Happy Birthday, Daddy

Grandma and Grandpa Matel

My father was born on this date in 1921. I don’t really know much about him and some of what I think I know is probably wrong.   We didn’t have much contact with his side of the family.  Both his parents died before I was born.  He and his fraternal brother Joe were the youngest.  They were born twenty-two years after their oldest sister, Helen.   

On the left are my grandparents.

I was named after my father, so I am technically John Matel, Jr. John Matel Senior was born in Duluth, Minnesota.  His father, Anton,  had come over from Poland a few years before.  I don’t know when.   His mother, Anastasia, was of Polish ancestry too, but she was born in Buffalo, NY.    My father never told me much more than that, although I understand that her family was from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains.  

I found out later that my grandfather’s family was from what is now eastern Poland: Suwalki and Mazowieckie.   I learned this from a cousin called Henrick Matel who found me in Poland.   His father was my grandfather’s brother.   His father & another brother went to France to work in coal mines there.   My grandfather made a wiser choice and went to America.   Henrick didn’t know much else.   His father had been killed in a train accident when he was only eleven.  Henrick unwisely returned to Poland after WWII, believing the communist promises that things would be good there. Young men make bad choices. 

Henrick lamented that the Polish side of the family were a bunch of drunks. Things didn’t change much in America.   Now you know as much about my father’s prehistory as I do and I suspect a little more than he did.

My father talked about growing up in the depression.  He kept some of the frugal habits from those times.  He used bacon grease as butter, for example and would get really upset if we threw out any food.   His childhood home was small and crowded. It was on 4th Street.  I went up there to see it.   Of course, by then it was different.   It was in a yuppified neighborhood and a small home for a single couple.   My father’s home housed eight.   Their toilet was in the basement, which has a dirt floor back then.   He told a funny story about his youth.   The family went to see “Frankenstein” and it scared my future father.   His brothers set up a dummy in the basement and the made it sit up when little Johnny went down to use the toilet.  He said he no longer needed to use the toilet.

He got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was stationed near Superior, WI.  He planted trees and cut trails.   It gave him a lasting appreciation for forestry, which I think he passed to me.  How else can you explain a city boy so attracted to the woods?   Some of it is myth,  or just a feeling, but whenever I look at the groves of trees planted by the CCC I think of him.   They are mature forests now, but in the Dust Bowl years they were pioneers.

After getting out of the CCC, my father got a job at Medusa Cement, where he stayed his whole working life, except for the time he was in the Army Air Corps.    He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor.   He would never tell me much about that part of his life.   I know he got seven battle stars, so was a participant in all the big action of the war in Europe.    Of course, he didn’t really have to be there for all of them.   Anywhere the planes went, he officially went.   He landed at Normandy a few days after D-day.   According to what he told me, the only time he actually got near the Germans was during the battle of the bulge, closer than he wanted.   He got a Purple Heart. 

They had a point system for discharge from the military.  My father had a lot of points because of those battle stars & Purple Heart mentioned above, so he was among the first U.S. soldiers discharged.   He always expressed a special fondness for Chicago, where he was discharged.   Since he was among the first to come home after the victory in Europe, people were eager to welcome him and buy him drinks.

I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know exactly when he married my mother, but it was soon after the war. They told me that it took nine years before I was born. I was born in 1955, so counting back we get 1946. 

On the left are my uncle Joe (blond), Ted (tall) and my father. 

Our house in Milwaukee was full of artifact of my father’s work.  He and my mother’s father built the boiler, constructed the steps in the back and built the retaining wall, for example.   All these things worked, but they were odd.  The boiler threw most of the heat out through the sides.  That meant that the basement was very warm – the rest of the house not so much.  The steps were all uneven.  The wall leaned and the drainage holes were lined with beer cans cut out on both ends.   The evident surplus of beer cans explained much of the other things.

During my childhood, my father mostly worked.   That’s what I recall.  It was the time when they were building the Interstate freeways and there was a big demand for cement.    He regularly worked twelve hour shifts and was tired when he came home.   He drank a lot of beer, at first Schlitz, later Pabst and then Budweiser, but he never missed a day of work because of it, or for any other reason.  I don’t remember him ever taking a sick day.   Maybe he just denied sickness because he hated doctors.   He went to the doctor only once from the time he got his discharge physical out of the army in 1945 until the time he died more than fifty years later.   On that occasion, he had a cyst removed from his stomach.  The doctor forgot to sew it up.   After that, he said that the medical profession had their chance and he was not going to give them another.   When the doctors finally got their second look at him, the day he died, they couldn’t believe my sister when she told them that he didn’t take any medication besides Budweiser. 

