MIND GAMES

One of the biggest red flags of the aging process crops up when you find someone letting their mind go to seed.  What’s worse that a stagnating mind?  Nothing that I can think of (providing I can still think).

Some folks just assume that, once they’ve retired, they are no longer required to think.  It’s an easy assumption to make, but I submit to you that your mental “self” is just like your other three “selves”:  You’ve got to feed ‘em, nurture ‘em, exercise ‘em . . . and then put ‘em to use, lest they atrophy and put you into the worst of all circumstances:  walking death.

The four “selves,” for those of you new to this post, are your mental, physical, social and spiritual selves.  My theory on this is simple:  To be a complete and wholly functional human bean—as opposed to a Lima bean or pinto bean—all four of those entities need to be alive and well, up-and-running at full capacity.  Otherwise, you’re damaged goods, a wounded beast out there among the lions and tigers who feast on weakened, non-functioning critters.

Which brings us to mind games, the best means known for keeping the old brain pan at full strength.  Doesn’t matter much which one you choose, do something that stretches your mental acuity.  Watch “Jeopardy” and challenge the contestants with the awe-inspiring breadth of your knowledge.  Do Sudoku and keep your numbers skills up to date.  Do the crossword puzzle in your daily paper.

That’s my game, the crosswords.  I love language and all that comes with it, especially word games.  When phone caller asks if my wife is around, I invariably answer, “No, she’s a trapezoid.”  (Sometimes they get it; many times they do not.)

Word games are a delightfully inherent part of the crosswords.  I delight in the built-in puns.  The other day, the answer to the clue “dead giveaway” was a will (as in one’s final testament).  The “baby talk” theme clues in the Wall Street Journal recently were, in order, “Baby goat at rest,” “Person squealing on a baby lion to the authorities,” “Baby bird’s fridge adornment” and “Bodyguard for a baby elephant.”  The answers, respectively, were, kidnapping, cub reporter, chick magnet and calf muscle.  Hilarious, to my way of thinking.

What is most helpful in solving crossword puzzles is the ability to see patterns.  When you see “ng” together, you can almost certainly figure there’s going to be an “i” just in front of that.  When you see a “u” as the next to last letter, or a “p” as the last letter, something is definitely “up.”  The letters “s,” “e,” and “d” are the most common final letters, so “seed” might be the ideal word for the bottom row of the across clues, or the right hand side for the down clues.

My failing is overthinking an answer.  Sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct answer.  If the clue is “transmit,” the four-letter answer is almost certainly “send.”  It has three of the most common final letters and, well, it’s obvious.  When confronted with the clue “Green feature,” I was all over the place with ecologically-based answers . . . until it finally dawned on me that they were talking golf and that the answer was “hole.”  Similarly, “err” is almost always the correct answer to “Do the wrong thing.”  It just is.

To further the challenge, I do even the New York Times puzzles in ink.  It forces me to slow down just a bit—entirely against my ADD/Aries nature—to check the cross-references before filling in my answer.  Deliberation is not a quality that comes naturally or easily to me.  I even, on occasion, do the far easier daily crossword in my head, without actually filling in the squares.  That’s a real mind- and memory-stretcher.  And memory may be the gift and capability most enhanced by mind games.  Which is, if I recall correctly, why we do these exercises.  Got to keep that mental self sharp, capable and useful.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

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BEST PIX

The Atlantic magazine has posed an interesting “big question” for the January/February issue’s back page.  It is this:  What was the most influential photograph in history?

My first thought, naturally, was the ultrasound photograph taken in February 1987 that showed not one, but two fetuses growing below my wife’s abdomen.  Oh, my goodness.  That was the most thrilling moment of my life.  For me, the best, easily.  But, in the wider sense, there are others to consider.

Another quick impression was the photograph of a beardless Abraham Lincoln, early in his presidency, gaunt, hauntingly bearing the weight of a world in violent turmoil.  It captures the steely underpinnings of the man, but also the hurt of having to heal a wounded nation.

