Saturday, April 26, 2008

Kolaches and Doughnuts Anyone?

For as long as I can remember, I've entertained the idea of retiring from Chemical Plant life, sitting back in my easy chair and just taking life, well…easy. I bought into the idea of easy street; easy living – easy everything! Yup, Ol.. Baytown Bert was going to enjoy the fruits of his labor and everything that I had done that was physically demanding to that point was going to prepare me for sitting down and doing nothing, unless it was fun of course.

Fortunately as my years have gone by in the Chemical Plant work environment I've noticed things have indeed become easier for me and operators in general. Of course there are still some places which are not modernized and operators still slave away hour after hour, but I think I can safely say that many of us have grown soft and spend more time sitting on our duffs, than we do climbing ladders, walking up countless flights of stairs, or truthfully – breaking into a sweat performing our duties. My apologies to those who do not fall into the category I am about to describe.

From walking, to the everyday use of the two-wheeled bicycle to get from point A to point B, today's larger Plants are rife with Kawasaki Mules and other ATV-type scooters. Radios have replaced the stationary Squawk boxes and that means a person doesn't have to move an inch to talk to anyone. My brother-in-law Ray Tallant, a long time operator at DuPont summed it up perfectly when he commented that "the only thing that changes in an operator's day to day routine these days is the lunch menu".

Huge breakfasts and extravagant lunches now grace many control room break areas with doughnuts and kolaches on a regular basis and everyone knows the best way for management to boost morale or reward a shift is to host a catfish or crawfish catered lunch.

Automation and technology, plus redundant alarm systems have taken the place of extra bodies and the need for those bodies to dash through the Unit, double stepping stairs and scampering up ladders. Man-lifts and personal elevators allow us to go to the top of a structure without breaking a sweat and to be truthful; the job of operating a chemical plant or refinery is nowhere as physical as it once was. Not even close.

Thirty years ago an operator had to be physically fit to do this job. It was an absolute. Climbing multiple ladders and hundreds of steps in the performance of duties was normal activity and quick response necessitated going up stairs and ladders over riding a mechanized device. Strict operation guidelines and poorly functioning control systems kept operator and maintenance people in "the field" and many times lunches were carried home at the end of a shift.

I guess what I'm trying to say is many of us are already on easy street and don't even know it. Evidence is in the extra pounds we have around our waists, higher blood pressure than is healthy and because of our adoption of motorized transport and vertical lifts, we only climb a ladder, stairs or walk when there is no other option. Our knees can't take it, our bellies won't allow it and dadgumit, we are falling apart one doughnut at a time.

All this automation, lack of physical exertion and food is killing us. Caught up in the lethargy and fog of complacency I struggled with the obvious, which of course was breaking out of the stranglehold of easy street. I had the startling revelation that if I was going to remain mobile in my advanced years, I was going to have to get mobile now. I was going to have to get off my backside and start doing the things that would build muscle and restore me to a trimmer and healthier person and turn this into a lifelong habit.

Convention told me to join a gym, take up cycling or jogging and at some point in my busy day, become faithful to these activities. Of course convention mentions nothing about changing my behavior while at work and this is the problem and the answer.

So, I decided to solve this problem in my day to day activities in the most logical way possible. First and foremost I was going to eat healthier and I was going to eat less. I am going to drink my one gallon of water each day. I came to the astounding realization that if I was able to reduce just 500 calories a day from my diet and everything else remain the same, I was going to drop 4 real pounds of fat each month.

Next week, I'll tell you how I've developed a system to reverse the ravages of time on your body and a new method which outlines how you can double your weight loss. Until then, eat less and healthier, drink your water and I'll see you in a week…one pound lighter.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Times They are A-Changin`

"Come gather 'round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin' then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'".

I followed a link on the Internet to the far-away city of Chang Mai, Thailand. Chang Mai is in northern Thailand; the ancient country of Siam from The King and I movie fame. It has a core population about double the size of Baytown.

Now at one time, I lived about 200 miles south of this beautiful and exotic city and even though I made it a point to travel around the country, I never made it to Chang Mai. I was stationed at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force base for just shy of 2 years and the nearby (City of) Bahn Takhli was a filthy little hamlet with trash and refuse everywhere. It was a rough and chaotic place, with over 30 bars and nightspots which catered to the thousands of servicemen who frequented them.

The main drag was a two-lane macadam road which ran from the first massage parlor to the dark corners of the market where fly-covered hog heads and fish defying description were bought, sold or traded in the stifling heat. The frequent intense and offensive odors you would encounter while riding a baht bus or in a three-wheeled samlaw bike would either brutalize your nose, or cause you to gag depending on your individual stamina and tolerance.

