Sunday, June 23, 2013


"Regrets, I've had few
But then again too few to mention."
                                    My Way - Paul Anka, 1967           

My Way has long been one of my favorite songs. Not that I'm alone. My taste in music is eclectic in terms of genre, but otherwise very conventional.  I probably prefer 1930s-40s Jazz, 1960s-80s rock and some 1600s-1900s "classical" music to other types, but there are really only some works of each that I like, and I actively dislike or do not care for much of it. On the other hand, I do not like, as a general rule, disco or hip hop, but occasionally something will work for me there too. But, within these fields, usually, whatever I do like is well known or a hit to some degree. Conventional.  Much of new music is to me a fad that will quickly fade. People still listen to Bach, to Louis Armstrong and the Rolling Stones. That will continue to be the case.  Music that is often on the top of the charts now but not that "good" will probably not stand the test of time.
I think My Way is categorized as a ballad, because it is kind of a story, but whatever it is, it is not my usual cup of tea. Nevertheless, I find it mesmerizing -- at least the Sinatra version.  Among its genre the only songs I can think of which are "in its league" are Louis Armstrong's versions of What a Beautiful World and Mack the Knife and, maybe, Bobby Darin's version of Beyond the Sea and the related La Mer from which it was derived. Maybe some or all of these songs aren't all ballads. They just seem like they go together to me; if you want to argue that all these songs are actually different genres, go argue with someone who knows or cares. Of course, Elvis also had a great cover of My Way, which Wikipedia - the source of all knowledge in the universe - tells me did even better initially than Sinatra's (though Paul Anka had recommended he not try it as it was unsuited for his talents) and so did Tom Jones on the B side of She's a Lady, another Anka song.  But, Anka says he wrote the lyrics (he had bought the tune) specifically for Sinatra, a friend, using phrases he felt were typical of Sinatra.

All this opening blather is just to introduce the subject of regrets, of which, yeah, I've had a few, even if too few to mention - but Anka didn't have a blog when he wrote it in 1967 or he probably would have gone on about it like I'm going to here. In this, I prefer Thoreau, writing when he was a young man - "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrows, but tend and cherish it till it come to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."

Regrets are funny feelings. For one thing, they are a feeling that some people do not like to acknowledge.  I have no doubt that anyone who isn't a true sociopath has had them, but I've heard many people say they have none. I don't know if it makes them feel that they are admitting to making bad choices, being weak or if it wakens some feeling of inferiority in them, but whatever the reason they don't want to own up to it.  Anyway, they may just be smarter than me.  I love to talk about my bad choices, mistakes, misfortunes and weaknesses, etc., at least those of which I am aware, but am here to tell you, it really doesn't work out so well for you when you do.  Probably for the same reasons people don't like to talk about their own, they will beat you over the head with your own regrets if you admit to them, as if they thought of it themselves, or suggest you have grossly underestimated the quantity and quality of them. "They" will even batter you with how often you speak about them (in their minds once becomes twice almost automatically and twice becomes "hundreds of times"). People seem to know that they will get this reaction intuitively.  Not for nothing during political debates, when asked to name one of their own mistakes or weaknesses, most people try to sneak in something positive, like the well rehearsed "I'm a perfectionist." They know if they came clean, suggest a regret in a decision, it would be used against them two seconds later. And I have seen this awareness even down on the grade school level.

Regrets are also funny feelings because, if you do think about them, you might come around to realizing that you don't regret it so much or would do the same thing again if presented with the same choice. For who knows what lies beyond door number two - the lady or the tiger?  Anger is anger, jealousy is jealousy and so on. But regrets aren't just regrets - they are debatable. That makes them akin to opinions as well.
Start with the definition. What is a regret? I'm not going to look in the dictionary for it, but I'd say it was a wish that we had behaved differently in the past. Sounds reasonable. That excludes bad things that happened that are unrelated to our own choice or action.  So, we don't regret Hurricane Sandy, which was not in anyone's control, but we might regret hanging up our wash outside as the first winds started to blow.

Here's a list of my regrets, such as I can think of while feeling very comfortable after my morning French toast bagel with butter and cup of coffee (by the way, medium black with two  n' Lows, if anyone cares) and no particular regrets on my mind:
1. Ratting: When I was 4 I took some blue rubber animals from a store. I was so guilty, even though I was not quite positive if I had done something wrong, that I made sure I let my mother see me playing with them and we brought them back. That has stayed with me, but I understand I was 4 and don't really feel bad about it. But, when I was 8 or 9 and in summer camp, a bunkmate stole some cookies owned by a counselor, and I still feel guilty about that, even if I was young, stupid and innocent myself. I knew he did it. He knew I knew. I said nothing, adhering to the kid's code of stupid values that we do not rat on one another. I felt ashamed even then and probably should have said something.  But I did not and regret it.  It does not surprise me that I carry this with me so many years later as once aware of a misdeed, I tend never to forget them, even if others tell me that it is such a trifle, I was insane to think about it even then.  

On the other hand, I haven't really improved that much. Most of us haven't. I'm not sure it is possible to be part of this world in any meaningful way without seeing other people steal. Most people say nothing, simply because we know the thief or identify with them in some way and don't want to be a "rat."  As I got older I still would not rat, but I would not go along with people claiming there was nothing wrong with it. That, of course, enraged people, who would rationalize the theft in all kinds of creative ways and make them crazy to find some way that they could say I stole too.  Of course, in the modern world, I find it more and more difficult to tell what we can legally use or not (like stuff on the internet or downloadable), but, that 's not what I'm talking about. I mean clear cut occurrences.
My sister was once asked on an interview whether, if a co-worker was stealing, she would report it. She said no, and was later told that was why she wasn't getting the job. She complained that the question was unfair - that virtually no one would report it, and what the question really accomplished was to rule out scrupulously honest people and reward the dishonest. They decided to give her the job, but on probation for six months (Why? To see if she would rat on anyone?) 