The young lady at Kent State University, kneeling over the dying body of a young man who had the temerity to protest a badly-engaged war in a far-off land, persecuting people who, as Muhammed Ali so cogently noted, “Never did anything to us.”  The Viet Nam era provided many such painful portraits, including that of an unclad girl fleeing for her life as the winds of war nip at her heels.

Of more recent vintage is the stark and unbending image of a dying, malnourished African youngster curled up on the sere earth . . . with a vulture patiently assessing his chances just a few feet away.  Or that of a dead kid, washed up on a Mediterranean beach where his presence was not welcome.  Not to mention any number of pictures of African-American men strung up on tree limbs in the South.  “Strange fruit,” indeed.

On a lighter note, as an ADD-fueled writer, I have always taken the greatest satisfaction in the classic photographic rendition of Albert Einstein’s Princeton University desk:  a delightful imprint of disarray.  If the smartest man in the universe eschewed a clean and uncluttered desk, then who is my wife to suggest that mine be otherwise?  Who? I ask plaintively.

But when we get back to brass tacks, as a working-living-breathing philosopher I’m going to have to take that artistic step backwards—way backwards, in this instance—and cast my vote for the 7 December 1972 color snapshot taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 Mission.  Perfectly backlit by the sun is the photograph known now and forever as the “Blue Marble.”

For that is what our planet looks to be, hanging out on its lonesome in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.  The blue-green of the oceans, the brown-green of the land masses, are (or ought to be) a symbol of unity in a politically and artificially fractured world.  It was the first photograph of our home taken from our natural satellite.  In it, we are clearly a single entity.  As we should be, now and for all of recorded time.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

THE TAX THING

Taxes are the ultimate political trifecta.  They are complex, misunderstood and hated.  Despite that, it is important that we understand the foundations upon which they are built, because that foundation says everything about who we are and what we truly value.

At the moment, it seems that we are expected to value wealth and those who have amassed it, by hook or by crook.  You see, we used to believe that politicians were public servants, people who “represented” us and our values and our interests.  Yes, there have always been a few pols whose primary interest lay in lining their own linen pockets.  But, in the overall scheme of things, it seemed that they were shunted off to the side as outliers.

That is no longer the case. In a sharp and dangerous backlash to stressful economic times, we have—with the cruelest sense of irony—given over the hen house to the foxes among us.  And their response to our economic hardship . . . is to lower taxes for the richest among us.

We used to have a progressive tax rate, a tax rate that once stood at 90 percent for those flush with post-Depression dinero.  That rate has fallen so low that it is now we, the people, who shoulder most of a tax burden that supports a government keen on expensive rugs and opulent, jet-setting vacation packages.

Roger Altman, a former Deputy Treasury Secretary and founding Senior Chairman of Evercore Bank, was a recent guest of interviewer Charlie Rose.  He pointed to Trump’s accession as the result of anger being vented by those caught in a four-decades-long cycle of economic stagnation.  “Forty-six percent of American households,” he said, “cannot raise four hundred dollars for an emergency without having to borrow or sell something.”

Altman suggested that several factors push economic anxiety to the fore:  globalization, advancing technology, the decline of the influence of unions to counter corporate power and the stagnation of college graduation rates.  “All of these contribute to economic stagnation,” said Altman.  “And economic stagnation leads to resentment.  So, despite the fact that we have synchronized global growth right now— three percent growth in China, Europe and the US!—that unemployment is down and the fact that the stock market is strong, Americans were still stressed enough and resentful enough to speak out in anger last November.”

But return to that very sad statistic, that nearly half of us cannot easily lay our hands on $400.  Sorry, but that is a horrific statement of fact.  Corporate America has so taken the reins of our economy that we cannot see the damnable downside to this intrinsic imbalance of economic power.  There are societies where it is frowned on for a manager to make (not “earn”) more than ten times that of salaried employees.  (In Japan, CEOs make 16 times the average worker.  In the US, that ration is 319 times!)  In those societies, the distribution of wealth allows nearly everyone to participate in the results of their efforts.  There is an equality that creates and sustains a peaceful and productive economic and political environment.  It just makes good sense.  Common sense, if you will, that rarest and most prized of all social commodities.  Hard to come by when led by one who, like a vulture, feeds off of the carrion of economic displacement.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the fat cats would line their pockets more reliably and more safely in an economy where everyone is doing well.  Henry Ford, a notorious bigot in his personal life, knew that if he paid his employees better than others . . . they would be able to purchase the very products they were producing.  Not only that, but they would likely pay closer attention to quality concerns . . . since some of those cars were going to be theirs, in the end.  Win-win.  The bottom line is simpler still:  It is morally right and sound that people be fairly compensated for their honest endeavors.  That’s all.  Right versus wrong.  Capisce?

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

THE NUMBER SIX

Let’s start with the most basic piece of information:  Carbon, the most common element in the universe, is number six in the periodic table.  Carbon is the very building block of life.  It is at the heart of everything.

The number “6” has insinuated itself into my life as a sort of building block, as a sort of heart of everything as well.  Perhaps it was because I was born on the sixth day of the month, the sixth day of the week, the 96th day of the year.  (That number, 96, is, by the way, 6 x 16.  I’m just sayin’.)

This gives me a birth date that is delightfully easy to recall:  4/6/46.  That number reinforced itself upon me a few years ago when I was cast as the Warris Family lawyer in the Lawrence Kasden film “Mumford” (shot in Sonoma and Napa counties).  When I went to the cinema to see the film for the first time, I had a stop watch to measure the time between the opening credits and my “essential” scene.  When I stepped outside post-performance, the stop watch read:  46 minutes, 46 seconds!

As a typically sports-drugged kid, my favorite players were Bill Russell, the basketball star for the University of San Francisco (my eventual college choice) and Boston Celtics (my favorite team until Len Bias drugged himself to death), and Stan “The Man” Musial, the first tier first sacker for the St. Louis Cardinals.  You wanna guess what uniform number those scintillating stalwarts wore?

It is only the shortest stretch for me to note that my favorite player of all time, the best baseball player ever, Willie Mays, wore number 24.  Surely you can see the obvious?  Two-plus-four is clearly six.  How could you not see that?  (And the argument is an easy one:  There are players who achieved the highest level at three, even four of the five baseball skill sets—hit, hit with power, run, throw, field—but name me another who was at the very peak in every single one of them.  Go ahead, I’m waiting . . .)

I have quite the collection of NBA jerseys of players sporting the number “6” over the years starting, of course, with Bill Russell’s Celtics white.  I have a pair of Andrew Bogut tops, when he was with the Bucks and his very short stint—just over a minute of actual game time—with the Cavs last season.  Of course I have both the home white and an away blue jersey of the New York Knicks’ budding superstar Kristaps Porzingis.

Josh Smith, Derrick Rose (Olympics), DeAndre Jordon, Terrence Jones, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Sean Elliott, Jordan Clarkson, Tyson Chandler, Terry Mills, Penny Hardaway, and Sue Bird (from the WNBA) have all worn my number at one point in their careers.  As has, surprisingly to some, LeBron James.  He wore it with the Heat, had it assigned with the Cavs, and wore it in an All Star game and at the Olympics.  I’ve got one of each.

Oh, and there’s one other salient point:  I am six feet tall.  Never mind that odd measuring stick at my new doctor’s office that seems to think I’m five-eleven-and-three-quarters.  I do now, always did, and always will stand exactly six feet above this precious earth.  Just ask me.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

HEAVEN IS . . . CONNECTION?

I am conflicted on the existence of Heaven.  Best I can do, for the moment, is that it is within our power to create a small slice of that paradise here on earth, here in our present day lives.  As to the one that comes post-living?  I’ll believe it when I’m there.

But the Heaven in the here and now is within our grasp, and I believe that it comes in the form of “connections.”  Not the political connections that loot our treasuries and make wealthy those in political drivers’ seats.  Not the gangster connections made popular in films like “Wise Guys” and their ilk.

No, I’m talking about the more personal connections that link us, person-to-person, soul-to-soul.  I’m talking about the reality of merging minds and bodies and other worthwhile entities into circumstances where bliss is a given and wholeness enfolds us.

When I lie abed with my wife, our bodies interlocked in the quiet stillness of intimacy and shared experience there is an ineffable connection that nearly surpasses our ability to express its seamlessness.  But there you are.  It is expressible, and it is wonderful, and it is that small slice of paradise which overwhelms and delights.

I find another expression of that physical connectedness on the basketball court at the YMCA Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  I am engulfed by it when a teammate finds an open lane to the hoop, cuts sharply, and I am able to hit him (or her) with a bounce pass that finds an open pair of hands for an easy, exhilarating layup.

Mental connections that lead to that paradisiacal sensation come when we share ideas that spark insights and, better still, lead to joint actions that right a wrong and create something new that benefits our town, our state, our country, our planet.

On the social side, there is an idea that is presently pushing itself to the foreground—the new and wildly exciting notion that men should not sexually harass, brutalize or marginalize women—that will change all of those places for the better.  If that idea blossoms into full fruition, consider the creative and legislative good that would surely result from that mindful earthquake change.  Think of it, both halves of society contributing fully and unreservedly towards positive outcomes . . . for all of us.

Do not forget the necessity for spiritual connections, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve in our earthly paradise.  Too many religious people start (and end) with the premise that belief and faith is a zero-sum game.  Better, I think, to open our minds to the possibility that we might learn more from one another than by hewing solely to our own narrow notions.  The connectedness that can come from inter-faith wrangling, sharing, questioning might be as good as it gets on this plane of life.  Do not bypass the experience.  Ask questions, of yourself and of others.  And don’t forget to listen to the responses.  That’s where the learning comes.  That’s where the connections come.  Embrace those new ideas, embrace those new experiences and, better still, embrace each other.  Connect.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

I know the front pages—Korea, the President, tribalism, Syria, racism—might suggest that pessimism be the order of the day.  But there are reasons to question that mind set, first among them that headlines lead with that which is out of the ordinary.  Which is exactly what you want those things to be:  abnormal.

If you stand back far enough—remember the importance of perspective, in art, in life—you might see a different story unfolding.  Take crime as prime example.  All you see in the papers—murder, mass killings, child abuse—would lead you to believe that we are on the verge of the Apocalypse.  Indeed, some cults have formed suicide pacts on the day they expect the world to end.

Yet, the fact of the matter is this:  the world has not ended on any of those “final” days and overall crime is significantly down over the last few decades.  Part of the reason for that trend is the very thing we complain about, the constant “reportage” of violence and abuse.  But here’s the upside:  It is that very reportage that brings this filth out into the open . . . where it can be dealt with!

Violent crime is not up.  It is down.  Child abuse is not up.  It is down.  The abuse of women is not up.  It is down.  Why?  In the latter two cases it is because these acts can no longer be swept under the rug, because victims are now standing up and asserting their right to be heard, their right to recompense.  Did you see the report on the settlement figure for just one of Bill O’Reilly’s six sexual harassment suits?  More than $30 million!  Yet he continues to maintain that he “did nothing wrong.”  Seriously, Bill?  Do you honestly think that you can get anyone to believe that in this day and age?  (Of course this is the guy who always boasted of having won two Peabody Awards . . . when his actual medal count was . . . zero.)

