Monday, July 21, 2014

Handling money with a manual budget.

If you’d like an effective way to budget your income, try the arithmetic method. It keeps track of how much money you’ve spent throughout the month, and what expenses you still need to pay.

I use the arithmetic method because I’m on a fixed income and saving money to retire in Ecuador. That’s a personal top goal. Consequently other items take second place importance. I allocate minimal amounts in the secondary categories so as to save more. These amounts will be enough to cover the expense and no more.

You can use this uncomplicated budgeting system to plan for funding whatever needs or wants you have in your life.

It’s a manual system that monitors how you’re spending your money. It tells you in black and white if you’re staying within the budgeted amount for each category of expenditure. That’s why I like it. It tells me where I am. Knowing where I am means I can find wiggle room.

Unexpected expenses this month hit savings for Ecuador hard. I will be able to deposit only about 25% of its regular amount.  But I had to pay those surprise billings to stay on track and keep the house in order. Living is much like maintaining a home. It sometimes costs more than expected. The roof needs repair when it leaks. The car battery is dead. The printer ran out of ink. I know these unexpected expenses will happen; I know they slow down the rate of savings, but if I didn’t pay them I wouldn’t even be in a position to save to go to Ecuador.

In my personal budget, fourteen categories of expense are included.  I list them from top to bottom on the left hand side of a Word document. The list includes rent, food, gasoline, haircut, electricity; Mostly basic needs. One item is for miscellaneous expenditure.  One is for entertainment, which pays for Netflix. No way will I cut Netfix out to save $7.99 a month more for Ecuador. Then the amounts budgeted for the items are typed next to the items. The figures for the items when added exactly equal total monthly income. With receipt in hand after spending, I sit and find the category of expense for the receipt and subtract the charge from the amount in that category. I then see precisely how much remains at that time for that category for the remainder of the month.

I set aside $200 monthly for food, so I go to the grocery store weekly and buy no more than $50 worth of food. This month I set aside $50 for AT&T, but the bill was $46 so I moved the $4 surplus to the miscellaneous category.

Budgets reflect priorities. This week I added a new category. It will slow Ecuador savings by $120 a month but still to me it’s worth the expense. I hired someone from El Salvador to talk Spanish with me two hours a week at $15 an hour.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Seeds of Vietnam war planted sixty years ago.

In the 50s and 60s Americans looked at Russia and China and saw a frightening threat to democracy. The 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis for instance produced anxiety that exceeded common sense. The threat of nuclear missile exchange prompted school officials to order safety drills. Kids huddled under their desks with arms over heads. None of that would have spared those children from incineration. But it did teach fear of communism.

Flag of the Communist Party of Vietnam

I barely knew Vietnam existed in 1963. The bulk of Americans shared a same or similar ignorance, but top American officials for several years had been feeling threatened by a course of significance to France and Vietnam.  France had been losing its war to defeat a nationalist and a communist movement fighting for a liberated Vietnam. Excluding the nationalist aspect, American officials focused on the communist aspect. While the Viet Minh resisted French occupation of Vietnam for Vietnamese reasons, Americans in Congress and the White House labeled their struggle international communist aggression.

Vietminh victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu convinced France to drop the effort to hold on to French Indo-China.   At the 1954 Geneva Conference, the signatories accepted a two year, temporary partition of Vietnam into North and South. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics during this time moved from north to south. The Geneva Accords specified an internationally supervised election take place in 1956 to unify the country and choose a president.

The 1954 Geneva Conference
The Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh had been fighting the French for the entirety of Vietnam, but agreed to partition in hopes it could achieve this aim without bloodshed. The United States refused to sign the Accord. American officials felt alarmed because to them French capitulation translated into communist expansion. The Eisenhower administration was hampered by blinders and apparently could not detect the difference between the internal affairs of Vietnam and what it deemed the worldwide threat of communist expansion.

Ho Chi Minh 1946
I was part of that American mentality. I felt patriotism entwined with anti-communism.  I felt my country was obligated to oppose communism anywhere in the world.

As were most Americans, I was ignorant. As long as were fed tripe dosed with fear of communism, we dutifully supported the U.S. policy of containment. Most of us believed our leaders told the truth to common citizens, and no one relished the prospect of being perceived as un-American or soft on communism.

As a super-power obsessed with its anti-communism, the United States intended to subvert Vietnamese re-unification. After all, it had not agreed to the terms of the Geneva Accord. President Eisenhower backed Ngo Dinh Diem, who declared South Vietnam an independent country. Diem then “won” a South Vietnamese referendum to top office by more than 95% of the vote. Although obviously fraudulent, the United States granted diplomatic recognition and allied itself with Diem’s government. Diem trashed the 1956 Vietnam-wide re-unification election by refusing to participate. Sources report he would have without almost a single doubt lost the election to Ho Chi Minh.

Ngo Dinh Diem
Sponsored by the United States, in 1955 eight nations formed an alliance called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. (SEATO) Composed of Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United Kingdom---the allied nations agreed to collaborate to fight communism in Southeast Asia. The battle lines were drawn. The seeds that would grow into a harvest of tragically mistaken war were now planted.

At the Vietnam War Memorial



Monday, July 7, 2014

Carthage perishes by the hands of Rome

After the defeat at Cannae, after the initial shock, Roman strength of will to win the war fired to ever greater depth.

A reversal to Carthage occurred in Spain and it lifted the Roman mood. Although the win was not decisive, the Roman forces that had been fighting in Spain all this time defeated the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal. Hannibal met a rare setback in Campania. Syracuse was recaptured and Capua besieged. While Rome assaulted Capua, Hannibal did march on Rome, hoping to draw the legions away. But the soldiers pressed on and took the city back for Rome.

Hasdrubal, determined to aid his brother Hannibal, marched his army from Spain over the Alps and into north Italy, camping south of the Metaurus River. If the armies of Hasdrubal and Hannibal were to combine, its force would have constituted a massive body of men at arms. Rome might have been defeated. Ancient history in the Mediterranean would surely have changed dramatically.

