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8/2/05-Tues.-Have learned of an interesting web site where Americans can read what other countries say about us: Watching America.

Had gotten off a normal sleep schedule when my back was so symptomatic. Now, more often than not, and as was again true last night, I wake up within 2-3 hours after going to bed and then cannot get to sleep anew till sometime during the daylight hours. It aggravates a tendency already there to cycle between feeling rested and OK, being depressed, and having mild caffeine highs. My brother, Ron, has a diagnosed bipolar disorder, for which he says medication helps. Sometimes it seems I have a similar condition. But in my case the sleep irregularities, at least, are more likely related to thyroid dysfunction.

When fatigued yet wakeful, I am apt to obsess about all manner of bleak topics. Last night, I found myself dwelling on geriatric and identity issues. No phase of one's life is without its challenges. In one's "advanced years" (a stage I do not mentally feel I've reached, though my body demonstrates otherwise), such examinations can at times seem like a report card on the entire curriculum. What has been accomplished with my existence? Has it been enough? Am I dealing with older age with grace and dignity? Other than simply getting through each day or enjoying interacting with others, is there more to be done? And what do I truly want to do, that would be meaningful, fun, and/or worthwhile, in what time remains?

I had a functional career rather than a really chosen vocation. It paid the bills and allowed us to save modestly for retirement but was never especially fulfilling. Now, other than my investing hobby, I lack something to do that I really love through my so-called "golden years."

I might or might not have been a good parent, but my choices earlier, and then Fran's, meant I would never experience that role, and of course I'll not have the pleasure of grandchildren. (In some ways I have had parent-like experiences. I was the oldest of eight kids, the youngest of whom is 18 years my junior, and I even helped rear several of them. I've also stayed in touch with a number of nieces and nephews with whom I was close when they were little.)

I've always enjoyed sensuality, but my capacity for romantic love is now less reliable. Viagra is not a reasonable option given my medical history. The desire is usually still there but not always the means. I wonder if, like Lance Armstrong quitting further Tour de France competitions, I should stop entirely when I'm ahead. If I can still give pleasure to Frances every so often, well and good, but to try for more risks merely being ridiculous.

Fran says of sex that she can take it or leave it, though her libido no longer supports anything like the ardor we once shared. Indeed, though she's in her late forties, while I'm a little shy of sixty-two, often it is as though she lacks even the interest in physical passion I have. (Of course, though her receptivity to an impulsive roll in the hay makes this seem rather implausible, it could simply be that she's having one or more affairs on the side!)

Since I went through puberty, an aspect of my identity, and of how I have related to others, has been a certain cockiness. If no longer dependably available in the most basic way, as a virile male of the species, how do I redefine myself?

As quoted from A Prayer for Owen Meany, " 'There was no solution,' Tolstoy writes in Anna Karenina, 'but the universal solution that life gives to all questions, even the most complex and insoluble. That answer is: one must live in the needs of the day---that is forget oneself.' "

Taking it together, if I am to be positive about this last, aging phase of life, I'll likely have to discover new pastimes or outlooks, perhaps ones less conventional, and be more accepting of life's subtle pleasures, instead of assuming the final years could make up for perceived prior deficits, a sure prescription for frustration.

Considering my recently vexing insomnia, it may have to be sufficient, for this "grumpy old man," that I avoid doing very much I don't truly enjoy, that when I wish to have friends I am friendly, and, as Zen teachers say, when I am hungry, I eat, when tired, sleep!

Perhaps fortunately, such introspection as above is not a permanent fixture in my psyche. I ran several needed errands this AM. Also took a walk and made a start on the rest of my daily exercise regimen. This afternoon, I arranged the appointment for my annual physical (next month), took a badly needed nap, and actually managed to remain in slumber for awhile! This evening brought new exercise sessions (as prescribed by my physical therapists), a delicious supper of leftover Chinese food, some interesting chess play, chatting with Fran, playing with the dog, getting a card and gift ready for my sister-in-law and my brother who just had a baby, and more.