Steven Pinker devoted an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to the premise that violence is in a declining mode in most of our planet’s societies, and why that is so.  He clearly supports my line of thinking:  Citing the hoary old news adage “If it bleeds, it leads,” he goes on to further explain his viewpoint:  “The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.  No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.”

After more than 700 pages of substantiating facts and figures proving that mankind’s war on mankind is, indeed, abating, Pinker closes with this:  “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

Does this mean that we don’t have to clean up our act—on land, on sea, in the air?  Of course not.  There is plenty of slogging, back-breaking, mind-challenging work yet to be done before we can call the battle won.  Less cows, more listening, less focus on “difference,” more hybrid cars would be a start.  But there is encouragement to be had from actually seeking out facts and trends and the good intentions that emanate from most of us.  If we wage war against entropy with a sound strategy and a fiercer will, optimism can and will be rewarded.  You can just feel the vibe.  C’mon. Go for it.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

ELDER ABUSE

Korea and health care aside, an October 9 piece in the New Yorker magazine details one of the most repugnant stories I have ever come across.  A vile system in Nevada allows court-appointed “guardians” virtually unlimited access to the assets of elderly residents of “active adult” communities.  With a nod from compliant judges and law enforcement, these social workers worm their way into the confidences of often family-less people . . . and then step in as “legal guardians” for these vulnerable people.  “Prey” is a better word.

Without any diagnoses or court determinations of incapacity, one court guardian removed a functioning couple from their comfortable community, where they were loved and treated with respect, to what amounted to a mental ward.  They called it a “nursing home.”  There, the couple was isolated from friends and family. They were overmedicated to the point where they became, in effect, zombies.  Their assets were slyly siphoned off into the personal accounts of the so-called “guardian.”  Paintings, collectible coins, even the gentleman’s prized pocket watch:  stolen and auctioned off for the guardian’s benefit.

The hearing to set up the guardianship, before a complicit judge, lasted just ten minutes.  The elderly couple had the benefit of neither lawyer nor their daughter, who wasn’t even apprised of the move.  When she came to visit, her parents weren’t there . . . and none of the staff could tell her where they had been moved.  They weren’t in on the fix.  They simply did not know.

Nearly a third of those moving to Las Vegas today are senior citizens.  The number of those in the state older than 85 has risen nearly 80 percent in the last decade.  Some of these folks have significant assets, and it will surprise you not at all that those more well off and in the absence of close family are the prime targets of these quasi-legal scavengers.

Guardianship petitions were set up and usually employed by nursing homes and hospitals to collect overdue bills.  Under those circumstances, perfectly understandable.  But when jackals and hyenas work the system to their benefit, chaos ensues.

One women, whose father’s assets were stolen and sold, has been researching those fraudulent practices:  “I was so fascinated that these people could literally take over the lives and assets of people under color of law, in less than ten minutes, and nobody was asking questions.  These people spent their lives accumulating wealth and, in a blink of an eye, it was someone else’s.”

She tried time after time to nudge law enforcement to get involved, but was always told that it was not a police matter.  She tried to explain that “this is a racketeering operation that is fee-based.  There’s no brown paper bag handed off in an alley.  The payoff is the right to bill the estate. . . .  The scheme is ingenious.  How do you come up with a crime that literally none of the victims can articulate without sounding like they’re nuts?”

It’s hard to say whether or not the police (unlikely) and reliably complicit judge (likely) were paid off, but the system clearly allowed extensive leeway in guardianship rights.  It took the involvement of a local newspaper’s investigative unit to finally bring the story to light and get “guardian” and “judge” into the legal system as defendants.  This particular story has not been finally adjudicated, but it seems as if the culprits in this case will face the music.

In the meantime, one victim has started a grass-roots national organization called Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship and the Nevada state legislature is poised to pass a law requiring all wards to be represented by lawyers in court.  It’s a start.  And it’s important, because nobody wants to, as one victim wrote, “be erased from the face of the earth.”  Nobody.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle