Facing mortality

I don’t know why my neighbor’s death has affected me so deeply. Maybe it’s because I just turned 60 and I’ve realized that it’s all downhill from here. Or maybe it’s because his death was so sudden and unexpected. Or maybe it’s because I never got a chance to thank him for the lovely and tasty bouquet of lettuce that he left on our doorstep last Wednesday. Or maybe it’s because he was the best neighbor anyone could ask for. George helped us countless times over the past twenty years and never asked for or accepted anything in return.

Whatever the reason, I’m stunned by it and my heart is heavy.

George was not in the best of health, but he never gave up. He had survived a heart attack back in the seventies when treatment was practically nil. The result of that was a badly damaged heart and CHF. Because he was a long term smoker he also had developed COPD. But he coped and he found good doctors at the VA who fine-tuned his medicine. He looked great, and he stayed busy, always working in his garden, his shop or his greenhouse. And he never missed a good fishing day. He may have been retired, but he was always coming up with some new project. He had a very creative and fertile mind.

I last saw George when Connie and I were walking last Wednesday afternoon. He was driving his little pickup down our street, when he saw us he waved and flashed a big smile. I am so grateful that is the last image we have of him. I had wanted to tell him how great his lettuce bouquet idea was and that I thought it would be a big hit at the City Market.

George was an artist, he painted and created intricate wood crafts. His cactus planters were amazing. He had perfected a system of growing cactus in his greenhouse, he had it down to a science. And he created these fantastic wooden planters that he artfully arranged the cactus in. They were his best seller at the City Market, he could hardly make enough of them.

He painted the logo for our Tharpalooza burning man, and furnished enough wood for an inferno:

He loved going to the Farmer’s market at the KC City Market. He sold flowers, vegetables, and his wood crafts. He was amazed by how much city people would pay for his stuff and he thought they would buy anything. To test his hypothesis, he potted a thistle weed that was growing in his garden and sold it as an exotic flower for $25. That’s one of my favorite stories of his.

I loved visiting with George and listening to his stories. He was a great storyteller, a talent that I wish I had. George was active duty Air Force back in the fifties crewing a tanker. That was during the infancy of air refueling, when they were trying to perfect the technique. On one flight his plane went down in the North Atlantic, and he was the only survivor. I can’t imagine being alone in a life preserver in the middle of the frigid ocean and living to tell about it.

Needless to say, he was a tough old bird who had cheated death more than once. I worry that they put him into hospice too soon. I mean, the day after he checked into the VA, after driving himself down there? Did they just give up on him? I don’t know the particulars and the family didn’t know any, but I worry that hospice is sometimes code for euthanasia, just my opinion.

Regardless, I am thankful for twenty years of friendship with George, but my world is going to be a much colder place without him.

30 years

It was 30 years ago that I first released the Kinetics program for the IBM PC. 1984 was also the year this classic film was released:

I had a yellow bug and a hair cut almost like KB’s:

Kinetics originated a couple of years earlier on a Timex Sinclair ZX81. Advertised as the first computer for under $100, it cost $99 (a lot for a new college graduate). About all you could do with the Sinclair was to write programs, it came with BASIC burned into the ROM. I’ve always been a hands-on learner, willing to jump into something before knowing everything about it. So I played around with the Sinclair for weeks until one day it all clicked, and I was able to write programs that actually did what I wanted.

1984 was also the year of the famous Apple super bowl commercial by Ridley Scott.

Oh, how I longed for an Apple PC, but there was no way I could afford one. Instead I bought an IBM PC jr.

It had two floppy drives and two cartridge slots on the front panel. The keyboard was line-of-sight wireless, and would only connect when it was positioned just so. To save money I bought the amber monochrome monitor instead of color. Back in those days computers came with printed manuals (because they really did need them). I wish I had kept those IBM manuals, they were gorgeous and well written:

The Kinetics program was originally written in IBM BASIC. On the PCjr, BASIC was supplied on a cartridge. The advantage being that a real programming language was always ready without taking up system memory. Being stored in ROM, the BASIC would load very quickly, not needing access to the floppy disk or other storage.

