Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aging Vets' Costs Concern Obama's Deficit Co-chair

I just read this article on yahoo news. The original article was posted by AP. The gist of the piece was that former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of President Barack Obama's deficit commission, expressed "concern" that "the system that automatically awards disability benefits to some veterans because of concerns about Agent Orange seems contrary to efforts to control federal spending." (How's that for a jumbled mess of a quote?) The article further quoted Simpson as saying "the irony (is) that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess."

I've got a few issues with Simpson's comments. Let me start by acknowledging that Simpson is an Army veteran, according to the article. The clip does not, however, say when he served, or if he saw any action. I suppose that this is supposed to give his words a bit of additional weight, but in my book, it demonstrates that his loyalty is with politicians, not with veterans.

Based on what I see, the public voicing of this "concern" is merely a first step in cutting expenditures for VA benefits. I'm not wild about this idea. As I say this, I need to remind my readers that I have served two combat tours during my enlistment in the U.S. Marines. (Bear in mind that I was "in the rear with the gear," not a true front-line grunt.) I am fortunate to have suffered no long-term effects from my time in the Persian Gulf, but not all of us are so lucky. Simpson's words concern me greatly, not for my own sake, but for the sake of my fellow veterans.

What concerns me even more is the fact that a great many of the Vietnam Veterans who receive these benefits were drafted. They didn't join the military by their own free will. Our country told them that they had to go overseas and fight for the American way, and now the government is insinuating that it costs too much to support these veterans? What kind of precedent does this set for our current military personnel, and those who will serve in the future?

Furthermore, it's the government who set up automatic disability for veterans exposed to agent orange. How is it the veterans' fault that "we're spending too much" in benefits? But I think what chaps my hide most is Simpson's insinuation that veterans, who literally put their lives on the line at our government's request, are somehow once again required to take the front line in controlling "this fiscal mess."

No, wait. There's something that chaps my hide even more. A politician is talking about sacrifice. The guy who's talking about controlling spending is a former senator... and politicians have one of the greatest sweetheart deals in the world when it comes to "retirement" benefits.

Hey Simpson, if you want to give your words some credibility, why don't you go without your entitlements? Or better yet, get your buddies to make the entire congress cut back on their benefits?

Please don't get me wrong. I think it's long past time for ALL OF US to tighten our belts. We need to raise taxes AND cut benefits across the board. If veterans' benefits get cut in the mix, I guess that's a necessary evil. But, in my humble opinion, veterans should be among the last who are asked to sacrifice their entitlements. Veterans are among a small group of individuals who literally put their lives on the line for our country. That sacrifice deserves some consideration.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pong... Ping...

Sunny and Paulius made comments on my last post that sort of ask me to do a bit of follow-up. My last post was a bit of a ramble, but to summarize it, I essentially said that my generation, and the generation of my kids is a lot softer than my grandparents' generation. I stand by my comment, but I'd like to clarify the statement a bit, so that everyone has a better understanding of my point of view.

First and foremost, I should say that I'm speaking on the aggregate. I understand very well that society has a lot of poor people who can't afford the luxuries our culture at large takes for granted... air conditioning, Cable TV, cell phones, and automobiles. But at the same time, I will refer to a comment that Sunny and Paulius made one of their podcasts... "Even hobos have cell phones." So yeah, people DO go without common accommodations in our society, but when the homeless have access to cell phones, it's certainly arguable that our society's standard of living is significantly higher than the highest standard of living of our ancestors... which is a nice segue into my main argument that we as a society, specifically our generation, is far softer than our forefathers.

Let me bring up another point. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe that it was Paulius who pointed out in one of his blog posts that many people don't know where their food comes from. There is a serious disconnect between the farm and the table. Consumers go to the store, purchase and prepare their beef, dairy, grain and vegetables without having a clue where these items came from. Many city dwellers are completely unaware that hamburger comes from a cow, that pasta comes from grain, and that cheese originated in milk-producing animals. Furthermore, if our society was actually required to hunt and gather food for our survival, I believe that a majority of us would perish.

