Saturday, May 31, 2014

It's his birthday!

"Wait here. I'll be right back. I know exactly where we've been." — Paul Bridson, locator savant and husband of Kelly

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my irreplaceable Paul.

Here's a little piece of happy pre-birthday news. Yesterday Paul received a letter from the Greater Des Moines Community Jazz Center Hall of Fame Committee notifying him that he has been "unanimously chosen" to receive CJC's Special Recognition Award for his "many accomplishments in the area of jazz." The ceremony will take place Sunday, October 19. YAY PAUL!!!

My trombone-playing husband.

To celebrate his last birthday, I listed one thing I love about Paul for every year he'd been on earth. I could keep doing that and not run out, however, this time I thought I'd list a few of Paul's most notable characteristics — some things you may know and some you probably don't.

1) Paul is 13 years younger than I am. Trust me when I tell you that it wasn't my idea. I didn't know when I met him. I didn't know when I agreed to go out with him. I found out by accident after we'd made the date, but before I went on it, and I really, really, REALLY did not want to go. 

I would have cancelled, but I wasn't exactly sure how to reach him, and by the time I figured it out, it would have been backing out the day of — which to be honest, I was perfectly fine with — but thankfully Susan Bergwall nagged me into going. I finally went just to get her to shut up about it, and thank goodness for that!

Cheering on the Lady Vols. We had so much fun.

I was incredibly uncomfortable for about the first half hour, but then I started laughing and laughing till my face hurt. We stayed out until four in the morning walking around downtown and the capitol grounds, where he gave me a piggyback ride, listening to music and talking. Actually he was doing most of the talking, but that's a story for another day . . . maybe June 6, the 22nd anniversary of our first date.

He showed up the next day and the next, and despite the fact that I'd had and was continuing to have a fabulous time, I was so freaked out about the age difference that I tried to ditch him several times over. It didn't take. 

2) Paul is a jazz trombonist by training. Yup, he went to college to study trombone performance. Actually two colleges — Northeast Missouri State University and the University of IowaHis first instrument was the piano which his mom first taught him to play before he went on to take more formal lessons. When he started band, he originally played bass trombone and continued until he split his lip playing it in college and had to switch to tenor trombone.

3) He has big ears. Well, not literally. It's musician shorthand for having finely-tuned sound discrimination hardwired into the brain. Ever heard of that old, old TV show called Name That Tune? He would have killed at it. One note into a tune (I'm not kidding) and he'll say, "Oh, that's "Angel Eyes" or "String of Pearls,"and with a couple of notes (he's faster with jazz) he can nail no small number of classical works as well as most pop songs from his era, and identify what key they're in.

In New York City.

4) The whole big ears thing crosses over to sounds in general. From the time he was very small, he liked to repeat words or syllables over and over that had a certain rhythm or musicality he found appealing. Unsurprisingly he's a natural mimic and inherently gifted at language acquisition. He was so fluent in German from just taking it in high school that when he was in France with the University of Iowa Johnson County Landmark Band, he spoke French (just another language he picked up) with a German accent. And even though it had been several years since he'd taken German, he took German literature classes at the U of I where they read books written by the likes of Goethe — in German of course. Meh. No problem.

5) Paul is an on-line Scrabble buff, and he has a very high ranking.

Paul reading Scientific American with Boy Boy.

6) Paul has been fascinated by maps since he was really little. I swear he has a GPS map in his head of anywhere he's ever been. Seriously! It's like some kind of savant thing or something. 

Some years back we were in a Des Moines-sized city in Illinois (see, I still can't even recall the name of it, much less anything about its geography) when we stopped for lunch at a little out-of-the-way vegetarian restaurant. 

Fast forward at least five years later, maybe more, when we were passing through the same city, and I said, "Wouldn't it be fun to eat at that same vegetarian restaurant." 

Paul said, "Hey yeah, that would be!" 

Me: "But I don't even remember the name." 

Neither could he. Nevertheless he said, "I think I can drive us there, though." 

He drove right to it‚ not even any gradually homing in on it. Bear in mind that this restaurant isn't located in some prominent, obvious or even moderately memorable part of town. It's just a little hole in the wall in a small, nondescript strip mall.

Navigating the rivers, canals, lakes and locks in Ireland on a cabin cruiser we rented for a week.

On vacation in California one year, we rented a house in Joshua Tree National Park. We took lots of hikes, and I carried along a pair of cotton work gloves with me so I could climb rock formations if I took a notion. When we were almost back to the house after one particularly long trek, I discovered I'd lost a glove. I was disgusted with myself because we'd made a special trip into town to buy them in the first place, and town was a ways away.

"No problem. I can find it," says Paul.

I suggested to him that it would be impossible given the amount of terrain we'd traversed, but he said, "Wait here. I'll be right back. I know where we've been."