1984 was also the year that PC-SIG was founded. They published an annual mail order catalog of public domain and user supported software. Programmers could submit their work. A friend gave me a copy of the compiler for IBM BASIC. So I compiled the Kinetics program and sent it to PC-SIG. If memory serves it was published in the 3rd edition, 1986.

Before the internet there was CompuServe and the dial up Bulletin Board System. ASHP operated a BBS they called Pharm-Net. It was an electronic meeting ground and forum for exchange of ideas. Renato Cataldo, who was with ASHP at the time, asked me to post the Kinetics program in the download area of Pharm-Net. If memory serves that was around 1987.

My uncle I.J. retired from IBM in the early eighties. He was so tired of keeping up with the latest tech that he vowed never to buy another new electronic device. He still has a rotary phone to this day. The rest of us have not been so inclined.

Who needs google glass if you have this 1984 invention?

Our cycling vacation

Day 1 – Warm up
We left home at 5 AM for our drive up to Sparta. It took us about 8 hours. I-90 in Minnesota was a horrible washboard, worse than Missouri roads. In Wisconsin, the GPS lead us off the interstate and over a scenic back road into Sparta. We took a few wrong turns but eventually found Speeds bike shop. We locked up the car in the fenced lot, and David the driver packed us up in the shuttle van for our drive to the trail head. Along the way he pointed out some highlights and gave us some tips on the trail ride.

We got to the trail head about 4 PM for our first day’s ride, a short 8 mile jaunt down to Trempealeau through the national wildlife refuge. A lot of trees shaded the sun, and the view, so we really didn’t see much scenery.

We got to town about 5, then biked around town and along the river, up to Perrot state park and back. For dinner we stopped at the Trempealeau Hotel, an historic turn of the century hotel which had been restored into a restaurant with a beautiful view of the river. I ordered the house specialty, walnut balls with spaghetti. I guess it had walnuts instead of meat, whatever, it was tasty. I also had a sampling of the local microbrews on tap, Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel, both excellent.

When we arrived at the Lucas House B&B, the owner was a little confused about our arraignment and tried to put all 3 of us into the same cramped room, with Kenzie on an air mattress. I said that I had paid for two rooms, and he said “well, I didn’t”. Then he asked if I knew when the other couple from the same company was coming in. Of course we didn’t know, so he decided to call Henry. Turns out Kenzie was the “other couple”, and we ended up with two spacious rooms and a shared bathroom.

Day 2 – Bird watching
Breakfast was a little sparse, cinnamon rolls, coffee and cereal, not exactly my idea of a full breakfast. We visited with the other overnighters, a couple of motorcyclists who just had to tell us they were recovered alcoholics (TMI?).

Trempealeau is an old river town which has been revived by commuters looking for the small town life, it reminded me a little of Parkville. We spotted a fiberglass sousaphone in someone’s backyard that had been turned into a flower planter, managed to get a blurry picture as I rode past. On our way out of town we stopped at the lock and dam to watch a barge go through. The ride down to Onalaska was peaceful and very relaxing. The trail ran through the wildlife refuge and alongside the Mississippi and Lake Onalaska. We first heard, then spotted, a couple of male blue heron’s taking flight in the distance, beautiful birds with super loud call. I turned to take a picture, heard something behind me, then felt the wind from the wings of a huge female heron as she flew right over my head, it took my breath away. This part of the trail was almost entirely shaded with what I started calling “tree tunnels”.

The 16 mile ride to Onalaska was over too quickly. We ate lunch around noon at a Mexican restaurant, then decided to venture on down to LaCrosse. Dave the driver had told us the LaCrosse city trail intersects with the River Trail. It wasn’t well marked, but we took a chance, and found ourselves eventually down at the riverfront in Three Rivers Park. We chilled out there for a while, then decided to take a short sight seeing cruise on the paddlewheeler LaCrosse Queen. It cruised up river to the locks and back, along the way we saw a couple of bald eagles. One eagle swooped down to catch a fish out of the river (he missed).

