Thursday, October 31, 2013

Politics on Halloween: True Fright Night

Well, I just can’t stay away for long. Let me begin with information I learned yesterday that I did not know and should have. It is a stunning bit of news to me. Did you know that there is a cap on the income subject to taxation by Social Security? The cap goes up next year to $117,000. This means that everyone pays Social Security tax on the first $117,000 they earn in a year. Anything above that amount is exempt from the social security tax. Once again, it looks to me like the rich don’t have to pay their share. Oddly enough, the base salary for a member of the House of Representatives is $174,000. Speaker John Boehner earns $223,500. Not CEO level, I admit, but I wonder how much someone like that will be entitled to draw when eligible. I no longer wonder why Social Security is struggling to make its ends meet, between the government borrowing from the program and an institutionalized lack of support from the wealthy. I have been watching the political scene in the United States in relative silence for six weeks now, as we shut down, then stood precariously at the edge of yet another fiscal cliff with one foot on a banana peel cheerfully deposited by the monkeys in Congress (meaning no disrespect to real monkeys and referring to the politically incorrect stereotype, so please, no letters. I like monkeys but I would never vote for one. Correction: I would never knowingly vote for one). The keynote issue remains Obamacare. The Republicans are trying to figure out how to withdraw funding and were willing to cripple the country and drive millions into poverty to attain this unattainable goal. Now with the website woes, Republicans call it the sign that the entire program is just wrong. There is much to say about their position, and not just by me. Number One: This is a big program. When Medicare was introduced, it took two years to work out all the kinks and make certain things ran smoothly. But we were more patient back then. Today’s citizenry suffers from the Baruka Syndrom, “Give it to me NOW.” Patience is supposed to be a virtue. Look at the country as a whole, how patient we have been with a do-nothing Congress about which your parents used to complain. Two: Much alarm has been raised that a million current policy holders face the possible suspension of their policies because the policies do not meet the minimum criterion of Obamacare. This is true. But consider, those policies are inadequate and substandard. This means that the policy holders are paying money for nothing right now. If the figures hold, most of them will be able to get better coverage for less money through the new exchange. Three: Obamacare is the law. The Supreme Court says so. Four: Even John Mc-Appeal-To-The-Base-Cain warned Ted Cruz and John Boehner that this is a lost cause. As much as McCain himself opposes Obamacare, the realist knows that the Senate would never pass a House bill withholding funds, and even if they did, the President would veto it and there are not 67 Republicans in the Senate to override a veto. Sounds like a lost cause to me. Republicans talk about Obamacare being their Rubicon. They liken themselves to the heroes of flight 93, the Alamo, and other great stands. But those were not lost causes. They were steps toward something bigger. The fight against the law of the land, particularly one that, in the long run, will help improve America’s embarrassingly poor rating in medical care, is a true lost cause. Lost causes are by definition not going to be won. They talk about being just like the 1960’s Democrats who stood up for their ideals against the war in Vietnam. Maybe so, but just what did the Democrats get in 1968? Another martyr or two, forty years dominated by the Republicans, soaring deficits, and the most expensive military the world has ever known. Wait a minute . . . Hmmm. Keep fighting, “Private” Ryan. Keep Cruzing down that river in Egypt, Mister Ted. Forty years dominated by the Democrats sounds pretty good to me right now.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Travelblog Two: Rock Epic

