Thursday, February 15, 2018

Heart To Heart


If a man lived in the sea caves of Apostle Island, ate dirt, and drove to town only to buy Bayer’s 81-milligram aspirin, he could still detect the holidays.  The drugstores and supermarkets flood their shelves with candies of the season---Peeps and chocolate eggs for Easter, candy corn for Halloween, striped canes for Christmas, and now, the minuscule pastel hearts with inscriptions like “Be Mine, “Kiss Me” and “Bring The Whipped Cream.”  The greeting card racks consolidate their ranks to make room for sweethearts.  Grinning red roses peek out from every store orifice.  And the nearby restaurants gear up for the one night each year when every seat will be filled.

When we were kids, Valentine’s Day was an ongoing challenge.  At first, of course, nobody paid it much mind since it involved girlfriends and the absurd possibility of marriage, neither of which applied to any of us boys.  Who had the time or the inclination for that sort of foolishness?  But then, there is always that one young lady who somehow draws a second look, and everything slowly changes.

The Grand Ruler of our third grade boys class at Saint Patrick’s School, Sister Mary Albert, decided one Valentine’s Day to connive with the Premier of the third grade girls for the classes to swap V-Day cards, bringing about great consternation across the land.  We could buy as many cards as we wished, but were required to get at least three, which could be addressed to any sweet young things we desired.  Since the nuns wished no feelings to be hurt by a dearth of cards, each kid would come up separately and collect his or her bounty.  There can only be so much privacy involved, however, when honey-voiced blondies like Mary Beth Lebrecque bring wheelbarrows to school.

The safe thing to do, of course, is to buy every girl a card, but that’s an expensive proposition with 32 candidates.  There’s also the possibility that all 32 will think they are one of your chosen three and Brunhilda the Large will become sweet on you and perhaps expect smooching.  On the other hand, skimping might bring about repercussions from ignored gal pals, tomboys who could beat you up and young ladies who were foolish enough to purchase a card for a cad like you only to find themselves spurned.

Then, of course, there is the message.  This requires great care.  These cards have all kinds of dangerous and misleading verbiage.  “Let’s get together soon!” is not an invitation you’d like to send to Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, an obvious psycho, or to Rachel Delaney, who looks like a manatee.  If you want to write your own message, how cozy do you dare to get with Mary Beth Lebrecque, who may have no interest.  Even a third-grader is reluctant to make a fool of himself.  The average kid will settle for something like “Have a nice day!” but is this a blown opportunity for a shot at the brass ring?  After all, somebody has to become Mary Beth’s young beau.  What’s that old expression?  None but the brave deserve the fair. 

All things considered, the valentine exchange worked out surprisingly well.  There were no reported suicides and a couple of romances bloomed.  I didn’t send a card to Mary Beth because I hate to wait in line for anything, but I don’t think she noticed.  There’s only so much time in the day to read gushy fan mail, anyway.  The whole affair did make me more conscious of the possibilities, however.  You find yourself developing a rating system involving looks, brains, compatability and sports-playing ability.  Or, if you’re my classmate Chuckie Sullivan, throwing it all out and going back to looks.  If I had just perfected my selection technique in the third grade, perhaps I could have avoided foolish errors in later life.  Sister Mary Albert (“Make wise choices”) tried to show me the way, but I often fell short of the mark.  I’m still trying to atone for my shortcomings.  I think I’m getting better.


A Cedar Key State Of Mind 

“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”---Popeye the Sailor Man

There’s something to be said for tradition.  In our case, we have at least one night a year planned in advance, with our annual Valentine’s Day trek to the tiny Gulf Coast village of Cedar Key, a mere 70 minutes in the distance.  We’re beginning to feel an obligation to make the trip, like it or not, with all the emails we get the following days from Flying Pie readers who enjoy the  pictures of the happy couple and the charming town, out-of staters like Fontaine Maverick of San Marcos, Texas, who keep Cedar Key on their bucket lists but can never manage to get on the plane.  Don’t worry, Fontaine, you can show up ten years from now and the place will still be the same.

Dinner is always at the Island Hotel Restaurant, an intimate spot with limited tables.  We had to show up at 5:30 this year instead of the usual 6 p.m., so it’s obvious we’re giving this place too much publicity.  The Island Hotel is not on the water like most of the other eateries in town, so first we go down to the shore and toast the day with a bottle of Korbel’s champagne.  Or these days, make that a four-pack, a lot less messy than recorking the larger bottle.  The earlier reservations made us a little early for sunset so we moved on to the giant pier for pictures.

Photographs are kindly taken by chance passers-by, usually visitors to Cedar Key who have a nice story to tell.  This year’s photos are courtesy of Pat and Richard from Sevierville, Tennessee, annual visitors to the tiny town who make it a three day stop on their way to other select Sunshine State ports of call.  “When we run out of restaurants, we run out of town,” says Pat, who appreciates the pace of the town, the live-and-let-live mojo and the Spring-like weather.

One of the problems with photographic records, of course, is that they provide incontrovertible evidence that Bill and Siobhan are getting older every year.  In order to avoid future pictures of wobbly granny-people kissing on the dock, we’ve decided to incorporate body doubles in the coming years.  If our substitutes look toward the sunset, you’ll never know the difference.  Before you titter, consider that this sort of chicanery has worked swimmingly for many famous people, notably those provocateurs of duplicity, Donnie and Melania. 

So, another Valentine’s Day in the books, another island visit.  We embrace these unique occasions to play dress-up, to escort our brides to happy destinations, to reinforce our fealty and affection.  The holiday-spankers at Grumble Central rush to the parapets to declaim the moment, yoking these days with merchantry run amok, floral profiteering, a raft of shrill complaints.  “We treat our wives wonderfully every day,” they announce, “and not just on special occasions.”  Well, so do we, Mr. Humbug, just a tad more wonderfully on the now-and-then holiday.  Not to mention, there are a few of us out there who need the occasional tap on the shoulder to send us in the proper direction.  Last time I noticed, there were not many members of the gentle sex complaining about the imagined ills of St. Valentine’s namesake.




Me and You

(1) Percy the Pelican surveys his realm, (2) Mysterious stranger lurks, (3) Siobhan approaches official photographers Pat & Richard (that’s them on the bench), (4) Requisite kissyface photo, courtesy of Rich.

The Courtship Of Eddie McCauley

Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it, or so advises the soothsayer.  Sixth-grader Eddie McCauley, having digested The Courtship of Miles Standish, should have known better.  The famously reluctant Miles made the epic error of sending his best friend, John Alden, to propose to the apple of  his eye, Priscilla Mullins, whose pert reply was, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”  We all know how that worked out.  Well….all of us but Eddie.

Seems, McCauley had a crush on a fellow sixth-grader named Melanie.  A little shy, and fearing his intended would recognize his handwriting, he paid a friend named Tom to deliver a single rose to the girl and to write a mysterious note advising he would contact her later.  Tom followed through and presented his bounty at lunch in the school cafeteria on Valentine’s Day.

Melanie was thrilled, sharing the missive with a group of tittering friends.  She took her rose, got up from the table and sauntered over to where Tom and Eddie sat.  “I know what’s going on here,” she said, smiling.  “So, Tommy---there’s no use in being coy.  The Valentine’s Dance is tonight.  You can pick me up at seven.”  She turned and walked a few steps, turned and said, “Oh, and hi, Eddie.”

Second Chances

Have you ever met a person in a bar, at a party, on the train, struck up a conversation and were totally smitten but left without following up?  You spend an eternity regretting your lack of chutzpah, for all you know he or she could have been The One.  I did it once, but never again.  In later life, I quickly---and illegally---parked my car to jump out and catch up to a smooth walker who turned out to be Pamme Brewer.  Later, I wrote a note to a Miami dress salesman who brought my second wife, Harolyn Locklair into my store, asking him to pass it on since I had no other way of finding her.  In the note, I only half-kiddingly told her I loved her even though she had visited little more than an hour.  Months later, Harolyn was passing through town and came back to the shop.  Her hair was different and I didn’t instantly recognize her.  “Well, for crying out loud,” she said, “you told me you loved me.”

Michael Young, sitting in seat 2C on a flight from Belfast to Newcastle, was joined in 2B by Juliet Lever.  The conversation was delightful and Juliet was a beauty (Yes, I know, this never happens to you.)  Michael, alas, was too intimidated by Julia’s magnificence to procure her vital information.  At the end of the flight, she was gone forever.  After mooning for days, he got himself on a BBC radio program and tried to track her down, sadly to no avail.

What to do?  Young contacted the airline and begged the personnel to help him get in touch.  We don’t think so, Michael.  Ever hear of stalkers?  How about lawsuits against airlines who put stalkers in touch with their prey?