We made it back to the Lumber Baron B&B about 5 PM. It was a little shabby looking on the outside, with an ugly blue tin roof. We really didn’t know what to expect, but what a pleasant surprise. It was impeccably decorated in Victorian style, absolutely gorgeous throughout. Ken, the owner, said we were the only ones staying there that night, so the house was ours. While visiting with Ken, he asked Kenzie about her Central Missouri t-shirt. She said, “I go to school there, in Warrensburg”. Ken replied, “Oh really, I went to school there, for one year, but that was a long time ago. Where are folks you from?”. “A little town you’ve probably never heard of, Plattsburg.” “Well, no kidding, I’m from Stewartsville, left there in 1967”. It’s a small world after all.

We cleaned up then found a nice restaurant, Maggies, within walking distance. I tried to eat healthy and ordered the Asian chicken salad. But Connie got homemade potato chips with her dinner special, which were so good that we ordered a basket for all of us to share. Hey, it’s vacation, and those were the best potato chips ever. After dinner we sat out in deck chairs in back of the B&B for a spectacular view of the sunset over the lake. The B&B had a Jed Clampitt fancy eatin’ table in the parlor, so we played a few games of 8 ball before bed. I got the wifi password from Ken and checked my email. Sheesh, all these questions, why does nobody email me until I leave town.

Day 3 – Racing Butterflies
Breakfast the next morning was fantastic, it was a 5 course Victorian breakfast that had us so stuffed we could barely get back on our bikes. The ride from Onalaska to Sparta was supposed to be the most boring, according to Dave. And it was hot, in the nineties. But, there were some clouds and a breeze, and the humidity was much less in WI versus Misery. This trail wasn’t nearly as peaceful as the day before, with an active railroad on one side and I-90 on the other much of the way. The trail ran through a prairie preserve, which was filled with wild flowers and butterflies. Thousands of little yellow and black ones that raced up between and alongside us. We spotted several Monarchs among the milkweeds, I even managed to get a decent pic of one with my little travel camera.

We got into Sparta midafternoon and found a nifty mom & pop sandwich shop that had homemade bread and an old time soda fountain. Kenz and I got phosphates, but Connie had to have a shake (of course). Kenzie was having some back/shoulder trouble, so, after dinner, while the girls checked into the Franklin Victorian B&B, I rode her bike down to Speeds to have them put on handlebar extensions. I left her bike there overnight and picked up the car. We were so full from lunch, that we decided to skip dinner and catch an early movie. Inception was playing, Kenz and I thought it was great. After the movie we decided to hunt down some Wisconsin wine and cheese. So we headed to, where else, Walmart. Well, this was one Walmart that didn’t sell liquor. We asked the little checkout girl, and she thought the only liquor store in town closed at 8PM. We drove over there anyway and, sure enough, it was locked up tight.

Day 4 – Tunnels
Another huge breakfast, visited with some older folks from Chicago who were riding the trails in the opposite direction from us. They gave us some tips about the tunnels and the best place to eat at our next stop, Wilton. Kenz drove the car down to Speeds, while Con and I biked over. We said goodbye to the car again, and headed down the trail.

The trail to the tunnels was a long uphill grade, so it was a long slog getting there. I had stopped several times to take some pixs, and was way behind the girls. Eventually I came upon Con who was walking her bike because she had a flat. Thinking I was prepared, I had packed a repair kit and a pump. But, then I realized I had packed the wrong pump, it was for a schrader valve, and it didn’t convert over to a standard valve. 8 miles from anywhere, Connie thought about walking back. But we kept going, and shortly came upon an old fellow sitting in a lawn chair next to a shack he’d set up as a refreshment stand. We later learned the locals call him Tunnel Tommy. Luckily he had a tire pump. He said rider have flats in this area all the time from the sharp rocks. Sure enough I pulled a rock out of her tire that looked like a petrified thorn. So Kenz and Con relaxed at a picnic table in the shade and ate snacks while I patched her tube.

The first tunnel was 3/4 of a mile long. Carved out of solid rock, it was pitch black. The other end appeared as a tiny dot of light. We got out our flashlights and walked our bikes. A natural spring ran overhead in the tunnel, and water dripped throughout. It was a cool respite from the heat of the day.

The ride to the second tunnel was 7 miles, again mostly an uphill grade. The second tunnel was completely different from the first. It was shorter, about 1/4 of a mile long. The walls were finished with stone and mortar, instead of carved bare rock, and it was dry. The tunnel was close to town, so we met several people walking through it. The ride into Wilton was downhill, a nice break after all that climbing.

Again we got into town about 2 PM, and found a cute little cafe for lunch, sandwiches, fries, and pie. Before we got to town we were determined to find some wine, fortunately the cafe sold wine (nothing local though), so we bought two bottles. I didn’t have any panniers on my bike rack, just a bag on top. So, I put the wine bottles in plastic Walmart bags and hung one on each side of my handlebars, redneck style. The ride out to Amil’s Inn was 2.5 miles on a busy highway. The road had a wide paved shoulder, but it was still a challenge keeping the bike steady with a bottle of wine on each side while cars and trucks zoomed up your back at 60 MPH.

Amil’s Inn in Wilton was the highlight of the trip, not because of the house, furnishings or the location. Well, the house was immaculate, the furniture was beautiful hand-crafted Amish oak, and it was in a lovely location. But it was the innkeeper, Anita, who made this stop special. She was a hoot, and had us laughing from the moment we got there. Once again, we were the only guests, but this time we got special treatment.

After we cleaned up, we sat out on her front porch and relaxed. Anita came out and asked if we wanted to go with her to visit some Amish folk. She had gotten a call from an Amish furniture maker who wanted her to take some pix of a desk he had built. We piled in her little car and drove out to his shop. It was quite an experience talking with them. She is their English friend, and they were very open, and answered all our questions. We had always wondered if they built their own buggies. He said, not him personally, but other Amish people do. He did say he had built his own courting buggy, which in an open buggy without a top. Later, when we drove to another farm looking for cashew crush (“Well, you can’t come to Wisconsin and not have cashew crunch” said Anita), we met two young Amish men out on the road in their own courting buggies. All the women and children were barefoot. When we got to the bakery, grandpa (also barefoot) was outside in the shade cracking hickory nuts. He said, “she’s not here, she’s out milking, sit down and talk to me”. Well, we turned around, and here she comes, running full speed down the gravel road, in her bare feet. She had just finished hand-milking 13 cows. She was out of cashew crunch, but she did have cookies and other candy. On our way to the car we stopped and talked to grandpa, and found out he was born in Missouri, and then he named off his family members in Stanberry, Jamesport, and LaPlata. As we were leaving, the bakery girl stepped outside and started mowing the yard with a manual push mower. Again, in her bare feet!

On the way back to the inn we drove by a house where a half-dozen Amish men and a bunch of kids were standing around a long narrow hole that had been dug in the front yard. Connie said, “I think they’re burying somebody back there”. Anita slams on her brakes at the next intersection and turns the car around saying, “Not in the front yard! I have to see this!”. We drove by slow and couldn’t figure it out. There was a vegetable stand ahead, she said, “Let’s stop here so it doesn’t look like we turned around just to see what they were doing.”. While picking out some veggies, she asked the little girl at the vegetable stand what was going on at the neighbors. “Water problem” she said.

That night at the inn we played cards and had wine and cheese.

Day 5 – Lonely trail
Another huge breakfast: yogurt, potatoes, veggies, fresh fruit, and (finally) pancakes. Anita also baked muffins and banana bread, which we were too stuffed to eat, so she wrapped some up for us to go.

This day we rode through the third tunnel on the trail. It was a mix of the first two, carved solid rock in the middle with finished masonry on each end. At one point the highway came close the trail. We knew that Anita would be bringing our bags to our next B&B so I said to Con and Kenz, “wouldn’t it be funny if Anita drove by and honked and waved”. Sure enough, 5 minutes later a honk, and there is Anita waving at us. A short time later we stopped at the Elroy depot to eat muffins, and she comes out of the depot to say howdy. She said she stops at each of the little depot’s along the way to network and drop off muffins. As we were getting ready to ride, I found a pair of sunglasses on the ground, I thought they were Connie’s. No they weren’t, but Kenzie remembered seeing Anita drop something. We left them at the depot and asked the girl to call ahead and let her know we had found her sunglasses.

The Elroy to Reedsburg trail is the newest trail in the system, and one of the least used. We met 2 riders and one walker during the entire 30 mile length of the trail. We decided to pick up the pace, because it was going to be a long ride. The trail went by some very pretty lakes and marsh areas with some interesting rock formations. Apparently this area was a glacial lake 12,000 years ago until an ice dam broke unleashing a flood of biblical proportions which created the Wisconsin Dells.

We stopped at LaValle about 3PM to eat pizza at the Trail side cafe. About an hour later we were in Reedsburg. We walked into the depot and asked where the rest rooms were. “You must be Rick, Connie, and McKenzie”, she said. Yes, Anita had been there too!

The Parkview B&B is a huge old house which also once served as a physician’s office. It had no air conditioning and didn’t need any, those old houses are built to stay cool in the heat. The windows were open wide upstairs, and we could hear everything going on outside. So, when the clock tower struck the hour and the half hour, we heard it. And, when a siren sounded at 4AM, we bolted up out of our beds. It sounded just like a tornado siren to us. I looked outside and it wasn’t storming, but I kept thinking they always say it’s still right before a tornado hits. A couple of minutes later we heard fire trucks heading out with their sirens. At breakfast the innkeeper told us that they are so used to it, they didn’t even hear the siren. She said she’s complained to the city about the fire siren for years. It’s a volunteer fire department and they all carry pagers, so there is really no need for it. She came to the conclusion that firemen just like to make noise and race down the streets honking their horns.

That night the innkeepers were going to a chamber of commerce dinner meeting so we hitched a ride with them out to an Irish restaurant. But we were so full from our late lunch that we just ordered appetizers. We then stopped by the Normal Rockwell museum which was across the street from the restaurant. On the walk back we passed a huge liquor store, then turned around and went in. Con found her ChocoVine and I found some local Wisconsin cranberry wines. We were walking back to the B&B with our wine cache when our innkeepers spotted us and gave us a ride back.

Day 6 – Going home
Yet another huge breakfast.. with 5 female ministers. They were having a small retreat together, “this weekend we are not ministers”, said one. We had a nice visit with them. When I told them I was a pharmacist, one of them cracked, “yours is the most trusted profession, unlike ours”.

On the way back we cut through the country, down to Prairie Du Chien, once again through very pretty country. Then we drove over to Quasqueton, Iowa, the meeting town for RAGBRAI that Friday. That little town was thumping with hundred of bikers dehydrating in the beer gardens. I remember how tough it was last year, these stragglers had to be either crazy, or calling it quits for the day.

All in all, it was a great getaway, five days on bicycles with no TV, radio, computers, telephones, internet, news, or political ads. And no crowds (except for the short stop at the RAGBRAI spectacle). Slowing down and getting off the crazy train helps you appreciate the little things in life. Another vacation successfully pulled off by the world’s worst last-minute vacation planner.

Here’s a link to the slideshow on YouTube:
Our vacation video

And here’s a link to the pix on Picasa:
Our vacation pix

The dude abides

The social committee at the pharmacy organized a bowling party. The first thing I think of when anyone mentions bowling is the dude from The Big Lebowski. I had the T-shirt and some old RayBans, but no sweater or draw string pants. Looked on eBay, authentic “dude” sweaters going for $150-$200, too rich for my blood. So Connie and I went shopping at the Zona Rosa. We found some drawstring pants and a so-so sweater at Marshalls on clearance. Then we were walking down to eat, passed the Gap, and thought we’d take a look. Connie caught the sweater out of the corner of her eye, it was perfect, and on clearance for $23. I’d never curled my hair in my life, but I rolled it up in Kenzie’s curlers, in a haphazard way, and it turned out perfect. I made an iron on for Connie’s t-shirt, and we were set:
The Dude and His Special Lady Friend

Close up of Rick as the dude, only had 2 days to grow a goatee:
The Dude

Did Nobody See This Coming?