Hasdrubal sent riders to Hannibal to announce his arrival; they were captured and his presence and plans were discovered by Roman forces further south, facing Hannibal and under the command of Consul Claudius Nero. He quickly conducted a forced march north with part of his army to converge with Roman forces under Marcus Livius near the Metauras.

Fearing to battle the augmented Roman Army, Hasdrubal attempted retreat. If he could ford the Metauras, he would have been able to engage the Romans from the river banks as they emerged from the water. But the river was swollen most likely from spring rain and melting snow. Despite a desperate search for a crossing, Hasdrubal found himself blocked with the river at his back.

The following battle was hotly contested; its outcome not predictable in advance. The Roman center was pushed back by fierce Carthaginian assault and massive, enraged elephants charging. Hasdrubal on the right with sturdy, loyal African and Spanish troops then attacked the Roman center while it was being held in check. Before the battle, Hasdrubal had positioned his least trained, most unsteady Gallic troops in wooded, hilly terrain on his left. The Romans tried to get at the Gauls, but could not traverse the steep hills. The Roman commander on this line, Consul Nero, subsequently not engaged, decided to detach half a legion. He circled them into the pitch of battle at the center and threw the Carthaginians into disarray at the height of the contest. With no hope of victory, Hasdrubal charged the Romans on his horse and was slain.

His head was severed and heaved into Hannibal’s camp many miles south. Thus did Hannibal learn of Hasdrubal’s entrance into Italy and the fate of his brother’s army. Hannibal is said to have remarked that I now see the fate of my country.
It would have been different but for the odds, the decisions of men and the force of nature.

But the battle at the Metauras was not mere Roman victory; it was triumph that sealed the course of the war. It settled which path of history the ancient western world would take and virtually assured the stamp of Rome on its future empire.

Hannibal remained in south Italy but contained and offering little further threat to Rome. During all this time, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio had continued to wage war against Carthage in Spain. The Roman general in time conquered the whole of Iberia and was elected consul. With the consent of the Senate, he carried the war to Africa, embarking from Sicily.

Publius Cornelius Scipio
Carthage incurred repeated defeats at the hands of Scipio, until it called upon Hannibal to return and defend his homeland. The sense of relief in Rome must have been palpable. No more fierce and no more capable military leader had brought Rome so near to demise.

Hannibal and Scipio met at Zama in 201 BC and fought the final battle of the Second Punic War. Hannibal was soundly defeated. He reportedly lost 20,000 soldiers killed and 20,000 more to slavery. Carthage was not sacked, but Rome fixed harsh terms of peace and extracted much territory. The defeated enemy was ordered to pay to Rome about $250,000 a year for fifty years, and Rome ordered Carthage not to wage war without its permission.

No history of the wars between Carthage and Rome would be complete without the story of the Third Punic War. It began fifty six years after Zama. A Roman ally in Africa had been troubling Carthage with military incursions, yet Rome refused permission to engage in defensive operations. When Carthage fought back anyway, Rome invaded. It was the death of Carthage as a state or a power.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hannibal stuns Rome: The Second Punic War

If Carthage were to defeat Rome, it would have defeated Rome in the Second Punic War. Having recovered its strength after the First Punic War, and now with healthy respect for the Roman navy, Carthage was further expanding onto the Iberian Peninsula.  Rome was invading from the north. The trigger of open hostility again took form in the manner of an appeal. An independent Greek city in Carthaginian territory named Saguntum, allied with Rome, requested Roman help to counter a siege by Carthage. Rome agreed, and the war commenced in 219 BC when one of the most talented military leaders in history, Hannibal, launched an invasion of Italy via the Alps. With battle elephants and an army of more than 26,000, supplemented by Gauls, for 16 years Hannibal marched in Italy wreaking havoc on the countryside and defeating Roman army after Roman army.

The Romans met their first setback at Ticinus on the north side of the Poe River. During the next engagement at the river Trebia, Hannibal fooled the Romans. He feigned an attack and lured the Roman army to his side of the river, where it was overwhelmed by attacks on their front, rear and flanks. The Romans recuperated and interposed more forces between Hannibal and Rome, blocking two roads leading to their capitol city. Hannibal bypassed these routes and crossed the Appennine mountains, driving south through the marshes of Etruria. The Roman army followed, but Hannibal had laid a trap on the heights of the northern shore of  Lake Trasimene, over a passage through which the Romans had to enter to continue pursuit. The ensuing Carthaginian ambush [217 BC] killed 15,000 Roman soldiers and destroyed their army. Rome felt vulnerable. The Senate appointed a dictator named Fabius who ordered a policy of disengagement. Rome would harass Hannibal but not do battle. Some wonder why Hannibal didn’t march on Rome then and there. Instead he turned east and entered the fertile valley of Campania, laying waste with intent to provoke Fabius to battle. The dictator chose to block the surrounding mountain passes; Hannibal ordered a stampede of cattle with burning fagots tied to their horns up a mountain side, and the Romans guarding the pass fled at the unexpected and alien demonstration. Hannibal escaped, moving his army into Apulia, and Rome, disaffected with Fabian, selected two aggressive Roman consuls to pursue the war. The Italian cities remained loyal, and Rome raised armies anew.

Battle of Cannae

Eighty thousand Roman infantry and six thousand Calvary eventually drew opposite Hannibal in 216 BC at the small town of Cannae on the Aufidus River. Hannibal commanded forty thousand infantry and ten thousand calvary. He placed his weakest Spanish and Gallic infantry in front. On both flanks he put hardened African infantry. He positioned his Calvary troop on the left flank. When the legions attacked it drove the front line defenders back deep into the field of battle. The steady Carthaginian flank forces subsequently attacked and their Calvary circled and assaulted from the rear. The battle turned into no less than a massacre; in some circles seventy thousand Romans are reported to have been slain.

Every abode in Rome filled with gloom. No greater defeat had been inflicted in two hundred years, and Rome staggered at the loss of so many men.