8/3/05-Wed.-Slept through till morning last night. Yea! After exercise and ablutions this AM, I drove us on a shopping and dining excursion. We had checked online too for what we needed and wound up buying a Samsung 17" CRT monitor (a huge improvement over our outdated and failing terminal still barely in use from about 6 years ago) and, for Fran (who takes thousands of digital pictures almost every month now, and needs it for temporary backup), an external hard drive, both at Best Buy, the total discounted with a couple gift cards. (We now have a really super computer system for only about $600, less than half what the much less powerful one cost in 1998.) Afterward, we went over to Bombay Grill for one of our favorite buffet lunches.

This evening, I attended my monthly AAII investment group meeting.

Enjoyed a beautiful PBS documentary last night, on Henry Darger.

My dental appointment the other day did not go quite as expected. The permanent porcelain crown cracked while it was being cemented. They told me to bite down hard. I did, and then we all heard, and I felt, a snap. Oops! A new one will have to be made and the cracked one replaced. Since the latter is now solidly glued in, I'll need to be "numbed up again," per the dentist, so he can use a screwdriver (!) to "chisel" the defective crown off and start over. Joy.

Am enjoying the Patrick O'Brian book, The Wine-Dark Sea, 16th in his series of 20 historical naval novels.

Had a pleasant surprise when I weighed myself recently: I've lost 5 pounds since my back injury had at first caused a period of inactivity. Evidently the PT has helped in more than one way!

8/11/05-Thurs.-Things are returning to normal around here. My back is much better and, indeed, though I still do plenty of daily exercises for it, I am suffering no symptoms at all.

The drought of June, meanwhile, is well ended, and we've received lavish quantities of precipitation over the last week or so, as well as in the several earlier July storms.

Am gradually getting into another book, Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. I am not normally very taken with works of malevolent fantasy, though in my youth for a time I found horror novels, short stories, or movies entertaining, but the admirably well written, highly imaginative Wicked work may prove to be an exception to this general prejudice.

Frances and I have been enjoying our usual round of feasting at good eateries, including recently TexMex, Indian, and Chinese restaurant lunches.

We have been trying to arrange birthday dinners with friends (Matt having turned 51 a few weeks ago) and my brother, Ron (plus his children living in Austin), who turns 50 this month, but as yet they have not proven overly eager to take us up on the offers. Folks are quite busy.

I went shopping this morning for cards at a bookstore and then for groceries at HEB. In the parking lot of the latter establishment, an SUV driver backed into a sedan. The collision did not noticeably damage the SUV but caused what looks like at least $1000 in destruction to the sedan body. I hear that SUVs provide less than a third the clear viewing to the rear that smaller vehicles have. And, of course, in general it seems their drivers are less careful operators of the hazardous machines. Too bad for those in the way!

Have just learned that my friend (since 1973) Michelle's sister died this week of lung cancer. Michelle had been constantly on hand to assist first during my brother Ralph's degeneration from brain cancer in 1990, then with her mother's terminal cancer of the pancreas in the late 1990s, and this time for her only sibling. Her biological father died when she was quite young. Thus, besides her, only a step-father survives from the family she knew when growing up. Prone to alcoholism, this step-dad has not played a reliable, positive role in her or her children's lives. As if to compensate, she has become a super-caregiver and has taken on enormous responsibility through multiple crises. I knew Michelle first in Austin and later in Houston. She now lives in Petaluma, CA, coincidentally also where my mentor from the 1960s, Dr. Harold Pearl, called home.

8/15/05-Mon.-Frances is again off visiting and playing duets with a friend across town. I'm running errands this morning.

After feeling for awhile that not enough social activity was enlivening my own life, this week I find there is almost too much going on. In the next couple days I have a special interest group meeting each evening. Then Thursday we'll be taking my brother, Ron (a beef and potatoes sort of fellow), and some of his children out for dinner (his 50th birthday) at Texas Land and Cattle Company. The following night we'll be taking Matt (a more cosmopolitan eater) out for a belated birthday buffet at Indian Palace. His wife, Glenda, is joining us for the celebration too.

