromise.

You go to a favorite restaurant for a special meal. When the waitress comes to take your order, you say without hesitation, "Oh, I'll have the Caesar salad. It's always so good." The waitress smiles and says, "Sorry, that selection is no longer on the menu." You quickly scan the menu and choose another option, although it may not be what you would prefer. "Then I'll have the chef salad." No need to have a tantrum over a few pieces of lettuce. Compromise.

By the time we become adults we have learned -- hopefully -- to act like adults and compromise. When your boss announces that there will be no salary increase this year, you say nothing, at least openly. There will be plenty of time to discuss the matter later with your co-workers, but why make a scene in front of everyone? Compromise.

Many of the problems which confront society today could be resolved or at least tempered by the use of some good old-fashioned compromise. We are too rigid to support our own opinions, hesitant to give an inch as a demonstration of weakness.

I have known some people who stood out as remarkable, with exemplary leadership skills and personal behavior. I consider these folks to be gracious. They were genuine individuals, who valued listening to the input of others and open to sharing ideas. Such characteristics make people more naturally willing to compromise, to listen instead of dominating the conversation with their own ideas.

Perhaps if we were all a bit more willing to listen and compromise, life would be a bit more enjoyable and productive.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Changes are A-Comin'

By now, everyone has heard the economists' report that many U.S. businesses had a dismal holiday season with earnings far less than anticipated. Can that really be a surprise? Most people remain cautious about spending money they don't have or running up their credit cards.

All the hyping in the world can't make customers spend if they can't afford it. There are exceptions to this spending pattern, of course. Some parents and grandparents can't deprive little Sam or Susie of getting their expected Christmas treasures. But most of us realize that foolishness in holiday spending is just that -- foolish.

Each year investment pundits issue a short list of companies which may not survive the coming year, organizations which are either over-extended, under-funded or obsolete. I had to read this year's predictions though I could already name several candidates based on news reports. No doubt some of those establishments named will succumb in the near future, if not during 2013. The times are a-changing and some companies just don't seem to get it.

There is probably plenty of blame to go around as to the reason. The economy has impacted everyone. If I owned a brick-and-mortar business, I would be concerned, too. Their costs must be horrendous. If you consider real estate costs combined with construction and maintenance of buildings, employee costs, utilities, taxes… it's quite a challenge.

A business may have a storied reputation, offer an inviting environment and feature a fine assortment of merchandise and still be unable to keep the doors open. Recently I was browsing a Wikipedia list of "business failures" and was bowled over by some of the businesses who have closed their doors since 2000. (The list below was compiled from Wikipedia. Some of those listed may have morphed into another entity with a different type of structure. Nonetheless, I am including those entities here.) Hold on to your hats!

The Equitable Life Assurance Society
Bethlehem Steel
Capital Artists
Montgomery Ward
Polaroid Corporation
Sunbeam Products
Trans World Airlines
Arthur Andersen
Tower Records
Bombay Company
Music Zone
Circuit City
Lehman Brothers
Levitz Furniture
Lillian Vernon
Linens 'n Things
Olan Mills
The Sharper Image
Wilsons Leather
CIT Group
Crabtree & Evelyn
KB Toys
Ritz Camera Centers
Steve & Barry's
Waterford Wedgewood
Blockbuster, Inc.
Hollywood Video

This entire list is vastly longer. I chose to include businesses with which may consumers may be familiar. You might want to read the entire list for yourself. It's amazing.

Common thread? I failed to see one. But recently I was shopping in a local business which is doing extremely well. This is a franchised establishment with a national reputation and I shop there often. Just days before, a news story appeared about a competitor of this business which has a dismal future. I asked the clerk why their business was thriving while the competitor is not doing well. The clerk shrugged and said, "They aren't keeping up. They think they can continue on as they always have."

That might be the answer.

Updated techniques and online coupons might make the difference to merchants. When all else fails and the consumer is looking for a product, there is always online shopping. Merchants need to keep in tune with the consumer's needs

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guess I Got the Flu or "What the Heck Hit Me?"