Furthermore, Paulius mentioned that our grandparents were frugal and went without because they had to. This also underscores my point. They had to do without. Modern society, on the whole, really doesn't know what it's like to do without. We don't understand what it's like to wonder where we'll get our next meal. (This is a reference to the Depression.) We can't fathom recycling rubber and rationing sugar because our greater way of life is at stake. (A reference to WWII.) In fact, we are so averse to the prospect of denying ourselves our creature comforts that we are willing to increase our federal debt, forcing future generations to pay our bills. I understand Paulius' argument that the availability of technology doesn't make us soft, and I can see Sunny's point that some of us aren't affluent enough to afford a lot of our modern conveniences, but this doesn't negate my position. In fact, I agree, to an extent, with Paulius when he said that we started going soft many, many generations ago. (This is my interpretation of his overall point, not something he specifically said.)

Where my opinion diverges though, is when I think about the sacrifices that generations before made to make my country... my world... a better place. The American war for independence... the Civil War (aka the War Between the States, for you southern-types), WWI, WWII. During each of these times, our people made huge sacrifices for our way of life. Could you imagine a draft in today's society? There's no way it would work, because most parents are not willing to sacrifice their children. Indeed, most of these same children would not sacrifice themselves. Rationing? Yeah right. We'll simply borrow more money to buy what we need, and pass the bill to our decedents. Learn to hunt our own food? Oh no, that's just gross! Raise our own food? That would require us to spend time on our hands and knees, in the hot sun.

THAT.... is why I think we are soft. It's not because we have conveniences and creature comforts that our ancestors lacked. It's because we have become so self-absorbed that we are unwilling, or unable, to think of the bigger picture. It's because we are so accustomed to our way of life that if we had to REALLY fend for ourselves... provide our own food, clothing and shelter... that many -- nay, most -- of us would perish. THAT is why I say we're soft. And, by the way, I know how to provide for myself better than a huge majority of people. But even I am not 100% certain that I could keep my family alive. So when I say that we're soft, I'm including myself in that statement.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Yesterday, I helped my dad with the task of cleaning out my uncle's house, following my uncle's death. This house is in the town where I grew up... the town where my parents still live. It's the house where my dad grew up, and I have a lot of memories of this place... visiting with Grandma and my uncle.

Hoarding seems to be a proud tradition in my family. My parents do it, my grandmother did it, and my uncle did it. This makes sense. My grandparents were adults during the Great Depression. Between the Depression and World War II, my grandparents understood first hand what it meant to make do with what you had, and to go without. Their years of sacrifice had a tremendous impact on ... well, on everything they did.

My grandmother saved everything. She was the original recycler - and far better at it than we are today. She wrote her grocery lists on the back sides of cereal boxes. She kept used bread wrappers and transformed them into woven seat cushions (Shown in this picture). She started cutting paper towels into thirds long before the manufacturers picked up on the idea of half-sheets. Even twist ties were kept, because "you never know when you might need one."

My uncle inherited these habits. Now at this point, I've got to digress a bit. You see, my uncle effectively lived with my grandparents for his entire life. He was in Germany during a two-year Army enlistment shortly after WWII, and he played minor league baseball in 1949 and 1950, but aside from those four years, he lived at home. He never married, and for as long as I've known him, he never had a job.

Well, that's not quite true. His job was to help take care of my grandparents. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and had several strokes. My only memories of my granddad were essentially of an infant in an old man's body. He could say a few slurred words, and could walk with a little help, but that was about the extent of his ability. My grandmother was a shut-in. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw her out of her house.

When my grandparents died, my uncle got everything... the house, any money, and the hoarding instinct. He picked up where my grandparents left off, with his own twist. He loved gardening, so he raised a lot of his own food, and unlike my grandmother, he would leave the house. He used to ride his bicycle all over town, and would pick up just about any little treasure he found. The house was full of mismatched gloves, lug nuts, tire balancing weights and other tidbits he found when riding around town.

Yesterday, while I helped my dad clean out the house, I saw the results of two generations worth of hoarding. We threw out two old sofas, two old televisions, three old living room chairs, and several hefty bags of trash. Among the items I tossed...

-Hundreds of twist ties. Enough that I couldn't fit them all into my hand.

