Saturday, July 29, 2006

What A Drag It Is Getting Old

Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old

Part of that song lyric applies to me this month, and not because I actually remember hearing that particular Rolling Stones song when it was new.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I twisted the wrong way lifting weights during my vacation, an action which resulted in significant leg pain. It is four weeks later and I’m still limping, although things are much better than then. I finally went to the doctor a few days ago and I now know what the problem is: sciatica. Actually I knew this before he said it, thanks to a well-read wife and some obsessive Google searching on my part.

According to one very helpful website, sciatica is usually caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve from a herniated disc (also referred to as a ruptured disc, pinched nerve, slipped disk, etc.).

My doctor couldn’t determine the exact cause, but he thinks that the weight-lifting event may have pinched a nerve or something like that. He prescribed some miracle drug and says if things do not improve by my follow-up visit next week, I should get an MRI. Things have already improved, so maybe that won’t be necessary.

But here is something that bothers me almost as much as the limping: everyone boomer age and above that I described this to knew exactly what I was talking about. Most of my younger friends and coworkers generally had no clue. Even though sciatica most frequently affects 30 – 50 year olds, the term seems to be more associated with those over 50. If you know me (or read this blog), you know I’m obsessed with age issues and with convincing myself that I’m only as old as I look and act and not as old as I really am.

Fortunately I’m an optimist and I won’t end in the same place as the subject of the afore-mentioned Rolling Stones song. I fully expect to be walking straight, working out and off the meds soon. Then I can whine about, uh, I mean observe some other boomer issue.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

To Reach The Unreachable Star

A blog I recently found mentioned a character I hadn’t thought of for years: Don Quixote. He’s the central figure in Man of La Mancha, a play/musical from the 1960s. The story is set during the Spanish Inquisition and tells of a knight who sets out to right all wrongs and win the heart of a good woman (Dulcinea) as he duels windmills along the way.

Quixote is a dreamer, an idealist, a man on a mission. I am all those things too. My dreams and missions are not as noble or significant as his, but I do identify with him because he has dreams and believes they are important.

Some of my dreams are selfish (career advancement, educational milestones, financial gain). Others are to help total strangers have a better life (some of my radio work).

I call it dreaming. Others sometimes call it goal-setting. I have lived many of my diverse dreams: host a radio show heard around the world, live in several interesting places, fall in love, ride in a helicopter, see the Grand Canyon, walk on a beach totally alone. Many unlived dreams are still on my list: graduate college, visit the Sicilian village of my great grandparents, hike the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon, write a book, interview John Glenn. And a few of my dreams seem impossible: save a person’s life, walk on the moon.

The point is to continue to dream.

Here’s an interesting coincidence … my elementary school graduation class had a song: “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. This sounds silly, but I have to admit that I have always been inspired by those lyrics.

To dream ... the impossible dream ...
To fight ... the unbeatable foe ...
To bear ... with unbearable sorrow ...
To run ... where the brave dare not go ...
To right ... the unrightable wrong ...
To love ... pure and chaste from afar ...
To try ... when your arms are too weary ...
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

This is my quest, to follow that star ...
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far ...
To fight for the right, without question or pause ...
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause ...

And I know if I'll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I'm laid to my rest ...
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

An impossible dream might really be impossible, but I believe that one should dream it anyway. You might not reach the unreachable star, but you could have one hell of a flight trying to get there.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Definitely this time. Maybe.

Education was a top priority in my family, in part because so few in my parents’ generation completed college. My Dad had a successful career as an electrical and mechanical engineer and draftsman with a GED, some “trade school” classes and plenty of self-education. He encouraged my sister and me to go to college and paid for it so there would be no college loans to worry about.

I eagerly began college just weeks after high school graduation. By the following summer I was already in trouble, not sure what I wanted to study. I changed major every semester and was quickly losing motivation. I stuck with it for two more years, but dropped out with at least a year to go in any major.

That was in the 1970s. I have had a successful multi-decade career in the media since then and only once did the lack of a college degree hold me back. But I have always viewed this as unfinished business.

So this fall I am going back to school!

At least I think I am. I have made and broken this promise to myself on a regular basis since 1999. Time and money are my usual excuses, but neither is a very good one. I certainly have time to take one class each semester, especially because I can get a degree entirely online. No traffic jam excuses for getting to class on time, no schedule conflict with work. One class at the University of Maryland doesn’t cost all that much for Maryland residents and I can charge it.