Let me point out that Joshua Tree is high desert, so it's not like we were walking trails. But he did it! He came walking back, la la la, glove in hand.

One last little example of his paranormal path-finding-path-recall skills: we were in Las Vegas on business some years back. We had a series of events to attend one particular night and were carrying a change of clothes for me to put on prior to the final, end-of-the-evening do. I was changing into my fancy outfit when I discovered to my chagrin that the bottom half of it was missing. I was distressed!! 

Once again Paul said, "Don't worry. I'll find it." 

Searching seemed pointless to me considering the circuitous route we'd taken through hotels and casinos to get there, but he was back in about 15 minutes with my skirt which, sure enough, he'd found laying on the casino floor.

Decorating for Christmas, I snapped a picture of 
Paul and Shiva. He's wearing fuzzy reindeer antlers.

7) Paul is an information sponge. When he went to school at the U of I, in addition to his required work, he didn't just take electives, he took boatloads of them: science, science and more science, esoteric language and literature classes, poetry; you name it, he probably took a class on it. 

Of all the things that are amazing to me about Paul, his ability to pull knowledge out of thin air like an epiphytic plant astounds me the most. Many a time I've asked him how he figured out X or Y and he'll say, "Oh, I overheard a guy talking," or "I looked up an article on the internet," and honestly he'll end up knowing more about whatever it is than the people who are supposed to know about it. 

I can't count the number of times we've had some service person come to our office or home to fix something, and when they fail — because it's a tough problem to begin with or Paul would have already solved it — and Paul is forced to figure it out anyway, he ends up explaining the fix to THEM. Seriously!! And this is not me telling you something from his point of view; it's me having witnessed it time and time again.

Paul is very science-y smart. 
He fell asleep with Boy Boy reading Scientific American.

Paul is so smart that the one thing I can not brook (okay, I'll be honest, there are other things I can not brook, but this is a big one) is anyone ever suggesting that Paul isn't smart enough to a particular thing. 

For a few years we carried a line of trade show exhibits called Tigermark. The rep was an ass, and the owner believed himself to be some kind of genius — the only genius part I could ever discern was him having married a really rich woman who financed his company, but I digress. 

There was a trade show coming up in which we'd purchased space, and we decided to have Tigermark ship in a particularly snazzy exhibit especially for it. It arrived late the day before the show, so there wasn't any time for a plan B, but no worries, the rep assured us the exhibit was "wonderful."

So here's Paul setting it up at the eleventh hour — at least he was trying to set it up — but it was not working. After trying six ways to Sunday, he figured out that part of the exhibit was actually missing! 

A little back story: A year or two prior to this show, before Paul worked at Brainstorm, I ordered my very first Tigermark exhibit. Theresamy one employee at the time, and I launched eagerly into setting it up. After puzzling over it considerably, I concluded that a certain set of hinges was installed in the wrong place, and as a result that portion of the exhibit would not assemble. Theresa agreed with my assessment, but just to be absolutely certain, I grabbed one of the architects from the firm down the hall and had him look at it to render an opinion. 

"Yup," he said, "There's no way that can go together with the hinges where they are." 

I called the Tigermark rep and told him the problem. His first mistake was referring to Theresa as "the girl." His second was his response to my description of the problem.

"Well (imagine the word drawn WAY out in a condescending way), I'm not there (also drawn out and condescending), so I can't tell (drawn out and condescending) if it's wrong."

I gave him a piece of my mind, but regrettably continued to carry the line.

Now back to the show hall: I reached the owner of the company by phone and explained that part of the exhibit was missing. He hummed and hawed, and eventually he suggested that perhaps Paul just didn't know how to put it together properly.

This did not sit well with me.

I said — I admit that by this point I was yelling — "You are not going to tell me that Paul isn't smart enough to put together your piece of crap display!! Get your shit out of my showroom. You're done!!"

Guess what. They subsequently went out of business and deserved to.

8) He's loves and is kind to all nature, children and animals, and he adores our four furry babies.

9) Last and certainly not least. For some incredible reason, Paul loves me so much that I just can't believe my good fortune. When Paul and I were first together, he made some reference to Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

"Huh?" I said, "What's that?"

"It's a who, not a what. You know, Eeyore, from Winnie The Pooh. The old gray donkey." 

"No, I don't know," I replied. "I have no idea what you're talking about." 

He said, with surprise and shock evident in his voice, "Didn't anyone ever read Winnie the Pooh to you?!"

In Ireland on Lough Key at Forest Park on the boat he navigated around for us. It's one of
both of our all-time favorite pictures.

Well, no, no one had. Or Dr. Seuss or name any other book for small children, it had not been read to me. Paul was aghast. He went to the book store, bought the entire set of Winnie the Pooh stories and Wind in the Willows and Dr. Seuss and read them all to me one by one, night after night, in bed before lights out. 

Who does that?!?!?! 


