Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.

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One Reason Why College Is So Expensive

There’s a longstanding debate in the United States about how expensive college has become, and what to do about it.  Some people say we need to get over the notion that every young person needs to go to college, and recognize that learning a trade that is always going to be needed is a perfectly fine way to live a happy, productive life.  Others argue that we need to make college loans more available, and at better terms, and still others say that students loans are a long-term trap for the borrowers and therefore the federal government should pay for college.

Curiously, there’s not much of an outcry for colleges and universities to actually take steps to cut their costs and, as a result, cut their tuition.  And while there are some low-cost alternatives, in the form of community colleges, traditional economics don’t seem to apply to the college decision-making process.  Low-cost competitors don’t restrain the pricing of tuition at more prestigious institutions, because there is always a gaggle of parents, and students, willing to pay exorbitant amounts to go to Harvard, or Stanford, and acquire the diploma from an eminent school.

stanford-university-696x391Could colleges and universities cut costs and offer lower tuitions?  A recent article about the school bureaucracy at Stanford points to one way it could be done.   The article describes the explosive growth in the administrative apparatus at the school and cites some interesting statistics:

“Expenditures for non-academic administrative and professional employees have doubled at US colleges in the past 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students and faculty. According to the Department of Education, administrative positions have grown by 60% between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Private schools are more guilty than their public school contemporaries; there are now 2.5 non-academic employees for every full-time tenure-track faculty member at private institutions, which exceeds the 2:1 ratio at public universities. A proliferation of associates and assistants, marketers and managers, now outnumber faculty and TAs.”

Why has the number of administrative employees at colleges doubled, and what do all of these people do?  Were you aware that, at Stanford, there is an “Office of Alcohol and Policy Education” that has its own associate dean, assistant director, operations manager, and assistant dean?  Or a Students & Activities Leadership area that is supposed to “help students find community and foster passions” that has four professional staff members?  And the growing college bureaucracy not only contributes to the spiraling cost of an education; the article linked above argues that the administrative state at Stanford not only consumes resources and money, but also “strangles student culture” and harms the education students receive.

When I went to school at Ohio State in the ’70s, the administrative part of the University was small, and many of the positions and offices described in the article about Stanford didn’t exist.  And, not coincidentally, tuition was very reasonable.  And while some new positions are logical and appropriate, such as those that seek to enhance diversity and inclusion on campus, the need for other additions is highly debatable.  When I was in college, we didn’t need school administrators to help us “foster passions” or “find community,” we somehow managed to do it ourselves.  And maybe it would be better for students, and a more fitting preparation for the real world, if students had to muddle through themselves without having an army of officious administrators dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Are there school trustees, or college presidents, out there who are willing to tackle cutting bloated administrative budgets, eliminating nonessential positions, and making the cost of an education more affordable?  We may find out only of students and parents decide to stop writing blank checks when it comes to tuition.

Does Early Retirement = Early Death?

Kish and I turned 60 last year, and naturally the prospect of retirement seems a lot closer now than it was when we were in our 40s.  As we think about what to do on the retirement front, we’ve taken out books from the library and we try to read articles that look like they may have some relevant information.

191073-131-0d844c57Sometimes the articles can be a bit . . . alarming.  Like this one, which provides 12 reasons not to retire early and suggests that people who retire early often run out of money, are sick and depressed, lose the social network that they built up when they were working, and deprive themselves of a rewarding second career, which apparently involves happily picking flowers in a greenhouse.  The grim list of reasons is accentuated by even grimmer artwork of troubled seniors struggling with financial concerns and thinking longingly about the good old days at the office.  In case you’re interested, reason no. 12 cites statistics that indicate that people who work longer live longer and that there is a correlation between early retirement and early death, “even when lifestyle, health and demographic issues are considered.”  That final reason is illustrated with a nice picture of somebody placing a flower on a gravestone.  Yikes!

You kind of wonder who comes up with these lists.  Is the Social Security Administration, which would love to have people work longer for system solvency reasons, planting stories like this on websites?  Or maybe the Russians have pivoted from meddling with American elections and have now decided to meddle with the retirement decisions of hardworking Americans just for the heck of it.

Does early retirement = early death?  It’s hard for me to see how you could possibly control for all of the variables and determine that retirement was the ultimate cause of death for anybody.  And, these articles being what they are, there’s a little bit of inconsistency between reason no. 1, which says that Americans are living so long and life expectancies are growing so rapidly that people are likely to outlive their savings, and reason no. 12, which says that early retirement will produce a prompt visit from the Grim Reaper.