-A stack of plastic food containers approximately three feet high. This isn't counting the lids... all of these items were interlocked.

-A hundred or so plastic forks, knives and spoons from Dairy Queen, Wendy's and so forth.

-A stack of tin can lids (yes, the LIDS) approximately six inches high.

-Dozens of tin cans of various sizes

-Hundreds of Kraft Singles cheese wrappers.

The list of crazy shit goes on and on, and I really didn't make much of a dent in my quest to help dad clean out the house. While I was cleaning, a few thoughts went through my head...

-How can anyone live like this?

-All of this stuff... two generations and literally a house full of stuff... the total accumulation of many lives... and it will all be reduced to a few select mementos for my uncle's surviving relatives. The rest will end up in the dump. Even the house will most likely be demolished, and the empty lot sold to someone else.

-But mostly, I was amazed at the frugality and ingenuity of my grandparents and uncle. They used scraps of newspaper, cardboard and scrap clothing to seal drafty windows. They ate canned meat because it didn't require refrigeration. They never had cable TV. The only real indulgence my uncle allowed himself was his art. He was a very accomplished painter. I got one of his oil paintings while I was helping my dad clean out the house, which is what you see here.

I look at how they lived, and I compare them to my generation, and my kids' generation. We're so soft. We don't understand what it's like to do without. If we need want something, we simply go out and get it. When we're done with things, we simply throw them away. If it's hot, we sit in the air-conditioned living room and watch Blu-Ray Movies on our HDTVs. If it's cold, we don't put on a sweater, we turn up the heat. I actually brought home the aforementioned bread-wrapper seat cushion... to remind myself of the sacrifices of those who came before us, and maybe to instill this into my kids.

My uncle was one of the last relics of a generation that understood sacrifice and ingenuity. I look at the people of his era, compare them to my generation, and stand in awe of them, and with a bit of contempt for my peers. I can't picture us being able to live without our cell phones, fashionable shoes and computers. When I compare us to them, it's like putting a bunch of marshmallows against an oak. Tom Brokaw had it right... these folks really were the greatest generation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Funerals are for the Living

We laid my uncle to rest yesterday. It was a good funeral. The morticians did an awesome job of preparing the body. More people showed than I expected. It was a warm, but not hot summer day. After the funeral, the extended family went out for lunch. There were twelve of us all together. Many of us hadn't seen one-another for over a decade, but we instantly fell into a rhythm which had us laughing and joking with one-another as if it had been minutes since seeing each other, not years. We celebrated my uncle's life, caught up with others, and we were all enriched for the experience. I hope that another funeral is not required for us to get together again.

By the way, it turns out that my uncle and grandparents are interred next to a childhood friend's parents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Do It Yourself

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a do-it-yourselfer. I enjoy troubleshooting a problem, finding a solution and implementing a fix. I like the of fixing things, and I find joy in the outcome. In fact, it's kind of therapeutic for me to fix things when I'm stressed.

Over the last few weeks... maybe months... I've noticed that the engine in my truck has been surging. It started with just a little bit of fluctuation at idle. Over time, the fluctuation grew, and it started happening while driving down the road. It wasn't unsafe in and of itself, but after a while the truck started shifting into overdrive while highway driving on the smallest of inclines, and quite frankly, the ride became rough and annoying.

Today, I did a little bit of self-therapy and fixed the problem. It was a simple, inexpensive fix that just about anyone can do in their own garage. The rest of this post is going to be dedicated to helping other do-it-yourselfers. If you don't fit into this category, you may as well stop reading.

And of course, since we are a land full of lawsuit-happy attorneys and money-grubbers, I will throw in this disclaimer: What I'm doing here is simply telling you about my experience. If you ended up here because you were researching the problem I will discuss below, feel free to use my experience, but do so at your own risk. I'm not your mechanic, and I make no guarantees about your specific outcome if you try what I did.

Anyway, here's the scoop... I have a 2002 Dodge Dakota with a 4.7L V8. As I mentioned above, I've been having problems with engine surge. Research told me that there were a few things to try. And since they were all closely related, I took an and-all approach and did three different things at the same time.

1) I cleaned the Throttle Body
2)I replaced the Throttle Position Sensor (TPS)
3)I reset the Powertrain Control Module (PCM)

I'll give a brief overview of how this is done. Again, this is a guideline, not a step-by-step tutorial.

-In order to clean the throttle body, I needed to remove the black plastic shroud in front of the throttle body. This is VERY easy. There is a hose between the air cleaner shroud and the throttle body shroud. (These are my terms, not necessarily the manufacturer's.) At each end of the hose, there is a hose clamp. Loosen the hose clamps and remove the hose connecting the shrouds.

-Loosen the hose clamp on the back end of the throttle body shroud.

-Remove the two screws that hold the throttle body shroud to the intake, and gently remove the throttle body shroud.

-Inspect and clean the throttle body with throttle body cleaner. (For those of you familiar with carburetors, the throttle body looks like a giant one-barrel carb, and throttle body cleaner is similar to carb cleaner.) Caution: throttle body cleaner will damage plastic and paint. Follow their directions. (In my case the throttle body was surprisingly clean, but I cleaned it anyway.)

-Remove and replace the TPS. On the right side of the throttle body, there were two sensors. The TPS is the upper sensor. Pay attention to the reinstallation of the sensor. You need to line up the tines on the sensor with the mechanical end of the throttle body. (This sounds a bit convoluted now, but it will make sense when you do the replacement.)

-Reset the PCM. Unplug the negative battery terminal. Put your key into the ignition, and pretend like you're starting the truck for about 30 seconds. This will reset the PCM. This is necessary when you repair or replace electronic devices in the vehicle.

In my case, I am fairly certain that the TPS was the trick. But like I said, since I had the shroud off, I went ahead and cleaned the throttle body, and resetting the PCM was necessary following the replacement of the TPS.

After doing this work, I took the truck on a quick test drive - about 20 miles, both in-town and highway driving, and the problem appears to be 100% fixed.

I hope this helps someone else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes, it's not too Late. Other Times, it Is.

I'm sitting in hospice right now, watching my uncle "resting comfortably." It's apparent to me that he's having difficulty breathing, and I know that any breath could be his last. From what I've been told, he's got "everything." His heart is failing... they say it's operating at about 5% efficiency. His kidneys are failing. And they suspect that he has late-stage cancer, but there's no sense in opening him up to find out.

This is going to be a flashback post. I'm going to rewind God-Only-Knows how far. I guess that I should start in my childhood. On both sides of my family, we've been what you could conservatively call loose-knit. My parents live two hours away, and I see them a couple of times per year. My brothers each live four hours from me. One brother I see once or twice per year, and the other I haven's seen in about five years. I haven't seen most of my aunts, uncles and cousins in about a decade.

I know that there's no excuse for this. But I also guess that we're all happy with the way things are. We're all involved enough in our own lives that nobody is willing to call us all together. Another thing we've got going against us is that a lot of us hold grudges. My dad and my uncle (the one I'm watching now) didn't speak to one-another for years. They finally buried the hatchet over the last couple of days, before my uncle's condition deteriorated to where it is now.

I too haven't seen my uncle for I-don't-know-how-long. This had nothing to do with the dad-uncle feud. In my case, it's because I didn't make enough effort to visit an uncle who never left the house.

During my two-hour drive, I wondered a lot of things... Would I make it? What would I say? Would he be coherent enough for us to have a conversation? Would he be angry with me for waiting so long? Was I going for him? For me? For my dad? None of it really mattered. We're all family, and my place was in the hospice room.

My aunt and one of my cousins were here. I kept thinking what I'd be saying if I were in the bed instead of my uncle. "Well, geez, if I knew that it was this easy to get the family together, I'd have done it years ago."

The catching up is mostly done. Now it's just my uncle, my dad and me. My uncle is still sleeping peacefully. I am writing in bits and pieces... in between my dad and I telling stories.

I stepped out a while ago and grabbed a burger. I figured that while I was out, I'd look up Lisa, and old friend of mine. I've known Lisa for over fifteen years. I talked to her a lot when I was going through my divorce. I suspect that was a bit tough for her, because she stayed friends with the ex too. Anyway, when I started dating again, Lisa and my now-wife had a disagreement, which caused a fall out between Lisa and me.

