Friday, August 26, 2005

The American Journey... [a photo essay]

(thoughts that played through my head on my recent trip up north, all pictures taken along Interstate 17 and Interstate 40 with my PalmPilot)

Every once in a while my job sees fit to yank me form my desk and throw me up into the wild reaches of Arizona to handle some business because we can't retain staff to do it.

I don't mind these long trips, because they give me time to think and reflect on a lot of things.

I-17 North from Phoenix

The American Journey isn't just one from point A to point B. It is a journey of understanding and figuring things out. How our views change over time and from location to location based on our experiences and what we have learned.

Sedona Near Flagstaff

I don't know a lot of conservatives that were not liberals at one point in their lives and vice versa. Folks that were conservative and now throw caution to the wind. Their journeys brought about these changes.

Cabin in the Sky

I chuckle at how much the youth of today can't wait to get off the 'farm' and make it to the big city where anything goes and they can party all they want. Only to find out that by the time they have grown up, had kids, taken out a second mortgage and fixed their car for the 18th time to commute to work, that what they REALLY want is to go back to that rural lifestyle that they longed to escape from so many years before.


These cars were once shiny and new, speeding down what was then Route 66 in a country that was affluent, run by caucasians, where Coke had real sugar and there was no HIV or Ebola. Those days, like these cars, are gone, transformed by the journey.


Yet, in their decay, there is a certain beauty to them. They undergo the slow transition back to the minerals from which they were forged. Like the delicate bones of some pre-historic creature momentarily exposed by the wind before being covered up again.

Gas Pumps

Once these silent sentinels pumped petrol for .29 cents a gallon. Now, in the shadow of the speeding semi-trucks that race by on Interstate 40, they stand as tombstones for the coming end of the petroleum age. More road markers on the journey.

Fallen Dreams

In a way, the land is littered with the graveyards of our past. Those things that we held so dear (or were told to hold so dear) but have become obsolete because something new and better came along. But were they really better? Did we really 'need' them? Figuring that out is one of the purposes of the journey.

Cloud Ruins

In the end, the journey teaches us that many of the dreams we had were not our own. We followed road signs that told of us great destinations, lands of milk and honey, with things that were newer, cheaper, better. But when we got there we found that in the long run none of it was true. The signs were not put up for our benefit, but for the benefit of others, to lead us to them.

Empty Rooms

Some say that we should make our own signs and leave trails to follow, and not follow in the footsteps of others. But the insecurity that is inherent in all our lives holds us back. The older we get, the more we lose that insecurity and the more we finally realize how important it is to blaze those trails, but often we also realize that we have lost the vigor of youth.

Window Ruins

These are the thoughts that continually run through my head while taking these long journeys for my employer. A good use of the State's money, I must admit. In their never ending goal of finding new and inefficient ways of doing things with the taxpayers hard earned cash, they offer me the time and the distance to gage the journey and in so doing, show me just how far off course I am sometimes.

Desert Tower

As I stopped at many of these old places along Interstate 40, I saw all those old days, those slower days. This highway parallels the old Route 66 and it is still visible in many sections. I walked some of it to take these pictures. The mother road had a lot to tell if you just stood still long enough and listened.

I-40 Train

How many journeys? How many lives were changed by the wheels passing over this broken asphalt? A million miles, a million miles.

I-40 Windows

I hope the journey never ends; I have still have so much to learn.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ignorance Is Bliss

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

Been thinking a lot recently and I have come to a conclusion. Ignorance is bliss. This might be a bit of an overused phrase, but regarding one particular aspect of the human experience, I have come to realize it is true.

It all concerns death. That is right, the big "D" word. We don't like to talk about it that much, which is where the ignorance comes in.

In the western, industrialized world, we are all taught to think of terms of life being infinite. You have the 'rest of your life' to get certain things done. Some day I am going to hike up Everest. I am going to save my money and get that Maserati I have always wanted. We think that there is always going to be time to catch up on those shelved dreams.

We think this way, because no one knows the day and hour of their death.

Imagine if you did. Suppose someone told you, "Mr. Smith, you are going to die in a car accident on March 13, 2014 at 7:32pm."

Imagine what it would be like knowing this. Every time you looked at a clock or a calendar, you would 'know' how much time you had left. Well, thanks to computers and insurance companies, you can have a pretty good guess. Insurance companies keep amortization tables and based on key factors (on average) can tell when you are going to take that one way trip to Neverland.

But the awful truth is, we don't really want someone to tell us this. It takes away the ability to procrastinate, the ability to have infinite dreams. It demolishes the thought that there really is no end as long as you don't think about it.