I seem to have a nail in one of my car tires. I saw it on coming out of the bank this AM. There is no obvious leak as yet, but the situation bears monitoring. I maybe should take the tire in for repair soon. I dare not pull the nail out right away lest that allow the air pressure to go down rapidly.

We've been having some frustration with our expensive new DVD/VCR machine (a gift to me from Fran for our anniversary). No matter what rewriteable DVD disc we put in for recording shows off the TV, the DVD says it is an "incorrect disc." Sigh.

Fran and I are considering a short vacation, up to around ten days or so, next month. We might go back to a favorite area of CO for the first time in 4-5 years, assuming no new injuries or any conflicts with Fran's rehearsing and performing schedule. Hope it works out.

Later. The latest dysfunctional DVD discs were successfully returned and then new ones purchased, and these apparently actually do work in our machine. Yea!

I gave Frances a long massage this evening, with "Living Out Loud" as our background entertainment.

Experts warn we are close to a quite serious economic failure and to a pandemic of bird flu, fatal so far for the majority of its human victims. Others say that a major terrorism attack in this country, with losses at least as severe as, and likely even worse than, the 9/11 mayhem, is probable before long. They think at least one use of weapons of mass destruction will be attempted here within five years. Global warming, almost certainly, has already begun to change worldwide weather patterns adversely, with more of that to come. Best to appreciate and enjoy things while we can. If such predictions come to fruition, minor difficulties like DVD discs that do not work in our machine will surely seem rather inconsequential.

8/18/05-Thurs.-After years of feeling mostly half-awake and frequently miserable from too little rest, I've been getting to bed somewhat earlier in the last several days. I hope to continue doing so. This has led for the first time in a good while to my having dreams that I remember on waking. In one quite recently, I am reproached as I'm about to get up by a woman who seems to be working for the thought police. It is night as yet, and she is bending over me, staring into my face as I am lying there still, just having awakened. She comments that I have been dreaming again and reminds me it is against the law. The scene is somewhat reminiscent of an interrogation setting, with myself, of course, about to be questioned.

"The imagination is not to be permitted free reign," she says. "In dreams we have virtually no control over it at all. Hence the law." She looks somewhat like Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

As I try to come up with an angry retort or another suitable response, while at the same time just awakening, and so am feeling defensive, vulnerable, and disoriented, I gradually become aware that the setting is itself a dream, and that I am now truly waking up.

What is more, to my relief, we live in a time and country in which, despite a huge amount of propaganda being thrown at us via the media (which political spin affects enough of our electorate, this way or another, too often to negatively influence the voting results), the imagination is not merely not forbidden but is encouraged. I think, though, of works of fiction, or even of non-fiction (for example, Reading Lolita in Tehran) in which one can be considered subversive simply by thinking or dreaming, and even be punished severely for it.

Naturally, it was a relief to savor the experience as having been just a dream and to realize I was not committing any crime. But this odd nightmare also gave me more sympathy for people, in Iran or elsewhere, who have had reason to worry that in having or mentioning dreams they might betray themselves. Willy-nilly, they must be divided souls, afraid to expose the true, rebellious nature of their inner realms and so attempting to repress the natural richness of the private landscape, even as the creative spirit unquenchably lives on.

Meanwhile, back in our less than perfect but at least relatively real world, this morning I have a new dental appointment. Yesterday the dentist's staff called and informed me they would not after all be replacing the cracked crown with a new permanent one today, as they'd told me three weeks ago. Instead, only now are they going to make yet another mold.

Later. The visit with the dentist went about as well as could be expected. The next appt. is on 9/21. Perhaps then this tooth's current saga will be at an end.

Tonight Fran and I shall be helping Ron and his girls celebrate his birthday (50 years old today) by buying them all a steakhouse dinner.

8/23/05-Tues.-I think it would be better for my peace of mind to simply accept that the war is over, and that the political and Christian right in this country has won. Any liberties, powers, and pursuits of happiness that moderates and liberals, or even fiscal and constitutional conservatives, continue to have are at the pleasure of the extreme right wing, subject to removal without notice at its sole discretion.