The warning signs have been there for years: Chinese melamine in our pet food, Chinese lead in our kid’s toys. Now it has finally happened, tainted Chinese drugs have found their way into the medication supply of our hospitals. Baxter recalled their entire line of injectable heparin after nearly 500 reports of allergic reactions, including twenty one deaths.

The story in the New York Times describes a confusing network of small, unsupervised, family-run workshops that are harvesting and processing pig intestines for heparin extraction and export to the US. In today’s corporate world, it is dollars before safety, they save a penny by using an unknown source and the FDA turns a blind eye. Instead of paying a few cents more for pig intestines from our own USDA inspected facilities here in this country, they import it from some third world country, unbelievable. In their way of thinking, if it has not been shown to be harmful (yet) then it must be safe.

Also from the Times, “The Chinese factory that supplied the heparin is not certified by China’s drug regulators to make pharmaceutical products. Because the plant has no drug certification, China’s drug agency did not inspect it. The United States FDA said this week that it had not inspected the plant either — a violation of its own policy — before allowing the company to become a major supplier of heparin to Baxter International in the United States.”

I had no idea that we are getting *any* medication from China, let alone a critical life-saving drug like heparin, which is used in our sickest patients. Regardless of whether the contamination was accidental or intentional, these revelations shake my confidence in the safety of our nation’s drug supply.

This situation stems not only from corporate greed, but our own complacency and apathy. The FDA needs to be held to the fire. Under Bush, FDA has become a toothless corporate lackey. They removed all children’s cough and cold syrups from the over-the-counter market because (ostensibly) American’s are functionally illiterate and unable to follow simple directions. Meanwhile they take their eyes off the ball and let poisoned drugs into our supply chain.

Last year the Chinese executed the chief of their FDA, I think heads need to roll here too, including the corporate CEO’s. These bottom line focused CEO’s with their multi-million dollar salaries need to be held accountable for their lack of stewardship. Safety should be always be the first concern of any health care provider, not the bottom line.

But you know what will happen, they will find some lowling on the corporate ladder to blame, some grunt who was simply doing what he was told, probably working the night shift.

Searching for the real Bobby Fischer

I’m sure 99% of the people who are reading this have no idea who Bobby Fischer was. But when I was a goofy, klutzy, pimply-faced high school geek, he was my hero.  He was a certifiable chess genius who beat the Soviets at their own game at the height of the cold war.

Bobby died last month from the complications of renal failure, after a long, slow descent into the hell of schizophrenia.  Bobby was a child prodigy who came out of nowhere to beat the reigning American chess champion when he was 13 years old. A few years later, while still a teenager, he defeated a grandmaster in only 21 moves.

His match with the Russian master Boris Spassky in 1972 was broadcast live on TV as if it were the world series.  After he won, he became an instant American hero.  He went from total obscurity to the height of fame.  But then Bobby slipped into the pit, never defended his title, and didn’t played another public chess match for 20 years.

He did return to the board in 1992 for a rematch with Spassky, and he won again.  The match was played in Yugoslavia, which, at the time, was under UN sanctions.  The first Bush declared that his participation was illegal and issued a warrant for his arrest.  He lived out the rest of his life in Iceland, still wanted by the US government.

Nobody asks to get paranoid schizophrenia, so I can forgive for some of the outrageous things he said and did in latter life, what a sad thing to happen to such a great mind. I can easily forget the bearded dishoveled madman he became.  Instead, I choose to remember the strikingly handsome young man with piercing eyes who crushed the Soviets and became a hero to all us geeks.