Happy birthday, you wonderful, loving, smart, soulful, funny, kind, capable, handsome man.

Friday, May 30, 2014

He's almost the birthday boy

“Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.” — Emily Dickinson

OH BOY. I have interesting and exciting news about Paul. But I'll wait and tell you tomorrow on his birthday!

In the meantime enjoy this charming dog in a series of short videos following him as he grows from puppy to adult.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wishing me harm

"Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon." — Michael Moore, American filmmaker, author, social critic and political activist

YESTERDAY I reposted the below graphic on Facebook that originally came from One Million Moms and Dads Against Gun Violence. It generated a good deal of discourse, to say the least, almost all of it positive with the exception of one fellow who was truly enraged at the thought of any limits or regulation of any kind ever being placed on gun ownership. 

He was actually kind of scary. He hoped that another Facebook friend and I would find ourselves defenseless in do-or-die, no escape circumstances where we would wish more than anything that we had a gun.

That's scary. 

I unfriended him. In retrospect I probably should have blocked or possibly reported him. 

As a result of the "conversation" that ensued, another FB friend shared Michael Moore's post from May 24 about the Isla Vista murders. Below is what Mr. Moore had to say, and earnestly agree. And FYI, in case you don't already know, our Canadian and European brothers and sisters think we are lunatics. Only because we are.

From Michael Moore:

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night's tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA -- I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) "interests." The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do -- and yet we don't seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: "Why us? What is it about US?" Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses -- and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won't pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won't consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, "Guns don't kill people -- people kill people," they've got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: "Guns don't kill people -- Americans kill people." Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fewer guns = fewer deaths

“The next time somebody says, ‘Where has gun control ever worked,’ reply, ‘Australia. Canada. Great Britain,’ and keep naming countries on what is a very long list.” — Andy Borowitz, American writer, comedian, actor and New York Times-bestselling author 

IT SEEMS the latest gambit by the NRA and Wayne LaPierre idolaters to shift the blame for the unconscionable number of gun deaths in our country to anything but guns is the "better mental health" dodge. 

Lord knows we need better mental health care in this country, but it isn't the magic bullet (pardon the reference) for lowering gun deaths in this country that they would have you believe it is.

The only real answer is reducing the number of guns.

In 2013 there were at least 12,042 people killed by guns in the US. Now tell me, what exactly would the response have been if 12,042 Americans had been killed in an attack by a terrorist group? There would have been wars waged! Yet we are allowing a radical group within our own country to aid and abet the loss of life through their blind resistance to even the most reasonable limits.

Here's a list from just one day compiled by Michael Klein's Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit that took over the compilation of gun violence statistics from The Slate. (My apologies that it's in two segments, but there were too many for one page in the archive.)

May 21

Please take a moment and read the insightful New York Times piece written by professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Richard A. Friedman.

Why Can’t Doctors Identify Killers?
MAY 27, 2014

MASS killers like Elliot Rodger teach society all the wrong lessons about the connection between violence, mental illness and guns — and what we should do about it. One of the biggest misconceptions, pushed by our commentators and politicians, is that we can prevent these tragedies if we improve our mental health care system. It is a comforting notion, but nothing could be further from the truth.

And although the intense media attention might suggest otherwise, mass killings — when four or more people are killed at once — are very rare events. In 2012, they accounted for only about 0.15 percent of all homicides in the United States. Because of their horrific nature, however, they receive lurid media attention that distorts the public’s perception about the real risk posed by the mentally ill.

Anyone who watched Elliot Rodger’s chilling YouTube video, detailing his plan for murderous vengeance before he killed six people last week near Santa Barbara, Calif., would understandably conflate madness with violence. While it is true that most mass killers have a psychiatric illness, the vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people are not violent. Indeed, only about 4 percent of overall violence in the United States can be attributed to those with mental illness. Most homicides in the United States are committed by people without mental illness who use guns.

Mass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners. They are often psychotic, seething with resentment and planning revenge for perceived slights and injuries. As a group, they tend to avoid contact with the mental health care system, so it’s tough to identify and help them. Even when they have received psychiatric evaluation and treatment, as in the case of Mr. Rodger and Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and seven adults, including his mother, in Connecticut in 2012, we have to acknowledge that our current ability to predict who is likely to be violent is no better than chance.

Large epidemiologic studies show that psychiatric illness is a risk factor for violent behavior, but the risk is small and linked only to a few serious mental disorders. People with schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder were two to three times as likely as those without these disorders to be violent. The actual lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness is about 16 percent compared with 7 percent among people who are not mentally ill. 

What most people don’t know is that drug and alcohol abuse are far more powerful risk factors for violence than other psychiatric illnesses. Individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol but have no other psychiatric disorder are almost seven times more likely than those without substance abuse to act violently.

As a psychiatrist, I welcome calls from our politicians to improve our mental health care system. But even the best mental health care is unlikely to prevent these tragedies.

