Don’t Panic

I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy years ago – all five books in the “trilogy”. I think they are still my favorite books, even though I’ve read much more sophisticated writing. But what Douglas Adams did in creating the characters of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect was to show the world that there are two types of people: those who know that we are about to meet with destruction and freak out about it, and those who see the asteroid hurtling toward us at inconceivable velocity and look for options. Naturally, there is something to be said for running around with your hands in the air like an idiot. I’m not judging. We’re really not very much more evolved than squirrels. But we do have reason, and given enough preparation or training, we can overcome our instincts.

A hockey goalkeeper has basically one job: he or she must stop the puck from crossing the line in the goal. It’s quite simple. But young hockey players must overcome – with great difficulty – the instinct to duck or move out of the way of the puck. This tendency is in direct opposition to the objective of the goalkeeper. Protecting the net means placing your body, arms, legs, and face in the path of a flying galvanized rubber object coming at you at high speed. The absolute worst thing you can do now is to follow your gut instinct. Smack!

Panic is something we’re equipped with, but it is not impossible to overcome. That takes some degree of training. Firefighters can rush into a burning building in defiance of their natural inclination to run away. Soldiers will do the same. I noticed in several situations where a camera operator did not stop rolling even though there were explosions and bullets. War correspondents are amazing, but they’re not fearless. Firefighters will tell you the same. Fear is what keeps them alive.

Fear is not the same as panic. Fear motivates people to do many things, but they tend to make a decision. Panic prevents decisions. I’ve experienced fear a number of times. I was very afraid when I had to watch my wife almost die in front of me after a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I was afraid when my friend was shot before my eyes, only to find out it was a horrific prank. But during these times, I did not panic. I was not prepared. I had not received any special training. I just acted.

I am not better than people who freak out. I am here for them. The world needs leaders, and followers. (Where would we be if no one followed?) But panic serves no one. When lifeguards are trying to save someone from drowning, they will sometimes subdue the potential victim in order to control the situation better. I’ve heard that a fist to the bridge of the nose is most effective. In my experience, it does have a certain calming effect. If I wanted to save someone’s life and they were fighting me, I’m thinking the nose thing is the way to go. In the Guide, Arthur Dent was unprepared, having just gotten a ride on an alien ship while his planet was destroyed, by mistake. He would eventually travel across the galaxy in his robe and slippers. Panic he did. But he eventually got his sea legs. Sometimes all it takes is to be abducted by aliens. So, next time scientists announce that an asteroid is heading right for us, don’t fret. Just watch the skies.

 

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Geoguessr

Geoguessr.com is a geography puzzle using Google Streetview. Each game consists of 5 rounds. At the beginning of each round, you are met with a view of someplace, anyplace on the planet, in any country, any town or city or countryside. Your goal is to guess, with as much accuracy as you can muster, where in the world you are. You are able to pan from side-to-side, zoom in, zoom out, pan up and down, and move in any direction allowed by that particular round. Some avenues will be cut off, for instance, and there is a limitation of movement, but you might not encounter the artificial wall. I have many times, however.

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Where in the world are you?

I am a geography nerd, so I really get this game. I mean, I find it compelling. I don’t expect everyone to love it, but I’m sure there are many fans of this diversion. And there are several blogs and articles offering tips and tricks, some of which I was able to figure out, some I didn’t think about before.

Since the classic “worldwide” game will drop you essentially anywhere Google Street View has documented, you are in for a surprise nearly every time. Did you catch that? Anywhere Google Street View has gone before. That excludes large areas of Africa and South America, unfortunately. Argentina is adding new photos, as are a number of other countries, but there is nothing recorded in Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela and Bolivia. Africa is largely left out. This is just as well: I am still unfamiliar enough with Australia and Finland to keep it interesting.

Here are a few tips:

1. May attention to traffic patterns. In the North and South America and most of Europe, they drive on the right side of the street, but in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Japan, they drive on the left.

