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.

 

One Star

I make purchases from Amazon.com a lot. I can get practically everything I need online. I shop around for the best deal, not necessarily the lowest price, and I value the customer reviews. On Amazon, customers are encouraged, rather, cajoled into leaving some feedback on their experiences with their purchases. It is important to note that not all Amazon reviews are from actual Amazon customers, and the site recently implemented a change that gives greater weight to verified purchasers. But I still think it’s worth something when I’m shopping for a product, and someone has something, anything, to say about their experience, no matter where they made their purchase.

When I’m shopping online, especially on Amazon (the rating/reviewing feature is ubiquitous on the web these days), I pay close attention to how many reviews a product has as well as the proportion of 1-star reviews there are to the total. For example, a Texsport 6 person dome tent has an overall rating of 3.2 out of five stars. More than half are 4- and 5-star ratings. But the number of 1-star ratings is 12%. By contrast, North Gear Camping 6 person dome tent has an overall 2.4-star rating. 60% of the reviews rate it 1 star, the lowest rating. To be fair, this tent is much less expensive than the Texsport product. But price is not an indicator of quality in all cases. Yes, you get what you pay for, but slapping a Kelty logo on a tent doesn’t always make it better. It’s worth noting that the North Gear tent received only 5 reviews.

I like to read the 1-star reviews. They’re sometimes off target, blaming the shipper, rating the product poorly because it arrived damaged. Sometimes a negative review is given because the buyer was unhappy with customer service, which is a valid reason to be dissatisfied. And once in awhile the customer is just telling us shoppers about their particular experience and not necessarily that the product is defective or inadequate. But I value the negative reviews almost more than the positive ones. That being said, it’s human nature to complain when something goes wrong rather than to sing praises when things are just okay.

Do I want myself rated? Not necessarily, but I do subject myself to feedback when I speak in Toastmasters. After some time you do develop thicker skin, not that people are brutally honest in their assessments. Maybe they should be, but we don’t want to scare anyone off. If we could speak face-to-face with those online merchants, would we be willing to be so frank, or in some cases, cruel? Probably not. The ostensible anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to be more “honest.” If you read Youtube comments, you will see that it often goes too far. And people are uncivil in their comments to what end? They very often do not offer constructive feedback, and they complain about things that cannot be changed. The worst of them are openly racist or homophobic. And it gets a lot worse.

That 1-star review might be a very good thing, when it is offered in earnest of making a difference. Telling someone that I didn’t like something without offering a suggestion for improvement is a pointless endeavor. I work harder every day to be more constructive. Of course, sometimes I just complain. I do it here. I’m probably doing it right now. There’s value in the negative. It enables us to hear about ways to improve, provided the review process is being handled the right way. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but we need honesty without too much emotion to get in the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our opinions be heard. And don’t use the word “humble”. Opinions are bold. They’re part of our makeup. And they matter, to us at least.

Most people won’t bother to offer feedback. It’s overwhelming, actually. The other day I was watching an awesome video on Youtube. It had, at the time, over 800,000 views. Disproportionately, it had 7,000 likes. That’s less than 1 percent! You might have noticed that many YouTubers solicit for likes and subscriptions. They practically beg. And it’s no effort at all. But people just don’t want to leave feedback, even if it means only clicking a button. But if they hate it, you’d better believe they’re going to say something. And that’s the power of the negative. I guess this is why we hold to the adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Even if this is a myth, it appears to have a little truth to it. Well, I’d give that at least 3 stars.

 

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

But I’m a Cheerleader

Okay, this is kind of bothering me. I got this great idea to write one letter per week to Donald Trump (I’m still getting used to calling him President). It seemed like a good idea at the time. But like Natasha Lyonne’s character in the movie, I’m not quite sure what the rest of society expects from me. I live in a country that is so deeply divided (race relations, political camps, gender issues, and so on), it is quite impossible to stay away from controversial topics. When I visit family – and that happens less frequently these days – we are forced to offer small talk and other useless bullshit so no one gets offended. Invariably, someone does, and merry Christmas!