I’m writing all this here to state publicly to my 4000 readers … uh, I mean 4 readers … that I plan to go through with it this time.

You are my witnesses. I will keep you up to date on my progress.

Please cheer me on if I go through with it, kick me in the butt if I bail out.

There is an open house next week, during which I can ask advisors the burning questions that I’m sure returning Boomers have, such as: Does the Math class I took in the 1970s count toward a History degree in the 2000s?

The cool thing about returning to college in my f-f-fifties is that I can get a degree in History or Humanities just because I want to, not because I can do anything with it.

Go Terps!!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dead Man Painting

That guy is still painting on TV. You know who I mean, don’t you? Brown, bushy hair in a 1970s ‘fro, a large goatee with a hint of gray, wears jeans and a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

He paints outdoor scenes, usually mountains with clouds and happy little trees, and he talks as he brushes paint onto canvas. His show is on as I write this. He’s been doing this on PBS since 1983. He died in 1995. And until I searched Google a few minutes ago I knew nothing about him.

His name is Bob Ross and the show is “Joy Of Painting.” He grew up in Florida, had an alligator for a pet, taught himself to paint while in the Air Force for 20 years, stationed mostly in Alaska. He made the painting process look so easy. In his soft, hypnotic voice he would say things like, “We want happy, happy paintings. If you want sad things, watch the news. Everything is possible here. This is your little universe."

Bob Ross is now an industry. The business he started still exists online, selling video instructions, paint supplies and licensing deals. There is even a Bob Ross Nintendo video game (wow, that sounds exciti … zzzzzz).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Who needs the radio?

I was disappointed when my local oldies station changed to “newer” oldies this year. I like their new sound too (rock hits mostly from the mid to late 1970s), but I miss being able to satisfy my mood for pop hits from the mid to late 60s by just pushing preset 4.

Watching TV, however, is now the next best thing. On nearly any night on nearly every channel, I can hear songs from my youth in TV commercials. On some nights there are so many that just playing the TV sound in the background is like listening to the radio. Rather than whining about this phenomenon, as I have in previous posts, I believe I will now just point out the songs from time to time.

In case you aren’t aware of this, a song can’t just be used in a commercial without various levels of permission. Fees are negotiated with and paid to some combination of writers, publishers and performers. The version of the song you hear might be performed by the artist who had the hit (“Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin in a Cadillac spot, for example) or by a completely different singer or group (the unnamed female group singing the Steppenwolf classic “Magic Carpet Ride” for Wendy’s Restaurants).

Here is my most recent collection, all heard within the past week …

“I Want You Back,” a 1970 Jackson Five hit, is in a commercial for Total cereal. A young, innocent Michael Jackson sang the original.

“All You Need Is Love” … and VISA! I can’t believe a Beatles song is in a commercial. Oh wait, that’s right, Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles songs. Is he raising funds to pay his legal fees? The Beatles aren’t singing this version, but it is definitely their song.

“Everlasting Love" (When Will I See You Again) by Carl Carlton (1974) in a Pringles commercial.

“Time Of The Season” by the Zombies (1969) in a Sprite spot.

“Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was a 1960 hit by Brian Hyland. The same song by a different artist is now in a commercial for yogurt.

“Celebration” was a 1980/81 hit for Kool & the Gang (celebrate good times, come on ….). I think I’ll test drive a Lincoln-Mercury product, open the window and shout, “yahooooo!”

“Green Onions” was a 1962 hit by Booker T and the MGs, one of their many instrumental hits. During the 1960s, this band also played background on songs by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and others, and two of their members (Steve Cropper and “Duck” Dunn) performed with Jake and Elroy in the original Blues Brothers movie. This song was heard in “American Graffiti” and now in that Mercedes commercial with flirting Mercedes drivers speeding around a diner.

The Who must be going out of their way to utilize song licensing as a revenue source. Their performances of their songs are in a commercial and two TV shows.
“Magic Bus” (1968) is in a commercial for the Nissan Quest minivan, “Who Are You” (1978) is the theme for C.S.I. and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971) opens CSI: Miami each week.