2. Only USA has speed limit signs in MPH. If you see any sign displaying kilometers, you’re not in the States.

3. Australia is huge. Good luck.

4. Canada is also huge, but the Rocky Mountains along the Alberta-BC boundary are kind of unmistakable.

5. Portuguese signs are almost a dead giveaway for Brazil, especially in the tropics. Portugal has pine forests and really old architecture.

6. Chile and Mexico are both Spanish-speaking countries, but Chile has some of the most striking desert features. Mexico has rain forests in the south.

7. Get familiar with Fin place names.

This game will really challenge your geography skills, or lack thereof. It doesn’t hurt to know a bit about the world you inhabit. Just think of it this way: when extraterrestrials visit and ask you where they can find the world leaders, you can point to Sydney or Geneva or London or New York on a map. Or you can screw with them and point to Tulsa.

Well, I’ve got a game to finish. By the rolling hills and the reddish soil, I can tell I’m in the South, but where?

Yield

I don’t get enough exercise. My typical work-week is about 50 hours, plus I have extra-curricular activities that take up a lot of my free time. As a result, I am just not fit. I am a grown man, and I realise there are measures I could take to remedy this situation. One day I decided to walk across the busy intersection to a supermarket near my office. Now, pedestrians in Texas are an uncommon sight. Texans are not encouraged to walk or bicycle when they could simply get in their cars and drive a few blocks to their destinations. If you are seen walking along a busy street, it is assumed you are a vagrant or a hobo.

So there I was, enjoying the beautiful fall weather, getting a little exercise in the process. I pushed the chrome-plated button to signal my intent to cross. After a couple minutes, the universal sign indicating my right of way appeared: it was a bright white LED figure of a person walking. I made it safely to the other side of the street – really, a major thoroughfare with two dedicated left-turn lanes and four traffic lanes in each direction. By most accounts, what I was crossing was a highway. Within a few seconds after crossing, I heard the sound of a horn. I turned to see two cars colliding in the intersection, the sound of metal crunching, and a wheel cover being flung in a tangent down the street. I continued on my way, coursing through the labyrinthine parking lot to the supermarket. In my dejeuner sojourns, I have observed that commercial centers are not designed for pedestrians. It’s fairly obvious that the designers of such places intended them for cars, not for people.

After lunch, I began the walk back to my office. Again, I approached the intersection, pressing the crossing signal button. After the “walk” sign appeared, I began crossing. This time, something told me to look over my shoulder. Just then, I heard a horn just as two vehicles began to cross my path, turning left in front of me. I was fortunate to have stopped, but I clearly had the right of way in this situation. The drivers of those cars were obligated to yield to me. But, as a long-time pedestrian and city-cyclist, I have learned that we on foot are invisible, and we should act accordingly. While I was in the right, it was my responsibility to look out for people who don’t know better. Yes, if one of the cars had struck me, I would have had the opportunity to take them to court and sue for a lot of money, that is, if I survived.

It’s quite obvious that traffic favors the automobile in Texas. Crossing this street on foot is a perilous undertaking, as with many intersections around Dallas and its suburbs. Because of this dominance, people have misused the “yield to pedestrians” mantra, believing that people on foot always have the right of way. This is not true. Pedestrians are required to follow the same traffic laws as everyone else. You cannot simply step out in front of traffic and expect cars to stop. (But don’t try convincing Wal-Mart shoppers of this.)

Lately I have not attempted to cross on foot. Drivers are too distracted these days, constantly texting and checking Twitter. It’s unfortunate, and until Google has perfected and mass-produced the autonomous car, I won’t feel safe.

Disposable

We have been gradually replacing our plastic (polypropylene) food storage containers with Pyrex ones. Our main concern was the tendency of plastics to leach toxins into food, especially when heated. For years we’ve been microwaving leftovers right in the plastic container. It really never occurred to me that this wasn’t safe, my confidence based chiefly on believing the plastics industry’s claims. The trade association, SPI, “Society of the Plastics Industry”, is a vocal advocate for this industry. Plastics are everywhere. We use plastic for everything from food and water storage to electronics, medical use, industrial storage, and everything in between. Plastics (PE, PETE, etc.) are easily moulded, cheap to produce, and can be recycled to make something else. However, recycling is expensive, and only certain types of plastics can be recycled. But recycling is not all it’s cracked up to be. This Economist article explains in greater detail the problems with recycling plastic, namely, that only a small fraction of plastics are reclaimed at all, and the main types, high density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate ethylene, have limited recycling potential, or can only be “down-cycled”, not converted laterally into an equally-usable container.