So if any of you really wanted to figure it out you could. Figure out how much time you have left. It would just take a little work on your part. But it is doubtful any of us will do it. Life's journey isn't supposed to have an end. At least not in this day an age.

But if you are curious, (Click Here) Death Clock

Monday, August 15, 2005


Don't Forget To Breathe

Half awake, I take a quick warm shower. It's the rule. Then, knowing the quicker I get this started the better I will feel, I fall into the water. It's coolness rushes over me and jolts me awake. My skin tingles, my toes curl. I take a big gulp of air and submerge my head, rubbing all the oil from my face and sleep from my eyes...rubbing my cheeks and arms to wake up.

There is a ritual to all this. First I put the lap fins on my feet; small flippers to work out my legs. Next the ear plugs, because I know how annoying it can be to get water in my ears during the turns. Then the web gloves on my hands to give my arms more traction. Finally, I put the goggles over my eyes. Within a minute, I am transformed into the middle-aged dolphin of the suburbs.

The ritual continues. I have been doing it so long that I have tweaked all the steps and know them without thinking. Stretching my arms and my legs, I take deep breaths. One breath, then another, and then another, blowing the spent air out of my lungs quickly. One final gulp and I drop under the surface, spring from the edge of the pool with my legs and kick my fins in unison to drive the length of the pool underwater. The ritual dictates that I cannot surface. I must traverse the entire length of the pool kicking like a fish, using only my legs.

As the oxygen slowly runs out, the far side of the pool comes into view and I surface. I have passed the first test. It is an easy one.

Looking back at the lane, it is empty, as is the whole pool. Forcing myself out of bed at 4am in the morning to be the first one here has given me this advantage. I am the master of the lap pool. Outside, the sun has yet to invade the day. The echo of the pool and the ripples in the water are the only sound. Here, there is solitude, before the day invades my world. Here, there is just me and the rhythms of my body and the coolness of the water.

I push off and start a lazy breast stroke. Doing this for so many years, I have learned to inch my heart rate up slowly. In the beginning, I had to keep reminding myself to slow down, to not swim too fast. Running out of breath in the middle of the pool is never a good thing. At the end of each stroke I tilt my head to gasp some air before turning my face downward to stare at the blue strip of tile that defines my lane. The rule is that I can't stop. Once the journey has begun, I have to complete the laps. The total is usually 10, sometimes more depending on how long I have to swim. As the end of the lane comes into view, I take one last deep gulp of air into my lungs and somersault in the water, kick off from the side of the pool and twist in the water so that I surface in the opposite direction and continue swimming. That's lap #1.

Swimming like this forces solitude upon me. There are no distractions. The ear plugs muffle and distort all sound, although the only sound at this time of the day is the water splashing past me. With nothing but the rate of my breathing and the blue line below me, my mind starts to wander. Deprived of all distractions, my mind becomes and ocean that is vast and deep. The flotsam and jetsam of my life floats through my thoughts.

What tasks are on my schedule once I get to the office? Is my left front tire leaking air? I need to remember to pay those utility bills before the end of the week.

End of the blue line, flip, push off, twist... surface. Where was I? Owe yea those bills, not to mention the car insurance coming due soon, Yeah, that was lap #2.

I still have to force myself to slow down and allow my lungs to catch with my brains desire to become the human torpedo. Patience. That is one of the reasons I am here. Forcing myself to slow down. See the different light, seek the different solution. It isn't all traffic, bills and job interviews and ... end of line, flip, push, twist, surface.

I have to start thinking of my next vacation. I know that the practical side of my brains is telling me this is a good workout and that I need to lose that weight. The realistic side of my brain knows that this is all about stress reduction. Too much stress in the modern industrial age. I need to get away more. Go hiking, maybe in the Superstitions, or down in Mexico. But that will take planning; swimming is much easier and is on my way to work. Besides I know this is better for me than drinking down Vodka to try and get relaxed or munching on Cheetos while I watch Starsky and Hutch on ....wall, flip, push, twist, surface.

Yea, food. What am I going to eat when I get to work? After these laps I deserve some sort of reward. What lap was that? Shit. Always forgetting. I think that was 4, no 3. Great, now I am going to wonder if I swam too many laps or not enough. Damn it.

Breakfast Burrito, yeah, that would be so good, with eggs and sausage in it, and the good coffee from Circle K. I am gliding through the water now, my heart rate in sync with my breathing. My pace quickens slightly since I have warmed up. With each turn, my mind wanders to a long since forgotten corner of the ocean. Old relationships and why they went wrong, the things I want to buy, but really don't need. My societal trained urges to want things that have no real purpose. My struggle to become more creative. Each thought eventually interrupted by a turn and a push off the wall.