An insider note about how music radio stations organize their play lists: the music director, with the aid of scheduling software, sequences songs to achieve a balance of styles, tempos and ages, within the context of the overall sound they believe their audience wants to hear. If you played the original versions of the songs above, in the order listed I’ve listed (from “Magic Carpet Ride” through “Magic Bus”), you’d have a representative 30-minute sample of what the afore-mentioned oldies station sounded like at its peak about 5 years ago. Try it on your iPod, CD changer or 8-track player. Or just watch TV tonight.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Dog Agility – A Boomer Sport

On any given weekend, thousands of humans and their dogs are competing in agility trials. Agility is the sport in which dogs jump over bars, run through tunnels, fly through tires, weave through rows of poles, etc. in response to commands shouted by their humans who are running along with them. Maybe you’ve seen this on ESPN or Animal Planet.

The colorful dogs include black and white Border Collies, red Aussies, Golden Retrievers. Except at the very highest echelons of competition, the humans are often female, slightly heavy, gray-haired Boomers. That is the part that surprises me and impresses me the most.

Dog agility is a hobby that isn’t necessarily limited by age or physical ability. Some dogs are trained to run most of a course while the human hardly moves. Most handlers do run around the course, but many do not even try to keep up with their dogs – they don’t have to. Handling the dog from a distance is a common aspect of training for agility. I’ve seen tall, short, young, old, thin and fat people and dogs do well in agility. Some people who never win a thing enjoy this sport simply because it is fun.

People with competitive, type A, micromanaging personalities can excel in dog agility. I know several lawyers who do this. Quiet, shy people can also do well in agility. Some of the most successful competitors are those who train a lot, bond with their dogs and make it fun for both the dog and the human. My wife has engaged in this sport for more than six years and she’d be the first to tell you she isn’t athletic. The wall of ribbons in our kitchen is proof that consistent training and a desire to win are key ingredients for success. And she and the dogs are having fun.

Many of the top agility dogs are Border Collies, in part because they are among the fastest and smartest dogs. But some of our friends have dogs not usually associated with this kind of sport: poodles, the Shih-Tzu, Britanny’s. I’ve seen Siberian Huskies and Great Danes compete. Even a St. Bernard once.

I have no snappy end or profound conclusion to this post, other than to say that one of our own Border Collies gives new meaning to the word fast. If my wife succeeds in getting a little more control on our loose K9 cannon, you might see the two of them on Animal Planet one day. Believe me when I say that if they ever make it to the Agility Nationals, I’ll let you know.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Fifty is the new 40, except when …

The idea that 50 is the new 40 was probably first spoken by someone like me who refuses to accept stereotypical aging restrictions. Most 50-somethings I know do not look, act or feel like those who were 50 when we were 30.

The problem with believing that I’m 10 or 15 years younger than I really am is that I sometimes forget that at least one aspect of being 50 lingers: the body can’t take punishment like it used to.

I’m in pretty good shape. I use a treadmill and weights several days during a typical week. Sometimes, however, schedules and commitments get in the way of life, and last week was one of those weeks. Actually, I missed my workouts for two weeks. When I started up again last Wednesday, I picked up where I left off, using the same amount of weights and repetitions as I had during my previous workout.

What a mistake.

I woke up with some muscle discomfort on Thursday, but walked around a museum for two hours anyway. Another mistake. I woke up in pain on Friday. Long story short, the muscles through my entire left leg hurt and I could hardly walk. I had done too much too soon, like a 35-year old, and I must have twisted something.

The weather was beautiful on Saturday, but I stayed home, still in pain. Today is Sunday and I am only limping a little. I feel so much better. Maybe I'll jump on the treadmill.

Maybe not. I don’t want 50 to be the new 80.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Objects Are Smaller Than They Appear On TV

As I stood next to the Space Shuttle, I was amazed at how much smaller it was than I had imagined. It is definitely a large object, but not as large as the airliner that took me to Atlanta a few months ago. The Concorde I walked past, however, was larger than I thought it would be; although its windows were very small.

I just returned from my first visit to the Smithsonian’s relatively new addition, the
Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. This gigantic airplane hanger next to Dulles Airport houses every size flying machine from a hang glider to the Concorde. A visitor can get close enough to the Shuttle Enterprise to see the infamous tiles but no one is allowed inside this or any of the other aircraft. For a flight geek like me, gawking is still a thrill.

The big names of the aircraft industry are well-represented here, with some of their largest products on display. There is a Boeing 307 Stratoliner, a 367-80 (a prototype of the 707) and their most famous plane, a B-29 called the Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima).