The evening television news for the past week has been dominated by stories and stats regarding the current flu epidemic.

Some professionals hesitate to use the word "epidemic" but that seems to adequately represent the current wave of illness being experienced throughout most of the continental U.S. Schools are reporting high numbers of absences among students and teachers alike. Businesses are short-handed. It's a problem impacting life from coast to coast.

The best defense against the flu appears to be a good offense, which includes hand washing, use of disinfectant sprays and other cleaning products. I can't imagine how this applies to living in a large city. I lived in large cities long enough to recognize that areas such as workroom kitchens and public bathrooms are incredibly dirty -- not so much from intentional neglect as from sheer numbers of traffic. Hands on doorknobs, fingers on keyboards, oh my. It has to be nearly impossible to defeat the production of germs in such locations.

But speaking on behalf of folks living in more-or-less normalcy, we should be able to weather the storm a bit better. However, that doesn't seem to make any difference. Folks in small towns and suburbs are getting sick, too.

Discussions of the flu include the inevitable plea to get a flu shot. I would have to agree. Shots are available at many locations, including chain pharmacies and medical providers' offices. The cost is reasonable and often free to senior citizens on Medicare. Some locales around the country have even made shots available at no charge. Despite reported low supplies of vaccine at certain locations, neighboring facilities have helped keep the vaccine available to those who want to get it.

Something hit me hard about 14 days ago. At first, I thought it was an allergy-fest, then thought maybe a cold. But the darned thing hung on until a couple of days ago when I began to feel like myself again. Oddly, I GOT a flu shot in September, so at first it never occurred to me that I might have the flu. Now the reporters are announcing that this year's vaccine is a good match for the variety of flu in circulation this year, but that still about 32% of all people who get the vaccine will still get the flu or at least a somewhat diminished case.

Guess that means that I had a "touch" of the flu, as we used to say. Boy, that was some touch. When a chore such as getting out of bed seems overpowering, something is wrong. One person interviewed on the nightly news last night was a school teacher who said that she got a flu shot and still got sick. She added it was one of the worst illnesses she has had in some time. 
People need to do a few things to help wrestle this flu-bug to the ground.

1. Pay attention. If you feel bad, recognize the symptoms and stay home. People with whom you interact at home or at work do not want your germs.

2. Staying home is not a sign of weakness. If you feel as bad as I did, the last thing you want is to be sitting at a desk or commuting on a train/bus/car to get to anywhere. I even avoided going to the doctor once I was sure it was likely the flu because the idea of getting dressed and leaving the house were insurmountable.

3. Clean up after yourself. Don't leave the floor littered with used tissues and other germ-laden debris. Wash your hands before you handle the remote control, type on the keyboard or touch any food surfaces in the kitchen. Stop being selfish and think about the germs you are likely spreading.

4. Encourage others in your family who might be feeling like they are "coming down" with something. They may have picked up their bug from you in the first place. Offer to help them get well by suggesting things that might help ease their discomfort, chicken soup for instance.

One day soon, Spring will arrive and the flu will fade. But perhaps some of these healthy habits will linger and become a permanent part of our daily routine.

Stay well.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Passing the Baton

The end of each calendar year always includes a look back at events of the year, including the astonishing list of celebrities who have died during the past 12 months. As usual, the list presented by the media for the year just ending was amazing. Not only did we lose a number of great people who lived full lives, but another common trait was evident among those we lost.

This unspoken trait is rather hard to identify although it has been on my mind since the list was first published. That trait is unique to many of the personalities we lost, the likes of which we may never see again. In days of yore, such people were referred to by terms such as "bigger than life" or "cut from a different bolt." It involves an independent spirit requiring people to live life to its fullest, charging ahead knowing what they wanted and leaving a mark on the world in the process.