Fortunately, one sympathetic young lady in the airline office decided to let Juliet make the choice.  She contacted her and left Michael’s telephone number.  Juliet called, they went to dinner, a whirlwind romance ensued and they got married 30 days later.

Ain’t Love wonderful?


That’s all, folks….

Thursday, February 8, 2018

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done


“They said it couldn’t be done….they said nobody could do it.”---Ligget & Myers Slogan

When we were kids, there were few absolutes, not many certainties in life.  One guarantee, however, was that no one would ever find a cure for polio.  The other was that the Red Sox would never win the pennant.

As we negotiated life’s trails, other impossibilities became apparent.  The mad bombers of the Irish Republican Army would never make peace with the government of England.  The United States would never elect as president an ignorant misogynist with Hitlerian tendencies.  Cancer would never fall to the Armies of Medicine.  The Berlin Wall would stand forever.

None of these were as impossible, however, as the likelihood that our old pal, Michael O’Hara Garcia, the self-styled Lothario of Gainesville, would some day not have a date.  MOG would prowl the streets of town in his spiffy Silver Phaeton, shooting arrows at young ladies on the sidewalks until one fell.  His eventual success was inevitable, as much a guarantee as the sun setting each day in the West.  When, on one rainy day, this failed to happen, we were seized with amazement.  If Garcia could be defeated in his Quest, anything might happen.  And pretty much anything has.  About the only thing we can still be certain of is that no one will ever shoot an automobile into space and send it off to Mars.  All other impossibilities are fair game.

Tales Of Long Ago

I was named after my maternal grandfather, Bill Gosselin, a formidable man easily met, a fellow fond of conversation, racing dogs and alcoholic spirits.  The fact that Bill Gosselin was an absolutely confident and fearless character is easily proven when one considers that he voluntarily married my grandmother, Celia, then known as Alphonsine.  There are many ways of describing Celia.  “Not especially cuddly” would be one of the kindest.

Bill opened a neighborhood bar on Union Street in South Lawrence.  He named it The Whippet Club and painted a couple of the dogs on his green-and-cream windows.  The tavern did well, which was not a great miracle in South Lawrence, where 101% of the population was known to bend an elbow.  At five years old, I often got to sit at the bar, where the patrons posed me baseball questions.  “Ask him anything,” my proud grandfather would announce, and they did.  The MLB standings.  The batting averages of the entire Red Sox roster.  The starting lineup of the St. Louis Browns.   I knew it all, and I had to.  Not everybody earned a seat at Bill Gosselin’s bar.

Perhaps it was his lung cancer or maybe just his innate joie de vivre, but my grandfather drank more than his share.  When my grandmother showed up to pour him into the car at closing time, my job was to sit in the back seat and hold his hat.  By the time I was six, he was in bad shape, restricted to the house and visited by traveling nurses daily.  I watched as they cleaned a foul-smelling silver dollar-sized opening in the side of his neck, then bandaged it back up.  More than once, he fixed his eyes on me and warned, “I got this from Camel cigarettes, Billy.  Don’t ever smoke.”  That image was etched into my brain.  I never touched the stuff.  In those days, practically everyone equated cancer with death.  You got it, you died.  A diagnosis was grounds for jumping in the river or high-diving from a tall building.  Fortunately for the citizens walking below, suicide was a mortal sin, the last thing you want to commit when the Silver Elevator is on the way.


The Cancer Vaccine

For years, Cancer has been The Last Holdout, the machine-gunner in the world’s Alamo, holding off Santa Ana’s vast armies and anything else that was thrown at it, including kazillions of dollars in research grants.  Decades ago, scientists were “on the edge” of success.  They’re still out there, carving holes in its defenses but not getting all the way through.  Until, it seems, perhaps now.  Could this be the day Michael Garcia doesn’t get a date?  Dr. Ronald Levy is cautiously optimistic.

A new cancer treatment at Stanford University using immune-stimulators to target tumors in mice is having shocking results.  After injecting a combination of two immune boosters directly into solid mouse tumors, Levy’s research team stated the vaccination eliminated ALL traces of the specifically targeted tumor from the animal’s entire body, including metastases that were previously untreated.

“When we use these two agents together, we see the elimination of tumors all over the body,” Levy told the Stanford Medicine News Center.  “This approach bypasses the need to identify tumor-specific immune targets and doesn’t require wholesale activation of the immune system or customization of a patient’s immune cells.”

One of the two immune agents used in Levy’s study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, has already been approved for use in humans and the second is currently involved in a lymphoma treatment trial.

The study explained that when an immune system detects cancer cells in the body, its T-cells attack the tumor.  Over time, however, the tumor devises ways to overpower the immune cells and continues to grow.  In Levy’s experiment, the cancer-fighting T-cells from the immune system were rejuvenated when a microgram of the two immune boosters was injected into a mouse’s lymphoma tumor.  Those same cells then moved on from the tumor they destroyed to locate any other identical cancers in the body.  The T-cells did not move on to a colon cancer tumor also found in the animal, however.  Okay, so nobody’s perfect, right?

“This is a very targeted approach,” Dr. Levy declares.  Only the tumor that shares the protein targets displayed by the treated site is affected.  We’re attacking specific targets without having to identify exactly what proteins the T-cells are recognizing.”  Good enough for me, Doc.

The experiment was replicated in 90 other mice and was successful in 87 of them, allowing the researchers to declare them cancer-free.  The cancer did recur in three of the animals but the tumors later regressed after another round of immune treatments.  The study was also successful in mice that had breast, colon and melanoma tumors.  “I don’t think there’s a limit to the type of tumor we could potentially treat,” Levy said, “as long as it has been infiltrated by the immune system.”


Alzheimer’s Advances

If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will”---Tennessee Ernie Ford

It’s all just fine to successfully navigate the Straits of Cancer and other dangerous facsimiles, but what good does it do you if you can’t remember your way home?  Alzheimer’s Disease is rampant across the land and there’s scarcely a one of us without a relative or close friend tainted by the blight, a dreary and hopeless progression which starts with the loss of a few names, progresses to an inability for self-care, evolves into calling the cops to report Martians have landed in the parking lot and winds up with the afflicted sitting in a chair, staring out into space as if he had just tried to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  Talk about a no-fun antagonist.  Alzheimer’s is the Antichrist.  Researchers have not been particularly optimistic about a cure.  And Mighty Mouse, usually a dependable rescuer, apparently has business elsewhere.  What to do?  Where is the White Knight galloping to the rescue?

Enter Dave Schubert of the Salk Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory and his faithful companion, experimental drug J147, not only an elixir for Alzheimer’s but a reverser of aging in mice.  (Which could explain the Mighty Mouse absence; perhaps he’s been reversed back to pre-school, or worse.)

In a paper published on January 7th in the cheerily-named journal Aging Cell, Schubert’s group reports that J147 binds to a protein found in the mitochondria, the energy-generating powerhouse of cells, making aging cells appear more youthful.  “This really glues together everything we know about J147 in terms of the link between aging and Alzheimer’s.” says Schubert.  His group originally developed the drug in 2011, after screening for compounds from plants with an ability to reverse the cellular and molecular signs of aging in the brain.  J147 is a modified version of a molecule found in the curry spice curcumin.  In the years since, researchers have shown the compound reverses memory deficits, potentiates the production of new brain cells and slows or reverses Alzheimer’s progression in mice.  At the time, they still didn’t know how the drug worked at the molecular level.

In the latest findings, led by Schubert and Salk Research Associate Josh Goldberg, the team used several approaches to home in on what, exactly, J147 is doing.  They identified the molecular target of the drug as a mitochondrial protein called ATP synthase that helps generate ATP within mitochondria.  They illustrated that by manipulating its activity, they could protect neuronal cells from multiple toxicities associated with the aging brain.  Moreover, ATP synthase has already been shown to control aging in C. elegans worms and flies.

“We know that age is the single greatest contributing factor to Alzheimer’s, so it’s not surprising that we found a drug target that’s also been implicated in aging,” says Goldberg.  Schubert adds, “I was very surprised when we started doing experiments with how big of an effect we saw.  We can give this to old mice and it really elicits profound changes to make these mice younger at a cellular and molecular level.  People have always thought that you need separate drugs for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and stroke, but it may be that by targeting aging we can treat or slow down many pathological conditions that are old-age-associated.” 


Changing Pace

While most treatments for Alzheimer’s focus on improving memory, researchers at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center have a different notion.  They want to slow down the decline of problem-solving and decision-making skills with a newfangled brain pacemaker.  For the first time ever, researchers surgically implanted thin electrical wires into the frontal lobes of the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease to determine whether using the gizmo could improve cognitive, behavioral and functional abilities in patients with this form of dementia.  The deep brain stimulation implant is similar to a cardiac pacemaker device, but the wiring is implanted into the brain instead of the heart.

