The Snow Alien

We got more snow last night. Our neighbor really helped us out and cleaned up our driveway and more with his snowblower! Sena joked with him, “You don’t have to do that, we’re shovel people!”

I guess because we had a little less shoveling to do, thanks to our neighbor, Sena got inspired to build a—snow alien. Not a snow man but a Snow alien. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it has something to do with me watching Men in Black movies every other week.

I got the camera out. A couple of the neighbors who were out shoveling noticed her. I tried to act casual. I even helped—a little. We didn’t have any coals for eyes, no hat, no scarf, and she settled for a few shrub branches.

A new winter tradition begins—the Snow Alien.

Time Travel Thoughts

I’ve been bugged by a quote bouncing around in my head for the last few days: “The second hand always moves forward.”

I think a head coach for a college basketball team said that several times in the heat of the last period of a game (maybe March Madness, I don’t know) about 8 or so years ago. I’m not sure why I’m preoccupied by this lately. I googled the statement “The second hand always moves forward” and could only find stories which tended to contradict it, at least when it comes to actual clocks.

Sometimes second hands don’t always move forward. Sometimes they get stuck or even tick backward. I’ve never heard of that.

That led to thoughts about my own experience of time and how it has changed over the last several months since I retired. I often sense time moving faster forward than I’d like. I guess that makes some sense because I’m not getting any younger. I think of a TV commercial which uses a song sung in French. I finally looked it up on the internet and it turns out the tune was originally done by Edith Piaf. In English, the title of the song is “No Regrets.”

I have some regrets and I marvel at anyone who doesn’t. But I never get a sense of time moving backward.

Anyhow, this led to wondering about time itself, specifically about time travel, which makes sense in the context of regrets. I don’t wallow in regret but like anybody I occasionally wonder what it would be like if I could time travel back into the past and do things differently.

Time travel is a confusing subject and I don’t understand any of the physics behind it. The paradoxes of time travel are interesting, though. I read a few articles on line about them. One entitled “5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel Explained” by Peter Christoforu on the web site Astronomy Trek made the subject fun and somewhat more accessible to me.

I thought about the time travel element in the movie Men in Black 3. Agent J travels back in time to kill the young Boris the Animal before the older Boris can kill Agent K and lead an invasion of earth in the future. If I understand Christoforu correctly, this might be an example of the Let’s Kill Hitler Paradox. If Agent J is successful, then he wouldn’t have a reason to return to the past in the first place. But Men in Black 3 probably treats the time travel idea in a farcical way, just like its farcical treatment of the whole idea of aliens.

Christoforu described a story which rang a bell. It’s toward the end of the article under the section heading “Are Time Paradoxes Inevitable?” The story is about a paleontologist who time travels back to the dinosaur era to shoot pictures of the giant reptiles. He doesn’t take any samples because it would likely alter the future. When the scientist returns to his own time, everything has changed. There are no humans and the world is wild. He can’t understand why until he looks at the bottom of his shoe, on which there is a crushed butterfly.

The reason this interested me is that there is a very similar story, published in 1952 by Ray Bradbury, entitled “A Sound of Thunder.” It was about a big game hunter who hired a safari company guide who used a time travel device to carry them back to the days of dinosaurs. Before departing, items in the agency displayed signs in English with typical English spelling. The hunter, although he was allowed to try to kill a dinosaur, was told not to touch anything else. However, on return, the agency was different. The signs showed dramatically different spelling, not typical English at all. On the bottom of the hunter’s shoe was a dead butterfly.

Anyway, I gather the main idea, according to Christoforu, rests on something called the Butterfly Effect, in which trivial changes can cause dramatic upheaval over the course of history.

I saw this on TV as well, maybe it was The Ray Bradbury Theater. That aired in 1989. It was made into a film in 2005, which did poorly and which I didn’t see.

The point is that you can do a lot of harm by interfering, even a little bit, with the past. Maybe it’s not so bad being without a time machine and believing that the second hand always moves forward.