Wedding day

I really didn’t get to know my father until my mother died in 1972.   He was grieving too, but he tried to make it easier for my sister and me.   He tried to cook, but wasn’t very good at it.   But my father was nothing if not stubborn. He ate what he cooked and made us eat it too.  I remember watching some bread bake in the toaster oven.   The old man asked if I thought it was ready.   Just at that point it burst into flames. 

My father dropped out of HS in the tenth grade, but he made sure I went to college.   He also got me a job at the cement company, where I got to work those twelve hour overtime shifts and make the big bucks.   At one point, they assigned me to unloading hopper cars.   I worked from noon to midnight, which was great.  I could sleep late and then meet my friends at the bars at midnight.   At the job, I got to lift very heavy tools and smack things with sledge hammers (something young men like) but in between the hard work I got time to just hang around by the river and wait for the cars to empty (something else young men like). Then I got to ride the cars to the end of the dock, applying the brakes and jumping off just before the rammed into the car in front.   I mentioned to my father that I thought this was fun.   The next day, he made sure the boss gave me the midnight till noon shift, which didn’t suit me at all.  He told me that the worst thing a young man could get was a job he liked that didn’t have a future and he was going to make sure that I would not get it.    He wanted me to stay in school and I did.  Thanks Dad.


I worked hopper cars during Christmas break and it was less fun, BTW.   I remember working in the evenings and looking at the temperature on the Allen Bradley clock tower.   It always seemed to be 5 below zero.   I would work as fast as I could out there by the tracks, get the cement moving and then rush into my father’s office and sit in front of the heater.   My co-worker, LC Duckworth, used to sleep in front of his own propane heater very close.   I couldn’t stand it because it let out these terrible fumes.   He had no complaints until he started his pants on fire.  We put him out w/o any lasting damage, but he never sat near that heater again..   LC was the strongest man I knew, but his ability to sleep almost any time was his unique skill.  I learned it from him.    

My father retired when he was only fifty-six. He already had thirty-six years in, since he got credit for his time in army.   I can understand why he wanted to quit.   The job was noisy, dusty and hard.  But the plus side is that he had lots of friends.   His job involved loading trucks and he knew all the drivers.  It was fun to watch.  It was a different man I met when I went with my father to work, a happy man with lots of social connections.   Retirement was a bit of a mistake, IMO. But I suppose he thought it was worth it.  At first, I think it was.   He had time to read and relax.   It deteriorated after that.

We drifted apart as parents and children often do, when we moved away.  In the FS, you are FAR away.  My father had a blind spot when it came to this career, BTW.  It was the only time I had to really disagree with him.   When I told him that I planned to take the FS test, he told me not to waste my time.   He said that such careers were “only for rich kids” and that I could never get a job like that.  Had I taken his advice, it would have been true.  I can’t blame him.  It was just farther than he could see.  I think that is a big problem for the “disadvantaged”.  They hold themselves back with low expectations.

Daddy, Jake, Chris

I didn’t make it back in time when he died. My sister called me and I got on the next flight form Krakow. But the next flight was the next day and then I got stranded in Cincinnati. When I called to tell my sister I would be late, my cousin Luke answered and told me that my sister was at the hospital and my father had died. I figure he died as I flew over Canada.  I remember looking down at the savage beauty, the forest and the frozen lakes and thinking it was over. I don’t know if I REALLY thought that or if I have just created this memory ex-post-facto. The mind works like that.

My father never made much money, but after my mother died he spent even less. He never went anywhere, didn’t waste money on clothes and ate mostly bean soup, cabbage soup and kielbasa.  He used to talk about his stash of “cold cash.”   We didn’t think much of it. But when my sister was cleaning out the freezer, she found around $20,000.00 in $100 dollar bills, wrapped in foil like hamburger. The old man hated banks and didn’t want to have any money that would earn interest that he would have to pay taxes.  When dealing with old depression era people, it was a good idea to look around and don’t hire stranger to clean up those nooks and crannies.

According to what my sister told me, my father fell down and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was, his last words were, “I can’t complain.” He used that phrase a lot and it was not surprising he would fall back on it, but it seems an appropriate thing to say at the end. Happy birthday, Daddy.   I still miss you. I hope my kids will be as lucky as I was. I can’t complain.

Katrina plus 4: Move to Higher Ground

The news carries reports that some people are still living in FEMA trailers and many homes are not rebuilt four years after Hurricane Katrina.  

When a big tragedy hits, we feel the natural human desire to reach out and help the victims.   We certainly should.  But after the “first aid” and the flood waters have receded, it is time for everybody to get back to work as usual.  After four years, it is past time for the victims to be on the other side, i.e. willing and able to help others.  And it is not the government’s duty to offer indefinite help.  It starts to get abusive.   If my house burns down tonight, I don’t expect to be living in a FEMA trailer at all, much less still be there four years later. Beyond that, I learned that many of the victims were renters.  If you lose your rental home, you move and pay rent somewhere else.  The landlord takes the loss. 

I like to watch nature and science programs on TV. Going back many years, I have seen programs about the Mississippi River, New Orleans, global warming, sea level rises or all of the above.  They all said the same sorts of things.   Much of New Orleans is below sea level. Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before a big hurricane would come and do what Katrina did.   And everybody knows it will happen again.  It is not “if” it is “when”.  And there is nothing we can do about it no matter how much we spend.  Those low-lying parts of the city should not be inhabited at all today or tomorrow and they should not have been occupied yesterday.  It was a mistake. The destruction of the wetlands to build these areas was a slow motion tragedy. The clock was set ticking a century ago.  We just didn’t see it until the big one hit.  Actually, we did see it, as all the nature show programs said; we just didn’t care, sort of like today. It gets worse. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Those lands currently below sea level will be even further below sea level.  Building/rebuilding is just a waste of time and a cruel hoax on anybody living there.

Let’s say it plainly. Start with the good news.  Those parts of New Orleans that are above sea level (including many of the historical areas) can and should be preserved. The port areas can be rebuilt and enhanced.    BUT New Orleans must become a smaller city. The parts of the city that are at or below sea level should not be rebuilt. 

The best use would be to make some of these erstwhile flooded neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, into wet forest or “walking” wet land used for agriculture. Letting these places return to a more natural state will serve to protect the salvageable and more valuable real estate.  There is really no other practical or ethical course. 

We should stop promising or implying that people will be returning to their homes on these once and future swamps, bayous and lakes.   It makes absolutely no sense from either the ecological or the economic point of view.   This goes beyond New Orleans, BTW.  

Decisions about where to build should be local decisions.   In most cases, I would not deny someone the right to build on his own property, even if I thought the choice was stupid.  But we should not help.  Much stupid development comes down to subsidized insurance.   If no private company will insure your new home, maybe there is a reason. The risk is too high. We certainly should not subsidize your bad decision.   W/o the unnatural public subsidy for  insurance to live on unstable places, most people would not build on barrier islands, flood plains, loose slopes … or below sea level in New Orleans.

We need to be realistic.   Some places are just not suited to some uses.   It is a tragedy if your house is destroyed by a flood … once.   If it starts to become a habit maybe you are just stupid.  Stupidity is not against the law and maybe you have a good reason to keep moving back, but stupidity shouldn’t receive government subsidies. 

The U.S has a lot of land.  We are not like Holland.  We don’t need to build billion dollar levees to protect hundred dollar real estate, nor should we sacrifice nature to our hubris.   We should help our fellow citizens in such situations, but we should help them move to higher ground.

There is an old joke about a preacher and a flood.   During a big flood, a preacher was trapped on the roof of his church.    A boat came by.   They said, “Reverend, get in.  It is still raining in the hills and the whole town will be covered.”  The preacher said, “I trust in the Lord.  He will save me.”  A second boat comes and it is the same.   Then comes a third boat.  The guy in the third boat tells the preacher, “Listen, this is the last boat.  Everybody else is out.  It is still raining.  Get in!”   The preacher just responds, “I trust the Lord.  He will save me.”    The last boat leaves.  Finally the preacher is up to his neck in water.   He looks toward heaven and says, “I trusted you to save me.  Why have you forsaken me?”   The Lord answers, “I sent three boats; why didn’t you get into one of them?”

Victims cannot always dictate the terms of their salvation.   Sometimes there are more important considerations. 