Some Italian allies now switched allegiance. The Apulians, the Lucanians, the Samnites and the Bruttians declared for Carthage, as did Syracuse. Sicilian cities wavered in loyalty. The prosperous Italian city of Capua defected and Tarentum was deceived into Carthaginian hands. The king of Macedonia, Philip V, further threatened Rome by making an alliance with Carthage.

In the annals of history it appears clear. The question of whether Carthage might have defeated Rome is not idle. If it were, the debate would not continue today.  

To be continued next post...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rome and Carthage: What might have been.

The military struggle between Rome and Carthage that commenced in the First Punic War, circa 264 BC, was an inevitable clash of two expanding powers vying for dominance in the western Mediterranean.  I would not however consider the story of the Punic Wars a study of dead history. Its ramifications reflect, for one, in the Latin tongue rooted Romance languages spoken in Europe and South America today.

Depiction of Roman legionary soldiers

Our mode of thinking in the West, our world view originated, grew and took root in a long standing Roman world that valued even application of law, systematic order and strict organization. Carthage and Rome 2,300 years ago were giving birth to different types of babies in two different cradles of civilization.  One would be the cradle of civilization from which we would emerge.

Carthage was a Phoenician sea-faring power that traded extensively. It was ruled by a collective of merchants. It was a multi-lingual culture, learning the languages of its possessions rather than imposing its own tongue.
Rome was a land based power that had by this time fully subjugated the Italian peninsula. Its people were mostly farmers and soldiers ruled by an elite Senate. As opposed to Carthaginians who more valued literacy and science, Romans more valued practicality and efficiency.

Could Carthage have defeated Rome? It had sufficient capacity. At the start of the First Punic War, Carthage held sway over economically vibrant territory, including the north coast of Africa, the southern coast of Spain and most islands in the western Mediterranean, in addition to the southern half of Sicily.

Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War

How would the West be different if Carthage had destroyed Rome?

I surmise the idea and practice of democratic government would be more alien to us. It would not be in our blood as much because the Roman outlook revered values of political representation and public discourse. Carthage concentrated on commerce and trade. Its government was more oligarchic than republican.  If Carthage had erased Rome from world history, it would not have continued to expand to the length Rome eventually did. Carthage didn’t have the same aggressive spirit as Rome. If Rome had been totally vanquished, barbarian tribes from Gaul and Germania would most likely have invaded either Spain or Italy, checking the northward advance of Carthage. This would have prohibited the enclosing, nurturing and protecting process of assimilation of Roman culture in the provinces from which we in the West spring. The imprint on us by Rome would never have been made. For instance, the system of Roman roads throughout the Empire would not have been built and this would have compromised the spread of Christianity. We would not have had the architectural influence which inspires so many of our state buildings.

The trigger that launched the First Punic War took form in the manner of an appeal.  A Greek city in Sicily appealed to Rome for military intervention in a war, and when Rome obliged, the two regionally dominant powers struggled the next 24 years for control of the island. Despite the powerful Carthaginian navy, Rome won. It induced the North African power to pay an almost crushing war fine. Taxes began to flow into Rome from Sicilian towns and villages. Rome built a strong navy and Sardinia and Corsica were added to Roman jurisdiction.

The First Punic War was a prelude to the much more antagonistic and widespread conflict between Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War. It began in 218 BC, and many scholars believe during this war Rome might very well have succumbed to Carthage.

Doing the research for this post captured my attention, as I've long read books on Roman history as a hobby.  My next post will focus on the Second Punic War and how Rome was almost permanently brought to her knees.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Furniture finishing and antique restoration

If you like working with your hands to make things look good, you might like the topic.  If you like decorating interiors you might like the topic as fine furniture displayed in homes reflects taste, culture, wealth--- and is an essential to design.

I’m well acquainted with furniture re-finishing. More than that---a good finisher requires an intimate knowledge of the trade to do work exceptionally well. Now as an aside, most writing gurus advise bloggers to write about what they know. Tagged! I’m doing that now! For 15 years I re-finished, finished and did antique furniture restoration.

And I’m wondering.  How ought I to fashion the post into something useful and interesting to you readers?

I’ve always thought furniture finishing had lessons to teach not only about the workings of the trade but about life and how to live.

When spraying lacquer onto new kitchen cabinets, for instance, it’s important to maintain the gun at the same distance from the surface throughout the activity. This ensures even application.  What’s the life lesson? Be cool. Don’t make more work for yourself by creating drips you’ll need to sand off later. Be careful. Be a steady person.

When the job nears completion, human nature urges the re-finisher to speed up. It’s almost done. Hurry and finish.  Again, best to be cool.  Keep your head and do the work at a steady pace throughout.  Life lesson?  If you rush the chores you must do in your life, you’re more likely to make mistakes.

Now what we have here is a remarkably well constructed walnut table. As the finisher it’s your job to create a finish to enhance the table until its beauty shines.

You stain the wood. You shoot sanding sealer. You sand the sanding sealer. You apply applications of lacquer. One coat---two coats. Three coats if needed to fill the grain of the wood. Between each coat, it’s time to wet sand. You sand with your eyes constantly on the surface, evenly, often wiping off the wet with a rag so you can see, and being vigilant. You don’t want to sand through to the bottom layer of lacquer. Yet your goal means you sand the top layer until it’s completely erased. The bottom and top layers congeal into one surface of finish. Rub the table now with rag, oil and rotten-stone to produce the fine finish you want. Life lesson? To produce steadfast character, be patient and concentrate. The more you do, the better you do the job of self improvement.

You’ve never tried this before. But you have an instinct. If the white powder gets dashed over the pinewood of the hutch, it will color and leave traces of white over the piece in a pretty way. So you do it and the piece of furniture ends up on display in a gallery of fashionable design.

Life lesson? Trust instincts. They often reward. Follow them because they’re the most real parts about you.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The low tide of Chivalry

What transpires in the human search for the Holy Grail of the soul? I believe a journey ensues to follow the path of Chivalry. Chivalry respects women. It protects women from harassment. It never accosts women. It doesn’t hit women despite felt provocation. Chivalry defends women from men who abuse them.