Dave the Handyman vs Ceiling Lights

David Sheldahl is a local handyman who has fixed a lot of things around our house. A couple days ago he installed a lot of new ceiling lights. The old ones were complicated enough that I stopped trying after breaking a couple of the junction boxes.

When it comes to handyman chores, I have a strict policy. First I carefully explain to Sena that I live a double life and when I’m not playing a retired psychiatrist, I’m one of the Men in Black and I’m likely to get paged to an intergalactic emergency involving absolute herds of zombified alien, one-eyed giant turkeys who have rocketed here across billions of light years and a wormhole vortex to renew their spaceship licenses at the only planet with DMVs in the universe and that I’m in charge of controlling disagreements over the inevitable dozens of suspended licenses because, let’s face it, just look at all the cases of crashed UFOs, they obviously can’t drive.

That never works because my neuralyzer is always clogged with pizza sauce. Then, my next recourse is to run away, although I usually just call Dave to help with yet another handyman job. If that running away doesn’t work, I often blunder in some fantastically improbable way and have to go to the Emergency Room to get sutures or casted. Just ask my wife.

Dave installed 5 ceiling lights in one day. He has the right tools for the right job. He even used a what resembled a coat hanger wire to hang on to the light fixture so he could keep his hands free to use his tools.

Dave has done several jobs for us. The first thing he did was to replace our crooked mailbox shortly after we moved in to our house. It was very hot that day and I felt bad for him. He did an excellent job. He installed outdoor lights, under the cabinet lights, fixed our patio door—he is mainly a self-taught jack-of-all trades, very professional, and reliable. He also has a pretty good sense of humor.

He doesn’t round up zombified alien turkeys or do roofing.

Kindness Alert: Snowblower People and Shovel People Unite

We got walloped by that blizzard I mentioned yesterday. It left about 5-8 inches at least with a gift mountain about waist high on one side of our driveway left by one of the city plows. Later in the day another plow gifted us another driveway plug, not as tall but wetter and heavier.

This morning we shoveled hard and it must have showed. Three of our neighbors came over with their snow blowers to help dig us out. We were very grateful for their kindness. One of them must have been up before 5 AM to get started. Another powered her way through a good chunk of our driveway. Yet a third neighbor helped clear the gift mountain and more.

I think I may have got in the way a few times because I felt a little guilty about them doing so much work with their machines. I felt compelled to sneak in and scoop something because I felt terrible just standing there watching them.

In the afternoon we had to get back outside to clear the second driveway plug left by the second city plow. Our driveway had drifted in about to my hips. It took us a while to dig out.

Some have speculated about whether shovel people take unfair advantage of the generosity of snow blower people. After all, we tend to look kind of pathetic, so they probably take pity on us.

There might be an expectation in some neighborhoods for snow blower people to contribute to the community by being willing to go the extra mile and clear driveways for shovel people. I could find only one serious article on the internet about this, “Is There a Social Code for Snow Removal?” on the Scientific American web site.

I’ve not heard of shovel people coming to help snow blower people, but it happened this afternoon. After Sena and I cleared our snowdrifts, we visited the three neighbors who helped us this morning and scooped out their driveway snow plugs and a little more when we could.

Thank You!

Cabinet Handle Switching for Those Who Crave Punishment

While we’re waiting for the snowstorm to hit today, we’re changing out bathroom cabinet drawer handles. This chore was probably invented by some satanic group. I would rather be shoveling snow, but the arrival of the blizzard keeps getting postponed later and later in the day.

You wouldn’t think changing drawer handles would be that tough, but then we didn’t plan on things like dummy front drawers. Why put dummy drawer fronts on a cabinet at all? Enter the chief dummy—me.

Putting handles on dummy drawers helps keep the appearance of the cabinet consistent. You can’t use them; they’re just for looks. I might add that it also makes changing drawer handles much more complicated. The screws securing the fake drawer handles are tucked away between the sink and the back of the cabinet. In fact, the fake drawer itself is secured to the back of the cabinet by a couple of satanic boards often screwed right on the back of the dummy drawer. It’s a very small space that makes using simple tools like standard screwdrivers impossible.