The Right will, in my current view, enjoy a one-party like lock on US political hegemony indefinitely into the future, for decades at least, perhaps for generations, until or unless one of two things finally begins to make a difference: demographics or excess.

The policies of the ultra-conservatives are spun as being in tune with the values and needs of Hispanics and other minorities and of religious groups. In reality, in several key ways they are in fact exploiting of these potential voters' allegiances, while mainly benefiting a wealthy, powerful oligarchy. As the white majority becomes the white minority in this country, over the next twenty years or so, and the new majority begins to feel and use its growing power, Hispanics will have had a chance to assess which party better matches their aspirations. There is at least a chance most will eventually tend to cast their votes against the neo-cons.

Meanwhile, just as many Christians saw themselves in the 1960s and 1970s naturally at home with and a part of the civil rights and antiwar movements, so too, in the future, religious groups may once again see their values as more consistent with the policies of more moderate or even liberal politicians than seems to be the case now.

The neo-cons have been perhaps cynically realistic about how to acquire and maintain power and to fool most of the people most of the time, but their ideologically driven policies are too often divorced from reality. Nature has a way of forcing us, sooner or later, and usually not without discomfort, back to an awareness of the way things actually are.

Let us hope that the reality testing does not come with great pain for our nation, but it would be consistent with the way politics works for the ultra-conservatives to not be satisfied simply with control of the judiciary, the presidency, Congress, and much of the media for the next many years but to strive for even more, leading to corruption, intemperate foreign policies, an increase in and abuse of centralized power at the expense of state's or individual rights, fiscal irresponsibility, and successful efforts by a small faction to revise our basic laws to suit its special interests.

When such excesses are at last apparent and revealed, and assuming the principles of our democracy have not by then been totally gutted by those in control, we may have hope of a slow swinging back of the political pendulum.

Yet, for the electorate to forego what they know, the opposition will have to offer truly viable alternatives. Lately, the Democrats seem better at shooting themselves in the foot than anything else. As I hinted at earlier, it may be time for an entirely new party. Just as labor union leaders no longer appear able to offer anything relevant to most workers' day-to-day job experiences, so the Democrats seem out-of-touch with the needs of most people. The rise of the neo-cons is only partly due to their rough-and-ready tactics and brilliantly cynical long-term strategies. It is also significantly permitted by the opposition's division and weakness.

Until something better comes along and is recognized by the electorate as a real improvement over the lies and excesses of those currently controlling all branches of government, and I do not expect to live to see it, the average individual can but keep his or her proverbial head down and make the best of things in a world going gradually or swiftly mad.

Frances and I leave Friday morning for a few days in Waco. One of my nephews is getting married there over the weekend to a very nice lady.

Besides the tooth awaiting its second porcelain crown, to be cemented in next month, I have a previously pain free molar that now is giving me problems whenever I eat. It seems to be cracked. I hope things do not get too bad before I am scheduled to see the dentist again anyway. To deal with it now might interfere with Fran's and my plans for a vacation in the mountains of CO, starting in about ten days or so.

I am in the midst of quite a reading campaign, variously perusing at least half a dozen works, more or less at once. Interesting new tomes through which I'm progressing include: In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson, and Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn.

I was notified on the phone today that a decision has been made on my Social Security retirement claim, that "it is all set up." The rep would not tell me the specifics, saying I would need to await formal notice coming by mail. With luck, I'll not have to appeal the decision and, after getting the official word, can then simply await the commencement of benefits late in December.

8/25/05-Thurs.-This has not been a very positive day for us. After long preparation and anticipation, Fran received a quite bitter disappointment and is, accordingly, rather deeply depressed. She has so much else going for her, but when one's sights are set on one particular thing that seems to offer special fulfillment and meaning, and it seems almost to be in one's grasp, but then circumstances snatch it back again and perhaps dash one's hopes of ever attaining it after all, the letdown is awful. I wish there were something I could do to make her feel a lot better, but she deals with this kind of loss in her own way and largely by herself, although maybe distracted a little by our comically frenetic and eager canine.