The Netherlands is a wonderful place, a beautiful country. As with anywhere, there are drawbacks. After all, every silver lining has a cloud, but the reverse is also true. Every cloud has a silver lining. For every modern, less than attractive high rise going up to help house Holland’s people, there is both a well-preserved centrum harkening back to very old days and discouraging of modern inconveniences such as automobiles, and an area of rolling green open land. Often, all three are within a kilometer of each other. Holland is flat. Much of the country is at or below sea level. There are a few hills in the country and one official mountain at barely one thousand feet high. It is located in the very southern corner of the country, near Maastricht, and on the German/Belgian borders. Holland is a country in which I would not expect to find rocks, and, truly, the country has none. It has peat and the occasional really hard mud clot. It has goat horns preserved in the peat bogs near Giethorn (Goat Horn). But rock collectors do not scour the countryside looking for amethyst geodes, or if they do they have set themselves up for major disappointment. Still, the Dutch love rocks. In Giethorn, for example, there is a rock shop to rival anything I have ever seen in America, including our own Montana gem, Kehoe’s. It came as no surprise that there was a rock show in den Bosch (short for s’Hertogenbosch). Annemieke, our good friend Hanneke, Diane and I had to go. It was the Sunday before we were set to return home, and it was a rainy and windy day. We walked from the Rutgers house to the train station, huddling under umbrellas in serious rain gear. We took the train to den Bosch, rendezvoused with Hanneke (who came from Nijmegen), and went inside. The show took place in a fairly large conference room and displayed a wide variety of very nice specimens, carvings and jewelry, all, of course, for sale. It was as mini-Tucson with mostly reasonable prices. Since we were traveling by air in two days, Diane and I felt safe to go looking, knowing weight would preclude us from buying very much. Without a vehicle to transport it, we figured neither Annemieke nor Hanneke would choose anything much larger than a kilo or two. It was the back pack limit. But there is never any accounting for love. A natural citrine specimen from a vender’s private collection caught Annemieke’s eye. It was plain, yet elegant, simple but huge. The price was unbelievable, and I stood there thinking, how in hell are we going to get it home? Diane said, “We’ll find a way.” Hanneke said, “You’ll find a way,” knowing she was going a different direction. I said, “I suppose we can carry it together.” Annemieke said, “I’ll take it!” She then became the proud owner of a rock weighing fifteen kilos, about 33 pounds – the size of an infant and almost as heavy as my suitcase fully packed. Then began the journey home. The merchant wrapped the rock in four canvas bags and I found I could cradle it against my chest. We made it to the bus, to the train station, and onto the train in short jaunts. People stared at us, wondering what was in the bundle I guarded so closely. On the train, the rock had its own seat. When we arrived in Culemborg, the final part of the rock’s journey to its new home began. The rain had stopped, mercifully, and the wind had died down somewhat. Using the same technique of cradling the precious bundle against our chests, we traded off every block or so and managed to bring the new addition into the Rutgers’ home. Erik later found a stand on wheels so the rock could move from spot to spot in the living room, always looking for the best light to show off its citrine crystals. Hanneke told Annemieke that the rock is a link between us all, like we needed another one. Of course, she’s right. I say the rock is a story, rock epic of strength, determination, perseverance and friendship. I think I understand now how the Spartans must have felt when they looked down from Thermopylae at the Persian army camped in the valley below. Thousands of campfires covered the valley, each one warming hundreds of soldiers. The Spartans had a force of just ten thousand at the start, ordered to hold the pass against that horde. I reflected on the Spartan motto: Come back with your shield or on it. My own modern version now goes: Come back with your rock, or under it. Holland does have rocks, and lots of them. They just started out somewhere else.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stress Testing Sometimes Gets in the Way

October 29, 2013 I begin with an assurance it is my delight to report: I am fine. And if anyone is upset that we kept all that follows to ourselves, please understand that we had nothing to report before now, and the report we have is that there is actually nothing to report. I was experiencing intermittent chest pain over the course of the last several weeks, even while away in Holland. Part of me thought I was being suggestible – which I tend to be – and over-empathetic to my nephew’s condition. But the pain was real, and when we came home I immediately contacted my doctor. You don’t mess with chest pain, and I already had postponed dealing with mine to keep from having to cancel our trip to Europe. Through a thorough examination, an EKG and analysis of the symptoms, she determined that my acid reflux had returned, causing “heart burn.” But to be certain, she arranged a stress test, which I took yesterday (and which is why I did not write a blog yesterday). The test was involved and long, with an IV catheter placed (I hate needles, but the nurse was perfect), radiolucent injections, lots of waiting, two sets of “pictures” and the treadmill. Everything went fine until the very last minute of the actual stress test. I felt something along the bottom of my rib cage that was not pain, just a sensation; a protest. At that same moment the attending asked if I was in pain – she had seen something in the EKG pattern. While I waited for the final “photo-shoot” she came to me and told me that she saw something that had her concerned, but that she wanted the cardiologist to read the EKG along with the images. “Not to worry, but please don’t eat breakfast before I call,” in case I had to come in for treatment (which I took to mean surgery), and she would call first thing in the morning. She also prescribed nitroglycerine tablets for me, in case my pain returned. Prescribing nitro made me jump. My father was on nitro during the last months of his life, so I associate nitro with end of life issues. Ironically, the high level of pain had not recurred since I had made the initial doctor appointment, and Nexium is helping control the acid reflux, so I did not need the nitro pills. But last night was a long one, waiting. Both Diane and I played out worst-case scenarios, as we are apt to do, and discussed contingency plans. As the saying goes: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We were betting on acid reflux but we were hedging our bets. By seven a.m. we were both up. By eight no one had called. At 8:30 I called the center, got an elaborate voice mail menu and left a message. By nine, still no call – it seems that first thing in the morning means different things to different people. But, of course, stuff happens, and if there was a serious problem I think someone would have called sooner. But I was hungry and desperate for a cup of coffee. At 9:07 I called back and got a human being, who told me the attending was in hospital and she would make certain to let her know I was awaiting the call. Within five minutes the attending called me and explained that the cardiologist was called to an emergency and only now had had the chance to finish interpreting the data. The data told him that there was no blockage, no problem with the heart. “Go ahead and eat,” she said, happy, I think, to be the bearer of glad tidings in a tough field of endeavor. I had already brewed a pot, in case, and now I poured my first cuppa. It may have been the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Travelblog One: Huygens

The Seventeenth Century belonged as much to them as anyone. They were the Huygens family, well placed, well known, well connected and well liked. Constantijn Huygens served Statholder and Prince of Orange Frederick Henry as his personal secretary, which entailed much more than taking notes. Huygens represented the Netherlands in various arenas throughout Europe on the Prince’s behalf. He also was a poet and song writer, an accomplished engineer and amateur architect, and a devoted husband and father. His second son, Christiaan Huygens, was one of the most brilliant human beings to grace the planet – Sir Issac Newton called him the most elegant mathematician of their time. Newton and Huygens carried on an intellectual argument on the nature of light, whether it was a wave or had mass. Today we know sometimes light can be either. Huygens also invented the pendulum clock, perfected the telescope to the point where he could discover that the bulges around the planet Saturn were actually rings, and saw Titan orbiting Saturn, just to name two of his many achievements. He also was one of the first to write a book using science to speculate what alien life forms might look like. Another Huygens, Constantijn Junior, was personal secretary to William of Orange and accompanied his employer in 1688 as William rode the second great Armada across the channel to unseat his father-in-law and become King William III of England. Other great figures owed their gratitude to some degree to the family. Constantijn Sr. oversaw the building of the Mautishuis, designed by Jacob van Campen. It is now one of the most intimate and enjoyable museums in Holland. He also is said to have discovered a struggling artist by the name of Rembrandt van Rijn. The Huygens had friends in England and France even when their country was at war, including John Donne and Rene Descartes. Constantijn was knighted by both the British and the French while Christiaan was one of the founders of the French Academy of Science. The list goes on and on. Their influences can be felt to this very day. They lie beneath another man’s marker, father, mother and son. In fact, exactly where their bodies are buried is not yet certain. There is no way to disturb the massive headstone above the spot where it is assumed they rest without threatening the entire structure that houses them. Such an important family should have had an elaborate, or at least noteworthy mausoleum, and Constantijn designed a memorial plaque to be used for such a structure, but it never happened and no one is sure why. Instead, in the Grote Kerk (Great Church) in den Haag, Constantijn, his wife Suzanna, and his son Christiaan rest together in virtual anonymity. As if they were never here, or as if we choose to ignore the fact of their existence. Plans are in the works to give the Huygens their due respect. But, for now, it was my turn. Annemieke and Erik know my passion for the Huygens. On our very first visit to Holland, they took me to Hofwijk, the summer home Huygens designed and had built in 1642 as a retreat from the pressures of court. When I had learned that the family was buried in the grand cathedral, I expressed my desire to visit their “crypt.” I did not yet know the complicated nature of their burial. Annemieke contacted the church and discovered that I had just missed a wonderful exposition dedicated to the family. But, if I was really interested, the cleric-curator would allow me inside by private appointment. Our first Thursday in Holland, Erik and I took the train to den Haag, then went for the appointment. A gracious and happily informative gentleman guided me to the spot they believe is the Huygens’ resting place. Above them is a massive plaque dedicated to a Frenchman who loved the city and asked to be buried there. His family later requested his body be returned to France for burial in their family plot, but the plaque was too heavy to move and moving it would threaten the very foundation of the massive cathedral. They left me alone to honor the three magnificent people under my feet. I found myself thinking mostly of Suzanna, who died while giving birth to their fifth child. Constantijn never remarried, loving her to the end of his says, fifty years later. His instructions were for his body to be buried with his wife. Christiaan, who never married, joined them six years after his father’s passing. But it was she who anchored her husband’s work and his art, who gave us the elegant mathematician, and who died too young to see it all come into being. Feeling deeply honored to even be there, I thanked them all for the gifts they brought to us, especially the woman behind the men. I took a few pictures of the spot and of the overwhelming, empty church, and of the simple plaque that has been set into the wall near the crypt that says, simply: “Grafplaatz van Constantyn en Christiaan Huygens.” That Suzanna’s name is not on the plaque is somehow fitting.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Best Espresso on Two Continents