If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill? Mr. Rodger had no problem legally buying guns because he had neither been institutionalized nor involuntarily hospitalized, both of which are generally factors that would have prevented him from purchasing firearms.

Would lowering the threshold for involuntary psychiatric treatment, as some argue, be effective in preventing mass killings or homicide in general? It’s doubtful.

The current guideline for psychiatric treatment over the objection of the patient is, in most states, imminent risk of harm to self or others. Short of issuing a direct threat of violence or appearing grossly disturbed, you will not receive involuntary treatment. When Mr. Rodger was interviewed by the police after his mother expressed alarm about videos he had posted, several weeks ago, he appeared calm and in control and was thus not apprehended. In other words, a normal-appearing killer who is quietly planning a massacre can easily evade detection.

In the wake of these horrific killings, it would be understandable if the public wanted to make it easier to force treatment on patients before a threat is issued. But that might simply discourage other mentally ill people from being candid and drive some of the sickest patients away from the mental health care system.

We have always had — and always will have — Adam Lanzas and Elliot Rodgers. The sobering fact is that there is little we can do to predict or change human behavior, particularly violence; it is a lot easier to control its expression, and to limit deadly means of self-expression. In every state, we should prevent individuals with a known history of serious psychiatric illness or substance abuse, both of which predict increased risk of violence, from owning or purchasing guns.

But until we make changes like that, the tragedy of mass killings will remain a part of American life.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Always look on the bright side of life

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” — Robert Frost

I AM enormously patient in some circumstances — with animals and the elderly for example — and usually I can just inwardly roll my eyes when I'm stuck being around the self-important and other-unaware, but honestly I've had them up to my eyeballs, and I'm busy, damn it. I have actual work to do.

(One of these days I'll write a little story about mind-blindness.)

But enough of this rant.

I'm hoping those of you in the US of A enjoyed a little time off this past Memorial Day weekend. Thanks to Canadian pal, Jim Davy, I learned that in Canada a day with similar meaning, called Remembrance Day, is observed in November, not at the end of May. Always good to know more stuff and not be ethnocentric.

My intention several days ago was to share this charming, happy little video with you, but that was before I went on the proverbial war path. Having gotten a few things off my chest, as it were, we now return to our regularly-sceduled programming. :-) I promise you'll LOVE this!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Flowers for Henry

“I have been a vet in a vet's hospital, a Henry. You cannot possibly know how deeply touched I am by this story, but trust me, you made a difference in their lives that day, and you have my own heartfelt thanks for your efforts.” — Milt Findley, veteran

MID-JUNE of 1999 one of our Brainstorm clients, a refrigerated case manufacturer, exhibited his products at Super Floral (since renamed The International Floriculture Expo), the biggest national trade show in the floral industry. Describing it as an amazing spectacle can in no way do it justice. Imagine the biggest, nicest florist shop you've ever been in, multiply it times 100, and you might be close. 

A mutually-beneficial relationship flourishes between case makers and flower growers. The manufacturers need flowers to present their cases to best advantage at shows, and growers need cases to keep their flowers fresh during the shows, so flower companies fill the manufacturers' cases with cut flowers and arrangements at no charge in exchange for being able to exhibit without the expense of buying show floor space. 

The first show I attended for Borgen Systems was the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show in Chicago. Not long before it, Paul and I had watched a PBS documentary about World War II. I was astounded by how high the mortality rate was at certain periods on certain fronts of the war. Yet young Americans enlisted by the ten of thousands knowing full well their chances of surviving were grim. As the credits rolled, so did my tears, and I told Paul that if there were ever anything I could do for a World War II veteran, I would. Inwardly, however, I was thinking, "How and when would that ever be?"

A few months later I was at FMI. As shows go, it's a monster. You can wear yourself out just walking from one massive pavilion to another. Paul and I have worked enough trade shows for ourselves and our clients to know how exhausting they are. By the time it's over, you don't care if you never see another customer or prospect again in your life, and all you can think about is getting the heck out of there as fast as possible. 

Nevertheless, I was shocked to learn that all those gorgeous flowers are routinely thrown out after shows because it's faster and easier to pitch them than to spend any time saving them. I had an aha moment; it dawned on me that I might have stumbled upon an opportunity to do a good thing for veterans. 

I convinced the Borgen booth staff to save their flowers for a local Veterans Hospital so they could be given to patients. After a number of conversations with hospital administration about a 'flower lift', the hospital scheduled one of their trucks to pick them up after the show. I was thrilled that we had created a win/win/win situation: flowers not wasted, hospital rooms brightened free of charge, but most importantly, vets honored. Woohoo!  

Somewhere along the line, however, something went wrong. I know the flowers were picked up because the next day the woman in hospital administration I'd been talking to called and complained and complained and complained that there had been a $20 marshaling yard fee at the show that she had to reimburse her driver for — which I admit sounded incredibly petty to me considering the thousands of dollars worth of flowers the hospital got in return for their $20. 

