Turning on

We’re putting Daylight Saving Time to bed this weekend. This annual ritual serves as a great time to remind all of us TRDATMs of the headlights law. Regular readers might recognize the TRDATM acronym I use to refer to people who act as if they believe “The Rules Don’t Apply To Me.”

At this time of year, the light of day declines quickly as late afternoon slides into evening. Darkness arrives swiftly. This inevitable reality escapes the notice of a group of motorists — those who refuse to turn their headlights on, which, naturally, renders their vehicles more difficult for other drivers to see. Some drive headlightless well into night, when it’s REALLY dark. Terrifying.

What are these drivers thinking? Are they thinking at all? One friend suggests that such drivers reason that if they can see other vehicles, there’s no problem. Well, yes, here’s the problem. In addition to driving dangerously, they could be breaking the law.

The law varies slightly among states, but for us and other drivers to be safe, our headlights should be on 30 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after dawn.

Headlights also are required in the rain, a fact that has escaped the notice of far too many of us drivers. If we need to turn our wipers on, we need our headlights, too.  That’s the law, and it makes sense. When the weather turns bad, we and our vehicles are harder for others to see.

And that’s the point, really. These rules and laws are more about keeping others safe than they are about us.

But they do apply to us. All of us.

Perhaps to hug

When they were younger, our three daughters loved Zoom, a half-hour television program for children that ran on PBS from 1972 to 1978. WGBH in Boston produced the program in which a cast of seven children presented games, plays, songs, puzzles, poems, jokes, even informal discussions of more serious subjects. No adults appeared. Zoom was by and for kids. The hugely popular show was revived in 1999 and ran on PBS until 2005.

Today, we grownups know Zoom as a teleconferencing software developed by Zoom Video Communications. It enables us to see and converse with one another on our computers and other electronic devices. Meetings of up to 100 participants are possible using Zoom.

Every Wednesday morning, I join a meeting on Zoom of caregivers. About a dozen friends who are responsible for caring for aging spouses or parents share reports of our experiences and swap helpful information and support. A few members are recently widowed.

As an amateur actor, I’m also part of a troupe of seniors who produce one-act plays on Zoom and record them for viewers to enjoy on You Tube.

But some of my fellow Zoomers and I have discovered that meeting this way, convenient as it is, heightens our desire to see one another in person. We yearn to meet face-to-face, perhaps to touch, to hug. Some members of our weekly caregivers group realized this last week when we found ourselves together at the funeral of the wife of one of our group.

This beautiful service took place outdoors on a mild October afternoon on the grounds of a church. Several of us found ourselves seated near one another around a picnic table. At our next weekly Zoom meeting, someone remarked on how good it felt to be together in person at that service and suggested that we find a way to get together in person again — to see one another, perhaps to hug.

Members of our theater troupe report similar feelings. As we come to the end of rehearsals and record a play, someone in the cast invariably expresses a wish for us to get together in person.

Zoom is a wonder, to be sure. It has made it possible for us to see and hear one another on our electronic devices no matter where we are. At some point, though, we feel the need to see one another face-to-face and to touch.

Perhaps to hug.

117 days

Pumpkins, spice, excited children in costumes, enjoying their trick or treat outings, church harvest festivals., football games. This time of year affects us all, one way or another.

Many of my friends express pleasure at the coming of fall. They love to cite the crisp temperatures, football, the wearing of fashionable cool weather clothing.

Not me. Autumn makes me grouchy. Fall means leaves everywhere and loud blowers to move them away. That’s for starters. To me, fall means trees once rendered beautiful by summer now turn gray, brown, bare. It means not leaving our homes without protecting ourselves with coats, gloves and such. Dealing with snow and ice. Driving in it. Shoveling it.

Fall brings us winter.

For many folks who live near me, fall also heralds the coming of college basketball season, a religion capable of lifting one’s spirits all the way to March.

Ah, but summer.