This is not an advertisement. It is a testimonial. Among the wonderful things about the Netherlands is its coffee. Particularly in restaurants, the coffee actually has flavor. Sorry, Americans, but most of you wouldn’t know a decent cup of coffee if it slid down your throat. Yes, that’s harsh, but very, very true. Coffee in most American restaurants is brown water weaker than herbal tea. If I want a good cup of coffee here, I have to brew it myself or go to a Greek or Turkish restaurant. Even espresso, which is the strong coffee drinker’s best bet, is almost always lacking, and not just in Montana. The nice thing about Dutch coffee in restaurants or even in bars is that it comes to you strong, and is accompanied by some sort of cookie or biscuit or chocolate. You have to pay for a refill, but mostly you drink your single cup and move on to the next place expecting a similar experience. When they serve espresso they accompany the cup with a short glass of water to serve as a chaser in case you are overwhelmed by the strength. And yet – the espresso I had in Amsterdam, in den Haag, in Arnhem, and in Ootmarsum did not warrant the polite chaser. In fact, the standard by which I now judge espresso was set for me right here in Lakeside. Like I said, this is not an ad. Over the past few months we have gotten to know and come to really like a young couple trying to make a go of a small coffee shop slash cafĂ© right here, called cleverly Glacier Perks. The relationship is growing, and we really hope they can stumble through the winter. They should – they make wonderful baked goods and incredible sandwiches, and, literally now, the best espresso on two continents. Both Ashley and Miah are marvels with the espresso machine, bringing out consistently rich, strong and flavorful double shots daily. Nothing I tasted in Holland came close. Last year, an Italian visiting the area was so excited to find “a real cup of coffee” in America that he tweeted the information gleefully, for all to see. I consider this to be an issue of international importance. Man does not live by coffee alone, but no man or woman should have to live with weak and tasteless brown fluid in a cup. I don’t care where you are. But if you’re here, come on down. And if you are our guests – the door is always open – we’ll even treat!