But the truly disappointing thing is that I don't think those flowers ever made it to the intended recipients. We didn't have even one vet acknowledge having received a bouquet despite the fact that I had included contact information. 
Tom Brokaw didn't call them "The Greatest Generation" for nothing. The World War II veterans I've met are about the most admirable, humble men you could ever know, and if a hospital full of veterans had gotten a bouquet as they were supposed to, someone would have replied. 

Fast forward to Super Floral in Kansas City. Based on my Chicago experience, I had no intention of suggesting we save any flowers. But then I got there.

FMI was one thing; it's a much bigger show overall, but since it includes everything supermarkets sell, flowers are a very small part of the exhibition. In the entryway alone at Super Floral, there were three gigantic vases, each the size of a Volkswagon, filled with huge, extraordinary Ecuadorian roses. Okay, it's a slight exaggeration, but not by much; they were actually the size of Smart Cars

I thought, "Is this heaven?" The answer was, "No, it's Super Floral."

Awash in acres of fragrance and beauty, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how to save the flowers. I knew there had been some arrangements made by the show to give flowers to a children's charity, but I also knew from the Chicago debacle that saving flowers doesn't guarantee they ever get to those for whom they're intended. I wavered, I had internal debates. The cons seemed to outweigh the pros:

1) I wouldn't be popular for asking the Borgen sales guys to take the extra time and trouble necessary to save flowers.

2) I was only there for the first day which meant I wouldn't be around at the end of the show to help or even cajole.

3) There was the ghost of Chicago. I'd have to orchestrate some means of making sure the flowers actually made it to veterans.

4) It was by now the end of my day at the show, and I was just about to check out of my hotel room. None of the booth staff was around, probably meeting with customers or out having dinner, which meant that my only option was to leave messages on their room phones and be as persuasive as the sixty seconds after the beep would allow me to be.

The only pro in the whole equation was thanking veterans; the vets won.

I left messages for the guys telling them that if they would bring flowers home to Des Moines, I would make sure bouquets were delivered individually to the vets at Vets Hospital. I would personally guarantee it because I would do it myself.

I drove back to Des Moines not knowing if I'd get any flowers. 

At 7:30 Saturday morning, I got a call from Chet Guinn, one of the salesmen. "I brought you some flowers. Can you come over and pick them up?" 

"Absolutely!" I said, while simultaneously thinking, "Uh oh." The weather had turned hot and the air conditioning in our van was broken. 

You can't haul flowers around in a hot van and expect them to survive, so the first thing we had to do — and by we, I mean Paul, because I certainly wasn't going to be able to pull this off without his help — was get the air conditioning fixed. The next thing we were going to need was a whole bunch of vases. I had about ten at home I could donate to the cause, but we were going to need lots and lots more. Fortunately, I served on the advisory board of the Salvation Army, so after a phone call and two stops at Sally stores we had collected boxes of them.

Chet had brought four very, very LARGE buckets filled with flowers. Paul took one look and said, "There's no way you can make arrangements at our office and deliver them back and forth a few at a time. Okay, you could, but the flowers will be dead because it'll take a week. The only way you can pull this off is if they give you space in the hospital to work." 

I called the Vets Hospital and explained the situation. The response was, "Come on over. We'll find a way to make it happen." 

Already Des Moines was way ahead of Chicago in terms of attitude! When we got there, one of the doctors thought it was such a worthy endeavor that he cleared out an examination room for us to use as our staging and arranging area. 

It was important to me that each vet get more than flowers; I wanted them to know why they were getting flowers; I wanted each one to be specifically and personally thanked. We zoomed over to the closest store and bought boxes of cards so that along with a bouquet, each veteran would get a card with a hand-written message saying, "Thank you for your service to our country. You are not forgotten." 

I was making flower arrangements on a patient exam table in the vacated doctor's office as quickly as I possibly could, Paul was writing thank you notes as fast as he could and nurse Monica Fitzgerald was helping us both whenever she had a spare moment. At last, at 8:00 PM — roughly 12 hours after we started out that morning — we were ready with our first delivery of bouquets. 

I had been rushing around so fast that I hadn't had time to imagine how it might feel to actually deliver the bouquets, but now it was time to do it. All of a sudden I felt dubious, unsure of myself, reticent. Maybe these hospitalized men would not welcome a complete stranger traipsing into their room uninvited, flowers or no flowers. I tried to convince Monica to take the bouquets in for me. They knew her; they probably wouldn't feel as though their privacy were being invaded, but she wouldn't budge. "You need to do this," she said. She would go in with me, but that was all.    

I rather inched into the first room. All doubts, however, were immediately removed. The vet was thrilled . . . happy to get flowers, happy to have the opportunity to talk about his service in the war and most of all, happy to have his contribution acknowledged. 