Twenty-Seven Years

Today is our anniversary.   I am not going to share emotional things on the blog, but rather just the memory.  Chrissy & I have built a life and a family.  It began twenty-seven years ago.   I could not have guessed how lucky we would be.   

Things were not looking so good in 1982.  I had just found out that I couldn’t get into the Air Force because of a misdiagnosed ulcer when I was fifteen.  In theory, I was still chronically sick, ironic since I was one of the fittest people I knew back then.  I had not taken the FS test that would end up getting me the job I have now. It would be two years before I got my MBA.  Unemployment was over 10%.   I was working for “flexi-force” sometimes. Chrissy had a part time job at First Wisconsin bank, which was a small ray of lights, but we had no assets, no prospects and a negative net worth.

We couldn’t afford much for the wedding.  Chrissy wore her mother’s dress.  I wore my best (only) suit.   Chrissy’s mother and grandmother did most of the planning.   Chrissy was very generous – and wise – to  let it be.   (All those silly ideas that the bride should get all the indulgences she wants just creates lots of heartache and makes even nice women into those bridezillas they show on TV.)  

We got married in Holmen Lutheran Church with Pastor Evavold doing the ceremony.  A local singer called Walton Ofstedahl sang for the ceremony. He was an old farmer with a really good voice.   The thing that made it special, however, was how much he loved to sing.  We had the reception at the Moe Coulee game farm. Chrissy’s father knew the guy who owed it.  Actually, that was a great place to have a reception.  It was not just a wilderness.  They had a nice cabin with a pretty pond and picnic area and you could watch the animals wandering around.  Chrissy’s relatives and her family’s friends and neighbors brought things – including the red jello – and helped make the reception very satisfying.  It was sort of thing you might expect Garrison Keillor to talk about on the news from Lake Woebegone.  Of course, before we headed off, Chrissy and I had to pitch in to put away chairs and tables and that also made the experience memorable.

Our honeymoon was at Chrissy’s parent’s farm in Holmen, Wisconsin. They cleared out for a couple days and left the place to us.  These days you might call it “agro-tourism.” We just liked it because it was free.  I remember the cows mooing waking me up in the pre-dawn twilight.  The Johnsons had switched from dairy to beef cows a couple years before, so we didn’t have to milk them and there were no other urgent chores.  Today we would say they were “free range” cows, but back then it was just that cows hung around in the fields and ate grass during the summer. You really didn’t have to do much except move them around to different fields in rotation.  That’s about all I knew (or know) about that.

Since the cows eat grass and there seemed to be a lot of grass, I guessed that once in the proper pasture they would just look bucolic and take care of themselves, but they evidently like their special hay for breakfast.  Chrissy informed me that they don’t actually eat grass, or at least that is not their preferred food.  They like alfalfa.  Cows are more complicated than I thought. Anyway, they complain loudly when they don’t get what they want, so at dawn we had to toss a few bales of whatever Chrissy’s father prepared for them over the fence. The first morning I learned that hay bales don’t fly as far as you think they would when you throw them off the truck.  One landed on the barbwire fence and broke it.  Cows aren’t ferocious or eager to escape and they didn’t try to stampede out through the newly created opening, but we had to fix the fence before they aimlessly wandered off.

It is true that anyplace is great when you are with someone you love and things started to improve for us soon after.  We were lucky starting off  behind the eight ball.  You can take more satisfaction in how far you have come, but more importantly you have a lot less fear of failure after you have experienced it. I know that I could live off peanut butter, sauerkraut and potatoes (I still really like those things) if I had to and hard times really aren’t so bad if you have a good partner, family and friends.  Besides, it is good to get that failure vaccination when you are young and resilient.

Twenty-seven years is half my total life.   We can probably do at least twenty-seven more.

So Sad

I took Espen to his new dorm today. It was an easy move. He didn’t take much with him.  I have been bragging that when I went to college I had to hitchhike up and could have only what I could carry in my duffle bag.  I think that helped make him want to show his own capacity for simplicity.  Anyway, he is not very far from home, so he can come back and forth.  The dorms are simple, cinderblock.  The kids share toilets and showers. Small rooms are good because they don’t hold as much stuff.   Kids today have too much stuff. 

Espen actually could commute to school, but we think it is useful for him to be immersed in the college environment.   The place is very young and lively, with gyms and basketball courts nearby.   He will be studying computer engineering, which is tough program, so I figure it will not be all fun … but I hope he will have some.   College is a magical time and I want that for him but I will miss him.

