Category Archives: Quality of Life

Nelson Mandela Is Free

Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.

I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.

“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.

Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.

And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.

Nelson Mandela is free.

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You…Right?

Gravity, it seems, has become a controversial subject once again! For most of my life I had been under the impression that gravity is an attractive force; every reference work I have found describes gravity as being attractive; yet apparently there is a portion of the population who disagrees. Let me elaborate.

The school where I work is, on election days, a polling station. Upon such occasions, the polling booths are set up near the main entrance; students are routed away from there, and everything proceeds as normal. I appreciate the dedication of the volunteers who monitor the polls all day, and usually stop on my way out to exchange a thankful comment or a bit of polite banter, depending on how tired they appear. A couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers seemed to have had a very hard day. His face bore a heavy frown of weary disgust. I made the mistake of trying to cheer him up. My new business cards had just arrived from the print shop, and I handed him one with a friendly smile. The cards advertise this website; the front side asks “Are you terribly curious?” and the back reads simply “terriblycurious.com”. When I give someone a card, the usual response is to read the front and ask, “What’s this?” Whereupon I reply, “You see? It works!” Not the cleverest thing in the world, but it’s nearly always good for a quick grin.

Not that day! My disgruntled victim looked at the card and sneered, “What’s this?” I was already regretting my choice of daily public relations, and decided against the banter.

“It’s a general knowledge website,” I explained. Waving my hand about in an awkward fashion, I added needlessly, “I’m a teacher.”

His sneer grew into a snarl. “Hah!” he spat, obviously of the persuasion that teachers fall somewhere between pickpockets and drug dealers on the scale of social undesirables. “All right then!” he continued, as if to say let’s see if you know your stuff. “Is gravity a push or a pull?”

I hesitated for a second. My class had just finished experimenting with gravity; we had established to our satisfaction that an object held above the floor will, upon being released, fall to the floor. We had furthermore concluded that this behavior was due to a pulling force known as “gravity”. I considered the possibility that the gentleman confronting me was joking in a strangely belligerent mode, but a second glance at his expression rendered that hypothesis incredible. I gave the most concise answer I could: “Gravity is an attractive, or pulling, force.”

“Huh!” My antagonist tossed the card on the registration table in an overt gesture of perceived worthlessness. “Shows how much you know. Gravity is a push! Look!” And he pulled a pen from his pocket, held it high above his head, and dropped it. As it hit the tabletop, he threw his head back and fixed me with a glare of triumph worthy of Louis Pasteur showing a germ through a microscope to a disbelieving critic.

I tried to smile without showing my teeth. “I’m afraid I have to disagree. You see, the pen falls to the table because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The origin of that field is the Earth’s center of gravity; the pen falls toward the origin, thus the force is attractive, or a pulling force.”

He was utterly unimpressed. With a final contemptuous grunt, he dismissed me and all my heresy with a dismissive wave and turned away; the interview had come to an end. I walked away mystified. How had this poor man grown as old as I with so little understanding of basic scientific principles?

Alas, in our time science has become politically useful, and therefore subject to controversy. The USA has the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the industrialized world in which a significant percentage of the citizenry flatly disbelieves what passes for common knowledge in the rest of the planet.

We need conservatives to make sure we keep those things worth keeping as we travel, each moment of every year, from past to future. Just as importantly, we need liberals to make sure we continue seeking the best possible future instead of clinging to a past which, every second, disappears beyond recall. As an educator, my nature is to work for the increase of knowledge. Our nation will not long remain competitive if we reject any knowledge gained simply because it does not fit our current understanding. The result would be a scientific community made up of individuals like my befuddled friend at the polling station. Our national pride would be the least of our losses. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us.

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.

CerroDeLaSilla

My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.

 

School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.

 

Old Dog, New Tricks: Part 3

October is here. More truthfully, October is halfway over! I have spent half the day improving my programming skills, which are…improving.

I have not created the killer app yet, but I have a few good ideas and an increasing understanding of how to translate them into functional code. I know what “architecture” means in the context of software design. I am 90% finished with the online course in the Ruby language available on Codecademy; 41% finished with the course in Javascript; working through C++ using CodeBlocks, and making progress in learning animation together with my son. He learns faster than I do, which is great because I love seeing him acquire a useful skill; it is also kind of discouraging because I used to learn that fast, and watching him makes me feel old. But it is inspiring as well, because he still likes to work with me and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Maybe old and young people are meant to work together. Old people have more discipline, persistence, and experience; young people bring energy, imagination, and a fresh outlook to the table.

So I went to the library today and came home with a stack of books, half of which involve technology. October is here, which marks one year and a month since I started blogging. Eight months since I started learning about programming; five months since I had the idea of building apps. Three months ago, I set a goal for myself to have built an app that is good enough for people to want to pay for, within a year. I am starting to think that just might be possible.

If it sounds like I am tooting my own horn today, you understand me completely! I feel terribly proud of myself for starting to learn how to interact with technology at age 42, instead of just going “gentle into that good night”. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

And (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) learning a new trick beats simply raging against the dying of the light.

The Best Chocolate Story Ever

Everyone likes chocolate. Some people love it more than any other sweet food. Then there are the true chocolate lovers, whose appetite for chocolate goes far beyond what the rest of us can understand.

Chances are you know one of these “chocoholics”. You may be one yourself. But there was never a chocoholic like my grandpa.

Grandpa was what they call, in the part of the country where he lived, a Character. An avid outdoorsman, his hunting exploits were the stuff of legend; his fishing yarns were so extravagant he was disqualified from the annual Liars’ Contest – nobody else’s tales had a chance. Small business owner, city planner, backyard inventor of the only 100% effective  system for keeping neighborhood dogs from fouling a lawn…in other words, a Character.

And Grandpa loved chocolate. That’s an understatement. Grandma, who kept the books for their store, chided him for raiding the chocolate crates in the storeroom; he would eat up all their profit, she said, only half joking. Grandpa blamed mice. Grandma observed that the local mice were conscientious enough to throw the wrappers away when they ate chocolate from the storage crates.

One day Grandpa broke out in a rash. He wasn’t running a fever, so he didn’t worry too much; but the rash wouldn’t go away. His friend the town doctor was mystified. “It seems like some kind of allergic reaction,” he mused. “You’ve never been allergic to anything, have you?”

“No,” Grandpa answered. “No allergies.”

“Well, what are you eating?” asked the doctor.

“I don’t know!” replied Grandpa. “I eat all kinds of stuff – whatever’s for dinner!”

“We have to rule out some basic foods, then,” said the doctor. “Let’s isolate you for a week or so – take a vacation at your cabin. Make a list of all the things you take with you; jot down what you have for every meal. Hopefully when you come home the rash will be gone, and we can eliminate the items on your list.”

Grandpa didn’t hesitate. His cabin in the Rockies was his favorite place to get away and do what he loved most: hunt and fish. He loaded up the car with the bare necessities – including fishing tackle and his favorite rifle – and set off.

A week later he returned. The rash was worse than ever.

“Good Heavens!” said the doctor when he saw Grandpa. “You look worse than ever! It’s a safe bet that something you eat is making you sick. It must be something you took with you to the cabin. What did you eat up there?”

“Well,” said Grandpa, “I brought some flour, eggs, and cooking oil for pancakes. Had some bacon. Coffee, no milk. Trout from the lake – delicious!”

“None of those thing should have given you such a rash. Are you sure you didn’t eat anything else? Nothing at all?”

Grandpa paused. “I did have a little bit of chocolate.”

“Aha!” cried the doctor. “How much chocolate did you take up there?”

“A twenty-five pound bag of bridge mix…”

“What? No wonder you broke out in hives! How much of that bag did you eat?”

By now, Grandpa was getting defensive. “What do you mean, how much of it? I ate all of it!”

“Good Heavens, man!” roared the doctor. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive!”

Red-faced, Grandpa yelled back, “And that’s not all! I ate a ten-pound box of Hershey bars, too!”

The doctor threw his hands up in resignation. After Grandpa left, he made a phone call to Grandma; the result was a chocolate-free diet for Grandpa. The rash went away.

It’s all true, and it’s the best chocolate story ever. If you think you can beat it, you are welcome to try.

It's Bad Luck to be Superstitious

“Superstition brings bad luck.” – Raymond Smullyan

Do you avoid stepping on cracks? Does it make you worried if you spill the salt, or break a mirror, or walk under a ladder? Are you afraid something bad will happen if a black cat crosses your path? If so, you are not alone. Many people share these – and many other – superstitions. But where did all these beliefs come from?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation”.

In everyday English, there are several reasons why the world seems not to make sense. One of these reasons is not having enough information to understand why things happen. It is easy to see patterns in the world around us; the human brain seems to be hard-wired for recognizing patterns. When we detect a pattern, we like to find the cause for the pattern. For example: on the twentieth day of every month, I feel a little more happy and relaxed than on other days. Why could this be? Is there something magical about the number 20? Not at all: I get paid on the twentieth of each month. But if you didn’t know that, and failed to guess the truth, you might find some other explanation.

Another reason for being superstitious is feeling afraid of what might happen. Nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future; yet some of us fear it and others do not. If you feel that you are in control of your life (whether this is true or not), you will not fear the future. If you feel that you have little or no choice in your life’s events, you will probably feel some degree of fear when imagining the future.

Finally, it is possible to believe that things happen for a reason, and still be wrong about the reason. For example, before discovering germs, most people around the world believed that diseases were a punishment from Heaven, or caused by evil spirits hovering in the air! (When Dr. Semmelweiss proposed in 1847 that diseases were caused by germs, the other doctors made fun of him. They got him kicked out of the hospital where he worked. They even had him declared insane and locked up. But that is another story!)

It is pretty easy to prove that diseases are caused by germs, so not many people are superstitious about sickness anymore. But many old superstitions are still popular, probably because there is a bit of truth to them!

Walking Under a Ladder

Walking under a ladder is considered bad luck in many parts of the world. The reason for this one is fairly obvious: the more you walk under ladders, the more likely you are to knock them over and get pelted with buckets of paint, metal tools, construction workers, and whatever else is at the top of the ladder. There is really no reason to be superstitious about ladders; it is just good common sense to walk around them instead of under them.

Breaking a Mirror

Breaking a mirror is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck. The reason for this is not quite as obvious as the one about ladders. Yes, when you break a mirror, there is always the risk of cutting yourself while picking up the pieces; but a cut will heal in seven days, not seven years. Why would anyone believe seven years of bad luck?

You may not think of a mirror as a valuable and prized possession, but they were until about 300 years ago. Before then, mirrors were hand-made by artisans who knew the secret of producing sheets of glass with a backing made from mixing tin and mercury. The process was difficult and only known to mirror-makers in the city of Venice, and mirrors were extremely expensive. Most people could not afford to own a mirror. If your family had a mirror, and you broke it, they would probably be upset with you for seven years or so! Thus the superstition.

Spilling the Salt

Like mirrors, salt was difficult to produce in the ancient world. This made it so valuable that the Roman army even paid their soldiers in salt (better than gold for a soldier, as salt also can disinfect wounds and keep meat from spoiling); this is the origin of the word “salary”. The only bad thing about getting paid in salt is that it dissolves in water; if you drop it in a puddle, your salary is gone. Bad luck indeed.

Black cats

As opposed to ladders, mirrors, and salt, there is no real link between black cats and bad luck. But to the superstitious mind, always looking for a reason (and not really caring if the reason is a logical one or not), black cats are handy scapegoats. Why? Because there are so many of them all over the place. Chances are, if something good happens unexpectedly, there will be a black cat nearby. The difference is that we never look for a reason when something good happens; we seem to think we had it coming. On the other hand, when misfortune strikes, it must have been that cat!

The comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”  Which makes sense to me.

Superstition in Sports

Superstitions are most often due to a sense of not being in control of things, of wanting to gain control, but without any real plan for doing this. It is interesting – and perhaps instructive – that superstition is much more common in some sports than others. More to the point, the sports that breed superstition are the ones where the player has the least control. Baseball players are famously superstitious; golfers a bit less. These sports involve hitting hard balls with hard clubs at very high speeds and at distances that allow the wind to become a factor. Tennis players are not prone to superstition. They are hitting a soft ball with a flexible racquet over a short distance, and are able to control the ball with a high degree of confidence. Likewise, you will never hear an archer or a rifle marksman talk of superstition. Their equipment is very precise and allows almost total control of the results. Tennis players, archers, and marksmen talk about skill, not luck.

And that is why I titled this post “It’s Bad Luck to be Superstitious”. The way to achieve success is to maximize your control over as many factors as possible. Anything else is probably a waste of your time and energy. Of course, control starts with yourself – which is why it is such an unpopular word. Until you are in control of yourself – words, actions, and thoughts – you can never really be in control of anything outside yourself either. Self-control is the key to every kind of success. It is also the end of superstition.

How Can I Stop Hiccuping?

A hiccup (or for all good folks of the British persuasion, a hiccough) is defined by the National Library of Medicine as “an unintentional movement (spasm) of the diaphragm, the muscle at the base of the lungs. The spasm is followed by quick closing of the vocal cords, which produces a distinctive sound.”

Which would make a hiccup an onomatopoeion, too.

Getting hiccups seems to be an integral part of the human experience. There are all kinds of supposed remedies for hiccups, most of them less than satisfactory. If aspirin had the same failure rate as all the different home remedies for hiccups, nobody would buy it anymore. Some people will advise you to drink a glass of water; others will tell you to drink it upside down (hey, if you start choking, maybe the hiccups will go away). One common trick is to hold your breath. Another is to have someone startle you, which usually only works after you have forgotten to expect them to startle you, by which time the hiccups may have stopped on their own. Personally, I have had the best luck emptying my lungs and holding my breath out. Nothing works all the time; some of them may not work for you at all. Still, I would bet that every one of us has been able to beat the hiccups at least sometimes. What is the best way to make them stop?

Going back to the definition of hiccups, we see that they are spasms (or quick involuntary movements) of the diaphragm, which is the large flat muscle dividing the chest cavity from the abdomen, and which we use to force air in and out of the lungs. So hiccups don’t just make it hard to breathe; they do so because they take over the function of the breathing muscle.

The trick to making hiccups go away is to regain breathing control. Any exercise, involving water or not, that helps you control your breath will also help rid you of hiccups. If it doesn’t work immediately, don’t give up. You are taking back control of your own muscle, and it will work if you persist.

Some cases of hiccups have a pathological cause, and need to be treated medically. The Guinness Book of World Records has Charles Osborne as the hiccup champion of all time; he was unfortunate enough to have hiccuped more or less continually for 68 years. There is no record of a cause for this lifelong affliction; but another man, Christopher Sands, suffered from hiccups for over two years due to a brain tumor putting pressure on certain nerves.

One thing makes more sense to me than the rest. The phrenic nerve is connected to the diaphragm, and seems to be involved in hiccuping. Some doctors advise pinching the skin over the deltoid muscle (the deltoid is the big muscle on the outside of the shoulder that looks like a triangle – or the Greek letter delta); a branch of the phrenic nerve passes over this muscle. Even if this doesn’t take care of the hiccups, it always feels nice to get a shoulder massage. I think next time I have hiccups, I will ask for a shoulder rub! If I can hold my breath and drink a glass of water while getting my shoulders rubbed, I think my chances are pretty good.

Good luck fighting the hiccups!

Of Honor And Motor Oil

I want to tell you about the best automotive service center in Texas. It’s Kwik Kar in Irving, on the corner of Esters Road and Pioneer Drive. Every location is independently owned, so I can’t vouch for the others, but that one is the best. By the way, this is not a paid advertisement. The folks at Kwik Kar have no idea I’m writing this. It is the result of gratitude.

The first time I went to Kwik Kar for an oil change, I went reluctantly. I usually change my own oil; it’s not hard, doesn’t take much time. I am the kind of guy who likes to do things myself if I can (and ever so often, when it might have been better to hire a professional). I enjoy fixing things, enjoy the feeling of having left something better than when I found it. Some people who know me well might say I am a bit of a perfectionist, a nit-picker, even a tough customer. They would be right. I demand a lot of myself, and no less of someone providing goods or services.

That weekend was a tough one. I had planned on changing the oil in my car – after changing the A/C compressor and power steering belts. This is usually a piece of cake – very simple. I had changed plenty of belts before. Famous last words!

After a couple of hours, I began to realize that my car had been designed by a team of highly skilled engineers whose main design objective was to keep me from changing the power steering belt. The other belt, the one for the A/C, was as easy as I had expected. But the power steering belt was a different story altogether. They had placed the tensioner bolt – the piece that needs to be loosened before removing a belt from a pulley – about a foot up from the bottom of the engine, right between the engine block and another very large part, in a crack barely wide enough to fit a butter knife. The thing is as close to the exact center of the entire motor assembly as anyone could wish it weren’t.

In the end I had to get a special tool made up of a very stubby socket for tight spaces, and a long flat handle about the thickness of a butter knife. Apparently I am not the only one who has had this type of problem. It still didn’t work. At this point I started to feel frustrated. I was tired, my back and arms were stiff and sore, and I had removed all the skin from my knuckles. So I went to Kwik Kar. After the oil change, I asked the mechanic if he had had trouble with the belt. “No,” he said, “It doesn’t need to be changed.”

“The other one was cracked,” I told him.

“This one wasn’t,” he replied. It was a $75 job, twice the price of the oil change. I thanked him, paid for the oil change, and left.

It is nice to find a business that provides good service at a fair price. When it is staffed by pleasant people, so much the better. The hard thing is to find all this, and the kind of old-fashioned ethic that truly puts the customer first, even ahead of legitimate profit.

Like anyone else, I have had repair shops try to take me for all they could. My wife once paid for an oil change, after which I found the same filter as I had put on her car the last time. That is one of the reasons I like to do things myself. Honesty is, unfortunately, something of an unexpected bonus these days.

The mechanic at Kwik Kar would have been perfectly justified in changing the belt on my car. I asked him for the service. He checked the belt, found it still good, and even put the little splash shield back in place that goes on the inside of the fender. Not only did he go out of his way to serve a customer, he did so in the process of saving the customer money at no profit to himself. That goes beyond honesty. That is something truly rare: honor.

I think I might just keep going back to Kwik Kar for oil changes. You should too.

Another New Trick

So this weekend will be the second one I have spent on Codecademy learning some programming skills. How did this happen to me? A year ago, I did not even have a blog! My computer was a tool for e-mail and reading the news and checking the weather! I guess I had an “aha!” moment. After switching out the operating system on my computer, I felt very proud of myself for about half an hour. Then when the glow wore off, I realized I had a lot of work to do. I always knew there is a lot going on beneath the surface of computer applications – I once translated the user’s manual for a business management software system – but I never felt like programing was something I could learn to do. After successfully doing one small bit of computer alteration for the first time, I started to feel like it might be doable. So I got started! Codecademy is a site where you can get free lessons and practice in several programming formats. It’s fascinating. I have learned a tiny bit about how to cause some of the effects I enjoy about computers, like being able to search a database and make little colored circles move around by clicking on them. More importantly, I am being reminded that it is never too late to learn something new, and that knowledge is power, and so learning new things adds to your freedom of choice.

Never stop learning!