Monday, May 22, 2017

Miracles, under and above the ground

I’ve never had very much to say about miracles, really.
I believe in them, I suppose – the old-fashioned miracles that Jesus, Peter and Paul performed in the New Testament. In the movies they usually take place with special lighting and uplifting music to heighten the mood. Jesus healing the bleeding woman or casting the demons out of the man called Legion. Man, who wouldn’t believe in those kinds of miracles?
And I would probably put some modern events in the realm of the miraculous. One example springs to mind:  the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series championship to end a 108-year drought.
Speaking of droughts, I know something about those, too. I grew up on a ranch with my sister Mary, whom you know as the owner and writer of this blog. On the JV Bar ranch, droughts were a constant visitor, like the crackpot prospectors or inventors who came around to try to interest our father in their latest mining scheme or brainstorm.
Meanwhile, Mary and I, crackpots in our own right, employed the latest forms of magical thinking to coax the stubborn rains into ending the summer drought that had our desert ranch in its grip. “Please don’t rain,” we would chant at the distant thunderheads billowing north of the ranch above Weaver Mountain. “Please, please, please, don’t rain.”
Reverse psychology, we had decided, was just the meteorological magic needed.
And meanwhile, in my silent prayers, I was saying just the opposite: “Please, dear God, let it rain. Let Blue Tank Wash run bank to bank, and let the our range turn green again. Please, dear God, let it rain.”

Sand dams capture underground streams
Eventually, of course, it did rain, and our normally dry Blue Tank Wash did run wide and foamy and roaring over the concrete and stone dam that some early pioneer had built to supply water for our home, which was called the Grace Place.
We never knew why our home was called the Grace Place. Or who built our nearby dam, but that structure was why our wash was called the Blue Tank. No water rippled in it, just sand; but the ingenious filtration system built into it tapped into the underground lake behind the dam .
And if you think about it, that’s kind of a miracle in itself, that someone long ago figured out how to do that. I don’t believe we ever thought of it as a miracle – at least I never did. I just enjoyed watching the water roar over the dam after a good rain.
I have been the beneficiary of some miracles of modern medicine: quadruple bypass surgery five years ago and intensive therapy last year against an attack of MRSA pneumonia. Without the skill of the doctors and nurses who brought me through those, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
But last week, I experienced a real miracle. Not a magical-thinking kind of miracle, not a medical one. The real deal.
For the last three years, I’ve been dealing with prostate trouble. At first, it was just a slightly elevated reading of the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) level in my blood test. But then, it started getting more serious.
 A couple years ago, my urologist performed a biopsy that found what he described as a “tiny sliver” of cancer in one of the test areas. Then, in the next PSA check, the reading hit 16 – a danger zone, where the cancer might start spreading.
Then we'd have to think about a more aggressive measure: a long, intense and expensive radiation treatment. Definitely, something I'd rather avoid.
We let another six months go by before the next test. I didn’t do much of anything different, except that I started praying. Like I used to pray for rain: “Please, dear God, let my PSA go down.”
And at my next appointment, my urologist slouched over his I-Pad the way he always does, and gave me this news: “Your PSA is down – it’s gone from 16 last time to 12.8 this time.”
He questioned what I’ve been doing since the last time he saw me. Well, I’ve been working out, and I’ve lost twenty pounds. And my urologist said he’s probably gained at least 20 pounds. And I tried out my theory of Universal Weight Balance on him. If someone loses 20 pounds, I explained, then God has to have someone else gain those 20 pounds to keep the earth from spinning out of its orbit into the sun. The doctor didn’t seem too impressed with my idea. ”Sounds like magical thinking to me,” he said.
Well, all I can say is “Pshaw.” I’m going to keep on praying, whether it’s magical or not. And I know the underground lake behind the Blue Tank Dam is still holding precious, life-giving water.
Thank you Jesus, for that. And for the lower PSA reading.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The mathematics of impeachment

Don't know much about history,
Don't know much biology …
Sam Cooke’s 1963 song, “Wonderful World,” must’ve been written about me. When it comes to biology, I don’t know a genus from a genome. And history – please! The Dark Ages slept through the Middle Ages as far as I can tell.
But I do know something about the history of Watergate. I lived through Woodward and Bernstein, Deep Throat, the White House tapes and all the other forces that helped bring down the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon.
And I can see that some of the same forces are starting to pile up like summer thunderheads, threatening the 45th president, Donald Trump.

Don't know much about algebra,
     Don't know what a slide rule is for …
Yeah, play it again, Sam.
K&E slide rule
College algebra is what finished off my career as a civil. engineer. Didn’t know an algebra factor from a John Deere tractor. All I have left of that sad time before I switched to an English major is my K&E slide rule, which now is a collector’s item.
But I don’t need a slide rule for the kind of equation I’ve been doing lately. It’s called Impeachment Math 101.
It takes a simple majority in the House of Representatives to impeach a president, and a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict – which throws him (or her) out of office, with no appeal.
The math is hard. Only two presidents have been impeached – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and both were acquitted in the Senate. Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned instead.
In Trump’s case, the math is tough. In the House, Republicans hold 240 of the 435 seats. Democrats hold 193, and two seats are vacant. A majority is 218, meaning Democrats would need 25 more votes to win an impeachment.
The Senate is much harder. Of the 100 seats in the Senate, the GOP holds 52, Democrats hold 46 and independents have two seats. To get the two-thirds needed, all the Democrats and independents would have to vote for conviction, plus 19 Republicans.
That mathematical problem is why no president has ever been thrown out of office by impeachment. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, though.