Every patient was so moved and so grateful that by the end of the first round of deliveries, all of us were crying including the veterans — and also confirming my suspicion that the Chicago vets never got their flowers. 

Not all of the patients were WWII vets, but many were. I felt almost dizzy with awe, and so lucky for the opportunity to make my year-old pipe dream come true. The biggest difficulty was getting some of the veterans to believe me when I told them the flowers were for them. Monica told me, “You have to understand, some patients here don’t even get a visitor, much less a bouquet of flowers.”

Several delivery experiences went like this:

 “Hi, are you Henry?” 

 “These are for you!”  
 “I don’t think so.”  
 “No, really.”  
 “Are you sure you have the right room?”  
 “Definitely. You’re Henry, right?”  
 “There must be another Henry here in the hospital. I don’t think these are for me.”  
 “But they are, I promise!”  
 “How come?”  
 “You earned them by saving our collective butts. We’re just trying to say thank you.”

We got home about 10:00 PM that night to find a message waiting for us from salesman, Mark Sierzant saying, “I’ve got your flowers here.” 

Sunday morning another call woke us up. It was Floyd Rosenkranz, the semi driver. “I’ve got a truck load of flowers for you.” 

We were back in the bouquet business in a big way! When we arrived for day two of arranging, writing and delivering, one of the floor nurses told us that two vets who'd been sleeping when we tiptoed in the night before to leave them bouquets, had asked her to be sure and have us come back in to see them when we returned. 

Both were World War II veterans; one had been a prisoner of war in Germany. He talked about the suffering he endured. They both thanked us, and I explained that we were trying to thank them! What they received from us was infinitesimal compared to what they had given!!

We had so many flowers that we decided we'd keep going until every single veteran in the hospital who wasn’t in ICU, where flowers aren't permitted, got a bouquet. Monica was helping me pull dead flowers and arrange fresh ones. She kept hugging me and saying, “This is so cool. This is just SO COOL!” 

When we ran out of vases, she scrounged all around the hospital collecting residual vases that had been stashed here and there. Nurse Donna Monson came on duty and pitched in, and Monica stayed on after her shift to help. By the time we were done, we had used every flower and every vase, but every veteran had a bouquet and a card. I thought we made around 40 bouquets. The nurses and Paul thought it was closer to 60.  All I knew is that every veteran got one.

Every delivery was moving. The most unforgettable was Henry, the one whom I'd had such a hard time convincing that the flowers were really for him. I finally succeeded and left, but I realized I'd forgotten something in his room. When I returned, he was still gripping his card and reading it over and over again with tears very evidently in his eyes. He was a heartbreaker.
Monday morning, and when I got to work, Tara our office manager was also teary-eyed. She said that we had already had several calls from veterans thanking us for the flowers. One man told her that he had never had flowers given to him in his whole life. The following day there was a voice mail message from another veteran who said that getting those flowers was the most touching thing that had happened to him since the war. 

The memory of his message is humbling and a reminder of how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to say thank you to veterans who had risked everything for their country and for us. It's impossible to honor and appreciate them as much as they deserve.

Footnote: For the next two years after the great bouquet-making adventure for the vets in Veterans Hospital, Paul and I took poinsettias, hand-written cards, and coffee mugs stuffed with candy canes and a pair of new socks to Vets Hospital at Christmas. Tom Boesen of Boesen the Florist was kind enough to give us his leftover poinsettias at no cost. 

The only catch was that since we couldn't pick them up until Christmas Eve, we spent all night driving around to the Boesen locations, 
shopping for mugs, socks, candy canes and cards and assembling it all so as to be able to deliver the gifts and flowers on Christmas. It which made for an utterly exhausting couple of days . . . too much for only two people to take on.

For awhile I also scanned the obituaries in the Des Moines Register for World War II vets and sent condolence cards to their families. 

I haven't undertaken any vet recognition projects since then, but my plan is to get with a couple of vet advocates I know and see if we can start the floral drop again and make it an every year deal. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Look out

"There comes a time when you have to stop crossing oceans for people who wouldn't step over a puddle for you." — Shut Up I'm Still Talking, Facebook

There's a heavy penalty, evidently, for being a good listener. I swear I'm almost entirely surrounded by sociopathic and/or on-the-autism-spectrum individuals who are a) utterly self-referencing and b) talk about nothing but themselves.

I'm often left (literally) speechless by the number of people in my life who go on and on and on and on about themselves and their lives without it ever (apparently) crossing their minds that I have a self and a life too and maybe, just maybe, it's at least of as much interest to me as theirs is to them.