I read social media complaints about the way men treat women. I’ve noticed black eyes on wives and heard the rants of despotic husbands in next door apartments. I’ve called the police. I’ve intervened to protect women from maltreatment. I hope a decent portion of other men have done so as well.

Still, I fulminate against the feeling in some women that being a man equals being a jerk. The vast majority of my men friends over the years have treated women with decent respect. I have to ask. How could women love so many men if most men are jerks? Most men must not be jerks. I surmise that a large enough minority of jerk men spoils the atmosphere between the genders. But they didn’t come from my circles. In my younger years in respect to women I was more interested in getting laid than anything else. I’ve hurt the feelings of a few women in my past by jumping from one bed to another. In my older years I’ve simmered down considerably, as age will bring about. But no matter how elderly I get, I am a man enamored of beautiful women. I thank attractive women out in public who welcome my smiles and appreciative glances.

So what does the Holy Grail have to do with Chivalry? The cup from which Christ and the apostles drank at the Last Supper represents in its originality the Holy Grail. It represents the way to eternal life and timeless beauty. It represents a beauty which doesn’t exist on earth, yet perfection and beauty that men long for in the depths of their being. I suspect I glimpsed a precognition of the Holy Grail when once I beheld a sky so redolent of nature’s beauty that I stood for long moments transfixed. It’s beauty representing every virtue. It’s solemnity representing every desire within to be good. And it deeply hurts because we realize we can never fully attain these virtues. We can only try and sometimes succeed but far too often fail.

In the Middle Ages, people celebrated in song and poetry the idealisms of Chivalry. The ideals imbued society. They were meant to order behavior and instill willingness for right conduct. These ideals for nobility, honor, justice and love may have had some influence, but moral behavior in reality was very seldom practiced. “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara Tuchman reveals extraordinarily barbaric details about the age when Chivalry reigned as high ideal.

In our own time, Chivalry loses influence the more time passes. My 90 year old aunt told me that in the 1950s she would walk unafraid at night on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. Let me explain. A central value of Chivalry is to act with courtesy towards all high or low. I wonder. How much of the downward spiral---the school shootings---the general fear women have of men---the abuse of the elderly---how much of these trends started with the devaluation of courtesy?

I offer a tip. Don’t only give a homeless man or woman a dollar. Linger and chat. Don’t reply to an insult with insult. Be courteous because courtesy will build the foundation of a long lost sense of Chivalry.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Don't fear defending your boundaries.

How do you react to the idea of sweeping only your side of the street? If I have discarded paper cups, cigarette butts and tossed candy wrappers littering what’s within my boundaries, my side of the street, I’ll sweep it up. Or not. But it’s not the responsibility of someone else to barge into my territory and try to clean up my garbage. Besides, that would be an impossible venture. No one can change another person. If everybody doesn’t know that, everybody should.

Bridge spanning the borders of U.S.A. and Canada.

People with rapid speech retort defend their boundaries well. If someone flings a subtle insult, they fire back with a witty remark that disarms the verbal assailant. It’s like the ramparts which defend their boundaries have sharp, accurate and verbally loaded crossbows.

Boundaries erect borders between states and people. They exist to define lines of difference. They exist to separate. Boundaries cannot fully separate sometimes because circumstances disallow. Despite all efforts to contain illegal immigration, widespread impoverishment in Mexico guarantees movement across the United States border. In the waning decades of the Roman Empire, barbarian tribes peacefully settled within Roman boundaries because the legions lacked vitality to stop it.

Boundaries allocate areas of responsibility for individuals and nations. It’s not anyone’s prerogative to enter another’s personal border unless invited. But what if you’re driving a hundred miles an hour? I don’t care whether it’s your job to drive or not, I’ll tell you slow down. It’s not my job to paint your house or mow your lawn, but maybe it’s your job to help maintain community property values. Maybe it’s not. I think clear and distinct boundaries however fortify the chances for accord between people and nations. When an entity violates a definite boundary alarms signal. A response ensues. When an alarmed client questions an expert on how to do his job, more than likely he’s excessively worried.

Historical events often germinate into confusion and disagreement between nations over boundaries. Ecuador and Peru, with roots of conflict dating to early 16th century Inca history, fought two 20th century wars over boundary disputes. Undefined areas of demarcation and desire for valuable natural resources contributed to the outbreak of hostilities.

Some people violate personal boundaries as a matter of course. Maybe someone repeatedly steps on your toes. Maybe he deliberately bumps into you time and again. And maybe he’s bigger and stronger. A kid in grammar school was treating me like this. I eventually challenged him to fight. We fought in a green field with spectators watching. I hurt him as best I could, but he slugged until the fight in me was exhausted. I had defended my boundary with complete abandon, gained my opponent’s respect, and the maltreatment ceased.

Nazi Germany plunged Europe into war by sending its armies across the boundaries of numerous nations, beginning with Poland in 1939. Germany had an alliance with Japan. When Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Germany. I know it is obvious, but no less worth repeating. Respecting national and personal boundaries fosters peace between people and nations.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Escort the days with a Plan of Action.

You’re no longer employed. You’ve retired and most of the day’s hours belong to you. You don’t want your senior years to bore. You don’t want to atrophy. You want a vital, energetic life.

A Plan of Action organizes your day and allocates those hours into categories of tasks.

Without a Plan of Action, the hours don’t utilize time in any direction. Without goals to strive for in the senior years, motivation and vigor lose reasons to exist. Time as it were sits still. It’s not occupied.

Goals contain the aspirations of the heart. In retirement years, goals enliven. They spur on.

A Plan of Action lists the tasks that work towards attaining the goals.

It builds a structure that holds the day in place. It also charts how well you’re doing with following your Plan of Action.

My Plan is printed on 8.5 x 11 in letter size office paper. The Task column on the far left spells out eight activities from top to bottom. The row of days extends out to the right. Each activity or task has its days marked, and I’ve chosen to perform those activities on those days. It’s in black and white. I sheath the Plan into clear plastic and pin it over my desk.