I was reminded of the void his absence will create when I stopped at the grocery store on the way home.   I will have to buy less food and it made me sad to think that I would now not need to buy some of his favorite foods.  We had a little ritual putting the food away. I would toss it to him and he would put it where it belonged (or not).    We started doing it when he was little and not really a very good catch.  As he got older, he often complained that I made him do it and said it was silly, but he did it.  The tossing was one part of the game and the complaining was another.   Little things, but important.

I still have Alex for a couple more months, but he will be leaving and going to James Madison University this spring.   Alex was unenthusiastic about education when he graduated from HS and I think we made a wise decision to give him the space to make his own decision.  Soon he decided to go to Nova, where he started to study and his grades got better and better.   He will be a junior next year when he starts at JMU, so he is essentially on the track I would have wished /planned for him, but he made his own decisions and along the way saved me a lot of money.  Nova tuition is only about 1/3 as much and Alex lived at home.  But he  deserves the college experience too.  JMU is in Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley.  It has a good reputation and the kids who go there all seem to love it.  I think it is great that he will be going, but I will miss him.

There is an ironic imbalance in the parent-child relationship. When they are little, they follow you around and you have to watch them all the time.   You look forward to when your time will again be your own, when you can read when you want, eat where you want (i.e. not only Happy Meal providers), and watch the television programs you want.   Then they transition and by the time you have the freedom you think you wanted, it is not as sweet as you thought. I have been enjoying my time with the kids and I will enjoy the visits with them, but the time is passed when we are really together. So sad.

Nobody Works Harder than Loggers

Logging is a tough job.   Forests usually to grow in inconvenient locations, often at the ends of long dirt roads, so loggers have to travel long bumpy distances just to get to their jobs, which means waking up early and getting home late. I got to look at a day of their work, which I wrote about yesterday.   Here are a few more pictures along with some narrative.

Below is the inside of the cab of the buncher.  Is is not quite as armored as an MRAP, but as I said, yesterday, it is reinforced so that almost nothing in the woods could break through to the operator. I think the glass actually is bulletproof.  It has a break, but no gas pedal.  Once it starts, it keeps going unless you stop it (or I suppose it runs out of gas).

Like anybody who works outside, the weather is important to loggers.   Modern machines can work under a variety of conditions, but rain and mud make the job a lot harder.

Alex & Espen by the big tire

Larry’s team is paid by for production, so the quicker they are the more they make.   Individuals get a percentage of the take, depending on the job they do.   Since all the jobs depend on the others, it doesn’t make sense to create independent incentives.   It is important to move fast for the individual earnings, but also because of the high cost of the machines.   You don’t want to leave a million dollars’ worth of machines standing idle.

It is hard to find qualified workers to run the machines.  It used to be that there were lots of men on the job and some of them would learn to use the machines from the others, but young people are less interested in taking up this work.  Larry said that his firm may have to start a more formal training program.  

This is true of many jobs that require actual work.  I recall when a guy came to fix my furnace in New Hampshire back in 2004.  It was hard to get him to come.  You had to make an appointment well in advance.  He told me that he had too much work and had been trying w/o success to get an apprentice to help him.  The guy said was looking for a young person with no particular experience, but with a good work ethic and that the apprentice could expect to make around $80K a year within a few years.   You would think he would have no shortage of applicants.  Maybe the bad economy will help encourage them.  

Each work site has its own fix-it truck, full of replacement parts and tools to fix whatever can go wrong with the equipment.   Nevertheless, sometimes the right tool is just a simple log.  Look at the pictures above and below.   A root got stuck in the track of the bulldozer and the giant steel hand was using a log like a giant toothpick to get it loose.

Forest Thinning with Really Big Machines

Above is Alex in one of the big forestry machines

Larry Walker has been working forestry in Virginia for more than thirty years.   I was grateful that he took the time to show me some ongoing forestry operations and explain some of the basics. 

Forestry in Virginia is very different today than it was even ten years ago.   Much of it has to do with mechanization.   Some of the big machines cost around a quarter a million dollars but they do the job of dozens of workers and they make forestry a much safer occupation.  The machine just grabs the trees and cuts them in seconds.  Chain saws are gone. Good thing too.