I wrestled with this for some time. Do I say something? Or do I just show pictures of kittens playing? So I finally decided that I would get involved. But I would attempt to stay neutral and keep it very civil, almost formal. Afterall, I am talking to the President of the United States, the office, if not the man. It’s an important distinction, because the office demands respect. If we do not respect that, our republic may start to crumble. Oh, look, it already has (here are supposed to be some relevant links to various news stories about police brutality or fake news or wage inequality or – oh my GOD, there is just so much that is wrong!)

Therefore, I have started it. I published two letters so far. And I know there are people with strong opinions on both sides, those who fervently support Trump, and those who are incredulous that he is the President. I just could not stand by and not say anything, especially now. But this is truly important. To those who think I’m being too polite: we’ll see how this goes. To those who believe I am a left-wing, candy-ass, libtard crybaby (those are from my family): I am being respectful but honest.

Politics is a dirty, messy business that leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you’ve done it right. God help you if you ever serve in public office. Politics tends to bring out the worst in some people, and yet in brings out the best in others. It may be unfortunate that I’ve turned this once mundane blog into now a gripe-fest. I hope I don’t come across as bitter and cynical, but I am getting older. Thankfully, I have never gotten into politics. I just don’t have the temperament for it. But that doesn’t seem to stop people.

I suppose no one knows what they’re supposed to be until the right time. Well, the time seems to be right, now. If you feel strongly about something, you can do the same. Why am I publishing these letters? Maybe I just wanted to let others know that they can be part of democracy, such as it is. Everyone was supposed to have a voice and take part. Everyone should. I think our world would be better off if everyone did just a small thing. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. But when you find it,  you might be surprised by how much it has changed your life, and the world.

The Bitter Pill

I don’t have very many health-related issues. In fact, it is rare for me to suffer in a physical way. I don’t get headaches; I don’t have joint pain. And my regular check-ups are pretty good for a guy my age. However, I do have an acute allergic response when it comes to pollen, specifically ragweed. Over the years, my reaction has become predictable; you could set your watch by the way my eyes water, the sneezing becomes uncontrollable, and my face gets puffy and begins to itch.

I had an appointment with my new doctor already scheduled, so I talked with him about my seasonal allergies. I was worried I might be developing a sinus infection, and my whole head was stuffy, and I couldn’t hear very well through my left ear. He recommended a steroid injection. I’ve had them in the past, and I was willing to put up with the mild side-effects, such as they were in the past.

But this time was different. I was given a commonly-used steroidal treatment, like prednisone, combined with a longer-acting version, which may be in my system for weeks. The fast-acting form, as some may be aware, has certain undesirable side-effects, like heartburn and difficulty sleeping. In addition to these, I also experienced some depression, and for me, unusual cravings (which may have been a sign of changes in blood sugar levels). Specifically, I had an intense craving for soft-baked chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, like Pepperidge Farms Captiva. I had a couple with some Earl Grey, and it was extremely satisfying. Strangely and immediately, the craving vanished.

The depression was more intense – if you can use that word to describe an overall numbing sensation and complete loss of interest in the world around you – than times past, so I suspect that this was a stronger dose, or I am becoming more sensitive to the effects of the drug. Whichever the case may be, I know I need to be better prepared for the next time I may require such treatment. That said, it is entirely up to me whether I submit myself to steroids in the future, but given the alternative, I definitely must consider it, even knowing the consequences.

Since the Wednesday evening injection, I experienced wild swings in energy levels, both physical and emotional. I slept 3 1/2 hours on Wednesday night, followed by little sleep and acid reflux on Thursday night. Friday night, I dreamed I was throwing up, and I woke up with stomach acid churning up – not a pleasant experience. And Saturday, I felt like staying in bed for a few years. People often characterize depression as feeling sad or “blue.” Anyone who has experienced it will tell you that it’s more about not feeling than feeling. Instead of wanting to curl up and listen to George Michael, you actually don’t want anything. You don’t want to go anywhere, and you don’t want to stay where you are. You just don’t want anything. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but I strongly encourage anyone to avoid getting that low.