Write Food Plan: To attain and maintain a healthy body weight.
Morning Prayer: To draw spiritual sustenance to live a better life.
12 Step Work: To enable me to be clean, sober and abstinent.
Study Spanish: To become a fluent Spanish speaker.
12 Step meetings: To enable me to be clean and abstinent.
Brain Exercise:                To build up memory and other mental attributes.
Blog work: To practice my writing skills.
Gym: To keep physically fit.

After I’ve completed a task, I put a black dot in the slot for that day and task. At the end of the day, I see a picture of how much effort I’ve put into the achievement of my goals. At the end of the week, I see by looking at how many black dots on the Plan of Action, how well I did on doing my allocated tasks. If I’m slipping on doing tasks, I can see that because I’m monitoring.

I find I go through phases. Some periods of time I’m energetic and willing to tackle my tasks with enthusiasm. It doesn’t take much effort or discipline. Other periods of time, my energy slows. I’m less willing to work my Plan of Action. It’s all kind of like a sailboat. When the wind blows, the sails catch the wind and move the boat forward effortlessly. But when the winds die, the sailboat must switch to an engine to move the boat forward. The engine is like personal strength and discipline necessary to progress when one feels in the doldrums. An engine is like when you need to stretch yourself.

The chart of a Plan of Action informs and guides on the journey towards goals.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Progress is the most important project.

If we're making progress, the stage of progress doesn’t matter. When we start to make progress, that’s what matters. What matters is continuing to progress, because if we don’t do that, we tread water. We merely stay afloat; but if all we can honestly manage is to stay afloat, that’s better than drowning.

An indicator of progress consists of expanding willingness and ability to feel the uncomfortable. Nobody likes to feel nervous, edgy or afraid. But when we do, in principle, it's better to feel those because they’re authentic feelings. I want to face life. I want to progress. Do you want to learn to better tolerate feelings you'd rather not have ? Do you want to better absorb and feel who you are in the moment; then learn what lessons your feelings teach you about yourself ? I do.

Tools for making progress in a garden

It’s uplifting when an aspect that troubles you in relation to others fades. That’s progress. The aspect may not have entirely disappeared. You may find yourself now caring less about what people think of you. You catch yourself more often. You notice when you’re playing politics and not being authentic. You realize with greater perceptivity when you accede and let someone dictate the operation of your affairs. By opening yourself to how mistaken behavior or habits generate anxious feelings, you can chart a plan of action to change the behavior. The key is to feel the feelings so you grasp what you’re dealing with. And then take action.

Flowers of progress in a garden.

Progress in a particular regard is especially valuable. It promotes calm. It holds the hand of faith and walks with surety of foot. It grows awareness that we are not alone but part of a whole. It’s the birthing of intuition that whispers or cajoles. It’s energy tending to support the humble and humble the proud. The closer to this spiritual source, the more progress is made on manifesting its peace to those around us.

I’m not an expert on spirituality. I don’t have an M.A. in psychology or social science. I do know about the hole. The hole is a deep, empty loneliness that seeks to eradicate its tribulations by smothering feelings. The hole may choose different ways. Each wipes away authentic but hurting feelings. Each way replaces discomfort with temporary gratification.

Instead of nourishing human growth, these ways feed the urge to compulsively eat or drink. We feed a craving for narcotics or sex. We feed an addiction to gamble. The diseases expand but don’t fill the hole. The loneliness hides inside unacknowledged. Consequences like mortgage defaults, broken relationships, morbid obesity and imprisonment follow in the train of these abuses.

The answer is spiritual. The remedy to the cry of agony inside the hole of one’s being is to embark on a spiritual journey. With authentic desire and rigorous honesty, one can have impediments to growth in life removed. From whatever stage, one can progress towards contentment.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Patience is the companion of wisdom

Let me see if I can look at what ways patience is the companion of wisdom.  And let me see if I can say something about wisdom itself.  I think wisdom comes when we see reality the way it is.  I think it comes from having learned through experience.  It comes from having made mistakes perhaps, but mistakes from which have been drawn lessons, mistakes that have taught lessons in wisdom.

Mistake-making demonstrates a person is active, human, and willing to take chances that can lead to mistakes. These mistakes can become seeds of wisdom. When we turn towards God, or a Higher Power, to me this is a fundamental step on the road to wisdom.  It means we start to live not just for ourselves but for others too. We become ambassadors of good on earth. To me turning towards your understanding of God is a critical first step on the road of wisdom itself. This is where patience arrives as the companion of wisdom.

Patience is the ingredient in the soil of that which grows in character and virtue. It allows for change in its own time. It doesn't pull or try to force growth but instead helps growth by nourishing understanding, which is absorbed through prayer and in relationship with God.

Patience reminds us that time is needed to change defects into qualities that foster continued growth.  That deep and lasting change does not take place in a rush. Patience walks with wisdom and with wisdom helps us to learn that finding and doing the will of God is the greatest treasure offered by life.  And along the way, wisdom and patience teach the less significant ways that accommodate us on the road to greater love of God.

How writers contend with blogging.

Blogging instructs…teaching the way of words. It acts like an engine moving the search for new subjects about which to write. It adds to knowledge and understanding of the world.  It harnesses energy to create unique posts.

Every post challenges the blogger to improve. Each post complains about the scratchy barnacles that slow the boat ride of reading. An ornery writer scrapes them off the hull of the content. The precise word to allocate definite meaning often hides in subterranean shadow. Does the writer compromise with the substitute word that’s merely good enough? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, but more and more I intuit the surest motivation to blog breathes in finding the elusive word that perfectly fits.

A writer wrestles with passion to create posts that reflect honesty and interest the reader. He shapes and molds sentences. She integrates a concept into the general architecture of meaning. Bloggers experiment if the generosity of abundant time allows. Is that word too worn from repeated use? Is that paragraph better suited elsewhere? The work of blogging mandates discipline. It practices the skill of writing with every post.  