Eventually, I notice other swimmers in the lane next to mine, gliding past me in the opposite direction. They are visible only for a moment. What are they thinking? Have they lost count? What are they escaping from?

Finally, I 'think' the last lap is upon me. Here, there are no reserves. I open it up and thrash through the water like a crazed shark. No doubt, terrifying anyone that might stray into my lane. My lungs straining, I reach the far wall and stop. Gasping for air, my feet touch the bottom of the pool for the first time in 15 minutes and I remove my goggles. I am spent, tired, relaxed. Only two things left to do.

While still breathing hard, I lie on my back and do a lazy paddle with my feet to the opposite end of the pool where this all started. As I let my breathing slow down, I stare at the ceiling as it passes over me. I have to count the number of beams or risk the chance of slamming my head into the far end of the pool. This is the cool down lap. The lap where I get to gloat about my conquest of the morning.

As I reach the end of the pool, I climb from the water, put my apparatus away and head for the steam room. The ultimate goal. Solitary, warm, relaxing, a place to hide with my thoughts before the invasion of the day.

Wrapping my towel around my head, I swing open the glass door to the hissing sound or escaping steam. It is tiled, with tiers to sit on and a glass wall that looks out onto the pool. The wet heat envelopes me, immediately nullifying the coolness of the water on my skin that is left over from the pool. The hiss of the steam coming from a pipe in the corner is almost deafening. Yet, it serves a purpose. Like so much white noise, it cancels out any sound from the outside world. Like the air escaping a punctured tire, the pressure and the stress are released with it. I sit in the far corner of the room, towel over my head to prevent the super heated air from burning my nostrils and my lips as I slowly breathe in and out.

Between the sound of the steam, the hard tile floors, the glass windows and the echoing of the voices in the pool beyond, all the sounds that reach my ears here are garbled. Indistinguishable. There are people in the pool now, there is talk and splashing. But the sounds they make are distorted by the echoes off the water and the hard walls, so that they sound distant, transformed, and unearthly. I stretch me legs in the heat, I crack my neck. For all the things that I am told to want and desire in life, I always end up realizing that this is one of the most important and most attainable.

The door to the steam room opens and someone else walks in. Between the steam and the towel over my head I cannot see who, nor do I care. The outside world has started to come in. The real struggle begins. Time to start a brand new day. I just have to remember to pace myself and breathe.

Monday, August 8, 2005

The Void

Thanks Dad

Not all of you may know this, but my father passed away last week. So it was not the best week of my life by a long shot. While I had prepared myself for his inevitable passing (he had a terminal illness that we knew he could not beat) there is always that sense of finality when it all hits you, and you realize that things have changed, irrevocably.

The thing that you can't really foresee in this type of situation are the little things that became second nature and ingrained in your personality. You notice them when they are gone, but sort of take them for granted when loved ones are still around.

There is that 'void' in my parents house now because my dad is no longer there and at times, that void seems tremendous.

Folks that met my father and did not know him well, did not know what to make of him sometimes. While he was always courteous and talkative, some people came away with the impression that he was unsympathetic and critical of my brother and me and sometimes was rude to my mother. I found that these folks usually never really knew what a caring and loving parent was.

My father was a great man. Not because he fought great battles or built great bridges or amassed large sums of money. He was a great man because he just did the right thing 90% of the time. Something that I have never known anyone else (including myself) to do since I have been alive.

His constant criticisms about my earning potential, or my weight, or the amount of air in my tires or the length of my hair were not derogatory at all. They were just his way of showing that he cared. He wanted the best for the ones he cared for and took every opportunity to 'coach' them in the direction that he thought was best for them. He knew we would do what ever we wanted, but he always wanted those near him to know he was thinking about them.

I came to realize this when I saw the parents of other people totally ignore their children or were constantly angry at them for not living up to their expectations. My parents were different. They are selfless. They told us what to do as children, pushed us out into the world and told us to make the best of it. Then they always looked forward to hearing from us to find out what we had learned.

Now that my dad is gone, I walk into my parent's home and realize that he will never again be sitting at the kitchen table to engage me in discussions about politics, the economy, my job, my health or a wealth of other things. This is that void that I am referring to. His willingness to simply give of his time to make sure someone was doing OK, and offer advice (sometimes very bluntly) about what was best for you.

I did not realize it in the beginning, but I came to rely on him more than I could ever realize over the years because of his selfless interest in me. He was like the Rock of Gibraltar. He would never solve my problems (that was something he taught us all to do on our own), but he would sure as hell make sure you going in the right direction to figure them out.