The first study of the pacemaker involved only three people, but all showed improvement.  After two years of deep-brain stimulation, LaVonne Moore, 85, of Delaware, Ohio, is able to assemble ingredients and cook a meal, something she was unable to do prior to the treatment.  Her husband, Tom, commented, “LaVonne has had Alzheimer’s Disease longer than anybody I know and that sounds negative, but it’s really a positive thing because it shows we’re doing something right.”  Next, OSU researchers intend to explore non-surgical methods to stimulate the frontal lobe, a less invasive option.

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, which means it involves damaged and dying neurons.  Most Alzheimer’s drugs in development have focused on preventing that damage, but a few researchers are developing treatments to reverse it.  In 2017, Dr. Roberta Brinton developed allopregnalone, which seems to spur neurogenesis.  Dr. Brinton is now preparing for Phase 2 trials with the drug, which has the potential to become the first regenerative therapy for Alzheimer’s.

The Last Word

Since not all of our readers live in Geezerland, a note of encouragement to those of you with teeth.  Many of you would rather attend a rap marathon in Djibouti than visit a dentist, but there’s good news on the dental front.  How about No-Drill Tooth Repair?  British researchers have announced a novel technique that could make dental fillings obsolete.  Their work illustrates that teeth can repair themselves naturally, using stem cells to stimulate the growth of dental tissue.  Who knew?  Should we sell all our stock in the Implements of Dental Torture industry?  Could be.

Scientists at Dental Institute at King’s College London found that small amounts of tideglusib, an Alzheimer’s drug currently in clinical trials, promotes the growth of dentin (that material under the enamel that can repair teeth) and jump-start tooth regeneration.  In experimentation with mice---and what would we do without them---researchers soaked a small biodegradable sponge with the drug, then put it in the tooth pulp, where stem cells reside.  New dentin began to grow and---voila!---within mere weeks the sponge decomposed and in its place was a perfectly restored tooth.  Now, if we could just do something about that name.  Nobody wants a miracle drug that sounds like a sticky, if brotherly, detergent. 

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Day In The Life


“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”---Robert Louis Stevenson


When we were kids, Saturday was Freedom Day, a respite from the agonies of school and the drudgery of Mass, a day to play baseball early in the morning and ramble over to the movies in the afternoon to watch Abbott & Costello battle it out with vampires, werewolves, mummies or the godfather of horrors, Frankenstein himself.  Saturday was an opportunity to motor off to Salisbury Beach for a sprint into the ocean, a stop at Tripoli Bakery’s pizza shrine, a ride on the Dodgems, where the optimistic sign read “No head-on collisions allowed!”  Good luck with that, pal.

As we grew up and many of our expectations were relegated to the sad shelves of Reality, the glories of Saturday never diminished.  In college, where the unread assignments constantly hung over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, Saturday was a needed escape, a retreat into football, dances, fraternity hijinks, girlfriend/boyfriend extravaganzas.  Some of us were forced into pilgrimages to nearby oases where liquor was legal.  At night, there was a scarcely believable phenomenon called the drive-in theater which carried a greater variety of food items than a Bangkok street stand.  Even when it rained, Saturday seldom disappointed.

Time passes, habits change, but Saturday never loses its luster.  No matter how badly the rest of the week treats us, there is always Saturday, visible in the distance, beckoning, promising relief.  There are some people who try to treat the day the same as all others, but Saturday will not stand for it, shaking out its brightly-wrapped packages of weekend cruises, NASCAR races, million-dollar weddings, nights with the Symphony.  And as any fool knows, every Saturday is National Road Trip Day.

If some days are truly diamonds and some merely stones, Saturday is the famed Allnatt, 101.29 carats with a cushion cut, vivid yellow, origins unknown.  We wouldn’t trade Saturday for Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, the Treasure of Sierra Madre, the Secret City of Paititi or all the tea in China.  It is a singular blessing, this Saturday, the day with no alarm clock, dependable, consistent, available to all and never more than three days away.  They even named Saturday Night Live after it.




(1) Siobhan with Mike O’Farrell; (2) Bill at Dreamers Point; (3) Trainer George disciplines his troops.

Making The Rounds

If Saturday is a little less raucous for senior citizens, they are still invited to participate in the day’s largesse.  For Siobhan and Bill, Saturdays begin at 8:30 a.m. on the 5/8-mile training track at Ocala Stud, often a nippy place to be on a Winter’s morn.  Ocala Stud has been around a very long time, since January 16, 1956, in fact, when Maryland horseman Joe O’Farrell and his brother, Tom, were members of a nine-person syndicate which paid $700,000 for 800 acres of land on Shady Road near what is now the Paddock Mall in southwest Ocala.  One of the earliest thoroughbred operations in town, Ocala Stud gradually became an institution, marketing its first crop of two-year-olds in 1958, the beginning of a tradition of selling the farm’s entire juvenile crop either privately or at the various two-year-olds-in-training sales in Florida.  In 2010, Ocala Stud was America’s leading breeder of U.S. graded stakes winners.  The farm also trains outside horses on one of the safest and most consistent tracks anywhere, a paramount reason for dispatching our last homebred, Cosmic Outlaw, into their care.  The Plan is to be ready by late March or early April for a trip north to begin her career.  So far, so good.

On Saturday mornings, the O’Farrell family gathers at Dreamers Point to survey the progress of their tutees.  The original Joe is gone, of course, the mantle being passed to his worthy son, Michael, a wise but optimistic fellow, a gentleman of good humor with a cautious eye and a barnful of stories to tell.  He is joined most Saturday mornings by his own sons David and Joe, who do much of the farm’s heavy lifting.  George, the trainer, a merry man of the islands, holds forth with his directorial stick, to be waved for emphasis at critical occasions.  The barn area is presided over by Leon the Mobile, who ranges to and fro, choreographing the ballet.  Due to some shortcoming in his upbringing, Leon is a devoted fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide and also the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Due to his impeccable work with Cosmic Outlaw, we bought him a Steelers jacket for Christmas, but it wasn’t easy.  

You’re liable to run into anyone at Dreamers Point.  It’s a weekly stop for some owners with trainees at Ocala Stud and an occasional one for out-of-town visitors checking on the progress of their stock.  There may be 150 or so horses in training there but Mike and David can give you the name and sire of each one as the horses pass by.  Two weeks ago, Kentucky-Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger showed up to observe.  You may remember a 1990 video of Carl in the Churchill Downs grandstand with his owner, Frances Genter, in her nineties and short of vision, giving the lady an excited play-by-play as her colt, Unbridled, roared down the stretch to victory, at the end hugging the sobbing woman and exclaiming, “Mrs. Genter---you just won the KENTUCKY DERBY!”  It was a moment.  If there’s anything more exciting than that, well, dress me up and call me Loretta.


Opportunities for fun and frolic abound at Publix markets.

Saturday Is Doughnut Day

When the horses retire to the barn, our heroes are off to the Publix market to secure the week’s sustenance.  This, of course, includes maple-frosted doughnuts, three of them, one for Siobhan the Skinny and two for Bill, the not-so.  Pastry is provided by Donna the Bakery Queen, who secrets them in a box and sticks them under the counter until Bill arrives.  Seems these maple things are a popular request, although not popular enough for the doughboys to make enough of them to preclude their selling out.

Donna is a sister New Englander from Maine, always ready to share a story or remembrance of the Old Country.  She’s also a grandmother with adoring grandchildren in Clearwater, where she visits often but hopefully not on Saturday.  Donna lives alone and has battled cancer off and on but is unfailingly in good spirits.  We usually get in five minutes of conversation before being overtaken by bothersome customers in search of bread-slicing.  Five minutes is good enough to keep up.

Since Publix is a weekly stop, Siobhan has managed to learn the names and habits of all the cashiers and many of the bag boys, including George the Intellectual, who keeps up with world events and will gladly dish out his opinion, like it or not.  George is a moody sort and may have had a setback in life since the last few weeks have found him roaming the parking lot rounding up shopping carts.  We’d ask but we don’t really want to know.  We very much miss Mary Ellen, a co-shopper of delightful buoyancy who lit up the market with her exceptional personality.  Mary Ellen rolls through life on such a natural high that one day Siobhan exchanged shopping carts with her and it took her a couple minutes to notice.  Okay, we think it’s natural.