Don't know much about geography,
Don't know much trigonometry …
Me neither, Sam Cooke, me neither. But I know that Trump seems determined to wreck his own presidential train. To touch on just some of the highlights:
  • The firing of FBI Director James Comey, whose agency was investigating the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia during the 2016 presidential election;
  •        Comey’s memo telling how Trump asked him to drop the investigation of former national security advisor Mike Flynn’s dealing with Russian Ambassador  Sergey Kislyak; 
  •        The revelation that Trump revealed highly classified material to Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the day after he fired Comey. 
  •  And so on and so on. Thank you, New York Times,Washington Post and others, for your investigative journalism. Once again, you're helping to keep our democracy safe.
      And the constant drumbeat of bad news is having an effect. "We've seen this movie before,” said Sen.   John     McCain, R-Ariz. “It's reaching Watergate size and scale.” 
      For GOP congressional members up for re-election, 2018 is starting to look like a horror movie. Freddy
Krueger, AKA Donald Trump, is menacing their dreams.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Life Just Wants To Live

Since moving to New Jersey I've planted a garden every spring.  Some season's yields are better than others but that's life in the backyard garden.  Last Spring I decided to experiment with lettuce.  I heard lettuce was fragile and hard to raise.  Nevertheless I bravely planted my seeds.  The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and before either I or the lettuce seeds knew it, Fall had arrived.  Notice that even in Fall I still referred to the lettuce as the lettuce seeds.  That's because nothing happened.  No lettuce at all.  Lots of okra and chard and kale but no sign of a single lettuce leaf.  And then, kind of like it always does, Fall stepped aside for winter.  This past winter was long and it was cold.  Really cold.  Really long.  We had a few heavy snow storms, too.  Winter has apparently finally ended and so I went to the garden to prepare it for spring planting.  I pulled up the early and rapidly growing weeds reminding myself that a weed is just a plant we don't want growing where it is currently growing.  I raked away pine needles and all sorts of other stuff.  And then I saw it.  One little lettuce plant looking so bright and cheery.  I was stunned.  How did this fragile little lettuce plant survive such a long and cold and, yes, bitter winter?  Clearly lettuce isn't as delicate as its reputation would lead us to believe.  Also, life turns to life just as the night turns to the sunrise.  I'm, of course, not going to eat that lettuce plant.  I think I'll just leave it alone and see how long it can keep coming back.  Perhaps none of us is as fragile as we have led ourselves to believe.  Perhaps that's why we just keep coming back for more time in the sun.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Netflix shows us how it should be done

I love Netflix.
According to company records, Linda and I have been Netflix subscribers for at least 11 years. I think it’s been even longer than that, maybe not too long after Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph founded the company in 1997. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that getting DVDs in the mail was easier than renting one from a surly teenager at Blockbuster and returning it within two days.
Across the country -- and the world -- people were coming to the same conclusion. Hello, Netflix, goodbye Blockbuster. In April 2017, Netflix reported having over 98 million subscribers worldwide, including more than 50 million in the United States. Blockbuster, meanwhile, has a bunch of former
stores that got turned into Beyond Bread and other businesses.
We recently started subscribing to Netflix’s streaming media, which got us addicted to programs like “Bosch” with Titus Welliver and Glenn Close in “Damages.” But we still get the DVDs, which lets us see movies sooner than the streaming service.  We’ve recently seen some Academy Award winners and nominees that way, such as “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”
Through the years, we’ve never had a problem with any Netflix movie. Until now.
It wasn’t Netflix’s fault. We watched “Hidden Figures,” which we enjoyed a lot. I reviewed it on recently.
And the next morning, we put it in our mailbox to send it back to Netflix. I had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and when I came back home I noticed that the mailbox was open and the Netflix envelope was gone. The plot thickened when, soon afterward, the mail  carrier arrived. No, he said, he hadn’t picked up our mail.
He gave us the phone number of the Postal Inspector to report the theft of our mail. Linda called it and after wading through a thicket of automated options, finally got hold of a human who took our report. Apparently that was the extent of what the U.S.  Postal Service could do for us.
So then I dialed the customer service number for Netflix, dreading what they were going to do to us for losing “Hidden Figures,” for which Octavia Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I’m not sure what Oscar-winning movies are going for these days, but I’m sure it isn’t cheap.
What happened next was surprising. No, not surprising. Astonishing.
First, there was no automated answering service. Instead, at the bottom of the “Help Center” page, there was message that gave a phone number and said, "For faster service, enter (a six number) code when prompted ..." 
I did that, and in less than a minute found myself talking to a real-life human being who listened attentively to my tale of woe. And when I had finished, virtually sobbing over my cruel fate, the Netflix guy said something to the effect of, “That’s all right, I’ll take that movie off your At Home list so you can get the next one in your queue.”
I had to ask, “That’s great – and how much is “Hidden Figures” going to cost me?”
“Nothing,” the Netflix man said. “It’s not your fault – you didn’t drop it or break it or anything. Someone took it out of your mailbox.”
At this point, I was virtually groveling at his telephonic feet. I told him we had reported the theft to the Postal Inspector, and he said that was good.
And we parted, friends forever. And I will be forever a fan of Netflix, for its movies, for its streaming service, for its programs like “House of Cards,” and whatever else it does in the future. And most of all, for its customer service, which seems a dying breed at most places but is alive and well at Netflix.
Thank you, Netflix, for showing us how successful business can be run.