I started my first blog three years ago, called it Ecuador Experiment, and published weekly posts until early last year. I wrote those posts with an ardor and gusto meant to entertain and inform people curious about moving to Ecuador---and living in the old colonial city of Cuenca, where I resided three months.  I wrote off topic posts for Ecuador Experiment--- but focused on delivering content mostly about Ecuador.

Me Speaking takes a different direction. I write on a variety of topics. No specific theme corrals these posts into a single category, and that’s because I value the freedom of uncertainty encapsulated in this approach to blogging. Wind blows where it will.  Ideas for a post sometimes spark to mind from uncharted regions. Other times they derive from long held interest in a historical subject or current international issue.

Although popular posts do boost the writer’s dopamines, they don’t necessarily reflect quality. Nor does an unpopular post necessarily reflect its quality.
Bloggers who base their motivation to write solely on page views will probably find the steam to continue eventually waning. If the work of writing itself engenders motivation, however, the blogger fuels the blog from the spirit of writing itself.

The Cigar Tree

When I was a kid, I liked my bikes’ looped, u-turn handle bar that set up or down.
I liked the bike’s thin tires and wire spokes. I liked getting two playing cards and clothes pins, then attaching the cards to each tire. The spokes slapped against the cards and my bike sounded like it had an engine!

I liked the shifter---I shifted the gears to select between ten speeds--- to pedal easier up a hill or go faster on flat ground. Actually---Sacramento just had flat ground; and I loved riding my bike.
Rolling over the streets, I felt I was a cowboy; riding my bike elevated me. It extended my range. I rode it to a grassy field one summer day where girls from school played baseball with us. I rode it to William Land Park to fish in the pond; but the pond was closed. I stood, blocked by a chain link fence on a sky blue day---so decided to climb over. I poked the fishing pole through the fence and pitched, but as it went through the hook penetrated my index finger and instead of climbing the fence, I went to a doctor.

I liked to ride with friends on my bike. One time, a group of us were pedaling fast, parallel to Curtis Park going north, our destination the Cigar Tree. Tottering tombstones visible by the Cigar Tree emanated foreboding in that place.  We zoomed in, dropped our bikes and scrambled up the tree. We were grabbing cigars as fast as possible.

These cigars grew about six inches and were thicker than cigarettes. They were withered and dry, and many dangled from the tree. We knew the Cigar Tree was in “other” kids’ territory---we didn’t know them, but raiding their tree was taking a risk, and the risk challenged. A band of yelling kids on foot suddenly attacked and we fled on our bikes fast--- furiously!  We rode ten blocks, past the tennis courts in Curtis Park, gradually feeling calmer the more distance we put between ourselves and our pursuers---until we stopped in a grove of redwood trees.

We climbed up thick, low branches which gradually thinned the higher we climbed. Careful to plant feet firm, we grabbed branch after branch, pulling ourselves aloft higher and higher until we found perches--- until we were so high we could see the distant white dome of the State Capitol.

Hidden in the Redwoods ---we lit our cigars and smoked and watched the smoke billow and ascend. We gazed at the Capitol and felt like kings.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Baseball a kind of play on life.

If you like baseball, you know the score. Baseball players stand alert and astutely prepared in every inning of the game. No player knows what’s going to happen. Every player can expect only the unexpected. Players on defense tense their muscles and focus their minds to react properly to the trajectory of the ball in play. The batter trains his eyes to smash a hit. The infield and outfield players poise themselves to deny it. In baseball, as in the game of life, competition breeds tension between those desiring to win. People in real life tauten for the unexpected too because life guarantees unexpected turns of event.

If you know about baseball, you're aware a baseball coach trains his team to win. He practices his team. His ball players gain proficiency and expertise with repeated practice. The spirit of the team escalates the more it realizes improvement due to practice. The practice instills confidence. When the ball game starts, the players act instinctively to do what the twist of the situation requires. The main benefit of repeated practice.  In the game of life, training and practice serve us well to improve too. We learn how to work a trade by working the trade. We learn how to behave by practicing behaviors and comparing results. We learn how to think by practicing logic. The repetitions of practice in baseball as in life eventually spawn wins and recognition.

If you know about the game of baseball, you know an umpire calls the plays by a set of rules. They apply to every player. They order the game. They set boundaries within which the game is played. If a batted ball goes over the foul line it’s out of play. If a player catches a fly ball the batter is out. If a batter swings and misses a pitch outside the strike zone, it’s a strike and not a ball. Four balls put a batter on first base.  In life the rules of law fix the boundaries of the game. Burglarize a house and you’re out of bounds. Assault somebody and you’ve broken the rules. Without laws and penalties in life, as in baseball, the game couldn’t be played. It would have no regulations within which to play. Some baseball rules reflect life in great actuality. In life if a man steals but doesn’t get caught, he’s safe.  In baseball, let’s say a runner is on first base. If he sprints for second and arrives without getting tagged, he’s safe too, he’s still in the game and that’s called a steal.

If you enjoy baseball, you know that even for those of us who like the game the most, it can be mundane. Players do at times exhibit extraordinarily adept catches, for instance, but that’s rare. Baseball fans focus on the intricacies of the game to maintain interest. They count the balls and strikes. Life gets boring too. Car accidents don’t happen every day. We could easily bore ourselves by not staying current with matters that maintain our interest in life.    

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Progress depends on the degree of acceptance.

Fingerprints identify with 100% accuracy. They spell on your flesh the mark of you. That you are indeed unique.

But we have not been formed in a vacuum. We not only have traits and predispositions genetically inherited, but also the customization of time and place which form and mold us as well.

Much of the family, religious and cultural influences that had molded me by the time I entered young adulthood were part of a self-structure I tried to dislodge. These influences felt like clamps bolting me in an intolerable juxtaposition. Their pressures did not contain me in a temperate way, it seemed; rather, they stifled in a way that punished my individuality.

I revolted and attempted, so to speak, to break out of jail, not only in personal sense but in public sense. Drugs smashed the gates of inhibition which denied pleasure the fullness of its enjoyment. I lived on little and learned the lifestyle of the poor. I joined in protest which seethed against war in Vietnam.

