Really?!

Some of our preconceptions are just plain wrong. That’s okay. I mean, where else would stereotypes come from? Without these misguided perceptions we wouldn’t ever be amazed or mystified by new things. Nothing would ever take us by surprise. We would never have any reason to travel beyond our city limits or past our front porch. Maybe it’s okay to have the wrong idea, but we should never be content to assume we know the world outside the confines of our comfortable existence without checking it out for ourselves.

As much as I like to preach about reaching out past your comfort zone, I am confined by economics to an extent. My only trip outside the US was to Baja California. I was a little ashamed to admit this one day, but the person to whom I mentioned it said, “California’s in the US, dude.” I said, “No, Baja California.” He subsequently appeared to think I was proving his point.

The funny thing is that people have held very strange notions about where I grew up, near Dallas, Texas. There are 25 million people in the triangle that joins DFW, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Once, a customer was asking me if Houston was a big enough city to hold an event. I said, “sure, it’s the largest city in Texas.” He was incredulous and asked me if the downtown region had buildings or was it just cows. I wasn’t sure if he was fucking with me, but I politely and diplomatically corrected his misconception. To this day I’m not convinced he wasn’t puling my leg.

 

Cottonwood Trail 3

In the Texas Panhandle, there is a large canyon, Palo Duro Canyon, carved into the Caprock Escarpment where visitors might be surprised to find a lush grove of cottonwood trees. Other parts of the park are a haven for birds and butterflies. And, of course, there are rattlesnakes.

Many people have visited Las Vegas. And even though the city and its suburbs has nearly 2 million people, the casual tourist may not think about the city beyond the Strip. 2 million people in any city would need places to buy groceries, shop for necessities, get their hair cut, attend religious services, and just about anything we might do in a given week. Of course Las Vegas has kindergartens and laundromats, mundane and non-Las Vegas-y things you don’t want to think about while you’re watching Cirque du Soleil. One of the most blatantly unremarkable meals I’ve ever had was in Vegas (I would hope that Red Lobster has made some improvements).

I will be making my first trip to the Grand Canyon in May. My preconceptions are coming with me, like anything else I will pack. My plan is to leave them behind, which is the only thing, aside from a footprint, that one should leave when visiting a National Park. I expect to be pleasantly surprised, which is certain to happen. Even when I’ve been to a place repeatedly, I will always discover something new; and no matter how small it may seem, it is still enough to make me grateful for the experience.

 

 

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Violent

Plenty has been published in literature, produced in films and television to depict (or predict) a world where violent behavior had all but been eliminated due to a draconian system of justice, where even petty theft or vandalism could result in severe penalties. It goes without saying this is the west’s impression of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), true or not. In the 1980’s we were instructed on what life in the Soviet Union was like, how the Russian people had no freedoms, no choice. The indoctrination of American youth during the Cold War could have been as equally oppressive as any Communist regime we imagined.

Singapore is famous for administering harsh punishments for seemingly insignificant offenses like littering or vandalism. They are very proud of their low crime rate, and it should be obvious why that is. So one might ask himself, why don’t more countries do this? Before attempting to answer this, I am reminded of something that puzzled me for years. Japan has very strict gun laws, severely restricting gun ownership, limiting sales, and granting the government shockingly sweeping authority regarding firearms, at least by American standards (but the US has fairly relaxed gun laws by comparison to most of the world). In Japan, perhaps as a result of these policies, nearly all gun violence has been eliminated. The big question is whether restricting gun ownership has resulted in a reduction of gun-related incidents, or was it something else?

I posed this question to someone who lived in Japan, and he told me something I did not expect. He is a gun rights advocate, and, like me, has had experience with firearms from an early age. Despite this, he and I don’t agree on every aspect of gun control. That said, he told me that the reason there is almost no gun violence in Japan is not because guns are hard to get hold of, but that the Japanese culture figures significantly into the equation. Of course, there are guns in Japan. But even the Yakuza gang rarely uses guns to commit crimes. Consequently, homicides in Japan are pretty uncommon. It’s worth noting that gun violence in Canada is also rare, even with dramatically fewer restrictions over gun ownership. What, then, is the explanation?

As a means to deter crime, I suppose courts in the US could throw people in prison for nearly anything, like spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking. Many municipalities have passed some crazy laws that stay on the books, but we typically don’t incarcerate people for overdue library books. (I’m reminded that I need to write about Emmett Till, the black teen who was brutally murdered for allegedly making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere in the US, simply being black was a crime.) Looking at our past, one must conclude that America possesses a most violent culture, one that can barely be contained. The US is chock full of guns. Our art is violent. We have been in a continual state of war since the beginning of the 21st century. We are constantly exposed to violence through video games, television, and film. Simply put, we are a violent people.