So be warned, all y'all, my new mantra is contained in the above quote and the below meme.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Seven dead, seven wounded

“I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one, that true alpha male.” — Elliot Rodger, alleged Isla Vista killer

Seven more of us are dead and another seven have been wounded in a drive-by mass murder that took place Friday night, May 23 in the seaside town of Isla Vista near the University of California at Santa Barbara. The shooter has been identified by witnesses as Elliot Rodger.

Here's what I want to know: how many more dead does it take before we — I mean you and me and every other sane American — force Congress, the President, governors and state legislatures to enact legislation requiring universal, mandatory background checks and outlaw private, non-military, non-law enforcement ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons?

Covered bodies after the mass shooting near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. AP photo.

And don't even mention that wheeze "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Shootings on military bases and other recent unchecked killing sprees where gun carriers themselves were killed proves that having gun-toters amongst us isn't the solution. It's the damn problem!

Monday, May 19, 2014

21 days and counting

"Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really." — Agnes Sligh Turnbull, American novelist

PAUL AND I are working out of our new offices; that's something. Lots of boxes sitting around that need unpacking, lots of finish work to be done — sink to be put in, new bathroom counter to install, more painting, more baseboard to go down — and still more packing and moving at our old space, but at least we're here. Our new address is 333 E. Grand, Suite 113, Des Moines, IA 50309.

I have to say working 21 days without a day off has worn us both down. So here's an adorable 23-second puppy video as a mental margarita for us all.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The psychopathic brain

“Know what you are dealing with. This sounds easy but in fact can be very difficult. All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned, and left bewildered by them.” — Robert Hare, PhD.,  author of Without Conscience and the creator of the standard tool for diagnosing psychopathy

ANYONE WHO'S READ Hey Look more than a few times, knows that I'm always fascinated by how we think and act and how our brains work to influence that. This is a long piece by CNN writer Elizabeth Landau, but it's way interesting especially to me since I have a client who's a CEO psychopath. Seriously. Studies have shown that there's a high prevalence of psychopathy in CEOs. 

How your brain makes moral judgments
March 27, 2014

Imagine a CEO wants to profit from a venture that, by the way, involves emitting pollution toxic to the environment, but she doesn't care because the goal is profit.

Is the CEO intentionally harming the environment? What if, instead, the CEO is pushing a project that happens to help the environment -- is the benefit any more or less intentional than the harm in the other scenario? How do you morally judge each of these situations?

Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems such as these, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions, said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of practical ethics at Duke University.

Researchers interested in the neuroscience of morality are investigating which brain networks are involved in such decisions, and what might account for people's individual differences in judgments. Studies on the topic often involve small samples of people -- functional magnetic resonance imaging is time-intensive and expensive -- but patterns are emerging as more results come in.

"It's a field that's waiting for a big revolution sometime soon," Sinnott-Armstrong said.

Scientists have shown that there is a specific network of brain regions involved in mediating moral judgment. An influential study on this topic was published in 2001 and led by Joshua D. Greene, associate professor at Harvard University, author of "Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them."

Adrian Raine and Yaling Yang, in a 2006 review article, described this study as a breakthrough. It focused "on the specific difference between making judgments (i.e. 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate') on 'moral personal' dilemmas (e.g. throwing a person out of a sinking life-boat to save others), and 'moral impersonal' dilemmas (e.g. keeping money found in a lost wallet)," they wrote.

Greene's study suggested that three brain structures -- the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and angular gyrus on the left and right sides -- "play a central role in the emotional processes that influence personal moral decision-making," Raine and Yang wrote.

Other studies have since confirmed that these areas are important in processing information about moral decisions, as well as an area called the ventral prefrontal cortex.

Several researchers have additionally suggested that the brain areas involved in moral judgment overlap with what is called the "default mode network," which is involved in our "baseline" state of being awake but at rest. The network is also active during "internally focused tasks including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving the perspectives of others," Randy Buckner and colleagues wrote in a 2008 study.

To further understand which brain networks are essential for moral judgment, scientists study people whose behavior suggests that their relevant neural circuitry may be damaged.

Psychopaths, particularly those who are also convicted criminals, have been the subject of much interest among scientists exploring moral judgment.

"They're not scared of punishment, they don't feel empathy towards other people, they don't respect authorities that told them not to do things, and so there's nothing stopping them from doing what other people would dismiss in a nanosecond," Sinnott-Armstrong said.

Raine and Yang suggest, based on research, that "antisocial groups" such as psychopaths may know what is moral, but they may lack a feeling of what is moral.

A moral "feeling," which seems to be related to the brain's prefrontal cortex and amygdala, is what takes the recognition that an act is immoral and translates that recognition into behavioral inhibition, Raine and Yang wrote. "It is this engine that functions less well in antisocial, violent and psychopathic individuals."

Jesus Pujol of the Hospital de Mar, Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues did a study published in 2012 to analyze how psychopaths' brain responses to moral dilemmas might contrast with that of non-psychopaths.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging on 22 criminal psychopathic men and 22 healthy men who were not offenders. They found that most participants gave similar responses to moral dilemmas used in the study, whether they were psychopathic or not.