Summer means mild, comfortable temperatures to me. Casual clothes. All the time. Pleasure, alone and in groups. Swimming pools, great food, the beach, daylight lasting for hours, which enables all sorts of pleasant evening activity. Catching lightning bugs. Watermelon. Ice cream. Outdoor fun.

Baseball games.

Autumn takes all this away. Harumph. Bundle up, it tells us. It’s over. Quit playing. Shut yourself inside. Get serious. The long, gray months are nearly here.

Still, I take pleasure in knowing that these long, gray days eventually will come to an end.

Pitchers and catchers report in 117 days.

Can you count it?

Maybe I should simply mute the sound. Watching sports on television can put my teeth on edge as I listen to some announcers abuse the language. Lately, I have noticed an error that also is common in the rest of us, the general population — whether to use amount or number when referring to quantity.

The solution is easy. If you can count it, use number. A large number of students showed up wearing masks. (Not amount of students.) The number of fans decreased when the team started losing games. The number of votes were enough for her to win. The students, fans, and votes can be counted.

All right, then. When is it correct to use amount? Use amount when you’re referring to a singular noun that can’t be counted. Examples: A small amount of risk is involved. I have cut back the amount of fat in my diet.

There are exceptions, of course, and they are money and time. One can refer to an amount of money or to a number of dollar bills, or to an amount of time or a number of hours: The amount of money in my checking account has increased, and The number of dollar bills in the kitchen drawer has decreased. We have a limited amount of time to get to the airport.

Keep it simple. If you can count it, use number.

A personal message

This is a personal report to readers and friends.

I visit my dear bride Betsy in her room at a local assisted-living home, daily in the afternoon. Last Thursday, when our visit ended, I stopped in her private restroom before heading home. As I was drying my hands, I suddenly lost consciousnesses and crashed to the floor, striking my head and other parts of my body, I awoke seated in a large chair as an employee of the home applied a Band-aid to my injured elbow.

Two days later I was discharged from the hospital, a portable heart monitor taped to my chest, forbidden to drive for two weeks at least.

I have a history of heart disease. In 1997 I had 7-vessel bypass surgery, a record number for University of North Carolina Hospital. A heart attack came in 2004. For years I have had an arrhythmia. My ticker skips a beat fairly frequently. Until last Thursday, this hasn’t caused me any problems.

Doctors have concluded that the occasional pause in my heartbeat was longer than usual at that moment — too long — last Thursday, causing me to black out and crash to the floor.

Examinations also show that the wall of my heart’s left ventricle is thin, which increases the risk of trouble.

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 87th birthday. Yes, I’m old, and I appreciate every one of those years. I feel at peace with the realization that the end of my life journey grows closer. This incident last week brought this reality into sharper focus.

But I intend to keep on keeping on, living my life to its fullest, grateful for the love and support of family and you, my friends.

Showing your love

Going through some old emails this morning, I came across one I wrote to our three daughters a little over a year ago. It occurs to me that it might speak to you or someone you know. Here it is, slightly edited.

Dear Daughters,

I’ll try to keep this brief, but it’s been burning in my mind since I watched a taped production of “Kinky Boots” on public television last night. In one memorable song, a principal character, an African American man playing a drag queen, sang about how he had not turned out to be the person his dad had dreamed he would become. It got me thinking about my own dear father, whom I so loved and respected.

I know that I disappointed him. He wanted another masculine male like my older brother, good with tools, athletic, macho. In me he got a nerdy, skinny, unathletic kid who preferred literature, music and theater, who as a child flopped on the floor and read the big dictionary page after page because he was fascinated with words. Dad and I went to ballgames together, and one year we sang in a chorus together, but that about summarizes what we had in common as males sharing the same family.

I started acting in plays when I was 11, sang in choirs from a much earlier age, formed my own dance band, played in it and directed it through high school and after. I took multiple classes in a theater arts school in my 20s, joined its touring company, performed a lot, was recognized with an award for my work.

Last night, on hearing that song, I remembered: My parents never came to watch me perform. Not once. Not ever. 

My sister was talented musically, and still is. In high school, she was awarded a Carnegie scholarship, which earned her piano lessons at Peabody and the privilege of singing in its prestigious all-girl choir, a fantastic group. My folks expected this. She was a girl and a great student, and this sort of activity was appropriate, expected.

I know that my parents were proud of me for other reasons, and I will always love them, but they never supported me when I was doing what I was most passionate about.

I share this not to pity myself. I’ve had a great life enriched by participating in arts and letters. I don’t bear a grudge against my wonderful parents. I’m sharing these thoughts with you because your children are just now at that crucial, exquisite point in their lives when they are beginning to realize who they are and what they want to become. What their true passions are. You and your husbands are great parents, making wise decisions, offering loving guidance. I know this. You want only the best for them. You don’t want them to be copies of you. 

My prayer is for you to know when to stand back and let them pursue their passions. Then support them as they do.

With much love,

Language butchering

Imagine that we are watching a baseball game on television. Let’s listen in as two announcers discuss a player’s batting and fielding skills.

“As of late, we’re seeing an improvement in his swing. He’s seeing the ball better.”

“True. As for his defense, I have to admire his athleticism, but he needs to hone in on his fielding skills. Too many errors.”

When was the last time you used the phrase “as of late” in conversation? Probably never. It’s an archaic way of saying “lately” or “recently.” More formal, perhaps. Why do sports announcer use it so frequently? Perhaps it’s because they’re trying to show their command of the language. If so, please spare us.

Athleticism as a word, as we know, is an invention of sports announcers. But an ism is a system of belief, such as Catholicism, communism, or fascism, to cite a few examples. Here is what one dictionary says about isms: “a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.” What does that have to do with skillfulness at sports? Nothing.

As for honing in, this gaffe is not restricted to sports announcers. People of all sorts of backgrounds and occupations use — er misuse — the term. To home in means to find and move directly toward a target. To hone means to sharpen, as to hone a knife. Incorrectly using hone in when we mean home in is called an eggcorn, a word accidently used for another word that sounds similar, like saying eggcorn instead of acorn. This has nothing to do with can of corn, a baseball term for a high, easy-to-catch, fly ball hit to the outfield. The phrase is believed to have originated in the 19th century and relates to a grocer’s way of getting canned goods down from a high shelf.

But I digress.

My point is that sports announcers are paid professionals who use presumably understandable language to communicate to listeners descriptions and analyses of sporting events and their players. Language is their toolbox.

Why do many of them butcher the language so?

Perhaps they have been influenced by what they hear on television, such as abbreviations fostered by manufacturers of medicines, RA for one. We have been bombarded with this TV shorthand for rheumatoid arthritis. As a longtime sufferer, I don’t need or appreciate this shorthand.

What we hear on television burns into our advertising-exhausted brains, and it most certainly insinuates its way into our vocabularies.

One could say its effect is moderate to severe.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Anniversary lessons

Anniversaries remind us. They require us to remember. Yesterday, August 6, is a big one. On that day 76 years ago, 140,000 people died in an instant when the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It dropped a second bomb three days later on Nagasaki, killing another 70,000. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, ending World War II.

On August, 6, 1965, 20 years later to the day, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War.

I turned 11 two weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and remember well my confused feelings of shocked horror and relief wrestling for dominance inside me. The long war was over, but at what price?

On August 6, 1965, I was just short of my 31st birthday, freshly graduated from the University of South Florida and working as a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News. Katie, our firstborn, was seven months old.

Strange that I don’t recall my feelings as I learned of President Johnson’s important action on that day.

After president Franklin D. Roosevelt died, it was up to President Harry S Truman to figure out how to end the war. Invading Japan was full of risks. The Japanese were fighting for their emperor who had convinced them that it was better to die than surrender. Women and children had been taught how to kill with basic weapons. Japanese kamikaze pilots could turn planes into missiles.