Cutting with chain saws is just plain hazardous. The saw itself is dangerous and so is the falling log as well as all the branches up top.   They used to call heavy dead branches “widow-makers.” Modern machines eliminate all of this.  The operator sits in a reinforced cab.   If a tree falls on top of the cab, the tree breaks.   Larry told me that the machine can tip over and still the cab will not be broken.   The cutting machine can grab and hold six or ten trees at a time and a good operator can clear hundreds of trees in a couple of minutes.

But the thing that really eliminated the chain saw was the machine that cuts off the limbs.  You can see it above. It takes seconds to pull through a bunch of trees.  Then a automatic saw cuts off the tops.  Later the buncher comes back, takes away the branches and spreads them more or less evenly around the woods. 

We watched a thinning operation.   The trees were seventeen years old, which is a little old for the first thinning, but well within the “usual” time.   Smaller holders are unenthusiastic about thinning right now, since prices are low.   Larger holders, like the TIMO (timber investment managment organization, sort of a timber-land mutual fund) whose land we were visiting, thin on schedule no regardless of the market. Above is the cutting saw on the buncher.  Below is a clipper.  It works just as you would guess. The saw is the more effective and modern technology.

First the operator makes a row through the trees, taking out all the trees in the row.   Next he selects and cuts out the stunted, deformed or runt trees among the remaining ones.  When they are removed, the other grow significantly faster.  You can see how it works when you look at the tree rings.  The trees grow fast until the crowns close.   They grow fast again after thinning.  Loblolly pines respond well to “release”  i.e. they grow a lot faster when given more light, water and nutrients.   Not all tree species are so adaptive.   

If they are prevented from growing up to potential when young, some remain stunted even after competition is removed.   This adaptable characteristic of the loblolly is one reason it is the most common plantation tree in the South and is planted in faraway places like Brazil, South Africa and Australia.   Loblolly pines continue to grow rapidly until they are around thirty-five or forty.  After that, the rings are tight.   It is easy to estimate the age of a loblolly when they are young and a ten-year-old tree is very different from a fifteen-year-old, but although the trees might live almost 200 years, it is not easy at a glance to tell a forty-year-old tree from a sixty or eighty-year-old-tree.

It takes about ten fifteen or minutes to cut off the branches and load the trucks you see below. 

This particular forest has an interesting history.   There was a big forest fire two years ago and strong winds knocked down an electrical wire and then pushed the fire through the woods.   Larry’s firm was hired to do a salvage cut on trees that looked dead.   But there was a lot of rain and they couldn’t get their machines in.   The trees greened out during the waiting time.  It turned out that the fire improved the stand, burning out most of the brush and hardwood completion.

After the fire, the ferns filled in.  I understand that this is fairly common.Forest Thinning with Really Big Machines

Light and Shadow at Arlington Cemetery

The boys and I went down to the woods today and saw some thinning operations.  I will write more about that tomorrow.   But when I was loading the pictures from the forestry, I found these above and below from Arlington Cemetery that I took yesterday.  

They open the gates at 8am, and I took the pictures as I was waiting for them to open on my way to work.   The pictures have an interesting play of light.  I don’t know where it came from, since I didn’t see it when I took the pictures. I would guess it was something on the lens, but you will notice, especially on the lower picture, that it is in back of the truck coming in the gate.

Nasty Little Losers

I watched a rerun of Annie Hall. It has been around long enough that it evidently has become a classic; it was on PBS, so it must be classy. I mostly watched it for old time’s sake and as a kind of thought provoking commentary on a particularly shallow part of human nature. I used to like Woody Allen, but I now find his persona on-screen merely annoying.  

I would credit Woody Allen with creating a hateful character just to call showcase the flaws, but  his on-screen personality is evidently better than his real-life one, so he is just being a better version of himself.  And there are a lot of people like him, so let’s consider the real characters that Woody’s screen character represents. 

In one scene, Woody’s character complains that he cannot be happy as long as he knows that one person on earth is miserable.   He implies that this is somehow noble. Of course it’s just stupid.  But it is worse than stupid in many cases. Here’s why.

I have known many of those guilty types who claim to feel terrible about the world’s suffering. But they very rarely do much about it. IMO, they think that the fact that they feel guilty is a kind of penance that absolves them of the responsibly to do anything proactive. The Woody Allen character is a horrible human being, for example. He is selfish, unreliable, dishonest, weak and just a general shithead. He causes suffering in the people around him. BUT he says the politically correct things and he feels bad about the state of the world. This, in his opinion, buys him an indulgence. 