Do I regret now not coming forward when people were stealing from their bosses or company -- such as putting in additional expenditures? Sometimes. There have been instances I've seen where the company was ripping off its employee by not paying expenses worse than the employees were ripping the company off by claiming too much on their expenses. Philosophizing is easy. Real life is a lot more complicated.
In the case with the cookies though, it was one person I knew stealing from another person I knew. I chose to remain silent, probably because the values of keeping confidences and not being a rat had been drummed into me, and possibly to avoid social ostracism by bunkmates when I violated the code. I can no longer remember my entire reason, just the feeling of regret.  I actually have seen very little of people stealing from one another personally in my life when I got older. While I  personally do have trouble seeing companies differently than I do individuals when it comes to taking their stuff, other people feel it is a big difference, and will happily and guilt free steal from a company where they would not do so from an individual. So, we see that far less often. And I'm glad I really haven't had to make that kind of decision, because I'm not sure how I would react. What I would do if it happens probably has a lot to do with whose ox is being gored. In other words, I might substitute my personal feelings for a sense of what is right and wrong. And, whatever I choose, I may regret it. Can't worry about it now.

2. Music: This one is simpler as there is no moral dilemma involved. I never learned to play a musical instrument.  There are probably a number of reasons. But, the one that is probably the most disparaging to me is that I seem to have absolutely no talent at it. I have tried several times to learn as an adult and have failed each time. I put in the effort, the last time practicing an hour a day for six months almost every single day. At the end of it I could not play even one simple piece on the piano, though the keys even lit up to guide me.
When I was in the 4th grade I was learning the saxophone. It didn't work for me. First, unfortunately, they were out of alto saxes and I had to lug home a tenor, which was a lot of work. Leave aside that I lived in a state of physical exhaustion (I've covered this elsewhere), if I had been interested enough, I would have done it, just like I found the time and energy to play sports every day. But, there was very little music in my house growing up and my exposure to it was very limited until I was a teenager. I did not understand how gratifying music could be and quit after a few months despite my teacher insisting I had talent (even then I thought he was just being nice).

Very often with regrets, we are simply creating a fantasy that if we had done X instead of Y, it would have worked out well. But, we cannot know this. In the case of never learning to play an instrument, however, I have trouble seeing how it could work out badly.
I regret not being able to play an instrument now, and know that it gets harder to learn to play as you get older. Unless I find the means to truly retire in the next few years, and that does not seem likely, it is too low on the totem pole to become the priority it would need to be for me to overcome my lack of talent in order accomplish it. So, it will remain a regret.

3. Bullies: I was raised a pacifist. Frankly, it is a good way and I'm not to sorry for it. But, I have to admit that having gone through life without having had a real fight, I think it would have been better if I didn't shrug it off when I was young and had a few tussles. In retrospect, which is always easier, there were some guys who needed a beating and a few times it would have been worth it to take one even if I was right. You can't go back again, and given that you can also get hurt in fights, maybe it wouldn't have been such a good idea. But, in the safety of our own minds, where we win all our fights, it seems like a good idea, and I regret it a little.
4. Career:  Mom always told me when I was little that the greatest gift I could give myself would be to do something for a living that I loved. I could not see how doing what I loved for a living would not ruin it. I've been an attorney for almost 29 years and spent about 3 preparing for it before then.  There are some aspects I love about it - the abstract intellectual challenge, particularly with constitutional law; the little bit of teaching I've been able to do or working with younger attorneys; the gratification of a cross-examination that went well or being able to persuade a judge to change their mind (harder than you might think - people don't like to change their minds). But, most of the rest of it - as they used to say in Mad Magazine - blechh.

I knew even after a short period of being an attorney that you were very often dealing with people at their worst. It is no longer a closed profession with only a small amount of attorneys, but one where there are too many attorneys competing for a small amount of work. The work that would interest me most is not available to me for the most part, and for that I also have only myself to blame. 
If I could go back in time, I would likely choose a different profession; one I loved. I see myself in this alternate universe as a professor or journalist or, even possibly, despite never having in this universe taken any courses in it or prepared in any way - a physicist. Of course, I cannot know how it would have worked out. Might have been a disaster. Not too long ago I was speaking with a younger attorney who it turned out was the son of a college professor of mine, who had been a successful journalist. The young lawyer had not surprisingly initially followed in his father's footsteps and gotten a job with a very successful media outlet.  It wasn't, he said, what it used to be as the internet changed journalism completely with emailing and texting replacing field work and stringers. Half of the people he worked with ended up going to law school.  I wrote to his father, now retired, and told him that I regretted not becoming a journalist.  Perhaps just being kind, he wrote back that I probably ended up exactly where I belonged. That may be true. Nonetheless, I regret it and it is probably the major one I have. You can say all you want that it is not too late. It almost certainly is.