One of the longest planes I’ve ever seen is here, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet in the world. The placard says this plane set a speed record of more than 2100 mph on its last flight. It flew from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 1 hour and 5 minutes. I live less than 50 miles from DC and I can’t even drive there in 65 minutes.

Another size surprise was the Gemini VII space capsule. How did two men fit into that thing? Gemini VII was a 14-day orbital flight in 1965 during which astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell tested the effects of weightlessness on humans in preparation for the eventual moon flights. For two weeks, these guys sat in seats similar in size and shape to that of a Porsche. In fact, the whole capsule is smaller than a VW Jetta. I suspect they tested the effects of claustrophobia too. This spacecraft used to hang from the ceiling in the original Air & Space Museum building in downtown DC. Now it sits on the floor at the Udvar-Hazy Center. The reality of its size is more obvious when you can stand five feet from the capsule and look through the windows at the seats.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like the hardware of flight, from the Wright Flyer to the Space Shuttle. Both of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museums are jam packed with the right stuff.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Working 80 To Take Off 80

I’m in the middle of a two-week vacation. Yes, my friends, I take two weeks IN A ROW. This is only the 3rd time in my 30-year career that I’ve made this bold move.

Boomers have become so work-obsessed that we often don’t know how to disconnect from work. Every year there are stories about how much vacation time many Europeans take each year and how little Americans take. I have worked at my company for many years and have a good contract, so I am very lucky in that I can take a total of four weeks. I used to spread the weeks around the year, never daring to take 2 weeks in a row. Many Americans do not use all of their vacation days each year, even the vast majority who are promised only two weeks.

You probably know the problem with taking just one week. By the Friday before you start, you’ve worked all the hours you’re taking off in addition to your regular hours, just to cover everything that needs to be done while you’re away. That means you’ve already defeated the main purpose of taking vacation, which is to not have to work those hours. Through that first weekend, you’re still thinking about work, wondering if you got everything done and left enough instructions to co-workers who are covering for you. By Tuesday, you finally begin to relax and maybe you get all the way through lunch before you think about the office. Wednesday comes and you finally feel that you are truly on vacation.

Hooray for Thursday! Unless, of course, you get a call from work on the cell phone, while standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon trying to take in the most breathtaking sight you’ve ever seen (or while standing in your backyard repairing a fence post because one week wasn’t long enough to take a relaxing trip to the Grand Canyon so you stayed home to putter around the house).

Friday comes and you start to think about returning to work on Monday.

Here is the scenario for a two-week vacation: the first week is just like I described it above, except for Friday. That is the day you realize that when Monday comes, you’ll only be halfway through your vacation. You can calmly lean against the fence and contemplate the view from the El Tovar or the back of your yard. You’ve got another whole week!!!!

In my case, today is that Friday. I probably worked an extra two weeks of hours before my vacation began so everything would be covered while away. I brought one lingering writing project home and worked on it a few minutes at a time through this week between home projects, day trips and July 4th fireworks shows. But today is the Friday at the end of Week One, that work project is behind me, the cell phone is silent and I have ANOTHER WEEK OFF!

This is the part that made the advance work worth it. Next week will consist of more day trips, some do-it-yourself stuff at home, and almost nothing relating to work. Next Friday I’ll start thinking about returning to work, but I’ll be relaxed, refreshed and ready to dive in again. I’ll be more valuable to my employer, but more important than that, I’ll be more valuable to ME.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Revised hits of the 60'S and 70s

I usually resist going along with the stereotypical humor of aging ... except, of course, when it’s funny.

My sister sent me this list. It appears that some of the artists of the 60s and 70s are revising their hits with new lyrics to accommodate aging baby boomers. (Not really, but read on anyway).