In the 1970's, most of Thailand was a third world country in every respect and to this day, some of its population is probably resistant to change. However, this is apparently not so for Chang Mai. What I saw when I followed the link was a Google Earth-like view of the streets of this city, with a very current 3-D virtual street view. I could see people walking down the street and by using the panning software, go past them and see them from the opposite view. I "walked" all over the city, not just the tourist areas.

I marveled at this technology, but that is not what really knocked me on my duff. What interested me most was the city itself! Now, I pointed out that Chang Mai is a city of about 140,000 at its core, but with surrounding population it is over 700,000, or ten times the population of our city. What I saw on a street by street level was a totally clean and neat city; flowers everywhere, no litter or trash, people walking around enjoying themselves, rows and rows of neatly parked motor scooters…and a place unlike my own town on so many levels. Why can't we have this here? Why are we so behind the times?

Now granted, Chang Mai was never Bahn Takhli, but it surely isn't so advanced past the country I remember from the early 70's is it, so I took a look at my old stomping ground also. To my total amazement, I found Bahn Takhli is clean also. This is very difficult for me to comprehend. Thirty five years ago this place was a literal dump, where the citizens and visitors burned trash in front of their homes, or simply threw it down. Open sewers, garbage, loose dogs, debris and filthy junky conditions lined the streets and today it is clean as a whistle? No way!

I don't believe Takhli or Chang Mai decided on an individual level to clean itself up, but followed the directives of a city council or government plan and I imagine some folks were resistant to it.

Now, let's take a look at Baytown 35 years ago, when I first moved here. It had a vibrant and optimistic city population and it was pleasant to live here and basically clean. It was the place to be for most of us and no one thought that by the year 2008 citizens would be in disagreement about restoring and upgrading the standards in the town.

With a patriotic flag in one hand and wagging a finger on the other, some scream property rights violation because they can't park their boats, trailers, cars, etc., in their front yard or run a garage sale 3 days of every week. They want it like it used to be they say. They are mad as a hatter over "all these ordinances being forced down our throats", but honestly, I think they forget there are only two – garage sales and parking.

On one hand I see their point, but on another I see a need for city council to force a change. The city's core appearance has degraded and I don't think anyone will deny that and the only way back will be a little rocky to put it mildly. It's going to take a paradigm shift by the general population. City council is attempting to make changes for the better and it is an uphill battle. The city is not blameless either; they have work to do in their own backyard.

I'm not going to include the smoking ordinance in this argument, as it was voted on twice like Debbie Griffin said in yesterday's paper. The citizens voted to ban smoking in public places. The people decided. By the way, she made some excellent points and I adjure everyone to read and reread what she said. "Most people look for clean, orderly and attractive areas in which to live".

Personally, I feel like I've beat my head against a dead horse on this issue of cleaning up the town. "It's a no-brainer" (thank you again Debbie).If it ever does come down to a vote over excessive garage sales and lawn parking, I think those who feel their property rights have been violated will find out that the silent majority sides with City Council.

Bob Dylan said it best: These times are a-changin' and if the third-world hamlet of Bahn Takhli can out-shine Baytown, Texas in 2008 by cleaning up their city, while ours has disintegrated into a slum, why in the world would anyone resist an attempt by City council to set a higher standard for the citizens, businesses and property owners here in our home city of Baytown?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Searching for the good

I have a book on my shelf titled Searching for the Good by Thomas A. Brewer. It’s about his journey to war and back during the Vietnam years. Like my son, Thomas Brewer was wounded in action and like me; he endured the vicious heat, monsoons and the oppressive elements of the tropics. I relate to his experience in so many ways, having endured over 21 months as a G.I. in South East Asia and all that goes with it for soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.

I never saw a bullet fly past me in anger though, but much of what a service member endures is shared by all members and can be quite difficult to bear. Remote assignments, extreme weather conditions, impossible missions and long hours of sometimes severe physical and mental stress are all chalked up as routine duty in the life of an American fighting man or woman.

This book has special significance for me, as it has photos and details about the father of a friend, who was a combat medic in Vietnam and who shares my first name – Bert (Hale). My friend, Adam is a “Marine on stand-by” and a Forward Observer during Desert Storm. Semper Fidelis (always faithful) to all Marines and all of my brothers and sisters in arms who serve or served with honor and to those who spent or spend countless hours praying and agonizing over loved ones in harms way.

Thomas Brewer went off to war in 1967 when most Americans still believed in the mission to stop Communism. He came home with two bullet holes in his body and as support for the war waned, bullet holes in his patriotism. Our current war on terrorism is becoming less and less of a daily concern to most of us, something we wish would just go away and in many ways is today’s Vietnam War. Some of us have given up hope for the future in Iraq.