In my case, the setback has been far less severe, but is troubling nonetheless. In my last entry, I commented that a Social Security representative (not my official one, as it turned out, but someone just speaking for her) had indicated on the phone that the decision had been made on my retirement claim and "it is all set up." I optimistically expressed the thought that perhaps all was now settled and I need only wait for the checks to begin to arrive.

Today, however, reality set in as, in our mail, I received a notice from Social Security. It informed me that, since for the years for which I had asked them to check with the employer, the 1960s, to verify my earnings records, that employer, the Department of the Army, could not confirm I had had any earnings, much less ones relevant to Social Security or Medicare, they had changed my official earnings record to show "no earnings." Accordingly, they enclosed a statement of my earnings as "corrected" by them that reveals no earnings. They indicated I could appeal but that it must be on a certain form and in writing and the process of my application would start over and be reviewed by a different claims representative.

There are several problems with this silly, Kafkaesque message. First, I had specifically not asked them to review any of my earnings records and, instead, had made clear that I believed the earnings record they had for me, a copy of which I had received a few months earlier, was accurate.

Second, the rep assigned to work on my claim never talked with me or had any written communication with me at all, till now, but instead apparently went off on a wild tangent completely on her own with no verification by me of any kind.

Third, if she had the gall to make things up about my allegedly asking for earnings records to be checked, why did she restrict the check to the Department of the Army? In my application I never claimed any earnings at all relevant to Social Security through the Department of the Army. Instead, I had said that the reason certain years (in the 1970s, completely other than those the rep had checked) in the earnings record already showed no earnings was because there were no earnings relevant to Social Security for those years, since I was then working for the Dept. of the Army which, as I informed them, did not take out Social Security at the time.

I certainly could have given her other employers to check had I known she was going to lie and say I had asked for such an earnings check. Then at least there was a faint chance some of the actual employers for the years the rep on her own chose to "verify" would have come forward with records from the 1960s to show I had indeed been working, as the Social security records previously had already showed, before they were altered by this incompetent or malevolent rep.

How is it that a first level Social Security employee is given this kind of power, to make up requests by the claimant and change official records, to his or her great detriment, without even consulting him? But, if the notice is to be believed, that is what has occurred.

So, of course, just as Frances' mom had to do in an ordeal with Social Security that lasted many months, before at last the matter was settled in her favor, tomorrow I shall start the doubtless lengthy process of making an appeal.

I am clearly not going to be at all sanguine again about the likelihood of a speedy and correct outcome of my application! It would not surprise me if before it is over I'll need to hire a lawyer to get Social Security to revise its records back the way they were before the rep got her hands on them and to honor its obligation to provide my proper benefits.

I should not be surprised, though, by how things are developing. While I, sometimes to my disadvantage, since it increased my processing time, was a stickler for trying to prepare claim decisions accurately as a disability examiner, I encountered many instances of slipshod efforts by initial caseworkers more intent to push claims through quickly than with either quality or doing right by the claimant. Naturally it is the same with other aspects of Social Security claims, and I now must suffer the kind of frustrations that too often were caused to claimants by our disability program system as well.

8/29/05-Mon.-Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds as high as 185 MPH at its peak yesterday, made landfall this morning in southern LA, MS, and AL. Officials estimate the total damage may equal or exceed that of Hurricane Andrew's collision with south FL a few years ago. But at least the so-called "doomsday scenario," in which enormous storm surges and breaches of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchatrain levees leads to massive flooding of below sea level New Orleans, appears to have been avoided. We have relatives on my mother's side in LA. Have yet to hear how they have fared in this latest challenge from nature.

I took the pooch on a walk this AM. Later I went to the bank and ran a couple other errands while Fran was visiting a friend with whom she practices duets. This evening Frances will be in a rehearsal with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. It appears she'll be "subbing" for an absent permanent member of the orchestra over the next several days.

She's now feeling better about the depressing disappointment she experienced late last week.

