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!

 

 

To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

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

Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

Summer Fête

Summer is in full swing. As it is July in Texas, summer has been upon us for many weeks already. And since there was no true winter in 2015-2016, that is, nothing froze. The air temperature got below zero* a few times, but the ground didn’t freeze. Therefore, we have an abundance of insect life here in the suburbs this summer. But this also means that there is plenty to eat for other creatures, and for the creatures that feed on those smaller creatures, and so on. Thus the so-called “food chain” of which humans believe they are not a part.

Summer means vacations for some. Others choose not to travel during summer, people like me and my wife. We don’t have children, so we travel when it is convenient for us. It’s little consolation, but there it is. Summer is a time for barbecuing, picnicking, and going to the pool. There are many sights, smells, and sounds that go along with the season. Today on KERA, during “Anything“, a listener wrote that she had moved to Texas a few months ago and wondered when the cicada noise would come to an end. Jeff Whittington, the program’s host, blithely, and with a little schadenfreude, welcomed the listener to Texas, adding that this “noise” was more symphonic than discordant, at least to the locals’ ears. After some time you are able to tune out the cacophony.

Jeff also mentioned that this year was not as bad as others in terms of the cicada serenade. He’s probably right. I can’t imagine a summer without them, their near constant buzzing and whining from the trees. The noise seems to stop during thunderstorms and at night. But since the sun sets late in the evening this time of year, you still hear them singing until nearly 9:00 pm. It’s then that the crickets take over until dawn.

I like to hear kids playing in the neighborhood. They play basketball in the street until it gets dark, and it reminds me of days when my friends and I would play baseball or Wiffleball at all hours. The neighbors probably hated us. During the day you rarely see people out on the sidewalks. It’s not that it’s hotter in North Texas than anyplace else – I think it was 50ºC in Fallujah last week – but we’re used to air-conditioned space now, and people are a little wussified when it comes to sweating. But this weekend, this Independence Day weekend, people will be outdoors. There will be concerts, parties, picnics, barbecues, and of course fireworks.

I love watching fireworks. Years ago, I enjoyed setting them off. But fires ensued, and things could have gotten way out of control. So we stopped with the fireworks. But it was a lot of fun, and every time I smell powder and sulfur burning, it takes me back. Not everyone likes that, I understand. Maybe it’s just me. The smell of charcoal is another favorite. I also like the way cut grass smells. And the combination of coconut oil and chlorine. I love summer.

I like the heat. Many people do not. I like it when it gets over 30ºC. Like certain plants, I need warmth. I’ve been known to enjoy a day of 40º or higher. Keep the ice cold drinks coming, and give me a hat, and I can stay out in the heat for hours. Something a little salty, too, to help keep me hydrated. You have to watch yourself. Dehydration can sneak up on you. If you stop sweating, get hydrated and cool off fast. Don’t stay in direct sunlight for long periods. And wear a hat, if you are balding, like me.

Enjoy your summer. Really live it up, because in a few months it will be time to elect our next leader. You will need to be prepared. So have a cold one, get the grill fired up. Go to a ball game. And take it easy.

Think Metric

 

Big Band Sounds Abound in Cowtown

If you live in or around Fort Worth, Texas (or in my case, within 120 km), and you like swing music and dance, you will enjoy the First Friday Dance at Southside Preservation Hall in the hospital district just south of Downtown. This historic location, maintained by the Southside Preservation Association, was originally a Methodist church, then a boxing gym, and now hosts weekly Tuesday night swing lessons and the monthly dance event. Buddy’s Big Band covers many of the classics, including “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, and “Nice Work if You Can Get it,” to name a few. They feature guest singers from time to time. And their sound is phenomenal.

The dance hall is expansive, with tables lining the outer edge. The event starts at 8:00 PM, and it’s clear that people are in it for the duration, with some veterans staking claim to a table early in the evening. The night we visited, we saw many young people, teenagers and early 20-somethings. There were some in their autumn years but with lots of energy. A collection of ringers swarmed the center of the floor for the most part. It was obvious these folks had practised for a while, and they gave the appearance of gearing up for some dance competition in the near future, and they needed to test their skills. Whatever the case, it was a blast.

Swing dance has been in a slow-cooker comeback since the 90’s, with groups like Cherry Poppin Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and movies like “Blast from the Past.” The Dallas Swing Dance Society keeps a calendar of local dance events, workshops, classes, and more on their site. However, they do not include the First Friday event listing, furthering the chasm between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Buddy’s Big Band is the real deal, and the lead trumpet and tenor sax players were quite good, belting out solos all night. We ducked out for a little while to grab a bite, but on our return, the party was still in full swing (no pun intended). I recommend a high-protein meal. Swing dance requires a lot of energy.

This is a neat little secret in the area, and it surprised me that the dining crowds a few blocks up didn’t even know about what was happening. Dancers were dressed in various levels of formality, some with a t-shirt and a jacket, others wearing a tie and vest combo, and ladies in 1940’s era dresses. One young woman wore a pink poodle skirt. It was fun just being part of the scene.

Early in the evening, the band played a charleston rhythm, and those in the know took to the floor. My wife and I attempted to join in, but clearly, this was a rehearsed number. In any case, we all had a lot of fun.

Four hours of sanding is enough for anyone, and my legs are still sore. It’s obvious I need to get into better shape. I applaud the real dancers. They were really impressive, and the band seemed to take that as some sort of a challenge, playing yet faster tunes. The mirrored ball threw disorienting patterns around the room, but that didn’t seem to have deleterious effects on the dancers. And the band played on…

The next event is scheduled for March 4. We will probably skip it, but only because there is a dance workshop in Dallas that Saturday, and we need pointers.

Allons-y!