Could we eliminate crime by making the punishments so severe that they would serve as a deterrent? Many states still administer the death penalty, and yet capital crimes are still committed. This doesn’t appear to be the solution. One thing that is certain: violence tends to bring about more violence. I admit I have thought about making certain individuals wish they’d never been born. I won’t go into details. Is this something in the human genome? Are we taught to be violent? Can we unlearn this tendency? This may not be something we can overcome in the next 100,000 years. If that depletes your last hopes, do not despair. Humanity should be able to progress if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Carl Sagan was confident we could reach the stars with this contingency in mind. We are continually evolving, but that takes time, and our evolutionary gains have not kept pace with our technological advances. In other words, we’ve become efficient killers with our advanced weapons, but we haven’t developed the ability to conquer our base instincts. We are dangerous animals until that happens.

Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

2017 08 26_4390_edited-2
Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

In Search of the Walking (not Dead)

Summer began abruptly this week in Texas. Later in the week it was spring again. It has been said that if not for air conditioning, the population of Dallas would be much smaller. The population of Plano, Texas in 1960 was 3,695. By 1970, the population had increased by almost five times. (Latest estimates are now between 260,000 and 278,000). If you drive through Plano you will notice a couple things:

  1. Most of the city was designed around the automobile
  2. There is no central district; “Downtown” Plano is actually a revived, gentrified area on the east side, filled with trendy bars and restaurants, as well as several novelty shops.

One of the most frustrating aspects of cities like Plano is that they are laid out in such a way as to make walking from place to place not only impossible, but it seems that cities make a concerted effort to discourage it. Pedestrians are seldom seen, and it is rare that they are spotted along the road, like Spring Creek Parkway, for instance. (By sharp contrast, people in Washington, DC are often seen walking along crowded sidewalks.)

If you live in a city that was built before 1950, you probably haven’t seen the kind of urban sprawl in cities like Plano or Phoenix, AZ. After the end of WWII, especially during the prosperous decade of the 1950’s, cities were transformed, and with low gasoline prices, owning a car shifted from being a luxury to a necessity, especially when urban planning was encouraging some people to live in the suburbs, at longer distances away from the city center. Eventually, businesses would move out of the city to the ‘burbs, triggering further expansion – read “white flight.” All the while, this pattern would make walking to work something of a quaint oddity. Nowadays, everyone must have a car. Larger cities have public transportation, but riding a bus is seen as indication of lower economic status. Walking is worse. If you are on foot in certain communities – and not wearing activewear – one might assume you are a homeless person.

In my neighborhood, I do see people on foot a little more than elsewhere. It’s kind of encouraging, and I don’t know exactly what to make of it. I see people of various ostensible means, young and mature, walking along certain streets, apparently to and from the shops nearby. Well, the big-box stores, anyway. But it’s a start. On that note,  my version of a perfect world may be unwelcome to the next person. I might like to have shops within walking distance from my front door. The downside of that is that you must live close to where many people might congregate. There would be noise at all hours, and there might be an increase in crime from the temptation of so many people with money to spend. This is what city living is supposed to be, and suburbs have tried to manage the dichotomy of both urban life and country living.

Cities need to step up efforts to encourage fitness and community among their citizenry. Constructing sidewalks and installing drinking fountains are a good start. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise available to everyone. It doesn’t require special equipment other than decent shoes, and it costs absolutely nothing to participate. Perhaps walking is not so popular by design. Fitness centers would not be making money if everyone knew they could get the same results at no cost. But walking outdoors has hazards. The sun can be harsh (especially here in Texas), and there is the rain (which we don’t see much of). Traffic can make walking a risky activity. My advice: leave the headphones at home. You need to be able to hear what’s going on around you.

When you lace up your walking shoes and head outside for a stroll, remember that people have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the original means of transportation. We were meant to walk. Not walking is in fact bizarre and unnatural. You don’t have to be in a hurry. You can walk as quickly – or as slowly – as you wish. And there is no clock or finish line. Protect your skin from direct sunlight as much as possible, and drink plenty of water. And if you come to Texas, be prepared for some heat, especially during summer. Well, my Fitbit is telling me to get off my ass. Ciao!

 

 

While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.

 

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
crescent_moon

What Day is it?

It’s Thursday. But it feels like Friday. We’ve all said something like this at one time or another. Working through the weekend, going on holiday, being housebound for a few days with the flu; there are many causes for being a little disoriented in terms of our tendency to mark the passage of time by artificial means. What is a day, anyway? In a basic sense, a day is just the amount of time needed between sunsets. The sun drops below the horizon – day over. Simple, right?