We are planning our CO vacation trip for 9/10-9/20. We'll have to get cracking to manage to do a number of chores right away, including processing wedding pictures (from the just past weekend) and putting out the monthly online newsletter about 12 days early.

The family get-together and wedding-related activities went about as well as could be expected. One of my nephews, Chris, got married to Helen. I like them both. The event was well attended. Indeed, the reception hall was too small, with standing room only for some. Temperature and lighting were also not ideal. Both the wedding and reception were indoors, at least, so that the intense sunny glare and stifling heat of Tess and Roger's wedding, about three months ago, were not suffered by the guests this time. As usual, Chris and Tess' parents, Horace and Leila, and some of their relatives, were very fundamentalist Christian clique-ish, standoffish, or simply quite rude toward other relatives, aggressively making it clear that we were NOT acceptable members of the official wedding party. One had the impression that, if she could find a way, Leila would have seen to it the bride and her family had not even invited us.

Leila and her ilk represent among the worst examples of religious hypocrisy and social bigotry with which I've been acquainted. Nor is there any possible justification for the kind of ostracism she and her dutiful offspring disciples practice. By herself, she is a good demonstration of the arrogant intolerance of many in traditional, established religions.

For the first time in quite awhile, there may be new neighbors on either side of our lot. We have yet to meet them, but have occasionally seen lights in each house during the evenings, plus at night one or two vehicles in the respective driveways about half the time.

My other nephew who was expecting to marry this year, Joel, sent a sad e-mail late today indicating the engagement and wedding are off. He did not explain other than to say they have discovered too many differences between them and that they are irreconcilable.

8/31/05-Wed.-It seems I jumped the gun in recent comments. As indicated with yesterday's entry in my "sister blog," Investor's Journal, I overreacted to a confusing letter from Social Security last week, but have now received a benefits award notice from that agency, and it is all I could have wished.

I may have been in error too in assuming we now have neighbors in the (at least formerly) empty houses to either side of ours. Even at night, the residents, if any, are more often away than not. Today someone came by just long enough to turn on a sprinkler in the front yard of the place to our left, but then disappeared again soon afterward. I have yet to see who it is that shows up from time to time. For all I know, it may be the old owners just trying to look after the property some till it is occupied again. More or less the same situation exists with the corner house on the other side of us.

My main error, as we all know by today, was in saying that the doomsday scenario was avoided in New Orleans. The tragedy there, plus in the entire south LA region, and in the adjoining states of MS and AL in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has turned out to be an absolutely huge social and economic disaster.

Have heard from my aunt and uncle who live in Vinton, LA, near the Texas state line. They are doing fine. However, there is no word at all of my cousins and their families who lived in New Orleans.

Fran visited that city last winter and enjoyed its then great aquarium and zoo facilities while on her way to a visit with her mom in FL. She notes that most of the creatures confined at both attractions are likely dead, unable to survive with no electricity, intense flooding, no fresh water, and no food. With the short notice before the storm, they probably did not get priority for evacuation. Ironically, wild snakes and even a shark have now been seen in New Orleans negotiating the deeply submerged streets.

Like so many others, I am assessing my values and thinking that, particularly as Frances and I are comparatively fortunate, I may want to be doing some volunteer work, just as she is already, not simply as a short-term response but maybe in some semi-permanent fashion. No knee-jerk reaction. Yet I can see it would be meaningful to make a positive contribution to something a little larger than myself. As a beginning in that direction, today I signed up to do more phone answering for KMFA, our classical radio station here in Austin, during its upcoming new fund drive.

I researched online this afternoon and found a reasonably priced inn in CO. It will take Puff as well. I made reservations for a full week's stay next month. This place is close to a ski resort near Durango. In the past, we've seen lots of neat wildlife in that area, bears, elk, etc. I had called first and confirmed the details of the accommodations. The rates are more reasonable since this is, in the northern hemisphere of course, the off season for skiing.

Yet another wild area in our walking routes is being cleared of almost all vegetation, in preparation for a redundant shopping center to be built. Yesterday morning I saw two good-sized bucks with fine racks in a church yard near the disrupted acreage.

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