Did I go too far? Did I attempt to ordain a new self without that which had been given by cultural influence? These inhabited my character. How could I dispense them as if they were not an indissoluble part of me? We must work with what we have been given. We cannot strip ourselves of all that we are save the biologic and genetic. However, with mallet, chisel and stain--- we can carve and color the fusion of inside and outside material into a work of our choosing.   

The Greatest Generation deserves respect, but less so for finding no fault in the system their children eschewed so universally, so markedly. The civil rights and counter culture movements generated the modern era push to replace hallow ideals with realities of liberty protected by law. People today have been released from social stigmas in ways unheard of 50 years ago. Does not the boomer generation deserve credits of respect for this? I think it does; but less so for its all-embracing and singular contempt at the time for the Establishment; i.e. heaping scorn on the war with scant differentiation between soldier and policy. A sign of the fracas of conflicting hot emotion, few realize hippies were also at times thrown in jail on no ground except the length of their hair.

As ought an individual to accept and modify, to work on the genetic and the nurtured parts of his makeup to shape himself for the better, so ought society. Congress abolished slavery and re-united the country only after the bloody work of the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act was enacted only after the works of march, protest and politics garnered support for its passage by most of the public. 

Let the United States accept its constituencies. They represent aspects of our nationhood that appeared in the cultural and historical matrix of generations extending far into the past. These aspects represent what we have and need to work on to improve our society.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Books can make readers of us all.

If you don’t read books, you’re missing out, period. I would say this is true so much so that for those of you who have never made a practice of reading books---train yourself to read. If you strive to overcome natural disinclination, you’ll likely discover the reward worth the payment of time and energy. Everybody has interests. Begin by reading a book on a subject of interest. It's not only a way to learn, it feeds an innate hunger to know.

If you have relapsed; if you used to read books but don’t anymore, start reading again. You’ll likely find that without realizing, you wholeheartedly miss the pleasure of reading an outstanding book.

For a time I myself experienced book reading relapse. I attribute part of this to years of working tiresome graveyard shift hours---part to being enamored of digital chat rooms---and part to the internet in general. Binge watching popular Netflix TV series grabs plenty of time and interferes with book reading mode. To learn how to navigate computers and accomplish internet related feats---these can easily slice hours off of time needed, even for sleep.

So yes, this had been my case for a time---until several years ago when someone gifted a novel by Patricia Cornwell to me. I realized what I had been missing by not reading books. That intriguing novel of suspenseful fiction resuscitated my love of reading. Its importance stood higher after. When I finish a book now, I start another. I have erected walls to guard my disposition to read books. These walls guard against what I view as the siege of the internet age threatening to rid me of time alone with books that move my spirit in no other way possible.

Books offer so much of value. By making time to read books, we can transport ourselves a thousand years back and discover a world of medieval belief, practice and stunning turns of history. As we read our minds display images we ourselves imagine. Books invite us to feel sympathies and antipathies for characters whose strength or weakness we may find reflected in ourselves or others. Sometimes as we read a book we’re gratified at how it draws us into a world where we’ve always yearned to really live. Reading books sometimes comforts us with a message of hope. At other times it agitates us to take action for a particular cause. History for instance credits the 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson as the spring board of the environmental movement.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

No one can ever take away your victories.

Sometimes people get in a mood. It’s a feeling of defeatism. It can be dispiriting when you count your defeats and conclude you’ve lost too many battles. You feel hamstrung by what you think is a malediction. You back away from challenges for fear of another defeat. Maybe you think the term “lazy” applies to you when it’s simply part of many aspects to your character.

I’ve recently been feeling these kinds of ways; but not now. I’m focusing on writing a post and whenever I do that it feeds the sense there are winning ways about me.

Counting your victories balances the scale between defeat and victory. That’s why it’s a good thing. Small victories add up. Maybe you finished reading a book about the Middle Ages. Maybe you had a front end alignment completed on your car. Maybe you’ve maintained a worthwhile relationship with a friend or sibling for a good many years.

The point is we live with our defeats and victories; they amalgamate into shades so that none of us can claim an absolute sterling record or a total series of unmitigated failure.

Someone may have failed in a business after three years of operation. But during those years he discovered a confidence and ability he never before had. Another may have failed in marriage but won a loyal friend in his ex-wife.  Still another may have quit smoking for a year, only to take it up again last week. All of these demonstrate how victory and defeat intermingle and coalesce into progress.

It’s tricky when people judge us according to our accomplishments---our step on the ladder of status.  Since the background and extenuating circumstances of a life dwell unseen, they are rarely taken into account by those judging. What appears of no account may often in fact exist as tremendous personal victory.

Achieving a sense of contentment with one’s lot in life is no small accomplishment itself. The forces of random events can play havoc with one’s dreams or expectations. So much of life is outside our control. You’ve heard it said no doubt that mastery over oneself is the greatest victory obtainable. This means learning to control the emotions. Without that control emotions spur us into action. The mind and its reasoning ought to be in charge so we live on a higher plane. Defeat is often the child of unharnessed emotion.

If we learn from a defeat, that lesson can guide us to victory in another time and place. It’s like there really is no junk. It’s all good. The refuse picked up once a week pays the garbage man his salary. What’s learned in a scientific failure is critical to utilize for the next successful scientific venture.

Limitations of character ought to be accepted as part of oneself. How can effort apply to improve character if its limitations are not acknowledged?  And don’t forget from time to time to bask in the sun of your accomplishments.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Helping smooth the flow of traffic.

We do communicate with other drivers. We signal intent. Honk different types of honks. Ask and give directions, offer courtesies. You’re entering traffic from a Starbucks, but the street is packed with cars. A driver nods and lets you know get in ahead of me. Who hasn't felt appreciative when that happened?

I like to drive, and curious about how drivers act sometimes. I remember a night in North Beach in San Francisco. Traffic was stalled. Somebody honked. I honked too. The other driver honked again and back and forth we messed around honking for fun.