But their brains told a different story: The psychopaths tended to show less activation in the medial frontal and posterior cingulate cortices in response to moral dilemmas. Researchers also found differences in the psychopaths' brains in an analysis of functional connectivity -- that is, they found impairment in the connections between some brain regions involved in morality and other areas.

Pujol's group's more recent study, published this month in the journal Biological Psychiatry, also found weakened connections in psychopaths' brains that may affect their moral reasoning. Specifically, they found that structures associated with emotion showed reduced connectivity to prefrontal areas, and enhanced connectivity in an area associated with cognition.

The results suggest that, in criminal psychopaths, the brain does not adequately use emotional information to control behavioral responses.

Autism is another neurological condition that is being explored with regard to moral judgment.

Rebecca Saxe at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has collaborated in research looking at how people with autism may weigh intentions and outcomes differently.

Saxe was the co-author on a 2011 study showing that autism may be related to a different way of thinking about accidental harms. An example of this kind of scenario would be: If a person tries to kill someone else, but doesn't succeed, how do you judge them?

A typical cognitively healthy person tends to judge targeted efforts at harming people as more morally wrong than accidental harms.

"What determines moral blame is not how bad the outcome is, but mostly what was going on in the minds of the actors," she said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science annual meeting last year.

Researchers compared people with high-functioning autism to those who do not have the condition on a variety of scenarios.

Study authors found that people with autism did not consistently say that accidental harms and attempted harms are morally different, appearing to more heavily weight the negative outcome and less on the intention in making the judgment. Typically developing 4-year-old children also show this pattern, other research has found.

On average, individuals with autism tended to place less importance on intention and beliefs, the study said, which could translate into difficulties in everyday social situations. There was also some variation in judgments among people without autism, Saxe said.

Studies generally show that almost everyone puts some emphasis on both the consequences and the intentions of the person who brought them on, Sinnott-Armstrong said.

But given that different people make different moral judgments, the question becomes, he said, "Whose moral judgments are affected by which factors in which circumstances?"

Scientists have also shown that it's possible to manipulate moral judgment by directly intervening in brain processes. Saxe was the senior author on a 2010 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this topic.

The study, involving with eight people in the first part and 12 in the second, looked at a brain area called the right temporoparietal junction. Researchers used a noninvasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt the activity of neurons in this brain region.

TMS involves applying a magnetic field to a small area of the head, creating weak electric currents that hamper brain cells' normal firing. It produces a temporary effect.

Researchers applied TMS in two experiments. First, before participants made a moral judgment, they received 25 minutes of TMS. In the second, they experienced TMS in 500-millisecond bursts while making a moral judgment. Then they compared these judgments to those participants made while receiving TMS to a different brain region, as well as to the responses of people who did not receive TMS.

Study authors found that TMS to the right temporoparietal junction was associated with distinct response patterns. It appears that TMS to this brain region biased judgments, compared to people who received TMS in a different brain region, or no TMS at all.

Specifically, participants who received TMS in this area were more likely to say that a person's attempts to inflict harm -- for instant, a failed murder attempt -- were more morally permissible and less forbidden.

But don't worry, Saxe said -- TMS couldn't be used secretly for nefarious purposes. Its effect lasted about 10 minutes; ideology and persuasion would be more powerful and sneaky for changing someone's mind.

"TMS is not subtle," she said. "You can't be TMSed without knowing it. It's a huge heavy loud machine and its effects are small."

But wait -- could TMS be used for good, to help people whose neural networks are not functioning well in making rational moral judgments? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks one day there could be treatments directly developed for the brain in extreme cases, such as criminal psychopaths.

"It's possible that if we understand the neural circuits that underlie psychopaths and their behavior, we can use medications and magnetic stimulation to change their behavior," he said.

Such techniques might not work as well as behavioral training programs, however, he said.

Existing studies tend to only look at how the brain responds to one kind of moral question: Circumstances in which a hypothetical person in some way causes harm, Sinnott-Armstrong said.

But there are many other areas to explore, such as disloyalty to friends, "impure" sexual acts, and procedural injustice. How does the brain respond to a good outcome achieved by questionable means, such as a good leader coming to power in an unjust process? These topics are all ripe for future study.
"I think we have strong evidence that different brain systems are involved in different kinds of moral judgments," he said.

And what about cross-cultural differences? How about judging people in your national, cultural or political group vs. outsiders? Those could be other areas of exploration, Saxe said.

Saxe is specifically planning to look at how people in particular groups perceive the thoughts and perspectives of "enemies."

"Thinking about how these kinds of moral and psychological processes plug into intergroup dynamics and exacerbate intergroup conflict, and also how you could use them to defuse intergroup conflict, is one of the directions we're going in the lab," she said.