We sometimes mistake such attitudes as intellectual.   Of course, we have to recognize that intellectual does not equal intelligent, at least in the current conception. An interesting definition of a modern intellectual is that he loves all mankind, but cannot think of too many individual people he likes.  This is the Woody Allen character and unfortunately there are more. 

I wonder why I ever found this funny. I don’t object to the sharp, cynical or even nasty humor. It is just that the wimpy perpetual victim is not funny or attractive. I guess I can make the excuse that I was a lot younger and less experienced. That kind of pseudo-wisdom appeals to the pseudo-educated and that was me back when Annie Hall came out. IMO, you have to pass through that stage, where you are a little selfish and cynical AND you think the rest of the world is that way too. If you are lucky, it passes quickly, although some, like Woody Allen himself, seem never to recover. It is sad really.

If everybody likes you, you are probably a kiss-ass w/o a strong personality or values. On the other hand, if nobody likes you, you are probably an asshole. It is unlikely that you are that seriously  misunderstood. It is not nice to “blame the victim” but sometimes the victim is to blame and some people are not only unhappy themselves, but they inspire unhappiness in others.  No good can come from being around them.  And since you probably already know how to be unhappy, you cannot learn much from them. Well … I suppose you can learn by negative example, and maybe I should thank Woody Allen for showing me things I would never want to be.

Sustainable Health &Fitness

Alex was making fun of my workout.   He said that I didn’t work out that long, I went too fast and my form was not good. He is right.   But I explained to him that he was missing the point.  My workout is SUSTAINABLE. I have been consistently working out w/o significant breaks since I was in 7th grade that is more than forty years.  So I figure have the right to pontificate about these things.

My weight workout consists of only eleven exercises three times a week.  I use the machines at Gold’s Gym and I can do the whole thing in less than ten minutes if nobody gets in my way. Of course, somebody usually does get in the way. Some people have the obnoxious habit or resting while sitting on the machines, but that is a subject for another post. 

The exercises are balanced to let one set of muscles rest while the others work.  I don’t know what the exercises are really called, so I will just name them what I think they are.  In order they are curls on the isolation pad, complete pull down to knees, sitting bench press, sitting rowing, flies, wing pull downs, inclined bench press, pull downs, bench press, dumbbell curls, military press.  Moderation in all things is important, so I don’t push the weights up too high.  My highest weight is the bench press where I use 240lbs. I have learned NOT to push too hard or add too much. 

I think warm up and stretching are overrated. I get warm up enough riding my bike over to the gym.   I also think hydration is overrated.  I never bother to drink during workouts, even when I run or ride my bike and am out for hours.  There is time enough to drink before and after. I drink from bubblers if I find one, but otherwise I go with Coke Zero.   I sometimes put ice in the glass. I also like to eat watermelon or pineapple when I am thirsty.  And I think water is overrated.   I spent a year in Iraq hydrating with Coca-Cola, BTW.  I don’t say everybody should follow my idiosyncratic habits, but it works for me.

I have been running regularly since 1973.  I started out of necessity. I used to like to be in the woods, but the woods near Stevens Point, Wisconsin (where I was an undergraduate) were so full of mosquitoes that I had to move at a trot to avoid being eaten alive. But it wasn’t really running for workout until 1978.  That was about the time they invented decent running shoes. I had some “waffle stompers” and used to run along the lake trails in Madison or through Warnimont and Grant Parks along Lake Michigan. 

My system for running is actually time, not distance based. You have to run at least twenty minutes to get a decent workout.   When I go to a new place, I run out for twenty minutes.   Usually I walk back, which is good exercise in itself.    Now I have several variations of the run. My favorite local runs are around the Mall in DC.   But I have run in some great places. In Norway, there was a run through a place called Bygdoy. It was a mix of forest and nice farm fields with crops and good looking cattle.  The King of Norway owned the farm.   He evidently didn’t need to make a profit, so it was beautifully maintained in a traditional form.   In Poland, I used to run in Las Wolski, among some of the most magnificent beech forests I have ever seen.  As I have written on several occasions, running is more than exercise, but it IS good exercise. 

I think it is nearly impossible to be truly fit w/o running, but I bet I log more total aerobic hours on my bike.   I ride for transportation and I almost never ride just for pleasure.   But it is a pleasure to ride.   My ride to work is seventeen miles, or it was to SA 44. It is around 15 minutes less to my new office, but I still have to ride to the old SA 44 Metro stop.  I just have to finish the ride after work. I am allowed bring my bike on the Metro after 7pm, but it is way too crowded by the time it gets to Foggy Bottom.  Oh yeah, I have compromised on the riding both ways.

BTW – You see the picture of my bike and me at the top.  Notice that I don’t have those silly lycra tight shorts.  Below are storm clouds gathering over the Potomac, seen from my office window.

I ride to work in the morning, when it is relatively cool, but I take the Metro home.  I think this actually means I ride MORE total miles because I do it almost every day and it extends the biking season.  I don’t like to ride in the dark or the twilight.  I work until 6pm or later and it takes around 1:20 to get home, so that means that if I need to ride home my biking season doesn’t start until April and is over in early September. The one-way trip buys at least another month on both sides of the season. I also admit that I am lazy about the ride home.  I used to do both ways, but I more often found good reasons not to use the bike.  I also used to get caught in afternoon thunder showers a lot.  Now I know if it is not raining when I take off in the morning, I am probably okay.  Besides, it is mostly up hill on the way home and often against the wind.  The Metro is a good choice.

I could ramble forever, so let me get to the bottom line. Every good exercise program must include both strength and aerobic training.   To be sustainable, it must be integrated into daily life and cannot be so hard that you will avoid doing it. That means that you sometimes have to compromise.  Sometimes it is good enough.   It is great to pursue excellence, but most of those people fall off the edge before they reach middle age.  It is also good to have something you can do cheaply and by yourself. It is hard to find any activity that is less expensive than running or walking.   You have to buy a new pair of shoes maybe once a year.   Biking is also cheap. I bought my bike in 1997 for around $700.   I have replaced a few tires and tubes and I had to replace a sprocket once. I expect to have the thing for several more years, so I figure it costs less than $100 a year.  If I figure in the gas and Metro fare saved, I bet I actually made money. 

The caption on one of my old running poster says it all about exercise in general, “the victory is not always to the swiftest or the contest to the strongest.  The winner is the one who keeps running.” 

Big Mac Index

We are always trying to measure things and make comparisons.  Our measurements should be accurate but more important is that they are useful.  Sometimes we study things for the fun of it, but that is a luxury.   For practical professional business we should not bother to do research unless we can and are willing to use the resulting information to change our behaviors.

It is often true that large organizations do research that they don’t use. Sometimes it is because what it measures is just too big or impossible to influence.  We often prefer to be involved with the big things rather than those we can really do something about. Beyond that, something consultants would prefer not become generally accepted is that Some of the most useful research is really simple and often free.

The Economist publishes a “Big Mac Index”.     The idea is that Big Macs are sold similar all over the world and available pretty much worldwide.    It is not scientific but it is useful.  You can guess about how much it will cost you to visit the city and how much local currencies are overvalued or undervalued in relation to the U.S.

Now they have a variation. Instead of the cost, it shows how many minutes an average worker has to work to afford the big Mac in his city. It turns some of the relationships around.   America is the cheapest in terms of time spent to earn the Big Mac because Americans are well paid in relation to what they buy.  It takes an average American just over ten minutes to earn enough to buy a Big Mac.  Interestingly, Tokyo is second cheapest.  Everybody knows that things are really expensive in Japan, but the Japanese make a lot of money and Big Macs are relatively cheap.   

Take a look at the article.   You get a different idea when you just look at how much the Big Mac costs.  See the article about that here.

The whole idea of the Big Mac Index is based on purchasing power parity.   For those unfamiliar with the concept, it measures how much you can actually buy with a particular currency.    Supposedly, you should be able to buy the same things in each currency with the equivalent amount in another.   If 1 Euro = 1.40 dollars, in theory you should be able to buy $1.40 worth of stuff for one Euro.  In fact you cannot, which indicates that the Euro is overvalued compared to the dollar.    That is why it is expensive to travel in Europe and it explains why the Brits can usually save money (when you consider hotels, food etc) flying to Disney World in Orlando instead of crossing the much shorter distance to go to Euro Disney.

We created a “Banana Index” in Iraq, inspired by the Big Mac Index.  It was meant as a measure of security and progress rather than currency values, but it also had the virtues of being simple, inexpensive and useful.   I wrote a post about that and other forms of measurement we used.