1. Herman's Hermits--- Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Walker.

2. The Bee Gees--- How Can You Mend a Broken Hip

3. Bobby Darin--- Splish, Splash, I Was Havin' a Flash.

4. Ringo Starr--- I Get By With a Little Help From Depends.

5. Roberta Flack--- The First Time Ever I Forgot Your Face.

6. Johnny Nash--- I Can't See Clearly Now.

7. Paul Simon--- Fifty Ways to Lose Your Liver .

8. The Commodores--- Once, Twice, Three Times to the Bathroom.

9. Marvin Gaye--- I Heard It Through the Grape Nuts.

10. Procol Harem--- A Whiter Shade of Hair.

11. Leo Sayer--- You Make Me Feel Like Napping.

12. The Temptations--- Papa's Got a Kidney Stone.

13. Abba--- Denture Queen.

14. Tony Orlando--- Knock 3 Times On The Ceiling If You Hear Me Fall.

15. Helen Reddy--- I Am Woman, Hear Me Snore

16. Willie Nelson--- On the Commode Again

17. Leslie Gore--- It's My Procedure and I'll Cry If I Want To.

Gen-Xers who read this ... don't feel bad if you don't know some of the original titles. I'm certain someone will do this to 80s and 90s song titles one day.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Small Town America and the 4th of July

“My Town” is a song by country music duo Montgomery Gentry that celebrates small town life in America. Their town is in the middle of Kentucky (Lebanon, population 5700). My small town (pop. 3500) is 50 miles from the Capital of the Free World.

As I watched an Independence Day fireworks show from a park in my town Saturday night, I thought of the lyrics in their song.

There's a "For Sale" sign on a big old rusty tractor.
You can't miss it, it's the first thing that you see.
Just up the road, a pale-blue water tower,
With "I Love Jenny" painted in bright green.
Hey, that's my Uncle Bill, there by the courthouse.
He'll be lowerin' the flag when the sun goes down.
And this is my town.

(Na, na, na, na, na.)
Yeah, this is my town.
(Na, na, na, na, na.)
Where I was born, where I was raised.
Where I keep all my yesterdays.
Where I ran off 'cos I got mad,
An' it came to blows with my old man.
Where I came back to settle down,
It's where they'll put me in the ground:
This is my town.
(Na, na, na, na, na.)
Yeah, this is my town.
(Na, na, na, na, na.)
My town.

The story continues from there with images of a closed mill, a diner, and the crowds at church on Sunday. Life goes on, the kids grow up and have babies of their own. The storyteller buys the rusty tractor, paints it and proudly shows it off in his front yard. Even if you don’t like country music or small towns, you can picture the scene and recognize it as a part of the mosaic of lifestyles we celebrate every year on the 4th of July.

The Washington DC suburbs are slowly beginning to invade my small town, but the mentality here is still more rural than urban. Many of the families in the park last night are the children or grandchildren of farmers. The crowd in the park numbers in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands who will witness the rockets’ red glare on the Mall in DC Tuesday night, but they are no less enthusiastic as they watch the modest fireworks show.

Even though I’ve been a city/suburb kid all my life, I have grown to enjoy small town Independence Day celebrations with their red, white and blue saturation of the senses. This one featured the sound of a local country-rock band, the scent of barbeque, the taste of home-made ice cream. The grand finale, of course, is the fireworks show. The rockets’ red glare. It doesn’t get more all-American than this.

I’m relatively private in how I show my patriotism. For me, soaking in a small town 4th of July connects me with those things that make me proud to be an American.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Faith, Janis and Camera Phones

I went to the Faith Hill-Tim McGraw concert the other night at the Verizon Center in DC. Boomers who are country music fans probably know that one of Faith’s early hits (in 1994) was a remake of Janis Joplin’s 1968 hit “Piece Of My Heart.” At the time she recorded the song, Faith had never heard the original, and she did it as an up tempo kick-ass country song.

Both versions are great, but my preference leans slightly toward the original slower tempo blues-rock one. I was pleasantly surprised – shocked, actually - to hear Faith sing the song that way during the concert. Slow and bluesie. However, she did not attempt to reach that soaring high note like in the Janis version.

The concert was good, by the way, but at times I thought the elaborate staging overwhelmed the performance. I saw both Tim and Faith in their early years, in a smaller venue with less stage pretension, and thought those shows were more appealing.

The biggest and most amusing surprise that night wasn’t musical, however. At one point, as Tim walked out on one of the stage ramps to get closer to the audience, I noticed something I had never seen at a concert before … several HUNDRED cell phone screens glowing in the dark. Camera phones, to be more precise. “Oh look, he’s coming over here. Let’s get a picture!” This probably happens all the time, but that is the first time I observed this phenomenon.

Back when I was listening to Janis sing “Piece Of My Heart” I could not have even imagined that one day I could take a telephone out of my pocket and snap a photo with it.