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?

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.

Dogs and Climate Change

Dogs don’t believe in global warming. Of course they don’t, because they don’t give a shit. So why should we? About 27,000 years ago, domestic breeds of dogs began to emerge from ancient ancestors of modern wolves. It is thought that “gentler” wolves that were better adapted to human activity and were able to acclimate themselves to us were eventually domesticated and bred into the many breeds we know today. It’s hard to believe, but Pomeranians and Rottweilers have the same genome, and they are genetically more similar than the between six and 11 distinct giraffe species. I mean, I look at a giraffe and I think, “giraffe”. It’s a little hard to accept that a chihuahua can’t be a different species from a mastiff, but okay.

I have to admit to my anxiety over hearing increasingly grim news about how humans may be “the asteroid, not the dinosaurs” in the assertion that we are not just looking at – but may be part of the problem in the Sixth Mass Extinction in earth’s long history, according to the Daily Beast. Well, this isn’t such a new idea. Apparently, Charles Darwin entertained such an idea in The Origin of Species back in the 19th century. Yet this is just as hotly debated as it ever was, and Americans seem to be polarized over this issue. But to me, it’s a simple question of whether humans could possibly have ever made lasting changes to our environment. The argument against this position maintains that there are many factors, and man is not solely responsible for the apparent change in earth’s climate, if it is indeed changing. To wit: many scientists agree that the earth’s average temperature is rising, as are sea levels. Ice caps are shrinking, and habitats are dwindling. Opponents have argued that there is not sufficient data to prove any of this. I call bullshit, but we can agree to disagree, at least until the next ice age. Apparently, some are willing to hold their breath instead of listening to reason, and they will not be convinced.

But here’s something interesting: dogs. Dogs would not exist if not for human intervention. The same may be said for cattle, pigs, cats, and chickens. Sure, there are wild varieties of each of these animals. But my docile, domestic Siamese cat in no way resembles his erstwhile wild cousins. I saw one of them, while mountain biking one October day. Ahead on the trail I saw a large cat, probably a bobcat. It was hunched over something it had captured, perhaps a rabbit. I slowed, and when it saw me, it picked up its prey and ran off into the forest. My cat would hardly be able to catch a bunny. His instincts might lead him to kill it, perhaps even try to eat it. But I doubt it. What’s the difference between my kitty and that wild predator I encountered? Human intervention. Anyone who thinks humans have not made dramatic changes to our planet has perhaps not been paying attention.

With this knowledge, you might think the human race would start paying closer attention to our impact on this planet. It behooves us to take better care of our environment. Is it going to prevent extinction? Probably not. But we should start taking more responsibility for our actions. We were taught that in kindergarten. Tell the truth, clean up after yourself, and share with others. Later in my life, a teacher and pastor taught me about stewardship. He said we are called to be good stewards over everything we’ve been given: our health, our minds and bodies, our relationships, our finances, and our environment. It was a surprising message coming from the church. But I appreciated it. I took it to heart, and I try to live by this philosophy. It’s a concept I’ve heard from others: we were not given this world by our parents; instead, we are borrowing it from our children, or something to that effect.

I was reading an article about the Observer Effect. The principle can best be described as one’s inability to precisely measure something without changing the conditions. For example, let’s say I want to know the temperature of a cup of coffee. The coffee in the cup may be 50ºC, near scalding. So I dip a thermometer into the piping hot liquid, but the thermometer is not already the same temperature as the coffee; thus, the coffee loses heat, and we can’t know what the temperature was before I started my test. In the real world, this would hardly be noticeable. But there are many examples where observing a system changed the results. I bring this up because it’s important to realize that small changes make big differences down the line. You can really see this if you’ve ever tried shooting baskets from the free-throw line. You can have almost the same posture and movement each time you shoot, but the results can vary dramatically. Humans have been making small changes for tens of thousands of years. Actually, there have been huge changes, like the extinction of North American prehistoric horses, or massive deforestation. Humans have been altering this planet’s trajectory, ecologically speaking, all along. And the earth may not be able to recover quickly enough. It wasn’t too long ago that the city of London was shrouded in pollution from coal fires. Factories around the world continue to spew God-knows-what from huge smokestacks. And rivers and oceans are choked with medical waste and toxic runoff.

So, I recycle a lot of household waste. Otherwise, I like to compost things that are suitable. The rest is garbage. We produce a lot of trash. I think I’ve posted about this before, but at least I delivered a speech about it recently. I tend to get a little preachy with this subject, but we all have our passions, I suppose. Is it too much to ask that I should be able to breathe clean air and drink safe water? I don’t take these things for granted, because there are places like Beijing and Flint.

Hopefully, we will not be on the extinction list. I wish we could say that about other organisms. But we can do something, small though it may be. We’re already making positive changes, and perhaps the planet will recover this time.

So the next time someone says we’re not responsible for climate change, ask him if he believes in dog.

Disposable Me

I find myself being more conscious of the world and its woes. How we all have a part to play, and that we are all part of this world. We are responsible for its well-being. Now, I am not an activist by any stretch of the imagination. But I am concerned about our environment, and it bothers me a lot about how much trash we produce as a species. To be fair, other animals trash up the place. Just in my front yard the mockingbirds have made a shambles of my garden statuary. The saints would take offense. But birds will be birds, and we can’t fault them for their peculiar sense of aim.

Humans, on the other hand, are prolific suppliers of refuse. This is nothing new. A few years ago, I came across a documentary about the Anasazi, a Pre-Columbian people in the Southwest region of the US (actually, they predated many civilizations in the Americas.) Among the artifacts and ruins uncovered, there was also evidence of what amounted to a garbage dump. Even they discarded some things. But here in the 21st century, even though we recycle and repurpose some things, we produce a staggering amount of trash.

In my home, we have two large recycling bins – they’re blue, and they hold about 250 litres – which we tend to fill weekly. And yet we still have enough non-recyclable waste to fill the even larger trash bin. (Truth be told, we don’t routinely fill both recycling bins.) Most residents are not aware that almost every container can be recycled, including most types of glass, plastics, paper, cardboard, and steel. Steel, in fact, is the cheapest material to recycle.

But one problem with all this is that few of these containers are meant to be reused. In fact, practically none of them is. Glass beer bottles are a major culprit. In Texas, bottles are not returned, and therefore get discarded. Recycling glass is pretty expensive, and it consumes a great deal of energy. Beyond recycling, beyond repurposing, it is clear that we throw away a lot of things. We produce a lot of things that are intended to be discarded, and that disturbs me.

In January we threw away a bunch of 2015 calendars. They were of no use. I thought about how we purchased something that was only intended to be used for a year. Then I thought about magazines. They have a very brief shelf life. Even shorter for church bulletins, theater programs, fliers, brochures, and the list goes on. And that’s just paper products. We throw away practically everything we use. It bears repeating that we produce a lot of things meant for consumption and disposal.

The only solution I can offer is to do a small part, reusing my water bottle, reading e-books instead of printed ones, downloading music rather than buying CDs. It’s really not much. But I also try my hand at composting, not that this reduces my waste production. And I like my reusable glass containers. My house is illuminated with LED bulbs, so I use less energy – a little less, anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m using that saved electricity to write this post. Okay, time to shut it down.

Until next time.