And the livin’ is easy

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1937 Plymouth
1937 Plymouth

I must have been about 10 years old month when in late June Mom, Dad and I were on our long drive to visit cousins in Arizona. You’d think that ’37 Plymouth two-door wouldn’t make it to the next state.

Anyway, in route we stopped in Tennessee to spend a few days with relatives of one of Mom’s best friends back in Defiance, Ohio. I recall going for a walk by myself near the Fite’s family farmhouse when I came upon a pond, not even big enough to call a small lake.

It was a busy pond, edged with cattails and ripples left in the wake of small fish jumping for bugs on the surface. The song that came to mind then was the old ballad, “Summertime.” Here I am more than 60 years later, and that tune runs through my mind.

When it’s warm these days, you can find me on our back porch, reading or making notes.

The scene I look out on is our half-acre hill. A stone-covered path leads the garden house where the first owner, a surgeon, is said to have studied his surgeries. These warm days the yellow, violent flowers and dark red plants and large rocks line the path.

At the top of the hill sits a bird feeder, one of several that stand in various spots closer to the back porch. This serene view nicely calms my spirits. News from abroad reminds me of the stories I used to comment on for the morning paper here.

As always, the U.S. Supreme Court’s term has just ended. Most notably, the court has declared gay marriage in all 50 states. Some Republicans are talking about pushing for a constitutional amendment to nullify the court’s ruling. I predict this move will soon fizzle and be forgotten.

But the court did uphold the use by the state of Oklahoma of a certain lethal injection, which in some executions has caused the prisoner great suffering before he died.

I still fail to grasp the rationale for about half the states to execute some prisoners. Years ago, a Supreme Court justice declared that the death penalty was broken, unfixable. Still, some states will continue to spend the millions of dollars to take the life of one person – even in a few cases where the person’s guilt remained in doubt.

I suppose it’s just a coincidence that states that still “tinker with the machinery of death” have the highest murder rates. Just a coincidence. I guess the country will have to leave the death penalty debate for another season.

Here in Fort Wayne, the flood waters from our three rivers have receded. Most everybody’s electricity has been restored. But all that rain we’ve had recently has granted us the most green and lush yards. It’s so easy on the eye.

Meantime, today is my last day wearing a boot to give my injured heel a chance to heal. Next week I see the podiatrist and hear what the next phase will be in my recovery.

Despite the heel pain and the frustration not being able to jog, we’ve gone ahead to plan our Alaska vacation at summer’s end. That happy interlude gives me something to look forward to. Indeed, it’s an adventure to get excited about.

Mark Twain said that travel is the enemy of prejudice. My world travels have certainly demolished my pre-conceptions and notions of what other people are all about.

So as the rest of the season unfolds, I’ll lounge comfortably on our back porch, watch the birds fuss among themselves at the feeders and know that sooner or later, I’ll be back jogging in nearby Foster Park.

Yes, it’s the good old summertime and “the livin is easy.” Indeed.

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Sentimental journey

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leavesIt was strolling in the northwestern Indiana woods when I found myself thinking of Robert Frost’s line, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…but I have promises to keep.”

Now the Indiana woods lining a small lake wasn’t what my favorite Poet Laureate had in mind. Besides, he was witnessing this New Hampshire woods filling up with snow. My wife Toni and I were just waiting to eat breakfast at our favorite B&B, the Grey Goose Inn. Hardly any snow yet. Lots of red and gold leaves. It was mid-October.

What we did have in common with Frost was the woodsy interlude, the break from the routine, the desire to just stick around. It sounds like he was on his way home. For us, it was the last day of our four-day vacation, two days first in Chicago, then a couple in the Indiana town of Chesterton.

Our little out-of-town adventure not only proved to be a fun tonic, relaxing and interesting, especially at the antique book store in Chesterton. Like all my trips away from home, this one gave me the perfect chance to reflect on my life.

You don’t have to be dedicated introspectionist to benefit from pausing to think about your goals, habits you’d like to break, other trips you’d enjoy or relationships you’d like to improve or restore.

Mark Twain used to say that travel was the enemy of prejudice. I had that quote on a T-shirt I once owned. For an example of Twain’s axiom, consider the French philosopher Montaigne, 16th Century. He led a caravan through Italy. Throughout, he encountered different lifestyles. Yet he learned to enjoy local cuisine. He took note of habits that appeared strange to him. But he didn’t judge. That’s the ticket.

I’m not sure Twain’s observation always proves true. For Montaigne, travel did open doors and break down barriers. But what about those young men who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center’s twin towers?

All these guys from the Mideast lived in the United States for some months to train to fly these big planes. Exposure to Americans apparently didn’t disabuse them of their anti-Western prejudices. I’m reminded of the song from South Pacific: “You must be carefully taught to hate.” Tragically, there are parts of the world where you’ve been tutored all your life in hate. You’ve got a lot of lessons to unlearn.

Still, let’s say you visit other places, U.S. cities, vacation spots such as Key West or faraway countries such as Poland or Lebanon as I’ve done. Let’s say you keep an open mind. Let’s say you’re just curious. Let’s say you just like to meet new people. Then I bet you’ll find yourself feeling kindly toward those you’ve met far from home.

I’ve found foreigners, even those who speak only a phrase or two of English, eager to help you find the cathedral or the art museum you’ve walked from your hotel to visit. I’m living proof an American can get by with one year of Spanish 60 years ago, two years of Hebrew nearly that far back and only a greeting or farewell in French.