You can’t have doughnuts without coffee, so we stop next door at McDonald’s for our small senior cups with three creams each.  Hopefully, Kathleen will be on hand to do the honors.  Kathleen, from Jersey, is a formidable Irishwoman with a memory like an elephant and a talent for organization.  No three employees working on methamphetamine can equal her proficiency behind the counter as she shouts out orders, moves adroitly from place to place and whips the area into shape.  She knows what I want and will stop whatever she’s doing to snap it back to me in no time, exceptional service for the tiny box of Godiva chocolates she gets each Christmas.  We regret, however, the retirement of our beloved (if grouchy) Seminole Woman, who dressed in complete Indian regalia, with feathers, for each FSU football game.  One day, some fool customer at the head of a very long line, asked her if it was some unknown Indian holiday.  She put down her stuff, looked to the side where I was standing, and said in a fairly loud voice, “See what kind of crap I have to put up with?”  In another life, she could have been Lily Tomlin.

The final stop is always at Seminole Feed, where the animal requirements are met.  By the time we reach the place, doughnuts half-eaten, Siobhan is in cell phone conversation with our horse-trainer pal Debbie Thomas, hard at work on her own farm or halfway to Gulfstream Park with a horse in tow.  Debbie is the salt of the thoroughbred business, one of the thousands of little guys striving to make a living in the shadows of the rich and famous.  It’s a daily battle and Debbie has been a combatant since girlhood.  “I wouldn’t know what else to do,” she remarks, “and I’ve had a lot of exciting moments.  It’s beats hell out of working in a diner.”  Siobhan discusses the day-to-day and leaves the racing conversation to Debbie and I while she goes in to place her feed order.  The average racing observer, inured to the opulence of the classic races, the big hats and fancy costumery, hasn’t the slightest notion that the entire industry is propped up by the people on the lower tiers whose horses fill the great majority of races at all tracks on any given day.  Without the Debbie Thomases of the world, the sport woud cease to exist. 

Saturday is another day-in-the-life.  You can float through the hours with blithe indifference or embrace the likes of Donna the Bakery Queen, Kathleen the Fast-Food General, Mary Ellen your Fellow-Shopper and Debbie the Horse Trainer.  If you’re smart, you’ll resort to the latter.  It could, after all, be a matter of life or death.


Who’s Number One?

Psychologist Susan Pinkler is a curious sort.  She wondered why some people lived to one hundred years and others didn’t, so she did a little study, interviewing a group of oldsters, learning their habits and daily practices, then returning years later to check on her subjects.  Many of the results were predictable.  The people still living were more likely to be non-smokers, light drinkers, healthy eaters who excercised.  In one surprise, the annual flu shot was deemed even more important than working out.  But what was the single most important factor in a long life, the premier reason the train kept chugging along?  Was there a secret drug that only a few people knew about, mined in the jungles of the Amazon and smuggled into Assisted Living centers across the land?  Could there be a mysterious yoga posture devised by the ancient lamas and passed on for generations that involved standing on one’s head in a corner for twenty minutes a day releasing Gregorian Chants?  Nope.

Turns out, the winner and still heavyweight champion is a remarkably easy undertaking.  The most important factor in living a long life is---trumpets, please---Social Interaction.  So, sit in your dreary cave and grumble at the world at your own risk, that guy with the hood and scythe is on his way.  Wake up, the world is available for participation.  You might be surprised what you find.  I was walking down the street one murky Gainesville day and ran into Attila the Hun approaching from the opposite direction.  A sourfaced guy, very large, face carved into a permanent scowl, lumbering along, looking for an ass to kick.  I’d seen this sort of thing before and recognized it for what it was.  When he was a few feet away, I brightened up, half-smiled and said, “Hi, pal---how ya doin’?”  The guy lit up like a christmas tree, big smile, stopped and stuck out his right hand for a shake.  Deb Peterson and The Beatles say all you need is love.  Sometimes, all you need is recognition.

That’s all, folks….        


Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Arrival


The Postal Service creed claims that “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion or their appointed rounds.”  They’ve got nothing on the Times Square revelers in New York City who greeted the dawn of 2018 at 10 degrees Fahrenheit in furry hats, facemasks and fifteen layers of clothing.  It was the second-coldest New Year’s Eve celebration on record.  “I can’t feel my feet!” was the universal complaint and many wondered if the giant Waterford Crystal ball might shiver and crack.

Nobody had the weather report when they bought plane tickets and reserved hotel rooms six months prior.  Plans made and money spent, these people were making the trip.  Charlie and Edwina Polk, from Des Moines, Iowa were thrilled with their decision.  “We’re freezing our patooties off, but it’s a great experience,” Charlie exulted.  “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world!  After the ball lands, we’re going to get drunk and have sex!”  Hopefully, somewhere inside.  The morning cleanup crew has enough trouble just clearing the noisemakers and confetti off the streets.

Every year, those of us who manage not to fall asleep before midnight watch the proceedings and wonder.  When and how did all this business get started?  Blame it on good old Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times in 1907.  That was the year the junction around Broadway and 42nd street was rechristened Times Square after its famous tenant.  Until then, Adolph had been merrily launching midnight fireworks from the roof of his newspaper building to the delight of a couple hundred thousand celebrants below.  When we were kids, our mothers promised us it was perfectly safe to view the fireworks from down under, but it turns out our instincts were right all along.  The hot ash that rained down on N.Y. citizens in previous years caused city officials to ban the pyrotechnics from ushering in 2018.

Ochs was not a man to be easily deterred.  Without the spectacular fireworks display, he would need a glamorous new concept to lure crowds away from the celebratory ringing of the bells at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.  Adolph found his inspiration at the Western Union Building downtown, where a metal ball three-and-a-half feet in diameter dropped from the pinnacle of the building to signify the time every weekday at noon.  Ochs’ original ball was made of wood and iron and illuminated with 100 light bulbs.  As the crowds began to gather to count down the final seconds of 1907, workers used ropes and pulleys to slowly lower the 700-pound ball down a flagpole.  A sphere on top of the Times Building would mark the time when it completed its descent.  When the glistening ball finally reached the bottom of the pole, the number 1908 lit up on the skyscraper’s parapet and a new tradition was born.  Adolph Ochs is no more, but 110 years later his brainchild lingers on.

Those crass imitators in Boise, Idaho have take to welcoming the new year by dropping a giant spud from the sky.  This seems shamefully unoriginal but Boise will be Boise.  In Brasstown, North Carolina, there is a possum drop and in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a 200-lb. marshmallow Peep plunges Earthward.  In Port Clinton, Ohio, assuming it really exists, rumors persist of the fall of Wylie the Walleye.  Some people have no shame. 


New Year’s hijinks in Ecuador.   Quito the experience. 

Baby, Let Me Light Your Fire

The American celebrations are tame stuff in Ecuador, where they dispatch “los anos viejos” (the old years) by constructing very large scarecrow-like dolls—often in the images of people they don’t particularly like—and setting them ablaze.  The symbolic meaning is the forgetting of the bad happenings of the past year and the hope that the approaching annum will be better.  To make the effigies, people stuff old clothes with sawdust or newspapers and add a face with a mask.  Donald Trump is odds-on the dummy of 2017/18.

In Naples, Italy, they take “Out with the old!” seriously.  To symbolize a new start, citizens toss everything from toasters to refrigerators off their balconies.  Last year, a husband got dumped.  In many Hispanic countries, your fortunes for the coming year might be decided by your underwear.  Looking for love?  Try red.  White will bring you peace.  Yellow is good for wealth and luck.  Maroon is downright scary and don’t even ask about black.  You might want to steer clear of the Takanakuy Festival in Peru, where people beat the living daylights out of one another just for the hell of it.  The word “takanakuy” means “when the blood is boiling,” but the locals swear they pull their punches.  Just in case anyone gets really testy, the police are employed to referee the bouts.  Can we just go back to Wylie the Walleye?


Big doin’s in Babylonia.  Dancing the Akitu Shuffle.


Every year in early January, regulars at local gyms and fitness centers wait patiently as crowds of strangers, true to their New Year’s Resolutions, fill up the treadmills, overrun the bicycles and monopolize the dumbbells.  The old-timers know this is Workout Passover, the short period of time it takes for the new element to become discouraged, let their memberships lapse and turn in their spandex.  It’s an annual phenomenon.  But from whence?  Whose idea was this, anyway?  Is there a secret race of people somewhere who actually keep their New Year’s Resolutions?

First of all, blame it on the Babylonians.  They started all this business 4000 years ago, give or take a decade.  The Babylonians were also the first to hold recorded celebrations honoring the new year, though due to faulty calendars this began in March when the crops were planted, leading to the expression “March Madness.”  During a massive 12-day religious festival called Akitu, the Babylonians crowned a new king or re-upped with the old one.  They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed.  If they followed through with their promises, the gods would bestow favor upon them.  If not, well, you don’t want to know.  There’s nothing pissier than a disappointed Babylonian god.  They’ve been known to stomp around for several hours, cursing and throwing dishes at the wall, after which they turn you into a camel.  It’s a frightening situation and a great encouragement to keep one’s promises.  Just ask Nabu the dromedary.