Let’s say you fall asleep at a red light and don’t go when it turns green. A simple honk would nudge you back into business. But when the driver behind honks with a blast that is plainly rude. There are intermittent honks, blaring honks and notification honks when you see somebody you know and want to attract their attention.

Headlights signal too.  If you're in the fast lane, and see a car in back with its headlights going off and on it means to get out the way. You’re going too slowly for that driver, even though your speed may be a far cry from slow to you.

Just looking at another driver sometimes signals awareness. I see that when a driver is on ramp to a freeway, and she or he approaches to what feels like too close for comfort. At the same time, both of us look at each other. It's a signal of understanding that we won't allow a collision.

Anger does not go well with driving. I got angry and flipped the bird at somebody in a truck for some reason, and the guy did a U-turn and chased me. When he abandoned his chase I was definitely relieved.

Some actions of drivers sometimes go beyond courtesy.

I was driving south on 101 Freeway in Marin County. A car slammed into this other car and pushed it into the concrete divider. The offending vehicle sped off while the victim vehicle stalled on the freeway. The woman was in a daze as I guided her to the curb. People got out of their cars and stopped the flow of traffic. Others gathered and pushed her car off the freeway. We were communicating how we cared for a fellow driver.

I was driving east through Caldecott Tunnel once, in the East Bay region. It was hot and I was on an incline---the radiator cap burst and my car, spewing swirling steam, stalled in the tunnel. I was almost at the end of the tunnel, but cars were heading towards me at freeway speed. A beat up truck driven by what looked like a Mexican farm worker shoved my car out the tunnel and off to the side. That man signaled he cared about helping to avoid a collision.

I feel it’s always good to keep the ideal of courtesy in mind while driving, as well as to go out of your way to help when it’s needed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When eating too much Isn't enough.

Food has always attracted me, but as something more than a means of sustenance. Sweet foods especially have been this way. I was raised, practically, on sugar food. I ate candy bars, donuts, pastry and pancakes.

A daily habit I had when in high school was to buy a cinnamon roll and eat it before the first class. It didn’t take long to discover by doing such eating I could sooth myself. Sweets produced a relief that felt like amelioration. I could depend on the feeling if I ate sweets. And always, the pleasure of eating sweet tasting food itself was a primary factor in the simple quest to feel better.

I was never overweight until I reached my thirties. When I got a job as a newspaper reporter, especially, I found the pressures of reporting and writing under deadline hard to handle. Everyday I’d eat big lunches at McDonald’s. I may have seemed ravenous on account of hunger, but this eating was not a response to hunger. I was eating to cope with the stress of the job. My stomach expanded into a pot belly.

What emerged with food in my life became troublesome. I didn’t want to be fat, but simultaneously, I wanted to eat without restriction. I could lose weight. I went to Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Herbal life; I always lost weight. The catch for me was I couldn’t maintain the weight loss over the long term. I began to feel discouraged and said to myself, “Well buddy, get over it, you’re just going to have to be fat.”

So for years I ate in the clutches of what I now call an eating disease. It’s an addiction like the other addictions we hear about---alcohol, drug, gambling and sex addictions. This is food addiction and it causes food binges---eating for the sake of eating.

I still struggle today with eating. But I’ve found a solution that is always there for me. It’s to associate with people like me who have the same condition. It’s a program developed by people with the condition to arrest it with the use of spiritual aids. It works to achieve long term, lasting weight loss. It’s also a trek into the self to determine and to have the root causes of the illness healed.

I’m not going to disclose the name of the program in which I’m involved. However, if you are troubled by the way you eat, I encourage you to google something like “ways to solve eating problems.” Do some browsing about the matter---this thankfully is a problem with solutions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

About the existence of Israel.

I don't agree with every policy enacted by Israel. I don't like it when Jewish settlers occupy disputed territory. It's as important for the Palestinians to have an independent state as it is for the Jews to have an independent state. Statehood for Palestinians is a crucial determinent to ending violence in that region, but it must be a state that recognizes the right of Israel to exist.

What has it meant to be Jewish throughout most of history? It has meant being hated. It has meant being vulnerable and without rights. It has meant being excluded, banished and subject to pogroms throughout the middle ages. Throughout Russia and Eastern Europe well into the modern age, being Jewish has meant being regarded as having a malignancy. The Holocaust was an eruption of anti-Jewish hatred without parallel. Despite this, Jewish people in Israel and all over the world have secured and maintain a vibrant and lively culture of intellectual pursuit and study. In their books of religious literature and practical lessons on how to live, the Jewish people have offered wisdom to all.

Since the establishment of Israel, Jews from throughout the world have had a country where they can go to escape penalty for being Jewish. That’s why I support Israel. It’s a democratic country with a free press. It’s a modern secular state. It has fought wars to defend itself, sure. It has captured Arab land. This captured land is a sticking point in peace negotiations and does contribute to violence. It is also a carrot Israel holds in its hands for peace.

Israeli leaders say they would return land in exchange for a settled peace with a Palestinian state. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says progress is being made in current peace negotiations.    

I frankly doubt most Arabs in the Middle East are now prepared to accept Israel’s right to exist. I've read so much venomous verbiage against Jews and Israel by prominent Arab and Muslim leaders. The roots of animosity between Arab and Jew supposedly go far back into the history of that region. According to Genesis, God gave the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, i.e. the Jews. That's at the beginning of recorded history. It may be that's the pot where Jewish/Arab animosity first kindled.

But King David and King Solomon ruled a Jewish kingdom in that region. Rome centuries later made Judea a province. The Jewish claim to Israel can no more be rightfully rejected than the Palestinian claim to a state in the region.

There are instances of mutual accord between Jews and Palestinians. These instances are sometimes hampered by inequality. It is the Jews after all who have a state. “Putting oneself in the other person’s shoes” is an all too human stumbling block. Contact between Jews and Palestinians and collaborations which do occur in educational conferences or mutual business or environmental projects are bound to help alleviate tension.