We had to buy Z-shaped screwdrivers we’ve never seen before. They’re called offset screwdrivers, made specifically for reaching screws in really awkward, cramped spaces. You have to make sure you measure the space between the obstruction and the screw. It turns out the length of the offset portion of the offset screw is not specified on the package or in on-line hardware store descriptions. They’re not all the same.

Offset screwdrivers

After bumping my elbows and knuckles a dozen times, Sena figured out how to simply remove the dummy drawer front. Remove the wood screw in the satanic board attaching the drawer to the back of the cabinet. There was only one screw per satanic board.

However, that worked only for a few of the handle screws. We still needed the offset screwdrivers to reach some of them which were cleverly placed right between the front of the sink and the back of the cabinet.

Another challenge is the disturbing frequency with which different size screws and variable-size screw holes in the drawers are used, giving the project a mix-and-match feel. Sometimes glue is a factor.

And there’s always at least one stubborn screw which won’t unscrew. This one baffled me and I was sure it was stripped. I went through the gauntlet of DIY tricks including sticking a rubber band on the screw, inserting the screwdriver and very slowly turning in the lefty loosey direction–which makes a pretty good impression of the screwdriver head in the rubber band. I also tried pliers, vice grips, and of course sprayed WD-40 liberally enough to step in it and track it all over the house. Sena was very pleased with this.

And then—Sena removed the screw in one second by simply screwing it all the way back in and unscrewing it all the way back out. She did not gloat.

It’s 2:00 PM and the first few snowflakes are starting to fly. We’re supposed to get 6-12 inches evidently, spaced out between this afternoon, tonight, and tomorrow. At this rate, it’ll be dark before there’s enough to scrape off the sidewalk.

But I would do it to go AWOL from drawer handle switching duty.

Silence Is Not Always Golden

I don’t know where the saying “silence is golden” came from but I suspect silence is sometimes not golden. I notice that The University of Iowa quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.  for MLK Human Rights Week is “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Although I could not find the exact words, that doesn’t mean it’s not written in one of his books or letters. I found a similar statement in one of his speeches which I think captures the sense of it:

In Dr. King’s, Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church, in section VI: A Plea to the White Community: “If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Pertinent here is a presentation given by University of Iowa Health Care psychologist and professor of psychiatry Dr. David Moser, PhD and medical student Destinee Gwee, entitled “Responding to Mistreatment.” One of the first bits of advice is to speak up if you see racism happening.

When I was a first-year resident on rotation in the inpatient psychiatric wards, one of the patients assigned to me roared at me “I don’t want no nigger doctor!” more than once. I discussed the issue with my supervisor. It was a difficult conversation. It was a long time ago and I recall mostly the sense that we both felt awkward. I asked that the patient, who clearly didn’t want anything to do with me, be transferred to the care of another resident. I don’t recall whether he offered to talk with the patient and he deferred on asking another trainee to take over the patient’s care. My recollection is dim about how I handled it. I suspect that’s because it was emotionally painful. Although I had to see him prior to rounds every day, I think I excused myself as soon as he spat the word “nigger” in my face—which was practically every day. I told him I didn’t’ have to tolerate that.

In that situation, the silence was deafening and certainly not golden. This kind of insulting scenario was not common, but it was not the only one.

I wasn’t exactly shocked. I was born and raised in Iowa. While Iowa historically has been more tolerant of African Americans, I grew up hearing the word “nigger” and was called that enough times to become pretty sensitive.

I had plenty of positive experiences over the course of my medical school and residency years. But they never erased the memory of that incident.

That’s why the approaches recommended by Dr. Moser and Destinee are so vital today.

“Bending the Arc Toward Equity and Social Justice”: MLK Lecture by Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA

Today, Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA delivered the Martin Luther King, Jr Distinguished Lecture. It led to a long discussion between me and Sena, which is a good sign that the presentation was superb.