Now that I can recognize the signs, I am better off because I can warn others, mainly my wife (who, by the way, is verifiably psychic, so she already knew.) Others may not appreciate the forewarning. Besides, I stay clear of people when I get this way, so it’s a win-win, if you can call it that. I’ll be back at work tomorrow – actually, I am working as I compose this. I hope things will get back to “normal” soon, and I start seeing through unclouded lenses again. The allergy symptoms have completely disappeared, and I am able to sleep without being woken up half-way through the night with terrible heartburn. I’ve considered moving to another part of the world, one where I am not allergic to the earth’s atmosphere. I honestly don’t know where this place is, or if it even exists.

Pants on Fire

I need to institute a new policy whereby anyone who lies to me is permanently disavowed. Perhaps they deserve a second chance. Sure, but I’ve been lied to repeatedly by some people, so they squandered their opportunity a long time ago. Why does this bother me so much? There are many reasons. Most importantly, I believe lying is a true showing of one’s character, or lack thereof. Dishonesty is a most unappealing quality. It not only displays a person’s open willingness to deceive someone, but it also demonstrates his ability to abandon the conventions of society.

We here in the modern world, especially those in civilized society, have come to expect that people are honest in their dealings with us. It stands to reason that there are those who would rather live outside the law, stealing and causing harm. But most of us want to live within the bounds of social norms, acceptable practices. We want people, especially government officials, to be honest and truthful. Every election year, it appears that our collective tolerance for outright deceit hits new heights. We sit in disbelief that politicians are allowed to slander one another, stating the boldest of lies, and telling fantastic tall tales. All of them do it. Every single one.

But real human being, non-politicians, people you work with, family members, friends; these people should have no reason to lie to us. Understandably, you may need to cover up the truth because you wish to spare someone’s feelings, or the truth is too embarrassing to be revealed. But I’m not talking about “white lies”, those little untruths we tell others: “That looks great on you,” or “nice job.”

I have one or two family members who are habitual liars. It’s very frustrating, because they act like they have every reason to be trusted, but they are completely unreliable. It should be no surprise, and yet they persist. I guess it would be worse if they were thieves. (Well, that’s also the case.)

I believe we should forgive people. But forgiveness doesn’t have to include a change in my treatment of others. In other words, if someone lies to me over and over again, I will never trust that person. Why should I? I can forgive that person, whatever that really means. But trust and forgiveness are not the same thing.

Now, let’s look at the big picture. Some people just are not real big fans of facts and figures. They’d just as soon repeat the latest gossip or urban myth than actually look up something to verify it. The fact that the entire world’s information is instantly available to practically everyone you and I know has not changed the fact that there is an abundance of misinformation to counter the truth. Nevertheless, we all have the ability to gather facts. Yet not many people bother, and everyone seems to have their own version of the facts. Again, politicians and others seem to have no problem with spreading lies. Check out Politifact.com to explore how often and how boldly our leaders just flat out lie to us.

I do not always tell the absolute truth. But I work very hard at not lying to people, especially my friends. Of course, when my dad calls I might tell him I’ve been up for hours, when I actually might have slept in til 10 am on a Sunday. Hey, I work nights sometimes. But that’s more about my unwillingness to engage in a discussion about my values and priorities when I first wake up. So I tell a little fib to avoid that whole thing.

Seriously, people should try to tell the truth. And if that’s too hard, perhaps they should change their patterns of behavior so that lying is no longer necessary. I’m trying not to judge; instead, I want to help. Because if people are willing to change their ways, perhaps I will start trusting them again. But I make no promises. (And that’s a topic for another day.)

 

 

 

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.