5. Teeth:  Some people have great teeth. I don't. Much of it is probably genetic, but a lot is how hard people work to maintain them. I don't do well in either category. I rarely get cavities now - I think I had only one since my 20s, but had a golf course filled in when I was young. In my 30s or 40s I lost one tooth to an abscess. That worked out okay, other than the expense, because  the implant I got is now my favorite tooth.  But, none of that is a regret. What is, is that my teeth are also a little crooked, there not being enough room in my evalovin' jaw to fit them all, and that was fixable when I was a teenager. The surgeons would have had to break my jaw to fix the problem and for whatever reason, my parents thought it wasn't necessary, but I'm pretty sure the cost was prohibitive. Of course, my brothers volunteered  to break my jaw for nothing if that would help. Ah, family.
I really didn't have a lot to say about it, not being the person who would have written the check. I paid for my own daughter's orthodontic work later on, and it was expensive. But, if I had been the type of kid to insist on something with my parents ("I don't care," being my usual comment about almost anything), perhaps it would have been done. It's not a big one, but it is a regret.

6. Girls. One of the problems with letting your insignificant other know you have a blog is that they can patrol it and make sure you are not writing about other women. Oh, to have one who was so disinterested she didn't - but I do. So, she's reading this right now thinking - So, what little ho is this going to be about? No, it's not that at all.
My regret with women is not that I should have went after this one or that one at all. But, there were some who were terrific people and very nice to me and to whom I wish I had been more thoughtful. It is not that I wish I was with them now, but I do wish that I had been more conscious of their feelings and could have shown that I cared a lot more than I was capable of at the time.

At the time, in my 20s and very young 30s, I really did not understand very well that anyone would care so much about a relationship. Sure I could get my feelings hurt too, and did on a few occasions, but not so much that I understood just because I wasn't so interested, it didn't mean that they weren't.  It's not that I was mean to or dishonest with them either - I just didn't care enough about having a relationship in general. Frankly, I was aware enough of it to recognize that to be the one who cared least was a good position to be in, in some ways.  And I also recognize now (as I do with all my autobiographical recollections) how large a role my state of constant exhaustion played in everything I did. Perhaps that is just an excuse.  All told, it probably have been nicer for them if I showed a little more interest - other than in the obvious - and I didn't. I regret it.

As with most people most of my regrets are for those things I did not do and not for what I actually did. Mark Twain, whose aphorisms I love, but whose writing I could never quite get into (excepting Letters from the Earth and Pudd'nhead Wilson, both very high on my list), may have said or written "[t]wenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do," but no one can find where it was he supposedly said or wrote it. It doesn't really matter if he did or not, except historically.  The thought rings true anyway.
So, perhaps as Paul Anka wrote, I have too few regrets to mention. I'm sure there are some I forget, but if there are more, they do not seem so important that I can recall them easily. A regret we cannot remember probably deserves a different name.  In life so far I have not been as lucky as I would like (who is?) but probably far luckier than I deserve.  In the end, unless scientists learn how to make us immortal, the few regrets I have will probably recede in time as I near the end.  

They seem to have receded for Thoreau.  When he was in his forties and dying he wrote to a friend "You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing."
What happened to regrets as living life afresh? Did he change his mind?  Perhaps whatever regrets he had no longer loomed so large in his mind under the circumstances of his impending death. As Samuel Johnson once wrote - "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  On the other hand, if regrets were not on Thoreau's mind, why did he mention it? One of the last things he is also recorded as having said on his death bed, when asked if he had made peace with God, was that they had never quarreled. This sounds like another way of saying I have no regrets. Perhaps, instead of concentrating on other things, he could think of little else and was desperate to convince himself that it was not the case.  Not to be overly pessimistic, but maybe this is just something we want to believe as we get older, to add purpose and dignity or meaning and the appearance of success to our lives, or even something we really believe as solace for what we suffered. It is more charitable to just take him at his word, and he was one unusual fellow. I love Thoreau's writing and I guess I hope it was so. If it was, I can't know now if I will go out as uncomplaining as he did, but I can hope I will and have him as an example.  We'll see.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What I am reading these days.

Could be that someone who read this blog even once might go away knowing that it's about books more than anything else?  I can't think of anything (skipping some people) that has given me as much mental pleasure throughout my life. Earlier this week I went to the boxes of books in cartons in the garage -- those still unpacked from moving last year -- to make a list of what each one contained. I can't think of a reason other than I wanted to look at them and know at a glance. Obsession? Okay. Some people like NASCAR or wine. I'll take books. This post is just on what I am reading now or in the recent past (that is, the books are still sitting in my car, next to the bed, where I work, etc.) divided up into categories:


Very interested this past year in 16-17th century religion/politics, particularly in England, but throughout the continent too. This is not the first time I've had this interest.  I started with it in the late 1970s (I believe with the great Catherine Drinker Bowens, The Lion and the Throne, which details the life of Sir Edward Coke [probably pronounced Cooke], who was alternatively a vicious tool of the royal bully, James I, and a St. John the Baptist for political freedom) and every decade or so I  seem to plunge in again. Between the 16th and 18th century, Britain and other European countries wrestled not only with religious toleration but the nature of its government. Was the King above or subject to the law and when could someone oppose him? Was the king subject to the "true religion and duty bound to defeat heresy? These two seemingly dissimilar issues are actually quite intricately related and also concerned the nature of the law, individual liberty and other fun topics.  From the chaos of intolerance, then thought necessary to stability, came many of the principles that formed their country, then our country, and which we still revere and fight over today.
Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I 1603-1625. I found this in a pile of books, purchased last year and accidentally forgotten.  James, King of Scotland, was picked by Elizabeth I to rule after her, if you care.  The book is just what it sounds like and yes, I am well aware it would put most people to sleep on page one. Not a lot of folks out there who would find chapters entitled Speech to the Judges, 1610 or The Ex Officio Oath invigorating. I expect even I will have to take it in doses. Yet, I am excited about it.

The Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution (William and Mary "invading" Britain with Dutch troops at the invitation of a Cabal of powerful men and welcomed by most of the English other than Catholics and James II, virtually powerless, fleeing for his life) was pretty close to bloodless and cemented the issue of limited monarchy once and for all in Britain. The book contains selections of essays on various issues discussing how much of it was really about the Whigs and Tories (not as much as sometimes thought) or the Country and Court parties or all of them, discusses when Locke wrote his Two Treatises (we really don't know, but there is a lot of interesting evidence), what right King William had to the throne and how involved he was in taking it; why he and Mary were enthroned together; whether the Jacobites (followers of James II) were right about some things after all; what the revolution really accomplished and related topics.
A Freeborn people: Politics and the Nation in Seventeenth-Century England (Underdown) - More of a social history than the previous volume.  Foremost, from it, I reaffirmed by conviction that people throughout history have often been convinced that the world was ending because social conventions were changing.

The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold:  The subtitle is a bit of an exaggeration as Cromwell more than anyone was clearly the driving force, a fact made plain even in this book. But, it deals with John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I, leading to his beheading, and who was rather a radical lawyer at the time, and wrote books first seeking many legal reforms we take for granted now.  When Cromwell died and Charles II returned as King, Cooke suffered a far more harrowing death than the king in retaliation. There is no other biography about him, and Geoffrey Robertson, an attorney, did a professional job. Still working my way through it in the car and the bagel shop. I have read a review of a new book detailing the manhunt for Cooke and the other regicides, but it seems that it relies heavily on Robertson and is more sensationalized than historical. I'll pass.

For a guy who has never taken a physics' class* I am sure obsessed with the topic. I don't even remember how that happened. It is possible I picked up a very old used book in the 1980s called Lawrence and Oppenheimer (or was it Oppenheimer and Lawrence), without knowing who they were, and got hooked. Right now though:

Rabi: Scientist and Citizen - Almost done with this one, having read it a page or so at a time over about a month.  Isador I. Rabi was one of several Hungarians who radically changed our knowledge and capacity in nuclear power and related matters. Rabi is not as well known as John von Neumann (who could certainly compete for smartest scientist ever - and that includes Einstein, Newton and Galileo) and has more to do with your life today than you can imagine; it is literally impossible to sum up his accomplishments in a sentence or so; but it tickles me to state that he was also a horrifyingly bad driver, or, Leo Szilard (essentially the creator of the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, which he had patented before he was even a nuclear scientist - see my 1/9/07 post), Edward Teller, sometimes called the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb, and who at least deserves some of the credit for it with Von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, or even Eugene Wigner (math and nuclear theory).

But, Rabi was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics -- which, unlike the Peace Prize, should mean something - and not only led in the development of magnetic resonance (which eventually culminated in the now ubiquitous MRI machines), but was revered enough to be one of Oppenheimer's two advisors in the building of the first atomic bombs (the Dane, Niels Bohr, being the other).  I find their lives, particularly their achievements in science and their Manhattan Project years, endlessly fascinating.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes).  I've written at length about this book, and have stated here any number of times that it is probably the best single volume history book I've ever read, and stand by that assessment (though one friend tried it on my recommendation and found he just couldn't get into it). I have been re-reading it slowly, taking notes as I go (don't worry - I couldn't build a birdhouse, never mind a bomb). As it is sitting on the night stand and I've read it at least a couple of weeks so far this year, intermittently, I will count it.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav). Another re-read, I finished a few weeks ago (or is it month's?).  If you want to read one breezy, made for laymen, best seller on physics, which tries to explain things about purely statistical or mathematical subjects in a way that regular people can understand, this is one of the best choices. I first read it in the 80s or 90s. Reading it gets harder if you really try to understand the unfathomable quantum physics (as physicists like to point out -- if you think you understand it, you don't understand it).  I remember at least one time riding home from Vermont in the passenger seat, stuck on a page for an hour, trying to understand it as best I could. But, you don't have to put that much effort into it either, and it is written to be read even by those with a passing interest (but there has to be at least an interest -- it's not Harry Potter).

* I do not count my freshman course nominally entitled Physics 0/Western Civ. 0 as physics or history classes, as it was neither one but supposedly a program to help underachievers get used to working in college. I was an underachiever in high school, to say the least. But, I resented the class as unnecessary -- it really was -- and never really understood what it was supposed to teach me; my admitting this to my professors not surprisingly irritated them and probably resulted in one of my worst grades in college. It is ironic though that the three subjects I am most obsessed with - science (the non-mathematical variety), history and languages, were never subjects I took in college. I know that has to mean something.

Picked up a copy of the one new book I have been looking forward to reading this year in Bear's home library -- Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great. His Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra are two of my favorite autobiographies, Peter getting my vote for best one volume biography I've read.  I thought Catherine would round out the group well.  It is my nighty night book. So far, so good, though she is not even Empress yet where I've left off this morning. What horrible lives some royalty have had to endure in the dream of power. One thing I know for sure. The book has made me realize I have neglected Frederick the Great of Prussia too long.

