Eric's Daily Weblog

Aunt Olive 1911-2015

A grand life reached a quiet close last night at 11 p.m. when Aunt Olive passed quietly away. Funeral tentatively set for Sunday at 2 p.m.

Her last words to me were, "Is there anything I need to sign?"

Visualization of Bach

Here is a superb way to appreciate the architecture of the intricate organ music Bach created late in his life. The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is one of his greatest works. With the visualization on this video, you can follow the various melody lines. Nobody can take it all in at once, even somebody who plays the piece. But you can follow one line at a time and wonder how Bach wove them all together. Notice the recurrance of various shapes and how the shapes play off against each other. Underneath it all is the pedal (in purple), repeating the stately melody. 

Being Mortal

Just finished the book by that title by Atul Gawande. Cousin Tina sent it to me a couple of weeks ago. It is a good read, but if you take my recommendation and read the book, please know that it gets better as it goes along. 

Gawande is a doctor who examines the end of life puzzle: When do we fix things and when do we accept the end and make people comfortable? In fact, the choice is rarely that stark, the reader learns through Gawande's personal experiences with patients, neighbors, friends--and his own family. Instead, the goal should be to ask the right questions and ask them early: What are you most afraid of? What are your goals? What would consititute a good day? Medical questions can be decided using those guidelines. The dizzying array of treatment options can be narrowed down. 

Central to the story is this surgeon's discomfort with dealing with death when it faces his patients. He admits to repeating mistakes even after learning his lesson, and he examines why. Doctors want to offer hope. That is why people come to them. They hope to get better. But what if they know there is no hope, at least hope for a prolonged life? 

Well, there is always the hope for a good few days and for eliminating treatments which promise only to make the next few days miserable. Here is where Gawande revealed a stunning fact: People who enter hospice live on average 25% longer than those who continue treatment in the hospital until death. 

Indeed, and Gawande does not mention this, there are people who survive hospice care. Harmon Killebrew was one. He entered hospice at least a decade before his eventual death. Turning away from treatment to acceptance and being comfortable improved his morale and saved his life. In his remaining years, Killebrew raised money for hospice and when he finally developed terminal cancer, he used his goodbye message to fans to advocate for the concept. 

Gawande does not purport to solve all the end-of-life conundrums. There is no right answer, and even people who give detailed instructions while healthy sometimes change their minds when they fall ill. However, Being Mortal can help anybody be more ready for the end whether for themselves, or for those they love. 

El Gordito

I am belated in promoting this restaurant in Crookston. I must have eaten there 20 times during the campaign. Wonderful people, wonderful food. Authentic Salvadoran tamales. If you don't understand the menu, throw a dart at it and you'll be happy with whatever you get. 

Masked bandit


When this guy shows up anywhere near the feeders, the songbirds disappear for quite a while. This is a shrike, and shrikes like to collect songbirds. They snag them and if they are not yet dead, they impale them on a sharp object. In the summer, they do the same with grasshoppers. They leave them there for a later meal. Notice the nasty flesh-tearing hook at the end of the beak. What I find most amazing is the innate ability songbirds have to know this feathery ball is a threat. 


It is great to see my friend Annelee Woodstrom still out and about spreading her message about her experience growing up in Nazi Germany. I heard her presentation one year ago. It is very well done. The article focuses on World War II itself, but her presentation includes the dark story of what happened to Germans during the occupation after the war. Nobody had much sympathy for the German people at the time, so the world ignored what went on in the various occupation zones, particularly in the Soviet "sphere of influence." 


I have often thought about recording hours of birdsongs in spring and playing them back at times like February, when all seems so dead. Well, somebody did it. This is a good reminder of why we live here. Spring and summer overwhelm the senses.  


The author of this article is himself an activist, and his perspective is important. Lincoln, like all politicians, was a product of the pressures brought to bear upon him. That Lincoln brilliantly solved the conundrums that landed on his plate should not detract from the efforts of those who forced the issue through their own work. 

Franklin Roosevelt once told an activist who was requesting that the president take action on a matter, "You are right, now go out and force me to do it."

Just my small experience running for office gives me new perspective into the minds of both men. Successful politicians are not going to dream up an idea out of the blue and press it forward. They only use the ideas of others, and they only move when they feel pressure to act. If they did anything else, they would risk running too far ahead of the herd they are trying to lead. To extend the analogy, the leader in a democracy needs constant nudging from the herd members just behind. If he or she doesn't feel that nudging, it is time to slow down. 

Example: General McClellan drove Lincoln nuts early in the war. He wouldn't move. Lincoln had the right, and he had good reason from early on to fire McClellan. Arm-chair historians reading Civil War history get frustrated with Lincoln's refusal to act. What they miss is McClellan's popularity with his troops (marching is always more fun than fighting) and the American public. Lincoln's presidency was still on shaky legs. He was elected by a minority. He had no real mandate. 

Lincoln kept nudging McClellan, both in person and through letters. McClellan continued to be insubordinate and disrespectful, once refusing to meet the president, who had traveled hours to see him, because the general was taking a nap. 

Then one day as he rode through the ranks of the Army, as he was prone to do, Lincoln heard the troops grumbling about McClellan's inaction. He heard enough grumbling to know it was significant. McClellan was losing his own army. 

Lincoln couldn't get back to Washington fast enough. McClellan was out. But not until Lincoln sensed pressure.

The next few generals also failed, and Lincoln even gave McClellan a second chance. Eventually he found Grant, but it took years. 

The point is: politicians are a product of the forces brought to bear upon them. To expect even the most progressive politician to take an action in the absence of a solid movement demanding that action is to not understand what makes politicians tick. 

We constantly demand consistency from politicians, which is a mistake. We also view politicans who change their mind with the winds as deficient in character. This, too, is sometimes a mistake. 

Do you think Lyndon Johnson would have acted on Civil Rights unless there had been protests? Of course not. And it wouldn't have worked if he had. 

The genius of the great politicians is they strike a balance between shaping public opinion and being shaped by public opinion. They know just when to jump in front of the crowd and lead it to where it was going anyway. That is an admirable skill, not a sign of lack of character. 

So, the great politicians, like Roosevelt, value the activists who force them to do great things, even as they have to show resistance towards those activists until the right moment

Probably the only president who succeeded through sheer will at pushing the country in new directions was Theodore Roosevelt. He was a true titan, and his legacy lives on in places like the Grand Canyon, which was saved from mining (over the objections of Congress, which was bought up by corporate interests) when Roosevelt declared the whole canyon a National Monument, a designation previously reserved for buildings, but one which did not require the approval of Congress. Teddy Roosevelt's massive personality allowed him to pull off such acts of sheer gall. I do not think a single person has dominated the political scene so thoroughly since.


The cost of Alzheimer's

Here is a good article comparing the costs of Alzheimer's disease with the cost of cancer. It contains an obvious error (the feds put in $5.6 billion into cancer research, not trillion), but is otherwise a very good analysis. It does not mention that the three treatments available for Alzheimer's disease do nothing to reverse or stop the progression of the disease, they merely manage symptoms. Sometimes I think dementia drugs are more for the families, who want to know that something is being done. 

Shades of Red


Valentine's Day doubled as Dad's 78th birthday. Niece Champoo (behind the rice basket) decided we should all wear red. Kae, left, prepared a Thai feast for the occasion. Delicious. Afterwards, word games, dominated by Champoo in her 10th month of speaking English.