A similar practice occurred in ancient Rome, after the reformist emperor Julius Caesar messed with the calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the new year around 46 B.C.  Why January 1, his subjects asked him.  “Bowl games,” said Caesar.  The month was named for Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches, which had special significance to the Romans.  Believing that Janus symbolically looked backward into the previous year and also ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.  It was due to the overwhelming influence of Janus that he was allowed to steal an extra calendar day from Februarius, who was a punk.

For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do better in the future.  In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.  These included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to acknowledge the coming of the new year.  Despite the tradition’s religious roots, New Year’s Resolutions today are mostly a secular practice.  Instead of making promises to scary gods who could punish you, most people make resolutions only to themselves.  About 45% of Americans contend they make resolutions and only 8% claim they are successful.  Those sorry statistics are not enough, of course, to keep us from trying.  This year, for instance,  I resolve to climb Mt. Everest, speak ill of no man and eat two maple-frosted doughnuts every Saturday morning.  I have full confidence that I will be more than 8% successful.


Bath Safety: Your life depends on it.

The Glories Of January

Okay, you’re cold, we get it.  January is not your favorite month.  All it leads to is February, which at least has the decency to be short.  In January, we have to chip ice off our car windows every morning, worry about errant icicles piercing our skulls, renew our frostbite insurance.  And worse, we have to learn to stop writing “2017” at the top of our checks for the first two weeks.  It’s a mess, so we just go back to bed, pull the covers over our heads and wait for March.  This is a grave dereliction of duty.  There are important things happening in January and not just those 750 football games.  January, for instance, is National Bath Safety Month.  What could be more important than bath safety?  Sure, we know most of you are evading your bath responsibilities by resorting to those cursory showers, but you can’t hide forever.  Soon enough, you’ll have one of those achy, creaky days where your bones are weary, your muscles whining and your joints on fire.  The only answer is a spectacular elongated bath filled with Epsom Salts, surrounded by relaxing scented candles and spiffed up by the gentle power of the jets.  You’ll be better in no time.  Unless, of course, you foolishly neglect to practice bath safety.

Step Number One: Water Monitoring.  There are some people, usually called men, who simply turn the hot water on until the tub is filled up to the desired level and then jump in.  This is bad bath practice!  If the offender has a decent hot water heater, the temperature of the bath will be somewhere around 300 kazillion degrees, enough to fry an oyster, and to drive any sane person screaming down the corridor.  It is a certified fact, however, that many men regard Tub Abandonment as a breach of the macho tradition.  They will sit in there until their fingertips begin to smoke and their eyeballs become glassy.  This is the time when a good companion, practicing proper bath safety techniques, must promptly pull the plug and dump a pail of ice water over the head of the offender.  On these occasions, it is acceptable to hurl usually inappropriate insults like, “ Boy howdy, Roy, if you had a brain you’d be dangerous!”

Step Number Two: Personal Health Care.  Keep all sensitive body parts away from the snarly jets.  Sometimes, we don’t get second chances.

Step Number Three: Exercise Caution While Dismounting.  Ask any ER worker.  The hospitals are full of people who didn’t escape from the tub.  At least they don’t have to cut their clothes off.  This is why wise bathers attach handles to their walls.  A tight grip on the handles while disembarking prevents life-threatening falls, the breakage of flimsy hips and ass bones.  Clever manufacturers of progressive bathroom materials are currently working on tub ejector seats which pop bathers out of the water, run them though a car-wash type blast-drier and dump them into tubside netting.  All the better homes will have them.


Philly cheesecake & kazoo bands.  One-stop shopping.

January also features several important days worthy of recognition.  January 1st is National Hangover Day and all citizens are encouraged to participate.  Logically, January 3rd is Festival of Sleep Day.  When you wake up, try to remember it is also Fruitcake Toss Day.  If you’re embarrassed by all this foolishness, you”ll be glad to know it is also Humiliation Day.

It’s National Spaghetti Day on January 4th and Bean Day on the 6th.  January 8th is Bubble Bath Day (see above).  On the 10th, we celebrate Houseplant Appreciation Day, so how about a little Debussy for your loyal greenery?  The elevator/escalator fanciers abhor the 10th, which is also National Take The Stairs Day, an excellent opportunity to reconnect with all our homeless friends.  The 11th is National Step In A Puddle And Splash Your Friends Day, which is not celebrated in Tucson and Phoenix.  They tell us that the 13th is National Skeptics Day, but I doubt it.  The dogs, cats and marmots will be hiding on the 14th, the better to evade Dress Up Your Pet Day.

January 16th is Appreciate A Dragon Day.  And we’d be the first to throw a ticker-tape parade if we could just find a dragon to ride on the float.  The 19th is National Tin Can Day, the only day of the year where it is against the law to smash an empty beer can on your forehead.  The 20th is Penguin Awareness Day, so be careful at those penguin crossings in Duluth.  And, as everyone certainly knows, January 23 is NATIONAL PIE DAY, when all residents over five years old are required to consume a pie of their choice within 24 hours, no excuses.  Just to illustrate there is no favoritism rampant in the day-naming business, January 27th is Chocolate Cake Day.

Everybody’s favorite, National Kazoo Day arrives on the 28th, with giant Mummers Parades in Philadelphia.  Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day is always the last Monday of January, this year the 29th, which is also Alice (the Republican’s) birthday.  Alice would like a lot of presents this year, having made it to 75, so just send them here and we’ll forward them on.  In return, Alice will send you an embossed, personally-signed thank-you card, a color photograph of her latest grandchild and a discount pass to the Richard Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda.

We can hardly wait for February.

That’s all, folks….


Thursday, January 18, 2018

2018: Thoughts For The New Year


“And now we welcome the new year.  Full of things that have never been.”---Rainer Maria Rilke

“Only dreams give birth to change.”---Sarah Ban Breathnach

Winter has settled o’er the land, a particularly nettlesome winter at that, swooping across the country west to east on fearsome gales, freezing the populace, depositing roof-crushing snows, wreaking havoc on power lines, icing up the highways to a fare-thee-well.  There’s nothing like sitting helplessly at the wheel while your vehicle meanders aimlessly down the street swiveling first hither, then yon, searching for a fixed inanimate object to smack into.

When we were kids, Winter was thrilling.  I slept in a small bedroom in the front of my grandmother’s second-floor residence and on snowy nights I could hear them coming, the all-powerful snowplows rumbling through the night, headlights slashing across the white veneer, one after another, indelicately shoving the snow off to the right and forming the giant bankings we would play in the next day.  The pleasures of childhood quickly disintegrate, alas, when you no longer have use for a snow fort.

While the rest of the nation revs up its snow-blowers and battens down the hatches, Florida merely shivers.  There are rumors of snowfall in the Panhandle, a laughworthy notion to the citizens of Buffalo and Erie, shoveling for days in search of their buried Hondas.  The people of New England, meanwhile, have been forced to travel exclusively on snowshoes, and ice-cream sales have fallen to deplorable levels.  All communication with Canada has ceased and ham radio operators are trying desperately to initiate contact.  The penguins of Antarctica, toasty by comparison, have begun posting internet invitations to northerners to “Come On Down!”  At least the Boston Celtics are having a good year.

Not to complain, but the low twenties in the Gainesville/Ocala area is unusually brisk.  The incompetent heater at Pathogenes, Inc., finally gave up the ghost and a pricey new one was rushed into action.  The living room is filled with sensitive plants which have asked for temporary shelter from the storm.  Jill-of-all-Trades Janis Peterson has tented up all the tender fruit trees and other vulnerable vegetation until the siege is over.  Our friends in coastal  Maine were understanding when considering these difficulties.  One of them sent smoke signals remarking, “We’d send you a sympathy card but we can’t get out our door.” 

This is all grist for the mill of my cruel sister Alice (the Republican), who lives in sunny Camarillo, California and enjoys sending notes to all her friends advising of the local seventyish temperatures.  That would be the same Alice whose car was packed to the gills with all her earthlies last month while a gigantic forest fire danced a jig a few miles down the road, then watched colossal mudslides take out a nearby town.  We’re pleased to tell you we don’t have mudslides in beautiful Florida.  To have mudslides, first you’re required to have something for the mud to slide down.

Despite all this inconvenience, Ecclesiastes 3.2 reminds us there is a time for every purpose under Heaven, and now it’s time to light a candle, dip your quill in the inkwell and begin to plan your new year.  There are still 352 little blocks to fill in on your calendar, all of them open to the insertion of Exciting Enterprises or More Of The Same.  Let’s not quibble about insufficient funds for that trip to Macchu Pichu, there’s plenty of available fun nearby.  Unless. of course, you live in North Dakota, and that’s nobody’s fault but your own.


Cosmic Outlaw (left) on her Saturday morning gallop at Ocala Stud.

Cosmic Outlaw To The Fore

The year upcoming may or may not be The Last Hurrah for the Killeen-Ellison racing conglomerate, all of that depending on the fate of our final foal, April, now a sturdy two-year-old in training across town at Ocala Stud.  The usually persnickety Jockey Club has seen fit to accept our second attempt at a name for the filly by Uncaptured, out of Cosmic Light, and you see it in the headline above.  Since we’ve had endless injury problems in recent years attributable to the suspect racing surface at Gulfstream Park, we’re shipping north this Spring, we know not where, but likely to New York or New Jersey.   Cosmic Outlaw’s perceived ability in training will call the shot.  If she prospers, we’ll remain in the game via purchases of yearlings or two-year-olds in the thoroughbred sales.  If not, day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hill, from the racetrack.  In any case, it’s been fun while it lasted, as the Romans said just before the curtain fell.  Keep your fingers crossed.


Here’s My Plan….

It’s nice to be impulsive, to wake up one day and fly to Guadalajara on a whim, bum a helicopter ride to Key West, jump the Boston ferry to Provincetown or even take a two hour drive to colorful St. Augustine.  I used to motor over to Mardi Gras in New Orleans every year, eschewing expensive hotel reservations and sleeping in a crowded house with friends or in the back seat of my car on some glorified alley near the French Quarter.  It was all good.  I wound up unexpectedly living in Austin for six months when my vehicle broke down on its way to Albuquerque, thereby experiencing the most enjoyable six months of my life in a place I never planned to be.  When you’re young, everything seems to work out even when the train leaves the tracks.  As time goes by, you run across reasons for more caution, as experienced one fine summer near the Canadian border, when forced to share a ratty motel with the Deviant Bikers of Babb, Montana.

Planning ahead has its merits.  You don’t always get the hotel you expect but at least you get a hotel.  Air flights can be appreciably cheaper and you’ll have more options.  Admittedly, I was coerced into this way of thinking by the fussy National Park system, which has limited sleeping space and demands early bookings.  The mule trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon had to be scheduled (and paid for) one year in advance.  Only 80 people a day are allowed to explore the Zion Narrows.  Lodges at the parks are few and filled well in advance and it’s often a long way to alternate housing.  Then, there were the Las Vegas nuptials.  Although, any suddenly inspired couple can drive around Vegas until they find an available wedding chapel, if you want to book one of the premier places for a specific date and time, better do it early.  Especially if it’s a Saturday in June.  Some of these things you learn the hard way.

My sister-in-law, Mary Ellison, is a paragon of organization.  I envision her with maps and calendars all over the walls of her War Room.  Even before the old year is gone, she’s busily planning for the new one.  She requires knowledge of your plans early if there is to be any intersection of purposes.  Mary invites input into The Final Plan but once it has been drawn up, it might as well have been written in blood.  One morning, on the way to a scheduled day in Orlando, her husband, Stuart, broached the possibility of a slight diversion.  Mary fixed him with a withering glare.  “….Or maybe not,” said Stuart.  There is something to be said for The Mary Alternative.  You will never be unprepared, the trip will go smoothly.  Of course, you will never wind up in Austin when you are headed for Albuquerque.



The Sermon On The Mount

Time is our friend and our foe.  It is the greatest thing we own, the suitcase into which all our valuables are placed, the repository of our hopes and dreams.  When we are young and impatient, Time oozes by in slow motion, allowing us the opportunity to learn, to grow, to try and fail without scorn.  We observe, we practice, we improve, all in good Time. The possibilities, and the Time to see them manifest, are endless.

As we age, Time picks up the pace.  We must use what we have learned to make decisions of consequence, choose the most beneficial path, find sustenance, build a nest, locate a mate, none of this to be performed rashly and all of it prone to error.  Time allows for mistakes, but not too many of them.  It points to your calendar and reminds you that Time isn’t Forever.

At some point, we try to recreate a better version of ourselves, a wiser model, a healthier one with nobler ambitions and higher horizons.  We try to Get It Right.  We awaken to the greater importance of other people in our lives, to their needs and ambitions.  We strive to make a difference.  Instead of continuing to take, we attempt to give.  We remember when, as doubting children, adults tried to tell us it was better to give than to receive.  We laugh.  Turns out they were right after all.  The greatest teacher is Time.

Older now, we swear an oath to better value Time, not to waste it in foolish pursuits.  There are places to go, people to see.  We will, come hell or high water, finally travel to the Grand Canyon, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, wake up to Paris in the morning.  We will never again drive through the home town of an old friend unseen for years and neglect to visit.  We will avoid getting angry over inconsequential things.

Time, the foe, is chipping away now and our armor is wearing thin.  We wake up to new ailments each day.  Where once an expansive future stretched out before us, no longer is anything promised.  Time, which once inched by in leaden shoes, is now whistling through town on a bullet train.  The better to value it more, to seize each day by the nape of the neck and shake the devil out of it.  And be of good cheer in the bargain.  It’s a New Year, a Time of beginnings, so let’s start the dance.  Let’s resolve to attack Life rather than let it constantly attack us.  There’s more to be done and still Time to do it.  So turn up the music and rev up the engines.  If we’re headed for Gloryland, let’s roar out of here at 100 mph in a red Mustang convertible.  And always remember our beloved credo: It’s Never Too Late To Act Like A Damned Fool! 

Let the Good Times roll.

That’s all, folks….


Thursday, January 11, 2018



When we were kids, health issues were few.  We’d skin our knees playing tag football in the streets or sprain a middle finger trying to stop an inbounds pass in basketball or get our asses kicked for hitting a homerun through Kate The Grouch’s kitchen window, but all those body parts would heal in a trice.

Eventually, everybody got chicken pox or measles or mumps---if you were unlucky, all three.  Boring, but nothing to get excited about.  Oh, and if you even so much as looked the wrong way, they snatched your appendix out.  My sister, Alice (the Republican), had asthma, which turned her a funny color of Ironic Blue and necessitated occasional trips to the hospital, but all that did was make her more ornery.  And then, of course, the devious Doctor Ainesworth showed up at my house one day, slapped an ether rag over my face and robbed me of my perfectly good tonsils on the kitchen table.  Those tonsils were probably still viable for whatever secret acts tonsils may perform but the medical profession will always find a way to make a buck.

Our parents warned us about things like whooping cough, scarlet fever and polio, which you would definitely get from swimming in the Spicket River.  We must have had powerful natural immunities because it never happened.  Nobody much mentioned psychological diseases until little Timmy Finn jumped out a window in the first grade (don’t worry, we were on the bottom floor) and wasn’t allowed back in school for awhile.  Everybody said Timmy was dropped on his head as a baby, so that pretty much explained that.  We left it up to the adults to get the real illnesses, the hospital-requiring setbacks, the scary prognoses, the near-death experiences, never imagining the day we would morph into them.  Well, guess what?  It’s ambulance time, friends and neighbors.  All those old half-heard radio ads for neuritis and neuralgia have become relevant.  It’s like, you turn 65, a gong sounds, you open the door and a large truck outside dumps every ailment known to man onto your welcome rug.  Hey, thanks for that, Cosmic Undoer.

Perfectly healthy citizens are suddenly transformed into coughing, wheezing goats, blind, lame and discombobulated.  Suddenly, you have a cataract surgeon, a dermatologist, an ortho guy, an expert on cranky bowels and a medico certified in the treatment of yaws.  You know everybody at the Walgreen’s pharmacy department by their first names.  You search the internet for experts in acupuncture, fibrodysplasia ossificans and Alice in Wonderland syndrome.  Life is no longer just a bowl of cherries.  Life is a bowl of prunes.  When will Superdoc arrive with a new lease on life?  Is there hope for the future?  If Trump steals my Medicare, will I have to report immediately to the Death Panels?  Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp, who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?  Keep reading.  Mighty Mouse is on the way.


Ya Gotta Have Heart

Ticker on the fritz?  Low on the heart-replacement list?  Considering a last-ditch trip to the healing waters of Lourdes?  Have we got a product for you!  The exciting Heart Mate III will sweep all your cares away.  Once available only to patients circling the drain and ineligible for transplants, this little goodie--- approved by the hardass FDA---is implanted into the abdomen.  As soon as it settles in, its fancy turbine engine the size of a D battery is turned on, steering oxygenated blood from the weakened heart through its turbine to the rest of the body.  Eighty percent of patients tricked out with the Heartmate improve dramatically within six months of implantation and remain stable for at least two years, but some people get triple that.  It’s not forever, but long enough for the next miracle to come along.  Or at least to take that long-delayed trip to Bolivia.

Tired of those messy colonoscopies?  Done with fasting, otherworldly cleansing solutions and scary anesthesia?  Worried that Doctor Colon might be an early morning tippler who pokes a hole in your intestine, consigning you to that ole gospel ship?  Well, fret no more with our newfangled Camera-Carrying Pill, a tiny goober which descends into your guts and sends back sparkling images to your doctor’s computer.  Wow!  No fuss, no muss.  The pill is already used to view the esophagus and small intestine and now it’s ready for the big time.  Shall we make you an appointment for next week? 

Okay, everybody’s depressed, right?  Coco the Clown is our deranged president and he’s drilling for oil everywhere, selling off the national parks, threatening nuclear war against California, and, worst of all, promising to bust marijuana dispensaries in states which have legalized pot.  If there are any as yet unthought of bad ideas, Coco will discover them.  It’s enough to make a grown man cry.  OR to try Ketamine for a pepper-upper.  Ketamine, a drug commonly used for anesthesia, was studied for its ability to target and inhibit the action of N-methyl-D-asparate (NMDA) receptors of nerve cells and the results were overwhelmingly favorable.  Studies indicated that 70 percent of patients with treatment-resistant depression saw an improvement in symptoms within 24 hours of receiving the drug.  For the first time, there was treatment for the severely depressed.   Some of them even formed a sprightly kazoo band and they’re headed for Washington to serenade the White House.


No Doughnuts For You, Mr. Chubby!

Currently, half of those patients with Type 2 diabetes will die from complications of cardiovascular disease.  By age 65, the odds go up to 70%, a chilly assessment.  In 2016, however, two new medications began reducing the mortality rates considerably.  Empagliflozin modifies the progression of heart disease by working with the kidney, while Liraglutide has a comprehensive effect on many organs.  Given the positive results, experts predict a complete shift in the lineup of medicines prescribed for diabetes patients as well as a wave of research into new avenues targeting Type 2 diabetes and its comorbidities, whatever they are.  And NO, diabetics, that does not mean you can return Dunkin’ Donuts to your Saturday shopping agenda.

By now, one of the first cellular immunotherapies for leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphomas may have already hit the market.  If not, it’s on the way to a supplier near you.  Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapies are a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s immune system T-cells are removed and genetically reprogrammed to seek and destroy tumor cells.  Results of some studies have been impressive, particularly those focusing on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, where a remission rate of 90% has been reported.  Cellular immunotherapy could one day replace chemotherapy and its lifetime of horrendous side effects, so light a candle.

Baby Steps

Don’t get pancreatic cancer.  The literature advises that only 20% of patients survive a year past diagnosis and fewer than 10% make it to the 5-year mark.  PC is pretty much a death sentence and there are no appeals courts.  One of the problems is that pancreatic cancer presents no early signs and is usually well entrenched by the time it is discovered.  Researchers recently reported in Science that chemotherapy drugs are ineffective because bacteria in pancreatic cancers actually breaks the drugs down.  Thanks a lot for that, any good news?  Perhaps.  Researchers have found a link between new-onset diabetes and pancreatic cancer which could help with early detection.  Apparently in some people, diabetes is caused by cancer growth in the pancreas.  Soon, a more sensitive test to help determine the root cause of diabetes may reveal pancreatic cancer much earlier.  Additionally, scientists at the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center at Dana-Ferber Cancer Institute discovered not only a genetic mutation that is present in more than 90% of pancreatic cancer patients but also variations that are associated with different outcomes.  This has the potential to lead to novel, gene-based treatments.

Immunology has also shown promise as a treatment.  A small Phase 1 study found that combining two immunology drugs may help some patients.  “This is a glimmer of hope,” said Dr. Zev Wainberg, co-director of the GI Oncology Program at UCLA.  “Until now, there have been no responses with any immunology drugs for pancreatic cancer.” 

Whoomp, There it Is!

When we were kids, nobody had autism.  Now, it affects about 3.5 million Americans, one in 68 children and gaining.  No single cause has been identified, but students at the University of Southern California recently identified a hotspot for autism-related mutations in a single gene known as TRIO.  The findings were published in the journal, Nature Communications.  “I have never see this number of autism-related mutations in such a small area,” said the study’s corresponding author, Bruce Herring, PhD, a neurobiologist at USC’s Dornslife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The  likelihood that this number of mutations occurs by chance is 1 in 1.8 trillion.  We’re pretty confident these mutations contribute to the development of autism-related disorders.”  Herring expects that this major discovery will be the key to developing more effective strategies for treating autism spectrum disorders.  I guess we’ll have to start rooting for the Trojans.


Happy Days Are Hair Again

Those little devils at USC have been busy.  As if finding avenues into autism isn’t enough, the Southern Cal scientists are taking on a more universal problem---baldness.  The SC Keck School of Medicine has released a new study that details a way to grow hair follicles from progenitor cells, which are broadly similar to stem cells but don’t have the ability to reproduce indefinitely.

Here’s how it works.  The team found that these cells would form 3D conglomerations known as organoids, groups of cells that take on a structure similar to that of an organ.  They then grouped themselves into the form of polarized cysts, which in turn gave way to layered skin.  From there, they were able to produce skin bearing hair follicles which could be transplanted onto a mouse.  The team observed that the follicles were able to produce hair once they had been transplanted onto the animal.

Hopefully, the same process could be used to treat humans suffering from balding.  A patient’s own progenitor cells would be used to grow portions of skin with hair follicles in the lab, which would then be transplanted onto the scalp.  This could provide relief for conditions ranging from alopecia to full-fledged baldness.  The next step is human trials, for which there will be no shortage of volunteers.  We have only one question to pose about the whole sordid affair.  Where do we get on the next plane to LAX?


There’s A Man Goin’ ‘Round Takin’ Names

Just when we thought we were safely past the age of appendix worry, we were blasted from our seats by The Evil Trilogy.  You know, that prehistoric notion that all catastrophic events arrive in three-packs.  First, it happened to Margaret Lewis, senior princess of Unicoi, Tennessee, whose surly appendix had the unmitigated gall to explode all over her.  Next, our neighbor, Greg Poe, had his innards doctor tell him things didn’t look copacetic in the neighborhood of his appendix, which was removed forthwith.  And finally, our friend Richard Helms was afflicted with sharp pains over the holidays and rushed into surgery in Ocala.  What the hell is going on here?  It’s like a new horror movie, but instead of the aliens landing, it’s the appendix bombers.  It’s enough to make a body rush to his local scan center for a quick peek.

Why do the little critters act up, anyway?  Apparently, because they become blocked up by stool, a foreign body or cancer.  Blockage also may occur from infection, since the appendix can swell in response to any infection in the body.  Who knew?  Will we miss our little pal once it’s gone?  What will they put in that hole where the appendix used to be?  Scientists tell us our little buddy acts as a safe house for good bacteria, which can be used to effectively reboot the gut following a bout of dysentery or cholera.  Where will those good bacterias go after they’ve been evicted from the friendly confines?  Is there someplace they can rent?  Is there a possibility of homelessness?  What do we do when the next wave of cholera sweeps across the nation?  Is there an appendix farm somewhere I can get a backup?  It’s a dilemma, but we’ll have to get back to you on all this.  Seems our prunes have just arrived.

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Onward, Through The Fog!


“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”---Bob Moorehead

An alcohol haze has descended on the land, a temporary weather phenomenon which allows us to briefly forget our troubles, c’mon get happy, and to chase all our cares away.  This short and welcome respite is brought to us courtesy of New Year’s Eve, the annual starter’s pistol for the Reform and Regeneration 10K, a race which begins with a field of millions and ends with a trickle of true believers staggering to the finish line.  Reform and Regeneration is not for sissies, participants are not allowed frequent days off, customers are not permitted to use the drive-thru lane, and their numbers reduce by the day, by the hour, leaving but a pittance of survivors and a sad field of spent dandelions deprived of their golden glow, now reduced to fragile puffballs ready to be dispatched by the first gentle zephyr.

The gyms and fitness centers thrive these weeks of early Winter, this silly season of hope and determination, where sturdy troops are well aware that sugar is the sniper in the tower and fat is a hidden land mine.  The cheesecake factories and donut emporiums are empty these days, but they have seen this sort of thing before and they bide their time quietly, like lions in the underbrush, knowing that sooner or later their prey will return to the oasis.  The spirit may be willing but the flesh is still weak.  By March, we have turned full-cycle, the noble efforts have been abandoned, the sabotage of the body resumes.  The defeated pilgrim weakly smiles and says, “Oh, well….”