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Pyrex® food storage containers

It is virtually impossible to live without plastic. But with the conveniences, these products have also become disposable. Plastic water bottles have been polluting landfills and large areas of the oceans for a while now. According to BanTheBottle.Net, “86% of plastic water bottles used in the US become garbage that ends up in landfills throughout the country.” The surprisingly simple solution to this problem is reusability. A good Nalgene bottle can be reused thousands of times without ending up in a landfill. I have used the same Contigo 1-litre bottle (BPA-free) as my primary hydration source for nearly six years, filling it two or three times every day. That amounts to 5,475 litres, or an equal number of disposable plastic bottles.

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Plastic products in the kitchen – water bottle, cutting board, measuring cups, mixing bowl, and knife handle.

We throw away an astounding amount of stuff. Many materials are recyclable, like beer bottles and steel soup cans. But reusability options are available. Glass bottles can be sanitized and refilled. Soup and vegetables can be – and have been for generations – stored in reusable glass jars. Disposable razors are convenient, but those blades can’t be recycled or reused. There is a trend toward reusable razors, at least according to one co-worker. They can be sharpened, and the blades, made from steel, are recyclable. Steel is the original recyclable material, and most people just throw cans in the trash.

Americans produce a lot of trash. In my neighborhood, some households have multiple garbage bins, the big, green, 361-litre trash bins. That’s a lot! That’s 361 litres of trash per house going out to the landfill. And maybe 722 litres or more. We have two recycling containers, but we rarely use both on the same week. Still, that’s throwing away something instead of reusing it.

Some things are just going to become trash: light bulbs, polystyrene, food waste, napkins, medical waste, and so on. It seems a shame to toss things when it is obvious there is a solution. I’m not perfect. I produce a lot of trash. I simply do not have the wherewithal to sort through and reprocess all my everyday items, but I certainly could make some improvements. In fact, I already have: like I said, I still drink from that same Contigo bottle. We don’t use paper plates, only ceramic ones. I make my own glass cleaner (vinegar, water, and a few drops of liquid soap), reusing the same spray bottle. I tried to include more ideas, but I realized I was not doing enough. More could be done.

Any effort is worthwhile. You’re not going to stop producing waste overnight; we may never truly become a trash-free society, especially where pop music is concerned, but we can work toward a goal if we set the bar. This is not intended to admonish or shame anyone. I am as guilty as the next person. But I hope it serves as a wake-up call. Now, I need to go brush my teeth with my plastic, disposable Sonicare® brush head, and apply a Breathe Right® strip.

 

 

A Good year

2014 was a difficult year for many people. Along with wars and civil unrest, riots, shootings, and miscarriages of justice, people in my extended family passed away before their time. I lost my cousin, who died at age 43  (cause of death kept within the immediate family – I wasn’t told). My wife’s cousin’s husband died in his sleep at 36. And another of my wife’s cousins – the first’s sister – died suddenly a couple weeks later. And my wife’s aunt lost a battle with cancer. Finally, my brother’s fiancée lost her sister to cancer. 2014 was a tough year, indeed. And yet, I have hope.

In the 1989 film, “Parenthood”, the Grandma character, played by Helen Shaw, delivers a short speech about the ups and downs of life. In it, she says, “I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.” She was using her roller coaster story to illustrate how life can be thrilling, scary, and joyful. Pain and suffering are all part of the adventure. Many writers, poets, artists, and philosophers have made their careers on the inevitability of pain. Listen to Billie Holiday if you dare; “Good Morning, Heartache” is one of the saddest songs you will ever hear, and if you are even slightly susceptible to depression, I suggest you skip it.