A few months back, Lisa called. We caught up. I thought things were good. Fast-forward back to tonight. I figured I'd call and or drop by while I'm in town. She hung up on me. I'm not sure what I did, but that's not important.

Sometimes, it's not too late. Other times, it is.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Visiting With an Old Friend

Sorry for the long gap between posts... I'll say once again that life in 3D-Land is keeping me away from my virtual life. Oh wait. I guess I'm not sorry. I kind of enjoy my real life. Anyway...

During my trip to Florida, I had a chance to see an old friend. And when I say "old," I really mean that he's a long-standing friend, even though he's four or five years my senior.

When I was in the Marine Corps, almost 20 years ago, Adam and I were tighter than that glove on OJ Simpson's hand. Anyone who's been in the military can attest that friends from the service are as close as family. For me, Adam is a grand illustration of how these friendships stand the test of time. When we were in the Corps, we constantly hung out together. He was the best man at my first wedding, and he's my older daughter's godfather. With the passage of time, we've drifted apart to some extent, but even 20 years and 1500 miles fail to diminish my fondness for this guy.

Fast forward to the present. You know how the story goes... you get invested in your day-to-day living. The phone calls become less and less frequent. Your friendship gets reduced to occasional emails, and Christmas cards. (The cards are from him. I've never been good at sending Seasonal greetings.) But deep down, the friendship has never really faded. You think of the friend occasionally, and you honestly want to visit and catch up, but again, life doesn't allow it.

To put the time line in perspective, Adam left the Marine Corps in 1991, but he stayed in the area, so we kept in touch. My enlistment ended in 1992, and I moved back to Iowa in 1993. He decided to move back home in 1994 I believe, and Iowa was on his way back home, so I saw him then. We didn't see each other again until 2004, when he got married, and I saw him again in 2005, when I remarried.

Each time we saw one another, we spent the first few minutes catching up on what had happened since our last visit, but essentially, it was as if no time had passed... we always picked up where we left off. This, in my opinion, is one of the hallmarks of true friendship... a friendship that stands the test of time.

Well, it just so happens that Adam lives in Florida... a few hours south of Orlando. Fortunately, he was able to stop in Orlando, and we had a chance to catch up. In fact, we had an entire day! We met up mid-morning, where he joined my extended family-in-law for lunch, and agreed to tag along on our planned trip to Epcot. I must say, my family was awesome. Though I hadn't seen a lot of them for a long time -- and had met some of them for the first time -- everyone intuitively seemed to understand that catching up with Adam was very important to me. Adam and I tended to lag a little behind the main group, which gave us a chance to have some semi-private conversations, and reminisce without boring everyone else to tears.

We spent a LOT of time talking about days gone by, revisiting some of our favorite times together, but we both seemed to be firmly rooted in the here and now. We discussed how the Marine Corps really is a a brotherhood that never dies... something I think we both failed to thoroughly realize when we were on active duty. I think the highlight, for me, was when we visited Japan at Epcot.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Epcot, there's a feature called World Showcase that has highlights of various countries. Adam and I had both visited Okinawa during our enlistment, and we looked forward to seeing what Epcot had to offer. The one thing in Japan that I had looked most forward to seeing was an authentic Japanese cork carving. When I was in Okinawa, I was stunned by the detail of these Japanese handmade works of art. One of my regrets is that I never picked one up when I had the chance.

Anyway, while we were at the Japanese area of Epcot, I looked for these cork carvings, but none were to be found. I told Adam that I was a bit disappointed by this. He replied that he was thinking the same thing, and then proceeded to tell me that while he was in Okinawa, he had purchased a coffee table that was a Japanese cork carving with a glass top, He was studying it a few days before our visit, and noticed something that he'd never seen before, despite owning the table for over 20 years. We marveled at the detail of these spectacular works of art, and that cemented my impression that despite the passage of time, we were still in sync as if we'd been separated by days, not years.

We had a full day of catch-up. It was great. I was gratified that we got to visit. I know that it will once again be a long time before we see each other again, but I am thankful for the time we had.