The classic wish of being able to go back in time and do anything you want is often bantered around the Internet. I have to admit that mine has changed. To sit around the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and have a discussion with my dad about 'anything' just went to the top of that list and I don't believe that it will ever change.

When my father was diagnosed with his illness, I visited him in the hospital. He was philosophical about the whole thing and said he had no regrets about his life and that he felt that he had a 'pretty good run'.

Since most of you could not have known him as well as his family, I have to tell you that this has to be one of the biggest understatements I have ever heard in my entire life. Allow me explain what a 'good run' is to my father:

Born in Iowa just after the First World War.
Learned to fly in the 1930s out of an Iowa Cornfield.
Went to college but dropped out to serve in World War II, he became a flight instructor, training pilots for the Army.
Flew bomber missions later in WWII over Germany.
Came home after the war but was called back up for service in Korea.
Married my mother
Rejoined the Air Force in the early 50s and was stationed in: Maine, Texas, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Hawaii, Okinawa and Thailand.
While Base Commander at Vandenburg Air Force Base, launched military satellites into orbit.
Served in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
Raised two sons and put both through college.
Retired after 35 years as a full Colonel in the Air Force.
Moved to Tucson, Arizona and 'finally' completed his college degree near the age of 60.
Worked for H&R Block for almost 15 years as a tax preparer.
Until his 80th birthday, continued to walk 5 miles a day and work out at the local gym.

Now mind you, after reading that very 'brief' history of his life, he considered this a 'good run'. I don't know if it is the times we live in, or the character of the generations that followed, but I don't foresee any of us, having a 'good run' such as this in our lifetimes. But to my father, this was all "No Big Deal".

If there is a heaven and I run into him up there after my time on this earth is up, I am really looking forward to sitting down and having a long discussion with him. Just like we always used to do. I am sure we will have a lot of catching up to do.

Monday, August 1, 2005

The Litigious Society...

Click the Picture to get in on the Ground Floor

First of all, I have to preface this, by saying that I am sure that what I am about to write about is not universal, yet. This is not the case 'everywhere'; however, I believe that it will eventually become the standard everywhere, at least in the United States.

If you live in Wichita, Kansas, or Boise Idaho, this probably won't make a lot of sense to you, because the cancer has yet to creep that far north. But let me give you a little glimpse of the litigious society that is slowly taking over your world and WILL be a part of your future.

The moral and legal systems of this country are being taken over by attorneys. These people do not 'practice' law. They practice making money, anyway they can. There once was a time when jurisprudence was considered to be a sort of holy art, like being a doctor or a member of the clergy. Lawyers were well paid, but were also expected to uphold the best interest of the society in which they practiced. Well, you can kiss those days goodbye folks.

Here in Phoenix, Arizona, we have the distinction of being the home of one particular lawyer, who is still practicing law. His law firm is named Van Osteen. He is the lawyer who took lawyers right to 'advertise' all the way to the US Supreme Court... and won.

You may not have seen the affect of this 10-year-old decision yet, but you will. If you ever pass through Phoenix, Arizona (or worse yet, you actually move here), you will notice something a bit out of the ordinary. There are advertisements for attorneys everywhere. On billboards, the sides of buses, bus stop benches, and the backs of phone books. Plaintiff Attorneys (the ones that get 33% of any injury settlement that you receive) actually fight over billboard space at the most accident prone intersections in this town.

The concept being, that if you get rear-ended, they want you to get out of your vehicle and see that great big 60' X 20' sign screaming "Jacoby & Meyers - Injury Lawyers". You will whip out your cell phone, dial the number, and they will come to the accident scene, no joke.

I know what you are thinking. You are probably saying; "You must have been screwed over by one of these guys, and you are pissed". Well, not really, I used to work with them. 15 years in insurance claims and investigations showed me just what a creepy crawly bunch of folks these are.

If you live here, you quickly learn that they have to advertise, because there is sooo much competition for the poor wounded victim in this town. So the early bird gets the worm. Phoenix has no mass transit, small freeways and way too many automobiles.....those poor lemmings rushing off to work, or to pick up their crystal meth fix are just bound to slam into one another. And when they do...Cha-Ching....there is money to be had by someone.

Forget right or wrong or who was at fault or who might be injured. 33% of insurance policy limits is a minimum of $5,000 in Arizona. Not a bad profit for making 3 phone calls and sending a letter, which is all most attorneys do.

The quickest way to see two attorneys drop a case and run, is when both drivers get into an accident, rush out to retain counsel and then the attorney's find out that both clients were un-insured. Can't collect if there are no deep pockets....