Real time – cosmic time – is not constrained by hours, minutes, years, and weekdays. When the Apollo astronauts were careening through space toward the moon, they had no sense of day or night. Looking out the window might have told them it was night, because the sky is black in space. They probably weren’t thinking about what day of the week it was. I don’t know. But did it matter that it was a Wednesday? It strikes me as odd that we assign characteristics, almost personification, to any day of the week.

A few weeks ago I took half a day off. It was a Wednesday. I chose that day pretty much arbitrarily, but I felt it might make the week pass quicker. It didn’t. A watched pot and all that. Besides not seeming to enhance the perception of the passage of time, it actually screwed me up, because I spent that morning doing things I usually do on Saturdays: making breakfast, sleeping in a bit. Not every Saturday is like this. Sometimes I am traveling, and sometimes I’m writing or working on other projects. In any case, when I showed up for my bill-paying gig, it felt strange. And that continued through the rest of the week.

Humans like patterns. Actually, a lot of organisms get off on patterns. Bees make their hive in a geometric pattern. Geese fly in a V formation. I’ve heard that squirrels bury acorns using some sort of arithmetic algorithm. Clearly, nature loves a certain amount of order and symmetry. Even quartz forms in a geometric pattern, according to the properties of crystalline formations.

It stands to reason that we humans would at some point in our development seek to establish boundaries and controls over groupings of the number of sunsets. The study of the motion of the stars and planets helped the Maya establish an early – and quite accurate – calendar thousands of years ago. Knowing how the earth revolves around the sun, or at least how the seasons change and recycle, was surely vital to agriculture. And, presto, you have civilization. No more chasing herds of caribou or wildebeests. Now people could plant crops and know about when to expect them to be ready for harvest.

So it seems it very important to assign a name to this day and another name to the next one, and so on. I’m not a farmer, but I do a lot of gardening. It’s very important to know when to plant. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Monday or a Tuesday to the seeds and the compost. But it is a lot more likely I will be available on a Saturday. In Texas, late February is a pretty good time to plant seeds directly in the garden, as we have done this year.

Giant Zinnias

With a shift in the earth’s climate, time itself is shifting. Spring arrives in February now. When I was a kid, we might see icy patches in the streets as late as March. But now, seasons are harder to predict. Next year, we might have another snowstorm. Who knows.

I wear a wristwatch. I mean an actual timepiece, not an Apple Watch or similar device. This watch was an anniversary gift from about 2001. It is a Wenger Swiss “kinetic” watch, meaning it is purely mechanical and winds itself. So, as I wear it and move around all day, the watch will continue to keep time, even when I lay it on my bedside table for a day or two. after three days it tends to stop. The strange thing is that it runs a little fast. I mean, a little. Over the course of a week, it may run one or two minutes ahead. No big deal; but, ironically, I synchronize it with my phone. C’est la guerre.

If I didn’t go to the office, if I didn’t live around people, I might easily lose track of what day it was. It would hardly matter, as I said. I wonder when days of the week ever began to matter. Early people, people for whom belief in supernatural beings controlling all aspects of our lives was the only sensible explanation for things, probably needed to mark the time, naming the days. The Old English root for Tuesday, Tiwesdæg, is translated as “Tiw’s Day”, named for the Norse god of war. The name stuck, even as the Vikings abandoned the old gods.

One way I like to mark the passage of time is by watching the trees on my property grow taller and taller. For trees, the basic unit of time is a season. Like the second hand on a watch, each season passes quickly compared to the lifespan of a liveoak or a cedar elm. The Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas is estimated to be 500 years old, definitely a mature specimen. The pair of live oaks in my front yard were about ten years old when the house was built. Now they are about 23 years old each, but decidedly adolescent as trees go. Assuming someone will be here to take care of the property in the next centuries, they will outlive everyone reading this blog.

Time appears to be relative to the observer, as Einstein proposed. Whether he was right or wrong, you must admit that time is part of our being. Each of us has our own internal clock, our heartbeat, our own rhythm. Some of us are content to sit peacefully and take it all in, while others can’t sit still for a minute. Every morning, I take a moment to look at the flowers we planted a few months ago. They tower over the walkway from the front door to the driveway, leaves and petals reaching to the sun, insatiable in their cravings. Time is not on their side, because by November they will have faded, having lost their lustre and radiance. For them, a lifetime is in the space between spring and fall, in Texas, a full nine months. They do all they can in that short time. It’s amazing, too.