What brought this topic to mind again was the news yesterday that writer Evan Connell, Jr. had died. He was a remarkable writer, shrewdly independent with a tireless curiosity about the world and its inhabitants. To some, his death alone at his home in Santa Fe, may seem lonely and perhaps a little sad. But people like Connell -- individualists to a fault -- endeavor to live on their own terms.

Not only is such a lifestyle daring and admirable, it is also a vanishing option. These icons are a bit like cowboys who settled the Old West. No one could persuade them to live otherwise nor would they want to make such a compromise, despite all the pitfalls and dangers involved. This was the life they chose and, by golly, that's what they were going to do. No one else was harmed as a result of their choices and they rode off into the sunset, secure in their own strength. Think Jeremiah Johnson.

We need people with such conviction. Not only do they encourage the rest of us to look outside the small, narrow box of our existence, perhaps altering our own path, but they demonstrate the essence of "character." Despite all of their flaws and yes, perhaps selfishness, they do things their own way, like the old Sinatra song. Gotta give 'em credit.

Recently I finally managed to watch in entirety the movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, a disappointing made-for-tv epic about Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. There was something about the production that annoyed me, perhaps the snip-and-cut glossy treatment given to world-changing events of the 1940s. But I was intrigued by Martha Gellhorn, a true maverick who had a remarkable career in her own right. I intend to read more about this strong woman who refused to be "a footnote in someone else's life."

Among the numerous celebrities who died in 2012 were the following: Ray Bradbury, Andy Griffith, George McGovern, Maurice Sendak, Mike Wallace, Andy Williams and Gore Vidal. Each of these individuals had certain qualities that set them apart from the rest of the crowd all during their lives; they took the qualities with them in death.   Style. Conviction. Talent. Resilience.

We need more people with these characteristics and we can't spare those we already have. Who will replace them in the years ahead? Hopefully we will not be depending on stars of reality television or other super-lightweights. As the intellect of our world continues to decline, we need to refocus on those amazing folks still with us who are "bigger than life" in every sense. We should recognize the skills and talents of the truly unusual personalities, the pathfinders who dare to set their own pace. There are still plenty of folks out there who do not shy away from challenge.

Among my favorite passtimes is searching for antiques. Take cast iron cookware, for instance. I own several pieces which have been passed down through the family for generations. These are quality utensils, well-made and crafted to last. Sure, I could buy a piece from a discount store this afternoon and it might even look better than one nearly 100 years old. But it won't be here in another 10 years, let along 100.

The tried and true endures.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Getting Healthy

The beginning of a new year always brings great public awareness to such issues as weight loss, physical conditioning and overall health. It's good to have a goal and to focus on improving ourselves, at any age and despite any condition.

It's a shame that many of us look to reality shows about freakishly overweight people as some type of guideline. Those of us who could benefit from losing a few pounds -- and there are a LOT of us out there -- seem to think that as long as the camera crew isn't knocking at our door to film our story, we are still somehow in the clear.


Next time you are out in public, even just running errands, take a look around. It's astonishing how many people at any location are overweight and in incredibly bad physical condition.

We need to think analyze our own state of health. Ask yourself some of these questions:

     Do I have less energy than a few months/a year ago? Never mind that we aren't 25 years old any more. Make a recent comparison.

     Do I watch everything that I eat? We all tend to reach for chips or candy instead of fruit or vegetables. Why? Because they are handier and taste yummy.

     Do I drink a lot of soda? Soda goes great with some foods and it's a convenient crutch to erase the 3:30 p.m. sugar dip.

     Do my clothes fit as well as they should?

     Am I happy when I look in the mirror?

Rather than comparing ourselves to the 600-pound specimen on reality TV, focus on yourself. Recognize that you can take control of making yourself feel better.

Nearly everyone can make small improvements to improve their health. It doesn’t take much. Skip the soda for a glass of unsweetened tea or water. Falling into the fast-food rut? Pack a lunch and know what ingredients you are consuming. Learn to think for yourself again.