A History of Freedom of Thought (J. B. Bury); The Travail of Religious Liberty (Ronald Bainton); and
Concerning Heretics (Bainton/Castellio). I lump these three together because they are lumped together in my mind. Bury, a snooty but dedicated classicist specializing on the Romans, Greeks and the Catholic Church, wrote a courageous book for his time, as in the late 19th - early 20th century being even mildly critical of established religions could get you ostracized.
Perhaps I have been reading a little too much by Bainton lately.  He is probably the foremost writer on the development of religious liberty, particularly in the 16th and 17th century, but by the time I got to Travail, I've read so much of him that I kind of breezed through the familiar territory.

Heretics is really not his, but a work by Sebastian Castellio, the courageous 16th century European opponent of the great but intolerant reformers (particularly John Calvin). Castellio's name should be known better than Calvin's and even Martin Luther's.  Bainton placed his own commentary in front and so gets half the credit. Fair enough, for without him, Castellio's name would have virtually been lost to history. Though Castellio was in Heretics, making out a case for toleration from the works others, it was not in some senses a great book, as he cherry picked from many of his subjects, who were often far less tolerant than he. But, his prefaces/dedications to the book are remembered among those who care about such things and it was used for years by others trying to defend their own calls for freedom.

The Fall of Arthur.  Working on this one right now, sitting on my nightstand next to Catherine. Thank goodness that Tolkien's son, Christopher, a scholar himself, lived so long so that he could edit his father's unpublished works. The Fall was one of his father's unfortunately unfinished version of the Arthur's story, based on the classic works by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, etc . It is not that Tolkien's book itself is all that great (and, again, unfinished), but Christopher's commentary, comparing the various classics to his father's work, is riveting for me.  I read the original tales so long ago, I really don't remember the difference between them anymore, and it is a great refresher. I know, I just like the idea of knights running around chopping at one another or holed up in castles.
On Deck:

Thoreau as World Traveler (John Aldrich Christie): It is well known that Thoreau rarely traveled far from home. Did he mean what he said repeatedly about wanting to stay near home (e.g., "I would rather watch the motions of the cows in the Concord pasture, than wander to Europe or Asia and watch other motions there, for it is only ourselves we report in either case" (Journal) and "The world is but canvass to our imaginations. I see men with infinite pains endeavoring to realize with their bodies, what I, with at least equal pains, would realize to my imagination" (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)? Or was it just sour grapes? We can but speculate. I didn't know Thoreau personally, of course, and tend like most people who love his work to want to believe he was something akin to a Zen master (see my 6/2/08 - The Bare Necessities of Tao and 7/31/08 -Thoreau meets me posts).  But, I am also a skeptic at heart, and will not allow myself to be certain it was not largely an affection on his part.  Of course, perhaps it is an affectation of actual Zen masters too. How would we know?  Nevertheless, to read Thoreau is to follow his imagination and learn what he learned from others who traveled all around on fantastic journeys --  that is what Christie's book is about.  It's a clever premise, one possibly designed to impress an agent to promote it. I've only begun it, but it is next up on my bagel store list, after I finish The Tyrannicide Brief.
Thoreau of Walden. At the same time as I picked up Thoreau as World Traveler I also picked up used a more straightforward biography by Henry Beetle Hough, Thoreau of Walden. Haven't cracked the binding except when I picked it up to look at it. I've read a lot of Thoreau, some over and over, but have never read anything biographical about him (except that all Thoreau is autobiographical) and figured two books should do it.

The Life and Letters of John Hays (William Roscoe Thayer): Hays is a great American story - a mid-18th century Illinois boy who ended up one of Lincoln's private secretaries during the war and after a journalism and diplomatic career, Secretary of State to McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.  I read his Civil War diary and it was kind of fun to see a young man enjoying himself in the capital among all that pressure and death (though, sometimes I did think while reading it - you do realize there are people dying out there, right?)  Nevertheless, I don't see myself finishing Thayer's two volumes. They cost about $3 used together and I have been perusing them in the car, but, despite Thayer's reputation, they were, in my view, not well written and very dated.  I was actually recently thinking that there should really be a new biography of Hays -- and what do you know, one just came out, and has pretty good reviews. But, so much to read first. Maybe some day.

I have long fell out of the regular habit of reading fiction. My favorite authors, almost all British, have either died (Tolkien, Fraser, Mortimer, Fowles) or grown old (Le Carre, Forsyth) and now, if anything, I read breezy detective/action novels by only two authors. Robert Crais, whose usual heroes are the witty detective, Elvis Cole, and his hard fighting, non-smiling pal, Joe Pike, is one. Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher novels I devoured for a few weeks recently, is the other.  I have to say, some of Child's writing is a little thin - "She was drop dead gorgeous," being an example.  Of the two, Crais is the far better writer, and one of his side efforts - Demolition Angel - is one of the best works of fiction in that genre I've read in twenty years.  But, Reacher is just pure fluffy fun stuff and I guess I enjoy the literary testosterone the way women enjoy  the Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey series. A few weeks was enough and I'm sure it will be a while before I need another shot.
The Red Light Book: 

I usually have a book in my car dedicated to red lights. Though I've read some serious books like that (one that comes to mind was a wonderful biography of one of my favorite painters, El Greco), it is usually a lighthearted volume that I can immediately get into for a few seconds and pick up later without having to figure out where I was.  Bear sent me a copy of Brewer's Cabinet of Curiosities (Ian Crofton), which is essentially an almanac of stuff cobbled together in the 19th century by one Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, who wrote reference works. It is basically enticing lists of things like peaceful revolutions, heresies, day jobs of famous people, extreme cuisine, famous forgers, etc. You get the idea. Perfect bliss until the light turns green. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Working out

Time for one of my opinion pieces about a subject I am completely unqualified to speak about (go ahead, be the first to point out that covers 99% of my posts). This is a little different type thing than I usually write about, but I guess it is what I have been thinking about. So . . .