Like my generation of Vietnam Veterans, I’m afraid the returning Vet will become confused about their service to our country and forget the good they accomplished, after all, for every negative incident reported there are thousands of righteous acts performed and these will go unnoticed to most and probably forgotten.

In my own son, I listen as he reacts bitterly to the way some decisions were handled in Iraq and if Donald Rumsfeld’s name comes up, he gets livid. This is all well and good, as he has earned the right to gripe, but also shows he is educating himself on American military policies and world events. Like Thomas Brewer, Nick has returned from war and enrolled in college to put it all behind him.

Like Thomas Brewer and millions of other veterans I doubt seriously if they will allow themselves to be spit on or derided by those who have ideals, but no military experience. While talking to my son, I’ve encouraged him to lay down his rifle and pick up his books, using his mind and tongue instead of violence to get his point across when faced with the idealist’s angry rhetoric.

For many veterans they will spend a lifetime sorting out their past service, where they did their jobs with honor and will make every attempt to get on with their lives, in spite of possible pain, doubt and torment. They will be looking for the good in life, as they’ve seen and experienced the bad.

Now this column is not really so much about the soldier, or the book, but about our little big city and the way we view it and ourselves while living here. Many of us were born and raised here, or came with the idea that this was the place to be, but along the way we’ve become disillusioned and lost faith and focus about the Baytown area. We’ve bought into the criticism.

When Baytown is mentioned, all we see is the bad; bad leadership, bad business, bad education, air, ordinances, roads, crime and the lists keep growing. I think it’s time to examine what is good about Baytown and put the bad behind us.

This last Friday night thousands of Baytown people gathered at Stallworth stadium to raise awareness and funds to fight the terrible enemy cancer and cheer on its survivors. This morning many Baytonians are pedaling their bicycles toward Austin for the MS-150, a charity ride to help defeat Multiple Sclerosis. My brother Terry is a Ride Marshal and this is his 10th MS-150. Read the Baytown Sun Forum on any given day and you will be informed about a benefit barbeque for someone in need. Baytonians, in spite of our many heated opinions, are caring folk.

Mutual support groups abound in our city and many will join the fight against the barge terminal on Cedar Bayou at Roseland Park May 3rd as Mean Gene Kelton and the Diehards provide a free public concert. We are a vocal bunch politically, but the last time I heard, no one was throwing punches at the town meetings and the Mayor, city council members and city manager are all approachable.

There is plenty of good to see in Baytown. We just have to search for it sometimes.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The road not taken…

The path which appears to be rough and full of hardship, is rarely the one I decide to take. Why should I? I am a privileged American. I deserve to take the easiest route. I almost always expect some form of reward for the simplest accomplishment. I want recognition in the double digits and by golly I am going to get it. It's all about me.

I don't want to suffer or want or wait. I want everything now or yesterday if possible. I want a 32-inch waistline, but I don't want to sacrifice one bit to achieve it. I want and want and want and I want more. I want more stuff before I pay off the stuff I bought last year or the year before it. I want a new car, a newer more expensive car and I don't want to wait until I can afford it or the one I have now.

When I get old, real old, I want to sit on a stack of worldly goods the size of Mount St. Helens before it blew to smithereens. And I will still want more. I am the average American; the one pursuing happiness through spending and accumulating stuff I don't need and all of this behavior is transferred through me to my children. I'm teaching them to put themselves ahead of everything else.

Everyday I prove to my children that this is my philosophy by spending every moment working one, two or three jobs and by playing with all the stuff I have bought. I work to buy. Any spare time is taken by plotting to buy more stuff, even if it is on credit. I am addicted to getting stuff now and paying for it later, even if it is much later and at far greater cost. It's the American way. Happiness is bought in this country and I accept it as the only way to live.

If I get a windfall through a rebate/inheritance/refund, I have it spent the same day, but not on credit purchase repayment, but on new stuff! New stuff! New stuff to me equates happiness. Happiness is the path I travel and it is indeed the easiest path and one that winds lazily down the hill I call life. Down, down and down and easy.

What if I am on wrong path? What if I take a closer look at the other trail; the one that may be more difficult and less traveled as an option? The other road requires self-discipline and appears to be bumpy, twisty and climbs upward toward difficult heights. Why should I subject myself to that kind of abuse? Isn't the easiest way always the best way?

What if buying and accumulating worldly goods were not my main goal in life; what then could I do with my time? If I were to restrict my purchasing to items I actually need, would I still require the extra jobs? Instead of buying more stuff that keeps me drained financially, would I have more time to spend with my family? Would my wife be able to quit her job and be there for the kiddos? Would my relationship with my wife improve? Would my obligation and commitment to my wife and family flourish?