Truman was aware of the Manhattan Project, a secret project to create an atomic bomb. After a successful test of the bomb, Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese government, warning of “prompt and utter destruction.”

He spoke the truth. Fierce debates followed Truman’s fateful decision and continue today. Thousands of innocent people died horribly, yet the long war had ended. And, it is reasonable to argue, ending the war saved countless lives.

War is so wrong. Why is it inevitable?

As for voting rights, where are we today?

At war. With ourselves.

Beauty of c&lc

Politicians use them. So do television news anchors. Electronic prompting devices have been helping such folks speak written lines without appearing to be reading them. History credits Hubert Schlafly and Irving Berlin Kahn with creating the first TelePrompTer in 1950. In its original form, the device used a long paper scroll, operated by a worker standing near the television camera.

This helpful device has seen a lot of improvements since those days. They’re much slicker and easier to use now. But with all of their electronic gains, people who use them remain stubbornly stuck in the past when it comes to readable type.

Public speakers and television reporters are confronted with scripts printed in all capital letters, the hardest type to read. Why? Because that’s the way it has always been.

Capitalized words are harder to read for many reasons. We’re accustomed to reading words in lowercase letters. Our brains find lowercase words easier to scan and absorb. Scientists who study cognition and typographers agree that lower-case text is more legible than upper-case. Use of all caps reduces the readability of text because the height of every letter is identical, which makes every word a similar rectangular shape. This forces the reader to read letter-by-letter, which reduces one’s reading speed.

Then there are serifs, not to be confused with seraphs, angelic creatures associated with light and purity. Serifs are those little extensions of letters that lead the eye from one letter to the next.

Experts who study these things point out that type fonts with serifs are particularly helpful when reading large blocks of text. The serifs make it easy for the eye to travel over the text. Most books, newspapers, and magazines use serif fonts for good reason — they are easier to read. Without the serif, the brain must work harder to identify the letter because the shape is less distinctive.

Those who prepare teleprompter text for television readers and public speakers, however, steadfastly continue to use the type fonts that are the hardest to read. Why?

I can’t explain this stubbornness, but daily I witness the negative effects of television reporters and anchors trying to deal with hard-to-read type. One local news anchor, though experienced at his job, continues to struggle to read from the teleprompter. I know that he could read his lines more easily if they were printed in caps and lower case with serifs.

So could everyone. Why don’t we change?

The smile

She must have been about a year old, give or take a few months.

She came into my life during the third inning of a game between the Durham Bulls and the visiting Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. My seat at the ball park is a good one, affording a great view of the playing field. It’s at the end of a row, so I have to get up now and then to let others enter and leave the row.

There is a minor disadvantage to this location, though. The main stairway to seats in this section is right next to my right shoulder, so my view of the field is compromised by a constant parade of fans coming and going to and from their seats, often carrying food and drink. Young parents carry their children as they traverse this stairway multiple times during a game. Occasionally one notices a parent watching over a toddler as the child navigates the stairs on his or her own, a step at a time.

My concentration on the game on this particular evening was interrupted when just at my shoulder a tiny hand wrapped itself around the metal railing. I turned to look and was rewarded with a bright, sweet smile. Eye contact. Her mother, a few steps away, beamed proudly and reached her hand to help the little girl continue her journey down the concrete steps. One step at a time, the child continued, grasping the railing.

A few steps further, then she turned, glancing back at me, and flashed that beautiful smile again.

As the proud father of three daughters, all now adults, and five granddaughters and one grandson, I know well the beauty of a child’s smile. It fills one’s heart and can heal.

Several minutes later, my friend returned, leading her attentive mother back up the steps, carefully, one at a time, tiny hand grasping the grown-up railing, looking ahead. Then she spotted me, and that young face again brightened with that gorgeous smile.

 In that moment, we connected again. New friends — a beautiful child whose life is just beginning and an old man whose long life’s journey she has blessed afresh, with her innocent, spontaneous smile offering him cherished memories and a full heart.

Thank you, sweet child. I will remember your gift for a long time.