I worked out a lot when I was a kid and played a lot of sports. That dramatically sagged off in college and by law school I already was pretty lame at almost any physical activity I had been good at before and started to gain weight. About 10 years ago I started working out at a gym, and, with some breaks - notably a year when I moved to Virginia for a while - I have continued ever since.

I am in decent shape for a 54 year old man (later this month), but far from exceptional. I have a bum leg which will probably make that goal unattainable for me (I'd like to do it, but, I'd like to climb Machu Picchu also), at least, so long as I have to work for a living.  By far, the most important things I did to achieve the modest shape I'm in were two surgeries so that I could breathe and sleep some at night and losing about 90 pounds total.  I wrote about these things on 10/2/11 and 2/9/13.  But, besides those things, I'm pretty sure working out has helped too, at least when I was working hard.
I've also written before, probably more than once, about the upswing in men and occasionally women using steroids. A friend who does not go to the gym asked me how I could tell? Trust me, you can tell when you see someone whose head looks like a 60+ year old accountant but who has a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger; when you see a women with rippling arm and leg muscles bigger or more cut than some men (and almost inevitably with implants); when you see middle aged guys with flabby guts but biceps as big as head; when you see guys in their 30s not just in good shape, but with bodies like super heroes that you only saw professional body builders or professional wrestlers with up until the 2000s; or even when you see a battalion of teenagers  devoid of visible body hair but having incredible physiques such I only knew a tiny handful of young men to possess when I was growing up.  No, it's not better training or nutrition. Don't let 'em kid you. It's the steroids.

I have noticed something that has surprised me about the juicers. There are many people at the gym much stronger than me, but I notice that some of the users don't seem particularly strong at all, regardless of their size.  I've seen any number of great big guys, clearly users, who are using roughly the same weights that I do.  Sometimes on top of it they are cheating themselves as they lift (I'll explain that below).  No doubt, many of them, maybe most, are about the looks more so than their health or conditioning, or, maybe they fantasized that strength would come as easily as mass.
But, I do not compare myself to these people for obvious reasons or others who are just able to work out full steam like maniacs.  I try to develop some muscles, more so because I suppose I believe what I read about improving decreasing strength, circulation and bone density as I age.  I really take these things on faith, because I guess it makes sense to me.  But, though no one ever points to me walking down the street and says hey, look at that guy (unless accompanied by a look of horror and the shielding of their children's eyes) I have enough muscle to satisfy me. Frankly, I think a vintage Stallone body on top of my craggy face would look a little creepy.  I especially have no need for huge biceps, which, IMHO, are probably your most useless arm muscles in real life activities.  I have never had a desire to do the bodybuilder thing.  

For whatever reason that got into me this week, I want to share some work out stuff I've learned over the years (stop laughing), some of it from people much better at working out than I am or will ever be, but some I've just thought about myself.  Mostly it's just opinion (you can mentally add the words "In my opinion," or "I think," to the beginning of every paragraph. Research on working out is plentiful, incredibly contradictory and, in my opinion, usually useless.  Of course, I do whole-heartedly believe some research - usually the studies that confirm what I already thought.  Not especially scientific, is it?
The truth is, it seems to me, you can figure out most things about it yourself if you putter around a bit and experiment (like so many things in the world). Sometimes it seems contrary to what you read in a health article, sometimes not.  There are a lot of different exercises you can find on the web, of course, to work on particular muscles, and occasionally I'll look, but it is rare I find that I didn't already know from reading Arnold's Pumping Iron in the 70s. It really hasn't changed much since the 70s.

In no particular order:
      ·         I hate every second of every minute of every hour of exercise. I do it because I think it is 
              good for me, though I'm not all that sure how.

·         As with diets, most reasonable exercise plans are good, so long as
                                                        - you feel burning muscles or fatigue, and
                                                        - you keep doing it regularly.

·       For most of us, aerobic exercise is more important than strength or flexibility training. Better you can walk up a steep hill or stairs without stopping to rest than to pick up a 50 lb. box over our head. Also better to be able to lift a 20 lb. box over our head 20 times rather than a 50 lb. box once. I know some women who can't lift half of what I can, but they can lift a somewhat lower amount many times and are much stronger, pound for pound, than I am.

·       If you are fat, I would concentrate on losing weight first. That can include working out, but
I am not a believer that moderate exercise helps you lose weight and naturally believe the recent studies that same as much. You just don't burn enough calories. Cutting calories, hard as it is, is probably easier than burning them, particularly as you get older.

·       If you are using a machine to help you, like a treadmill, for example, and you can read a book or magazine while you are doing it, you are not working hard enough to get a real benefit. TV is not quite as bad, but, if you can read the scroll at the bottom of the screen or follow everything said completely, you are also probably not doing enough.

·        I understand that people read or watch TV when they work out to help with boredom, stress and pain. I do too sometimes, but, that doesn't mean it is worthwhile.

·       When I see people get great results on a treadmill or the like, it is almost always because they are either

                                     - frequently working hard enough to sweat profusely, and/or
                                                  - have exquisite form.

·       Pure form while you work out is extremely important, and, much rarer than you would think. I go to a gym with a lot of people and infrequently see them doing exercises in what I think is the correct form. I do my best, but definitely muck it up too.  I can think of only two women at the gym (yes, with nice shapes) who probably exemplify pure form.  One of them is the only one in the gym who uses the Stairmaster, in my opinion the best of the aerobic devices, without holding on. You might not think so, but it makes it a lot harder.

       ·     When lifting weights, the two most obvious ways to cheat (avoid doing the exercise purely) are:

- rocking. For example, someone might be doing curls and each time each time they lift, they arch their back. Some of the work their bicep is doing, but their lower back is doing a lot of it.
              - failing to fully extend. In other words, whatever the movement is supposed to be, they 
             don't fully extend or bend at their elbow or wrist or shoulder, etc., so that they are only
             partially doing the movement.

·       Both of those mistakes are probably as a result of lifting too much weight. There is always a desire to add weight, both for the sake of vanity, and to increase the strain on your muscles. But, many people, particularly men, just use too much to begin with.  Just this one change would make a world of difference to many people.

·       That being said, you have to be careful not to extend your body past a safe range of motion either. Shoulders, as I have found to my despair, are especially susceptible. Don't put them back behind your body's axis if you can avoid it. Those little muscles, tendons and ligaments rip and tear easy, and then take forever to repair.

·       I have four little thingees I try and do while lifting weights that I am semi-convinced help.  1. Locking my body so I don't cheat. 2. Squeezing my hands near the pinkies briefly when the motion is completed. 3. For arm exercises, where possible, twisting my wrist during curls, and, 4. Doing odd little exercises to try and isolate various muscles. As an octogenarian friend of mine might say in his own style - Do these things really help me, you ask the universe?  And the answer comes back --  I have no idea.

·       Many middle aged men are very susceptible to the injury known as tennis elbow. My injury came from a momentary lapse in concentration during a set (probably too much weight, also) and foolishly hanging onto the weight until my friend could grab it instead of letting it fall. But I have met any number of men in their 50s who suffer from it without going through any trauma.

·       Classes can be great. Why don't men do them? I've taken a number of them and have often been the only man, sometimes one of a few, to take them.  Some of them these days are known by their abbreviations. I have my own collective abbreviation, PSLH - Pain, Self-loathing and Humiliation. That's because, often due to my funny leg, I am just awful at whatever the class is doing (particularly if there is rhythm involved) and it not only friggin' hurts, but pretty much makes me feel terrible about myself. Much as I feel that way, I think it is good for me.

·       I am not though a big fan of the most popular exercise class, Zumba, which is basically a bunch of girls dancing. It doesn't seem to me that it provides much in the way of exercise.  I have met some people who are in horrible shape who do it thinking they are getting a good workout. I also know some women in good shape who tried, and they find it fairly worthless. Naturally, there have to be exceptions.  I would agree it is probably better than nothing, but, not by so much you'd notice a lot.

·       I am a big fan of super-sets. The one muscle group I have deliberately worked on the past year or two are my shoulders, which I felt were too small.  My shoulder workout consists of 31 sets of ten repetitions each. That sounds like it would take a really long time, but I get it done in less than an hour because 12 of them are done in three groups of 4. That is, I do four sets of ten all in a row, without a rest, three times, with short breaks between each super sets.  Those burn, but, they are really good for you, or, so I believe.

·       There is one shoulder exercise I do that I have never seen anyone else perform except the friend who taught me them a few years ago and a couple of women who only use it to warm up using very small weights in their hand. My friend learned it from his physical therapist, who told him it worked interior muscles that aren't very visible.  Yet, I think (definitely not know) that I have had more success with it than any other exercise I've done.  Not sure I can even describe it right, but I'll try. You stand straight up with a fairly heavy weight in one arm. You put your arm holding the weight in an L position - upper arm running along your side and your forearm parallel to the floor with your fist extending forward. In this position your interior elbow makes a 90 degree angle. You are holding the dumbbell with the weighted parts at the top and bottom.  Keeping your elbow pinned to your side (and trying hard not to move your body much -- a little is natural), you then rotate your fist holding the weight outward to the your right (if it's your right hand), ending the swing about even with your shoulder. Your arm is still in an L shape, but your fist is facing to the right.  All this is done without dropping your forearm -- i.e., keeping your forearm parallel to the floor -- and your elbow pinned to your side.  If you have the right amount of weight in your hand, you should barely be able to do ten or so without dropping your arm. I do three sets of those with each hand using a 40 pound weight right now, but I have had to work up from 20 pounds about two years ago. 

·       There's a second group of 3 sets which is the reverse movement. Go back to position one and this time, you swing your arm out just a little, then draw it towards your stomach, again keeping the forearm parallel to the floor.  Same 3 sets of 10 with each hand.  It's not magic, of course, but I really think it helped me a lot, particularly coming back from a shoulder injury.

·       My achievements in working out are not exactly record setting, but, as you age, you have to compete against yourself and have to feel accomplishment doing things you didn't think you were capable of. It is hard not to feel some pride in it, even if the guy next to you thinks you are a girlie man.  I have two such achievements. The first I started doing in Va., being introduced to it by my workout partner, a very athletic young woman, who I felt pulled me along upwards physically as I dragged her down (I did warn her I would corrupt her). These particular exercises she called butt kickers, because they really kick your butt. I did them for about a six months to a year and am sorry I stopped. It goes like this. One squat, one push up, one jumping jack. Then two squats, two pushups, two jumping jacks. You keeping adding as long as you can, repeat the highest number, and then come down. I found this exercise terrifying, afraid to start each time.  Even when I became proficient at them and could get up to 15 up/down with small weights in my hand, I was in a state of stress the entire time thinking that I couldn't do it, not a single one more. What pulls you along? Some goal. Lose weight, look better, feel better, competition?  I don't really know. Why did I stop? First, I lost my partner - who stopped working out for a long time. But, more important -- boredom.  If you do 30 sets of these (15 up/down), that is 240 squats, 240 pushups and 240 jumping jacks -- 720 repetitions. Over six months, 3 or 4 times a week (sometimes in addition to other exercises) -- that is a lot of calisthenics.

·        Again, this is a personal achievement.  Kobe Bryant might be able do them endlessly. I can't. My workout partner could go to 20 and down again faster than I could do 15s and work out on a punching bag waiting for me to finish (after which I would collapse and need recuperation anyway). The reason was not that she did each repetition faster than me, but because she could transition between each one (you had to go to the floor for the pushups and up for the jumping jacks) so much faster. To show you the difference between us, if you go to 20 (up and down) instead of 15, you aren't adding 5 sets, but 5 sets of increasing numbers (16-20). So, if I did 240 of each squat, pushup and jumping jack, she was doing 420 of each - 1260 in all (175% of my effort) -- and again, faster than I could do far less.

·       Of course, I didn't start off doing 15s. I started at 5 going just up (only 33 repetitions) and collapsed, certain that I would never progress. I am not a fan of the power of positive thinking. Expecting failure helps my performance. I'm not sure why. It might be an anxiety reducer. Whatever the case, it just works for me.

·       My second personal achievement came when I moved back to NY. I do what I call the vomit run. There are nicer names I could use - the bluff run, sand run, water view run, etc., but my overwhelming feeling after the first time was the need to vomit (I did have a very rich cupcake just before starting and also used too much bug spray) so that is just the way I think of it. There is a point on Long Island in King's Park where the Nissequoque River runs into the Long Island Sound. There are trails you can hike in overlooking the water.  It is very beautiful. I think one of the very most beautiful spots on Long Island.  Some people refer to it as The Bluffs, because on the Sound side there is a group of sand bluffs running very steeply uphill. They overlook the water and, if you are insane, you can run up them. Of course, they are made of sand, so each step you take you not only sink in, but you slide backwards. It is not that you are running so far, but they are quite steep. The first time I tried I could do it but one time and then collapsed.  Every week I'd add one half lap until I got to four (walking down panting in between). There were more than a few times I worried myself that I was going to have a heart attack.

·        Now, there are people who can run marathons, or a mile in less than four minutes, so I get that this doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment.  But, oddly, it seems that people in much better shape than I can't do it. . I have brought three younger people with me there, all in much better shape than I am, who could not do it twice.  I watched a high school track team try and all but two kids could not make it half way up once.  Obviously, they can run circles around me. I've concluded that it's just really mentally tough and that my success at it is not because it has increased my endurance or strength all that much, but that with progressive training, I have been able to learn to put the anxiety of trying temporarily out of my mind better than they can.   It is so intimidating to look up at the top knowing you are going to try, that it fills me with angst from the minute I leave the house until I finish them, even now that I know I can do it. The only way I could manage was by not looking up the whole run and thinking about anything else but what I was doing -- sports, math, chess, history, The Lord of the Rings, girls, music (I refuse to use an ipod at such a beautiful and peaceful spot). Ironically, because of my leg problems, I cannot run more than a hundred yards or so on a flat surface at a track. Running uphill is a little easier for me because your ankle is automatically flexed when you are going uphill. At the end of my run, it is not my wind that kills me though. My legs become like jelly. One time after I did it I couldn't get up for half an hour.  I have no doubt that if any of others kept at it they would soon easily surpass me, but for them, once was enough.  This I understand.  I am hoping it is helping me because otherwise it is so not worth it.  I went a few days ago for the first time this year and quickly learned, I am starting from scratch. Damn.

·        Last thing. Like with diets, there are often new fads with exercise. One recently a friend of mine, admittedly vastly out of shape and looking for that magic short cut (without doing drugs), he found what is variously called high intensity interval training, sprint interval training or very intense exercise. He admits he is trying it because he wants to find something he will do for a while, and he knows he will not work out for long. It involves just a few minutes once every few days of sprinting for 10 or 20 or 30 seconds with a few short breaks.  As a comparison I put in about 5-6 hours a week exercising. Believe me that 12 minutes or 30 minutes a month seems very enticing. I have read a few of the studies on it and tried it. I don't doubt you can get some results from it, but they are probably not going to be results involving high performance, weight loss or muscle/bone development. The claim to fame of it is that you produce some enzymes that you don't otherwise produce that may be related to fighting diabetes.  I've read some criticisms too that indicate that maybe any gains are very short-lived.

·       Good results for little effort is enticing. But, it is not as easy as it might sound.  As I tried to explain to my friend -- he isn't really doing it. He is running on an elliptical - the easiest device to use -- and he is not exhausting himself for ten-twenty minutes after he is done, which should be what is happening if you are to get the desired results.  In fact, I would bet my bottom dollar, he, and many others who are trying it, are exerting themselves only a little and not near as much as necessary.  You can't neglect working out for so long, and just turn on a switch like that.  

 That'll do it.



About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .