Tejas

I am not a very good friend. I have friends, but I think I do not excel in being one. Now, when I talk about friends, I’m using the classic definition, not the modern, social media version. In fact, even on Facebook, when I add a “friend” I have a rule that we know each other well enough that either they have had dinner at my house, or I at theirs. Ironically, my next-door neighbors, whom I have known for 14 years, do not qualify in this regard. This rule helps keep my contact list on social media limited, and that’s fine with me. How many friends does one really need?

I make casual acquaintances very easily. I have many work “friends”, those who I get along with very well. But I don’t really know them, and they don’t know me. One or two work friends have become my best friends over the years. They had Thanksgiving dinner at my house. We’ve gone camping together. We trust one another, and we will be friends for the rest of our lives. But when I look around, I realize I’m not that good at being a friend. I don’t know why I feel this way since the only framework I have for this is within my own experience and the little I have picked up from what I’ve read. I mean, what do we have as a guide to how to be a better friend?

Anyone who has grown up in Texas, and who attended public schools here, may remember taking Texas History in about 7th or 8th grade. Having lived my entire life in this state, it’s hard for me to see things objectively; but, I have many friends from abroad, and that gives you a bit of perspective. As such, I clearly see how unique Texas culture is. People here seem to have a dash of nationalistic fervor from time to time. How is it that being south of the Red River, and west of the Sabine River can make such a difference? One of those things that they taught in Texas History was the origin of the name of this state. The Caddo word “tejas”, meaning friends, eventually became Texas.

Friends are what, just the people you know, the people in your village? I don’t live in a village. I live in a major metropolitan area of about 6 million people. Sadly, as I mentioned before, I barely know the people in my neighborhood. My best friends live on the other side of town, several kilometers from my home. We met through church, and through mutual acquaintances. It’s strange who we consider friends. Sometimes we make friends with people who are unlike ourselves. Maybe it’s easier that way. I don’t think I’d want to hang around with another “me”.

As I said, I have no idea what kind of friend I’ve been. I’m often clueless whether I’ve offended someone. I am distracted, and I can be a bit obsessive. Of course, all my friends are perfect in every way. Seriously, I don’t know why people consider me their friend. It’s a mystery to me. They tell me their deepest secrets and worst fears. They confide in me. They ask me for life-altering advice. And they reach out to me earnestly seeking companionship. And what have I done? For one, I’ve wasted my life on social media. My real friends are not there. True friendship cannot be maintained in such a way.

If I want to be a better friend I know what I must do. I will have lunch with them. I’ll visit them when they’re sick. I’ll help them with a project or when they move house. I’ll attend their performance. I will accept invitation to dinner. And I won’t look for any excuse to get out of it, because friends are better than that. Friends do what’s right. Friends are trustworthy and reliable. Friends help you when you’re down.

Recently, a friend of mine passed away. She was sick for a long time, and it was difficult and sad to see her wasting away. I visited her before she died; she had asked for me. Later, her daughter asked me to be a pallbearer at her mother’s funeral. I never realized how much I had meant to her. I didn’t consider myself to be one of her closest friends, and yet, here I was, transporting her remains to their final resting place. It was devastating, but it was my obligation to do this last thing for her, and for her family. I’ve served in this capacity three times now, and yet this one was more significant. This was the first time I helped to bury a friend.

And what kind of friend was I in her life? Naturally, we go to this place after losing someone, doubting ourselves and becoming self-critical. (Maybe it’s just something I do). I imagine what she would be saying to me. She might say I was a better friend than I realized. Perhaps I would be a better friend if I told them what they meant to me. I think I’m going to schedule lunch with one of my oldest friends this week. I like visiting with him, and he and I will have some interesting stories to share. I need to do this more often. I think this is the answer I needed. What is my guide to being a good friend? It is my conscience.

 

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Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

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.

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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.

How to Eat Breakfast

One summer ago, we had our roof re-shingled. Some people call it having a new roof installed. I think that’s a strange saying, because I envision a crew removing the rafters, the physical framework of the upper part of my house. But in this case, they simply mean that the shingles and the underlying protective layer are being replaced. Here in Texas we have extremes in weather, intense sun and heat, high winds, and hail. These elements really do a number on asphalt shingles. We hired a small crew to install the new roof, and they arrived every morning for four days, shortly before sun-up. As soon as there was a hint of daylight, several men, and one woman, were on our roof, stomping around, dragging cases of shingles and tools across its surface. There was no way to sleep through this.

I was never what you would call a “morning person.” I typically spend late nights working on little projects, writing, sometimes playing video games. Occasionally I stay up late with work. But I’ve always found something to keep from going to bed at a decent hour. But then here came these roofers, plodding riotously just above my head. Since there is a logical flow of events beginning with the emergence of daylight and culminating with the clamor of office work – phones ringing, chatter, and the tell-tale nervous laughter of hyperextended workaholics – once awake, I needed to get up. That time in between, this morning Thoreau spoke of, is meant to be relished, accepted with joy and dare I say, exhilaration, because morning is truly inspiring. Just ask all those dead poets and philosophers. Yeah, I thought so.

Inasmuch as I am a night owl, mornings do hold a certain mystique that I am still learning to appreciate. Things happen in the morning that you cannot reenact. One of these is breakfast. Breakfast, from the late Middle English for break and fast, in other words, a meal following a brief fasting period, albeit only 10 hours or so, is truly intended for mornings. I’ve had breakfast foods – omelette, waffles, etc. – at various times of the day and night. Yes, night. Something about IHOP at 11:30 pm is just kind of cool, or dorky.

My wife and I, therefore, were compelled to have breakfast together each morning. And even though this clamor of rooftop ballet lasted only a few days, we have continued to make and eat breakfast together every morning ever since. Breakfast in the US usually consists of eggs and bacon or ham. Some prefer pancakes. Our regimen includes oatmeal with fruit, coffee, and grapefruit juice. I prefer steel cut oats, but they take 30 minutes to cook. We sit at the kitchen table and actually talk about things – the expectations of the impending day, weird dreams we might have had, stuff we want to share – and we eat said breakfast.

I used to say that I didn’t have time for this, even though the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been drilled into my consciousness for decades. Whether or not this is true, the ritual of sharing a morning meal has enriched my life. We carry it into the weekend, where additions are afforded, like sausages and eggs. on rare occasions, waffles. Each morning, preparations are made, and time is carved out for the spectacle. We talk about what’s going on with us, what plans we’ve made for the day. We compare schedules and talk about upcoming events. Quickly then, we clean up, and I get ready to leave. But I’m not in a hurry because I’ve carved out this time. It’s our time, not theirs. And that’s the beauty of breakfast.

I know very few people who have this luxury. But I see it as a necessity. Not the food, but the time spent relaxing and enjoying it; the ritual, the act of breaking bread. My perspective has in turn made it less of a luxury and more of a right, a privilege. I feel entitled to having a meal. I mean, food is a human necessity. Why do we feel we have to defend ourselves for making time to eat? I see my coworkers actually skipping lunch because of work. They say they have no time to take a lunch break. Not only is this absurd, but it is actually in violation of OSHA standards. There’s that precious time, that elusive time, the subject of many poems and songs. Why do we deny ourselves what is our fundamental right?

I still don’t think of myself fully as a morning person. Caffeine is a main source of my morning energy. But I have become somewhat of a creature of the morning now. The night still calls me, but lately I’ve found I actually look forward to sleep, and the following morning with that reward of coffee and and English muffin. Suddenly, the night has less appeal. It’s strange to see such a change in oneself. But these things happen. And I don’t lament saying goodnight to my old ways.

I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

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!