Friday, October 25, 2013


For any of you who have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airplane, as well as any of you who have not, the experience of flying a long distance can be grueling, especially in coach class. The seats were always a bit tight but it seems like they were more so this time around, particularly on the longer jaunts to and from Schiphol. It seemed Delta squeezed more seats into the fuselage than the last time we flew. Mind you, we have been spoiled by the very first flight Diane and I took way back in 2001 when, after 9-1-1, the airline upgraded us to business class for free the very first flight. Most of you know the story. Suffice it to say that our good friend Candida advised us never to turn right on an airplane, and she was so correct. Trouble is, we can’t afford Business Class; we can barely afford coach (this time the tickets were a gift, at that), and we learned the difference right away on the return flight from that first trip. Ten hours doesn’t seem like all that long a time, a full shift with overtime, until you are seated in close quarters with the person in front of you reclining and the television remote in your hand only working in one direction, left. I think the remote wanted to be in Business Class itself. The flight from Glacier International Airport to Minneapolis-Saint Paul took just over two hours. It was moderately uncomfortable, but anyone can do two hours. The flight from the Twin Cities to Amsterdam was just under eight and crammed with sleepy passengers. It turned out to be not horrible. Everyone was very nice on Delta and the food served was palatable if not particularly diet friendly. I had trouble with the remote, as I mentioned, but I had my Sudoku and my Kindle and I even managed to get a power nap or two while stuck smack in the middle of the plane. The return trip, also on Delta, in partnership with KLM, went to Seattle. We had better seats but felt even more cramped. Neither my nor Diane’s remotes worked properly on that flight, and the food, again, was tasty but heavy on the carbs. Seattle is an interesting airport. We managed to wade through passport control and customs and another security check, grateful that our plane landed fifteen minutes early. Navigating the airport was more challenging: a tram system linked the terminals once you figured out where you were supposed to be. At first it was scary and uncertain for people on a time squeeze, but once through it we realized how quick and efficient the system actually was. I was most intrigued by the fact that these trams ran under the airport AFTER you passed through security, which meant that they had to be totally contained within the secure areas of the place. Pretty amazing. Then we boarded the plane for our last jaunt. It seemed counter-intuitive to fly to Seattle just to head back east to Kalispell, but in terms of time spent traveling it turned out to be the fastest and most direct route home. The plane was a twin prop that could seat 80. It turned out to be the roomiest of the planes we were on, with plenty of leg room and overhead space for our carry-ons and coats. The plane also cruised along a bit more slowly, offering us wonderful vistas of Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Rockies. It was the most comfortable and enjoyable leg of the to and fro. But the best part of the flying was a constant in every plane: in 2009, the last time we flew, Diane and I were so heavy and so big that even the seats were uncomfortable. Not this time. Diane proudly (and with good reason) proclaimed: “And I don’t need a seatbelt extension!” Of course, she still looked dangerous even by half.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Back in the Saddle

Trying to Get Back in the Saddle Well, we are back home after a wonderful three weeks in my homeland, the Netherlands, where it seems much has changed since we were there last, four years ago. Mostly, the urban areas seem all the more urban, with new and ugly high rise buildings going up, yet the city centers and the rural areas are as charming and beautiful as ever. Like most places where people get in the way with all those “people needs,” Holland has to accommodate what is the most densely populated country in the world, as measured by people per square mile. And yet, the amazing thing is that there is still so much land upon which human beings have not built high rises or anything else. In fact, when you travel through Holland you get a feeling that this place is so well planned out that the only thing that will wreck permanent green belts is global warming – excuse me, climate change – and the ensuing rise of ocean levels. More on our trip in upcoming blogs. Here I promise to try to be much more dedicated to daily blogging. I have had several readers tell me to get back in the saddle, so to speak, and I find myself compelled to make the time. Thank you all for your support and interest. I also will try to be cheerful and talk about the joys of my life, of which there are almost too many to count. I know politics will creep into them once in a while, but what can I say about Washington not getting things done that others cannot say more ably? I will say this: while we were away the government shut down. It re-opened the day after we returned. Obviously, America did not know what to do with itself while we were gone! One last note for this entry: Diane rode a bicycle in Holland, the first time she had attempted anything besides a stationary exercise bike since she was seventeen, and she didn’t kill herself! It was a momentous occasion, one which she repeated in the woods and on the trails of east Holland. She and Annemieke even crossed the border into Germany. neither lady had her papers, but no one noticed, and they slipped back into Netherlands territory without international incident. There must have been some advanced word about the transgression, though, because when we left Holland through Schiphol, Security searched her a bit more thoroughly than we would have expected. She looks like such a terrorist! They also searched her luggage – twice leaving that delightful printout that says: For your protection, we searched your stuff and neglected to put it back as carefully as you originally packed it; thank you and have a nice day. Indeed, we did.