On a recent perusal of Facebook posts, I came across a few engagement announcements. They included photos of young couples, the gent down on one knee; you know, the  classic ritual. But I looked at the pictures and became upset. Why would I be upset? What could I possibly find objectionable about pretty white kids having the time of their lives? I talked to my wife about what upset me about the idea of young people getting married and starting a life together, an ostensibly joyous occasion. After a few days of soul-searching, I discovered that the reason is because I am old and crotchety. Actually, I am not old; my grandmother is still alive. But I am not a kid anymore, and I approach situations with a certain amount of cynicism, and I have become more skeptical over time, having seen what people will do to the ones they love. (What the fuck, man?)

My wife and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary over the holidays. We have a good marriage. We still have arguments and disagreements. We are not always at our best. But we are experts at communicating with one another. We invented the Emotional Couch and the Decision Zone as devices for working out life’s challenges. We still hold hands, we have Sunday brunch, we go on adventures together, and we each have our own lives, with our own friends and interests. But life isn’t perfect, and anyone who is thinking about getting married should accept this. When I saw those dudes proposing to their girlfriends, I shook my head and said to myself, “they have no idea what they’re getting into.”

Now, I would never advise against any two people getting married. It’s not my job to counsel them, and I hope they do get some advice from a counselor or a priest. (Many pastors will not perform a marriage until the couple have gone through pre-marriage counselling.) We never had children of our own, but we are supportive mother and father figures to many kids, former exchange students, nieces, and nephews. I imagine as a parent, you want to protect your children from harm. This is a no-brainer. But you can be overprotective (Henry VIII was famous for this). While I take great pride in our marriage and how we have made it work, I know that this success was coupled with a lot of effort, some sacrifice, compromise, faith, and a bit of pain (oh, the pain!) I look at these young people, and I can’t help to wince a little internally, knowing what lies ahead for them. But why do I assume they will have difficulty? I know this because that’s life. Pain is necessary. It makes us stronger. Muscles must be broken down a bit to build up to be stronger. You must acclimate to lower levels of oxygen to climb a mountain. There must be some pain for progress to be made.

“Not all pain is gain”, as the Despair.com poster explains, rather graphically. The poster shows a boxer taking a blow to the face. Sweat and saliva fly as the glove makes a forceful impact. The boxer’s face distorts, looking grotesque and disfigured in the moment. Undoubtedly, there is pain – brutal, senseless pain. One day, while on a routine 6.4-kilometer run, I glanced down the alley to see if any cars were coming when I suddenly tripped. My left foot hit a hole in the pavement, and I fell hard. Some people stopped to see if I was hurt, which I was, but I got up quickly and walked a little on my throbbing ankle. I told the good Samaritans I was fine, and I continued to run. What I didn’t know was that my peroneal tendon was torn, an injury that undoubtedly required immediate medical attention. But the endorphins and the burst of adrenaline coursing through my veins and washing over my brain cells kept the pain away for the most part, and I continued to run the remaining 5 km.

What did I gain from this? Well, nothing physical. But I did gain knowledge. I learned that there was a hole in the sidewalk on Old Celina Road. I learned that ankle injuries should be taken seriously. I learned that I should look where I step. Am I better for the pain and suffering? I suppose in some way I am. But I certainly would rather have not been impaired for six weeks as a result. I am fortunate that it was temporary. We all have someone in our lives who deals with persistent pain. It pains us emotionally to know there is nothing we can do to help them.

Physical and emotional suffering is part of life; like I said – as do the poets – that is inevitable. But so also are joy, happiness, and elation. We modern people feel entitled to joy. We “deserve” some happiness, it is often said. I don’t argue this. In fact, I celebrate it. Why shouldn’t we find joy to offset the sadness? You know there are going to be hard times in your life. So make sure you celebrate the good times. Do not let yourself feel guilt for your own joy simply for the fact that there is known suffering elsewhere. Those who suffer will forgive you, if they know you exist at all. And you are as entitled to your empathy as you are to your own happiness. To these young couples, I say Mazel Tov! Congratulations! Celebrate, because this truly is a joyous occasion. Do not fret at the appearance of storm clouds. Make time to help those in need. Be kind to everyone. Pray for those who hate you and for those who are sick and suffering. Looking back, I accept the good and the bad because I am whole because of them, being the person I am as more than the aggregation of all my experiences and knowledge.