What if my kids did not come home from school to an empty house? Would my children have a higher rate of success in the future? Would the extra supervision my kids receive pay better dividends to my family's future than the extra money a two paycheck does now? What about the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Would I be less fulfilled? Can my family experience true American happiness on one paycheck?

Most American parents believe in both husband and wife working so they can provide their children with all manner of purchases with little or no effort by the children. They believe by buying lots of stuff for their kids, the kids will not have to suffer and this is why so many American kids grow up with no work-related skills and expect everything to be handed to them free of labor or effort on their part.

In many countries, the true pursuit of happiness is when the whole family works together for mutual benefit and they relax together in the evenings. True peace and happiness is found in fellowship and sharing life's experiences and has little to do with purchases.

Here in America, the land of fruit, milk, honey and Mom's apple pie, I think I am guilty of pursuing the wrong dream. I've made a serious mistake by allowing myself to take the commercial path of excessive purchases, over the simple pleasures of enjoying my family's presence. My kiddos are now grown and moved out and I spent their whole life working every kind of overtime and spare job I could muster, so we could have an extra level of unnecessary comfort and now I realize it is too late to reclaim lost time.

I think it is in the minds of everyone in our city about the young 14 year old mother and the tragedy at Cedar Bayou Jr. High. I think we all wonder how no one noticed she was pregnant or how our schools have many children walking around like zombies on Xanax and other drugs. I'm afraid so many of us are caught up in pursuing careers and extra dollars so our kids can have a softer life and we don't realize that a better life for us and them is in how much time we choose to spend with each other.

Father - Daughter Talk

A young woman was about to finish her first year of college. Like so many others her age, she considered herself to be a very liberal Democrat, and among other liberal ideals, was very much in favor of higher taxes to support more government programs, in other words, redistribution of wealth.

She was deeply ashamed that her father was a rather staunch Republican, a feeling she openly expressed. Based on the lectures that she had participated in, and the occasional chat with a professor, she felt that her father had for years harbored an evil, selfish desire to keep what he thought should be his.


One day she was challenging her father on his opposition to higher taxes on the rich and the need for more government programs. The self-professed objectivity proclaimed by her professors had to be the truth and she indicated so to her father. He responded by asking how she was doing in school.

Taken aback, she answered rather haughtily that she had a 4.0 GPA, and let him know that it was tough to maintain, insisting that she was taking a very difficult course load and was constantly studying, which left her no time to go out and party like other people she knew.
She didn't even have time for a boyfriend, and didn't really have many college friends because she spent all her time studying.

Her father listened then asked, 'How is your friend Audrey doing?

'She replied, 'Audrey is barely getting by. All she takes are easy classes, she never studies, and she barely has a 2.0 GPA. She is so popular on campus; college for her is a blast. She's always invited to all the parties, and lots of times she doesn't even show up for classes because she's too hung over.'

Her father asked her, 'Why don't you go to the Dean's office and ask him to deduct a 1.0 off your GPA and give it to your friend Audrey, who only has a 2.0. That way you will both have a 3.0 GPA and certainly that would be a fair and equal distribution of GPA.'

The daughter, visibly shocked by her father's suggestion, angrily fired back, 'That's a crazy idea. How would that be fair? I've worked really hard for my grades! I've invested a lot of time, and a lot of hard work. Audrey has done next to nothing toward her degree. She played while I worked my tail off!'

The father slowly smiled, winked and said gently 'Welcome to the Republican Party.'

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Earth Hour - Lights out

This letter to the Baytown Sun is so right-on, that I am posting it on my Blog:

Lights out

Being a good American and wanting to do the right thing I turned off my lights Saturday night per Earth Hour (they suggest turning them off for one hour to save the planet). I quickly found there was not that much to do without some kind of light and hastily found one candle. I thought I had many more but I guess I used them in various vigils these past few months. I have no idea where I stored my flashlights and figured the batteries were probably dead anyway.

Ten minutes into the self-imposed blackout I tripped over the dog while going to the restroom. The candle was great for vigils but produced almost no light. The candle fell to the floor and went out. Now it was really dark, and I suppose a lesser man would have flipped the light switch.

About this time the phone rang and while I knew where it was I had no idea where the dog was hanging out and laying in wait. I decided to answer the phone and by the time I found it and picked it up there was no one on the line.

Great. My knee still hurt from the fall and finally after 20 minutes or so gave up and turned on every light in the house, including the closets. I spent the next few minutes cleaning up the spilled candle wax and then tossed the candle in the trash. The dog was hiding from me and knew I was looking for her..

Next year I will not be so stupid and will ignore Earth Hour as I should have done this year. Sitting in the dark and looking through the window at my neighbor’s luminance is not my cup of tea. Maybe I should just plant a tree.

Don Sanders

Baytown

What, me read? Isn't that a 4 letter word?

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