The excuses are predictable.  We are old now, there is little time left, we might as well enjoy the creatures which nibble at the framework of our structures until they come tumbling down around us.  It’s no big secret that this entire enterprise is eventually a losing fight, why not go quietly into that long night munching a Moon Pie rather than waging a daily battle with an exhausting treadmill, grinding away at bench presses and leg curls and pull-up bars?  It’s a valid question, another option in an endless list of personal choices.  After all, everybody knows at least one 90-year-old chain smoker, not to mention an avid jogger who bought the farm.  And then, there is Dylan Thomas’ advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

There are those of us who will do no less.


Would You Rather Swing On a Star?

“….carry moonbeams home in a jar….and be better off than you are….or would you rather be a mule?

The majority of respondents would tell you they’d rather swing on a star, but as Jack London once told us, Talk Is Cheap.  The New Year’s Resolutions of January are the paper airplanes of March.  Our distinguished citizenry might walk a mile for a Camel but when parking at the mall they’d rather use the handicapped spots.  Before long, weeping relatives will gather at the lawyer’s office of the dearly departed to see who was awarded the top prize, the decedent’s Disabled Parking permit.  But we’re not here to raise the near-dead.  Saint Jude, after all, is the patron saint of lost causes, and we have other fish to fry.  Today’s sermon will be about Inertia.

Like the fog, Inertia creeps in on little cat feet.  It sits on our shoulder and whispers in our ear.  “You are old.  You are fragile.  Don’t do too much.  Don’t drive at night.  Stay close to home.  If you MUST travel, take a cruise where all the comforts are provided.”  The trainers at our gyms read from the same gospel.  They look at us dubiously when we actually jog on a treadmill.  “At your age,” they tell us, “you don’t need to push yourself.  You just want to maintain what you’ve got.”  What this really means is please, folks, don’t kill yourselves on our watch.  It’s an ugly mess when an oldster goes floating off the treadmill and faceplants into the geraniums.  The fitness center attorneys have briefed the crew.  Before long, the customers are repeating the mantras of their trainers.  Better to advise them, “Look, sonny—I didn’t come here to test the sauna.”  In business, the wise guys tell you an enterprise is either growing or dying.  Bob Dylan sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”  Tell your trainers Dylan told you that.  Don’t be surprised if they ask you who he is. 


Our Heroes

Marc Antony once said, “We are here to bury Bungee Jumping, not to praise it,” and we tend to agree.  But the sport has its moments, one of the most splendid being on April 10, 2010 when Mohr Keet, a piffling 96 years of age, took a 708-foot dive off South Africa’s Western Cape, breaking a Guinness World Record as oldest bungee jumper ever.  Please---all you wimps out there---don’t tell me you need a motorized shopping cart to get through the Publix.

Siobhan’s business empire, Pathogenes, Inc., is required to have a licensed pharmacist on call, so last year we inducted Sharon Sawallis, 83, into the fold.  Sharon was happy with the job, but she told us she might need a couple of weeks off for vacation later in the summer.  I asked where she might be going, envisioning an adventure to visit the great grandkids in North Carolina.  Wrong.  “I’m taking an icebreaker to the North Pole,” she said, nonchalantly.  Oh.  Of course.  Doesn’t everybody?  It’s only logical that Mrs. Sawallis should travel afar since she’s been in every state in this country and traveled much of the world, including railroad excursions to Russia and China.  Since we’ll be skipping the long plane trips, I asked for her favorite place in the United States.  She spit it out in an instant. “Canyonlands National Park,” she said.  I think we’ll be going there this summer. 

Tough as it is, the North Pole can’t compete in the harshness department  with the brutal conditions of the South Pole, a frozen desert with temperatures reaching a mind- (and body-) numbing minus 72 degrees Farenheit.  For some reason, this did not faze Simon Murray, 63, who trekked the 1200km journey from the Hercules Inlet on the Zumberge Coast of Antartica to the South Pole.  In case you’re wondering, it took him two months to get there.  Simon is now the oldest man to reach the South Pole unsupported.  When he arrived, he immediately went dancing at Miss Kitty’s Ice Saloon.  Okay, we made up that last part.


Just another walk in the park for Tamae Watanabe

Around The World In 1080 Days

Minoru Saito didn’t have a lot to do, so one day he decided to circumnavigate the globe.  It being soccer season, nobody particularly wanted to make the trip, so Minoro hitched up his yacht, Shuten-dohji II (we think that’s “in your face” in Japanese) and sailed alone.  Saito had such a good time, he repeated the voyage seven more times.  This is so easy, I can do it backwards, thought he.  So he did.  Minoru finished his 8th trip, this time “the wrong way around” on September 17, 2011.  The extravaganza took 1080 days and Saito was a frisky 77 years old when the adventure was completed.  Just don’t ask him if he wants to go to the beach.

Not all of us have the wherewithal to sail around the world or trek to the South Pole, but most of us can sing a little song.  Smoky Dawson, an Australian country music performer, has sung a lot of them and he isn’t quitting yet.  At the lofty age of 92, Dawson released a collection of original songs in an album entitled “Homestead of My Dreams,” making Smoky the oldest person ever to release a new album.  Eat your heart out, Marty Jourard.

Ever think of running a marathon?  You’d rather drink acrylic paint, right?  Not Gladys “The Gladyator” Burrill, a jaunty 92 and Guinness’ record-holder for Oldest Female Marathon finisher.  Burrill, a part-time Hawaii resident, has completed five of seven Honolulu Marathons.  “Just get out there and walk or run,” Gladys advises.  “I like to walk part of the time because you can stop and smell the roses, but it’s a rarity that I stop for long.”  The Gladyator had been a multi-engine aircraft pilot, mountain climber, desert hiker and horseback rider before she ran her first marathon in 2004 at age 86.  “Think positive” is Gladys’ motto.  Try it some time.

At age 28, Tamae Watanabe began mountain climbing.  In 1977, she climbed Mount McKinley, followed by Mont Blanc, Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, before retiring to return home.  After kicking around Japan for a awhile, she went back to the hills and in May of 2002 became the oldest woman to climb Mount Everest.  Ten years later, just for the hell of it, she did it again at age 73.  Asked what she planned to do next, Tamae took off her parka, sat on a stool and said, “I think I’ll have a beer.”


Ted Talks

For several years, early in the week of the Kentucky Derby, Ted Blow, a distant relative, would call me from Connecticut to get my take on the race.  He started this when he was about 88 years old and continued for several years, during which we always had the winner.  This delighted Ted no end as he became the Nutmeg State racing guru to his dwindling contingent of amazed cronies.  “That Ted, he knows his horse-racing!” they would exult to one another, counting the winnings from their two-dollar bets.  Unlike many prophets, Ted Blow was a hero in his own town.

Ted still lived alone in his own house, a friendly dwelling he had occupied for decades, watched over by a housekeeper who cooked his meals.  His son, Paul, lived nearby.  He got out as much as he was able and delighted in doing the small chores he could still manage.  Ted never lost his enthusiasm for life, his joie de vivre, his excitement at the arrival of a new day.  Who knew, after all, what that day would bring?

From that first call, Ted would end our conversations with his Secret Plan.  Almost in confidence, he would lean into the phone and tell me, “I’m 88 this year and I’m going for The Big One.”  The Big One, of course, was the Century Mark, 100 years of traversing the planet, seeing the sights, testing your talents, raising your children, enjoying your friends.  Ted did most of this in the company of his legendary wife, Barbara, an optimistic, outgoing woman who could move mountains when they got in the way of her ambitions or thrash a pack of wild dogs if any such fools threatened her family.  They were married for an unlikely 64 years.  The loss of such a wife is the end of many a man but Ted bucked up, filled with grand memories of the Glory Days, and marched bravely on.

I looked forward to his annual calls and especially his closing optimism.  For seven straight years, he told me he was “Going for the Big One,” and who could doubt that he’d make it, he was the mighty Ted Blow, raised by wolves, feared by enemies and favored by The Fates.  Ominously, the eighth year there was no call.  I nervously waited as Derby Day approached, then passed, and I knew.  The word came from his family a few days later and it was a crushing report.  How was it possible that Ted Blow, a mere 94, could die?  He was a giant among men, indestructible, and he was going for The Big One.  I remembered playing in his forested back yard, chasing fireflies as a child.  I remembered him donating to Siobhan his heavy coat in the eight frosty degrees of my grandmother’s funeral.  I remembered his good humor, his intelligence, the way he cared about people.  And so, it’s altogether logical I now stoop over and pick up his baton, embrace his quest, and, if necessary, go down fighting.  I’m a compadre of Ted Blow and I’m going for The Big One.

That’s all, folks….