I should patent my discovery. It’s this: Printed in the human genome is the desire to straighten out a poor, lost traveler. It works this way. I just introduce myself by announcing that I’m in need of help, whether it’s for directions or an explanation of some local custom. I’m then sent off to my destination or told why the election in that country takes several days.

Once, with my strategy in mind, I got directions at the hotel desk. Then I helped a local cabdriver in Tel Aviv find an apartment building. I was headed there to interview a couple with infant quadruplets. Now that was something to write about!

My strategy ordering in restaurants is simple. I get the best advice from the waiter or waitress:

“What do most local people order?”

“What never gets sent back to the kitchen?”

“What’s your favorite dish here?”

For a journalist like myself, though long retired, asking questions just comes naturally. Often, the question is out of my mouth before I’ve realized that I’ve known the answer all along. The trick, though, is simply to forget about yourself and focus on the other person.

Like the old TV detective Columbo, asking questions when you’re traveling carries a big payoff.

Here I am, barely a day after getting home. Believe or not, I’m not feeling worn out. Rather, I’m energized from our trip, ready to take on the world.

So my advice is this. As often as you can. Open your mind. Open your heart. Get out of the old rut. Then hit the road.

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Don’t eat your heart out

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scaleMy cousin Ken’s daughter Beth told me she had lost a bunch of weight by following my advice.

Beth lives in North Carolina but she was home in Indiana for a grandmother’s funeral. That grandmother was on her mother’s side of the family.

What Beth was referring to was a brief column I had written for the paper about how to lose weight. Her dad had sent him a copy. My method surely was too simple and easy to remember to end up in a book or launch me on a high-paying lecture tour.

I don’t recall what prompted me to write what amounted to a personal advice column. My topics usually were about political and social issues. I’m reasonably sure that I had recently lost some unwanted weight. Here I was playing diet doctor. I don’t even have a college degree in one of the sciences.

As I said, my weight-loss strategy is simple: Just don’t clean your plate. That’s it. Don’t clean your plate at any meal. Ever. Now there must be hundreds of diet and weight-loss books. Many are written by licensed physicians and diet experts. They’ll prescribe foods, exercise and everything else except how to hold your fork.

At Barnes & Noble’s two stores in our city, entire sections are devoted to the subject. Of course, you can’t sell a book if it only contains one or two sentences like my diet plan. There’s more here. I mentioned the cottage industry of diet books. Besides these, there must be hundreds of people who offer seminars and lecture on weight loss. Your family doctor will give you a brochure.

No doubt a few people follow the advice in the diet books. They slim down. They can buy pants a couple of waist sizes smaller. Or they leave the lectures and manage to lose. Weight Watchers seems to be fairly successful. Likewise, a related industry promotes diet pills and other products, such as the popular Slim-Fast.

All these products and the experts, some with impressive credentials, constitute a huge business in this country. One of the main reasons for this is obvious. Most adult Americans are overweight. It’s like three-fourths, I just read in a medical report. Many of these folk are conspicuously obese.

Maybe most would like to lose weight. They really would, which helps account for the growth of the diet and weight-loss industry.

I should mention the small minority of overweight people who shell out thousands of dollars for bariatric surgery. How’s that for motivation! I understand this surgery reduces the size of a person’s stomach. So the patient loses weight because he or she isn’t able to eat as much food without feeling terribly uncomfortable.

Mark Twain said he found it easy to quit smoking. He had done it a thousand times. Lots of dieters would say the same. Moreover, many understand that trimming down isn’t just a matter of getting into one’s clothes comfortably. It’s a matter of protecting one’s health. Excess weight exposes a person to heart disease and cancer. It likely shortens a person’s life.

An important part of weight loss remains physical activity. I’m sure one of the main reasons I’m reasonably thin is that I walk or jog about five miles a day. I also do pushups and crunches and other moves to keep me fairly limber at age 76. Yet I can’t prescribe my regimen and diet for every adult. All I can say is that it seems to work for me. I don’t judge those persons who appear to be overweight.

As Pope Francis said in another context, “Who am I to judge?” Or, as Philo of Alexandria said centuries ago, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.” Indeed, in this country staying at a healthy weight is a great battle.

So much conspires to make Americans overweight, from fast food restaurants to the high-calorie, high-fat products in the supermarkets. The advertisers don’t exactly fight fair. They can make people in TV commercials eating Big Macs or pancakes look not only trim and handsome but happy. I mostly avoid such ads by rarely watching commercial television.

I haven’t been in touch with my cousin Beth for some years. So I can’t report that she has kept off the weight my little column inspired her to lose. Even my own weight-loss strategy has its limits. My wife Toni is a terrific cook. Like most people, I love to eat. I particularly love sweets.

One thing I don’t eat is red meat. Researchers associate that with clogged arteries and various diseases. Beyond that, I weigh myself daily when I step out of the shower. If I see my weight creeping up, I try to remember to adjust how much I eat the following few days. Sure enough, my weight will inch downward. It’s a good feeling being in control.

I can’t prevent the terrorist attacks in Iraq, even gang-related shootings in my own city. I can’t stop the spread of a highly infectious disease such as Ebola that’s already claimed thousands of lives in east Africa. I can’t keep voters from electing stupid, self-serving people to state and national office. But I do get to choose what I eat. And what I can say “no” to. It’s a powerful tonic. Powerful.

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