After all, I think it’s going to be a good year.

 

Happy New Year, Sinners!

I am making challah tonight, which is a traditional Jewish bread. It requires two whole eggs and two egg yolks in the dough. I love making this bread because it displays well: it makes quite an appearance, braided and baked to a patina and covered with sesame seeds. I make this bread only a few times per year, saving it for special occasions. Since tomorrow is New Year’s Day, I thought it might be nice to include it along with the black eyed peas and perhaps some buñuelos.

But every time I make challah, I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with someone for whom I cannot remember her name. I was talking to her about cooking, and I mentioned some recipe that required separating eggs. (If you do not cook, and you were wondering how I add two egg yolks to the dough, it is accomplished by separating them from the egg whites carefully. They make egg separators for this purpose, but I use the shell halves, gently transferring the yolk from one side to the other, discarding the whites in the process.) The woman I was speaking with suddenly interrupted me and said, “separating eggs is a sin against God!”

I was more than a little surprised at the notion that God hated my cooking, so I asked her why she should say such a thing. Her reply was representative of the problem I have with organized religion. She said, “the Bible says, ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ It is a sin to separate eggs.”

The Bible passage she quoted – and she quoted the King James Bible, by the way, which told me quite a lot about her – is from Mark chapter 10, verse 9; however, this chapter begins with some religious conservatives (Pharisees) calling out Jesus and challenging him about the legality of divorce. Verse 9 is Jesus’ reply, quoting Genesis, adding that God intended married couples to be “unseparated”, not just anything. By this woman’s interpretation of scripture, it was a sin to separate eggs, because God “hath joined them together.” But by this same “logic”, it would be equally sinful to crack walnuts, harvest wheat germ, make butter, or even to clip your fingernails. (If you read Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you’ll learn a lot more things you aren’t allowed to do.)

What really upsets me about this, however, is that people are going around telling other people what they should and shouldn’t do based on religious doctrine, not necessarily common sense. I know because I grew up Roman Catholic, and these people are absolute nutters. Religious people love telling you and me how we are offending God by laughing at jokes, drinking a little, and having a good time. I think they’re doing this because they never had a good time themselves. Or maybe they’re suppressing something – homicidal, psychotic rage or something juicy. I’m pretty sure – I’m not a Bible scholar or a theologian, but I can read – Jesus would be sick to his stomach at the way some of his so-called followers are treating their own. I know that many “Christians” support the death penalty and have no tolerance for immigrants and gays and lesbians. Fine, but don’t say you’re a Christian if you aren’t trying to be like Christ. I don’t usually say I’m a Christian. I go to church, but I know where I stand. I’m no saint.

We are basically all sinners. Anyone who says he’s not is deluding himself. I don’t know if there is a hell or a heaven. I don’t know anything, actually. But I feel fairly certain that God doesn’t care about whether you eat pork or that you even go to church. There are people suffering. There is evil in the world, and we are the instruments of either good or evil. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “I am a little pencil in the writing hand of God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

We are pencils. We can be used for good or for bad, but we ourselves are neither good nor evil. If a person believes he or she to be sinning against God for their perceived transgressions, they ought to keep it to themselves. I’m sure I would offend many people if I said they were going to hell for wearing cotton/polyester blended fabric. And in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter?

If you really want to rid the world of evil, start by educating your children. Teach them to be accepting and welcoming of everyone. And I mean everyone. Teach them not to hate each other because of differences in beliefs or lifestyles. Teach them to have compassion for prisoners and the mentally ill. Teach them to recognize their own faults before judging others. I suppose I could practice what I preach and be kind to the kids proselytizing at my front door. Maybe I can save them. I’ll offer them a slice of bread, and I’ll tell them it was made with sin…and love.