[ring ... ring ... ring]

Boye, Dewy, Skrum & Howe Law Offices....may we help you? What's that?

You weren't at fault? (Excellent!)

You are injured? (Even better!!)

Your life is ruined? (I can afford that new Mercedes!!!)

Nobody paid their liability insurance premium? (Hey, screw you pal. 33% of nothing is nothing....we are out of here.)

So much for guarding the public trust, pro-bono work does not pay the bills.

As in all fundamental shifts in societal structure, this 'greed' of law has made a change in the public mindset. If all you see is media (TV, Radio, Billboards) proclaiming that you are entitled to the BIG BUCKS because someone runs over your toe, then everyone becomes injured, regardless if they are or not. I tend to call this the "why haven't I won the lottery yet?" mindset. This has also brought forth the 'perpetual victim' here in Phoenix. That person that takes no responsibility for anything they do and expects to collect from others because of their lot in life. If there is insurance involved, there aren't too many lawyers in this town that are going to dissuade you from being a 'victim'. Those folks that are drama queens or drama kings just love attorneys for this reason. They get attention AND money....yeee hawww!!!

The con-artist that slipped the finger in the bowl of Wendy's chili was one of these people. She had a long history of ding the con and being the drama queen. She knew where the deep pockets were. She has been a 'victim' for years. She probably has a diploma from Victim University. She just reached a little too far for the brass ring and fell off the litigation-go-round. Maybe she should have just gone with the fingernail.

This brings up another important point, which is the concept of pain for money. Lawyers love this. Pain is so 'intangible' and money is sooo tangible. Measuring pain is smoke and mirrors, money is countable. When smoke and mirrors produce countable cash... attorneys will be there. I can scream and contort on the floor and look like I am being hit by a Tazer, but you really don't know if there is any pain involved. But it sure looks like there is.

Since plaintiff attorneys get money for your pain, it makes little sense for you to be only marginally hurt. If someone runs over your toe (even if you are wearing steel tipped work boots), you are permanently injured for life around here.

That is why the minimum limits death claim is so frustrating to an attorney. If you have minimum limits in this state ($15,000) and you kill someone (say a drunk passed out in the street that you run over), all they can collect for the dead drunk's disenfranchised daughter is the $15,000. From that, the poor attorney only gets to pocket the 33%, which is $5,000. If you ONLY had $100,000 policy limits, they could get that (cha-ching) $33,000 paycheck.

Come on folks, it is only another $45 a year on your insurance premium. Help an attorney out here. Up your limits and then kill someone. Whether or not the drunk's life was worth the settlement is irrelevant. Hell, he could have been dead already, but you ran him over, so it does not really matter. Can’t prove he “didn’t” suffer!

It is amazing how much more an injury is worth if there are just some deep pockets to go along with it. Sure the plaintiff attorneys could go after someone's assets if they don't have insurance, but most law firms work on the short term. Two years is OK to collect $15,000 or so. But invest billable hours and wait five years to get a portion of someone's slum house in Phoenix? I don't think so. Fast cash is the name of the game in the Phoenix legal arena.

But of course, if you already have the BIG bucks, you can always BUY the law. O.J. did it. Michael Jackson did it. Ken Lay tried to do it (bad idea Ken, should have skipped the country). Martha Stewart...well, Martha just wasn't as bright as we thought she was, she should have brought the jury some cookies.

The end result in all this, is that you have to 'prove the truth' in today's legal system. You don't have to prove the 'guilt'. We are supposed to be presumed innocent, but that is not the case. If someone runs over your toe, the system has to prove you are not injured; the public perception (by default) is you are. It is not worth the defense's (insurance companies) time or money to defend the insured on moral principles, so they just pay out the money and move on. After all, just like the attorney's, the insurance companies are here to make money. Not to do what is 'right'.

In the insurance world, the 'premium' is the thing... not the settlement check. Regardless of what the Good-Hands people tell you.

In summation, your honor; there are laws and then there are laws. There are the laws of physics, which are universal. If it happens here on earth, it has to happen on Cygnus. However, monetary trends govern the laws of jurisprudence. And the ebb and flow of money is not universal. Sometimes societies have it and sometimes they don't.

The laws of jurisprudence are molded to fit the current trends in society. The current trend is the short-term greed of the populace. So the system that we were thought would protect the innocent and prove the guilt of the law breakers has morphed into a money machine that only benefits those that have the ability to wield it, and those with the lack of morals to abuse it.

Get ready Minot, North Dakota. The lawyers are coming.

Now...I have to go put my foot underneath someone's tire....I have a mortgage payment to make.