I noticed that the title of the lecture sounded familiar. Dr. King said something very much like it in his speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”:

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Dr. King adapted the phrase from abolitionist Theodore Parker who thought the abolition of slavery would be successful and said:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Now that is according to a Wikipedia article, which was just edited today. Call it coincidental.

Sena mentioned to a couple of persons yesterday while out picking up groceries that we were planning to observe the MLK holiday by listening to the MLK Distinguished Lecture. Both of them were store employees. One of them was a white woman who said simply that she had to work, evidently meaning she would not be participating. The other was a young Black man who looked like he was in his twenties. He gave the same answer, simply saying that he had to work. Neither gave any indication that they even knew who Dr. King was.

We both think that was astonishing. It’s incredible to think that knowledge about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would belong mainly to those in my generation and older. It’s not like cribbage, a favorite two hander card game Sena and I enjoy, but which I’ve often seen described as being a game popular mainly among older people.

It was with this thought in mind as we listened to Dr. Reede’s presentation. The history of America is full of “firsts” for minorities: first ever to attend a white college, first ever to become a physician, and so on. But from there it seems extremely difficult to trace a clear path to full access to positions of authority, influence, and power in this country for anyone who is different from the mainstream. This is not news to any of us.

But Sena and I wondered at the apparent difficulty in recruiting and retaining leaders from the wider pool of humanity: people of different races, women, the LGBTQ community. There were no pat answers. Dr. Reede wondered aloud about how and where will we get more leaders like Dr. King? Will it be through crafting more well-conceived outreach programs? I wonder about that approach if the twenty-something young Black man Sena spoke with did not even seem aware of who MLK was. And if people like him are too busy working in order to just survive, how will they ever get the time to learn another way to live? And how will they learn how to lead? We’ll need more beacons like Dr. Reede—and maybe you and me.

I remember singing in Sunday School, “This Little Light of Mine.” Leaders like Dr. Reede are beacons who show us how to carry our lights. In fact, the title of an article describing something just like that is “This Little Light.” The subtitle is “2018 Dean’s Community Service Awards celebrate service to others.” Dr. Reede herself presented the awards to the recipients, who she described as people who “don’t only talk the talk, but walk the walk.” Her closing remarks at that ceremony was a reminder:

“Service comes in many forms, and one’s contributions need not be heroic or hugely financial in scope; it is about giving of your time, your talents, making a difference, and having an impact.”

MLK Human Rights Week Distinguished Lecture Jan 20, 2021: Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA

Dr. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MPH, MS, MBA is scheduled to deliver the Human Rights Week 2021: Distinguished Lecture on January 20, 2021 from noon to 1:00 PM. This is by Zoom because of the pandemic, a commonplace method nowadays. I’m registered for it so I hope Sena and I can zoom in.

Dr. Reede has a list of accomplishments as long as my arm. She’s the dean for diversity and community partnership and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She also holds appointments as professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and she is an assistant in health policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. The title of her lecture is “Bending the Arc Toward Equity and Social Justice: Addressing the Imperative.”

Dr. Reede’s life journey has been fascinating and she has had a lot of thought-provoking and inspiring things to say about how she got to where she is in her career and how to help others succeed. In her 2016 interview “Strictly Business—Women of Influence” she answered a question about how American could improve its standing in providing excellent health care to all people, she broadened the concept of what providing medical care means. In fact, health care doesn’t just happen in a clinician’s office. Many factors influence a person’s health and how they take care of themselves, including whether they are impoverished. Poverty inhibits access to food, education, and jobs and there can be unrealistic expectations about what disadvantaged people can do on their own about this lack. She said: “It’s having expectations of people to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ but not giving anybody any boots.”

That rang a bell and I found a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in which he said almost exactly the same thing in the broader context of addressing racial injustice:

“Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so, they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

And again, King said: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Both quotes are from “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” published in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The web says the bootstrapping idiom probably had its beginnings around the mid to late-19th century, in which it was clearly meant to express an absurdity. The image of someone trying to lift himself by the straps on the back of his boots shows it’s laughably impossible. The idea that you could lift yourself up without any outside help was mocked. However, over decades it evolved so that it somehow came to mean that you could succeed without any outside help—although with difficulty.