I know relatives, friends and former colleagues who decided to retire before 65, who decided to work until 70, and who wanted to keep working after 70 and enjoyed doing so.  They all seemed happy and reasonably satisfied with their ultimate decisions — and incidentally I’ve not noticed the early retirees keeling over, either.  Their experience teaches me that everyone just needs to make their own decisions based on their own circumstances, comfort levels, financial situations, desires, and dreams.  Scare stories don’t really advance the analysis.

 

Considering The SkyMall Life

I miss SkyMall, the curious catalog that used to be found in the pocket on the backside of every airplane seat along with the airline’s in-flight magazine.  SkyMall vanished from the seat back pockets some years ago, when the company that published it went into bankruptcy.

screen_shot_20150123_at_7-38-05_pm-crop-original-original-38-05_pmI liked SkyMall, because it was the perfect reading material for the beginning or end of any airline flight, when all of your stuff is “stowed” in the area below the seat in front of you and you’re just killing time until the flight finally takes off or lands.  You could pick up that magazine, flip to just about any page, and find some bizarro product that made you wonder whether any real human being actually owned this stuff — and, if so, how much money they must have to use some of it to purchase things that could only be considered as complete luxury items for the idle rich.  You would look at the strange products and marvel about what it would be like to have enough money to actually purchase one of them.  Before you knew it, the plane was taking off or landing and you could return the SkyMall to the pocket and get back to your actual life.

The products offered in Sky Mall always raised a lot of compelling questions.  An enormous, telescoping plastic device that would vacuum up spiders from your cathedral ceiling?  (How often would you ever need to use it, and where would it be stored?  Is there some part of the country where ceiling spiders are a serious problem?)  An expensive Harry Potter replica wand?  (Was it intended for a child, who might break it or lose it, as children often do, or for a nerdy adult who liked the Harry Potter books?  How would you react if you went into someone’s den or office and saw such a wand prominently displayed?)  A sizeable Yeti statue for the garden?  (Who would want a statue of Bigfoot for their garden?  A gnome or a fairy, perhaps, but . . . Bigfoot?)

When you think about it, it’s not hard to see why SkyMall disappeared.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any recognizable SkyMall item in anyone’s home or office.  And, if the products were designed for the idle rich, they’re really not likely to be back in coach on a United flight, are they?  But boy — SkyMall was the ideal disposable, briefly entertaining reading material for a boring plane flight.

Schiller Pokémon

Russell’s dog Betty was restless, so I decided to take her for a lap around Schiller Park. When we got there the park was packed with people, and there was even a traffic jam of cars cruising around the perimeter looking for a parking spot. When I looked more closely, I noticed that every person in the throngs was staring like a zombie at their cellphones and tapping away. Apparently they were playing a Pokémon-like game — and, of course, they weren’t exactly enjoying the park to the fullest in doing so.

Why use an already busy neighborhood park as the location for a game? If all people are going to do is stumble around looking at their phones, hoping to capture fictional creatures, why not send them to some desolate concrete slab instead?

Umbrella Jousting

We’ve had rainy, blustery weather in the Columbus the past few days.  It’s been unpleasant, but it gives all of us Midwestern walkers a chance to demonstrate a little appreciated, but essential, life skill:  umbrella jousting.

0002ced9_mediumAt least, that’s what I call it.  It comes into play on rainy, windy days when you’re trying to use an umbrella.  Unless you position your umbrella very carefully, an unexpected blast of wind will turn your umbrella inside out and pull the canopy off the umbrella ribs, leaving the fabric flapping in the wind, the ribs exposed in unseemly fashion, and the walker completely unprotected from the elements.  It’s not an easy thing to master, and it takes some practice.  That’s why it’s not uncommon to see umbrellas ruined by Mother Nature sticking forlornly out of trash cans on downtown streets.  Until you acquire the knack of umbrella jousting, you’re likely to lose a few Totes.

The only way to prevent unwanted umbrella shredding is to position the umbrella precisely against the maximum amount of wind pressure, brace yourself, and lean into the point of the wind as you walk forward.  You’re like a knight using his lance in a medieval joust, or a fencer using his foil.  Either way, it’s you against the wind.  And it’s not just a matter of brute force, either.  Because the wind is an unpredictable, devilish adversary, you have to be able to sense the shifts in the wind direction and promptly reposition your umbrella at the first movement, or risk disaster.

Veteran Midwesterners become remarkably adept at umbrella jousting.  It’s one of the skills that distinguish us from the desert dwellers.  I’m proud to say that I’ve had some umbrellas that I’ve navigated through the wind currents for more than 20 years.