Weight loss groups and counseling can be of great assistance to many. These services have been around for a long time and many are extremely successful because they DO help. But often the hassle of joining, attending meetings or purchasing products appears a huge obstacle. Many will flatly avoid joining such a group because of one of those reasons.

But the majority of "you can do it" stories I read -- and many are out there on the internet -- involve folks who began making little changes on their own. Walking to the park with their kids. Nibbling on fruit instead of cookies. Once the changes began to make a difference, good old-fashioned motivation kicked in. Next time you see a headline about someone who lost a great deal of weight and wants to share his/her story, read for yourself.

Yes, there are plenty of people who hire personal trainers, buy expensive equipment or even have drastic surgery to help control their weight. But many people just like you and me can drop weight and feel better without a huge amount of sacrifice. It all starts with a little determination and a self-encouragement.

Need a little push? Go out shopping and look at the public. You will be amazed. Imagine yourself in a year or two. Will you fit in nicely with the rest of the public? Or will people look at your and envy your fitness and resolve.

New Year. New You.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Will This Be the Year You Retire?

All the recent talk about the "fiscal cliff" and related matters has included a lot of talk about retirement.

Talking about retirement is a little like talking about spider webs. We don't know what they are made of until we look at them closely. As a result, the subject becomes a little scary and mysterious. So let's explore the retirement a bit.

There are only a couple of different attitudes regarding retirement. Some people say, "Yup. I qualify for retirement so I'm outta here." Others say, "Gee, I don't know how to feel about retiring. What will I do with myself? All I have ever done is work. How will I fill all my time?" Another group says, "I'll never be able to retire. I have too many expenses and my income will not continue to grow. I'll keep working for as long as I can."

I belong to the first group.

I retired over three years ago. Admittedly, it was a little scary at first. I didn't know what I would do when I was no longer going to a job every day. But I made the decision, despite the unstable stock market. No regrets.

Like many things in life, we can never predict how something will play out. Marriage. Careers. It's hard to know how that new chicken recipe will taste until we actually prepare it according to the instructions. Some times we are pleased with the results. Other times we have a disappointment and probably won't make that dish again. Life is somewhat of a crap shoot. You have to roll the dice.

When I was a young bride, I knew I was way too young and immature to think about having children. It was not on the agenda, at least for the present time. People used to say to me, "Don't wait until you can afford children. If you do, you will never have kids." It was very wise advice indeed. By the time we thought about having children, we were no longer interested in staying married. So it all worked out for the best.

I grew to feel the same about retirement. You can wait until everything seems right -- the market is on the upswing, etc. But that time might not come and -- let's be frank here -- we never know how long we have. So in my case, when it seemed right, I made the decision.

But there are plenty of folks out there who are afraid to make the decision. I know some of these people. One, a great man, was a hard-working working partner in a local business. He had plenty of folks who relied on his business acumen and was busy every day with people who sought his answers to business questions. He could not make the decision to retire because of his pivotal involvement in the business. One morning a few months ago I picked up a local paper and saw his obituary. He had died at the office. Several people have met a similar fate during my years in the working community. Despite their best plans, a clean break was not meant to be. They are gone and there is nothing they can do to change how the story plays out.

Some have made the decision and regretted it immediately. They whine such statements as "Why did I quit? It was a horrible decision." What they are really saying is, "Why didn't I see it coming? Why didn't I find something to fill my time? I should have had another interest waiting in the wings but I was too busy doing the job at hand."

I doubt that anyone really knows what to expect in retirement. It's like stepping into a marriage. People can shout and persuade all they want trying to share their opinion, but the final decision is a personal one. Follow your instincts, weigh all the facts you can gather. Listen to your inner voice and then -- make the decision you feel is best for you.

If this isn't the year, then set some type of arbitrary deadline. Don't spend the next decade (or two) trudging to a job you dislike because you don't know what else to do. Start thinking about other options and at least get familiar with the idea of stepping outside of your field of comfort.

The entire process can be immensely freeing. Just imagine doing what you want, when you want. Just avoid being scared and remember that you are in charge of this decision.