I think one way The University of Iowa College of Medicine tried to address the bootstrapping idea was to create the medical school summer enrichment program for minority students many years ago. I recall being one of a handful of minority students entering the summer enrichment program in 1988 at the University of Iowa. The summer enrichment opportunity was intended to be one way to assist minority students excel in the basic sciences courses that would be coming up in the upcoming regular academic year.

I have always appreciated that boost but not all of my peers saw it that way back then. Nowadays there is a well-established Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Looking forward to Dr. Reede’s presentation tomorrow!

Loving-Kindness Meditation in the Real World

Today is the first day of Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Week and I’m giving a shout-out for acts of kindness as well as the Loving-Kindness meditation. A neighbor with a snowblower helped clear our driveway a couple of weeks ago. A couple of days ago he did the same for his next-door neighbor. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate the city snowplow driver was kind enough to avoid plugging the driveways on our street. No kidding, we watched the snowplow use what was obviously a different plowing technique which left our driveways relatively clear of snow.

The Loving-Kindness meditation is a mindfulness practice that Dr. King would probably have supported. It’s a way to send love to yourself and others, including those with whom you might be in conflict—even your enemies. King might say, “Now is the time” for something like that.

I’m reestablishing my mindfulness and exercise practice after a several month lapse. I first took the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course several years ago through The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It made a difference in how I approached problem-solving and conflict. I was on autopilot most of the time and wrote a blog post about my experience before and after my mindfulness training experience, “How I left the walking dead for the walking dead meditation.”

Part of that program included instruction on the Loving-Kindness meditation. I’m still a beginner at mindfulness, although my approach to life is still ironically more like the expert’s in Shunryu Suzuki’s quote:

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”–Shunryu Suzuki

I need to keep working on being more open to different ideas, interpretations, and ways of getting things done—approaching challenges with a beginner’s mind.

One recent challenge is hanging pictures. Sena and I hung a picture yesterday. I wanted to measure everything and she wanted to estimate. She had misgivings about my measurements but went along with it. After the picture was hung, even I had to admit it was not in the right spot. Funny thing, after a short while, she admitted that the misplacement was not that far off and that she was getting used to it. If you’ve ever hung pictures, you know I’m leaving out a lot of the back-and-forth negotiation about how we finally arrived at that middle ground. It involved loving kindness on both sides.

We’ll see how the next picture hanging goes.

Now is the Time to Do Something

I know I promised to observe National Nothing Day, but I learned something new today about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and I figured I’d write a little something. Actually, I was not idle. So much for Nothing Day.

Dr. King liked jazz music, especially bebop. Dr. King said this about jazz: “When life offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.”

Sena and I like smooth jazz, which doesn’t highlight improvisation as much as bebop—and that’s about all I know about jazz. I’m really more of a blues, rock and roll, and classical fan. I’m not really much of an improviser, I guess. I rely on recipes and frozen pizzas when I fix meals, which thank goodness is infrequent. Sena doesn’t use recipes and changes things up a lot, not just in the kitchen.

I found out that King even alluded to a jazz musician’s composition in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1965. A friend of King shared that the civil rights leader had used the refrain “Now is the time” from Charlie Parker’s 1945 classic tune.

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to life our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

I’m just guessing, but I think Parker probably improvised his music a lot. On the other hand, as I’ve grown older, I’ve pretty much scripted what I do in my life. When I was much younger, I improvised more. It’s a common path. There’s nothing especially wrong with regularity and predictability—bowel movements come to mind as one example. I’m a geezer after all.

But sometimes my relationships with others might have been helped if I had been a little more spontaneous, a little nimbler and more flexible with my attitude and responses. I guess that goes for all of us.

Now is the time to do something about that. It’s not too late.

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