At What Cost?

I believe you get what you pay for. Case in point: I have a pair of shoes I purchased in 2004, Rockports, and they’re in pretty good condition. Now, sometimes you might get a bad specimen, but for the most part, I’ve been pleased with this brand. I do not recommend buying shoes at Walmart. You will pay significantly less, but the quality is so bad, the shoes will only last about three months. The same could be said for almost anything.

In 1993, I bought a large frying pan, Revere with a copper sandwich plate on the bottom for heat distribution and to help the pan retain its shape. It was my go-to pan for decades. Then, a couple years ago, the welds holding the handle started coming loose. Eventually, the handle broke off completely, and the pan was rendered useless (at least for my purposes). I suppose I could have taken it to a metal shop to have the handle reattached. But I had the thing for nearly 25 years. The cost of the repair would far outweigh the benefits. Besides, a new pan with more modern materials and better construction was on sale, and I couldn’t resist.

But repairing that old beat-up frying pan could have helped someone other than myself. A local artisan might have appreciated the business. I’m sure $50 or thereabouts might not have made a difference in the local economy. But what if everyone went with a similar alternative every once in a while?

Ouch!

Sometimes you really have to spend the money. One of my lenses was almost destroyed when it fell out of my camera bag about five years ago. Thankfully, I had spent about $30 for a protective filter, seen above. The filter took the brunt of the impact and was completely smashed, beyond repair. But I was grateful my lens was undamaged (visibly). It still works just fine. I later purchased another protective filter. It’s like paying for insurance. You hope you will never need to use it, but shit happens.

Back to the shoes. Another pair of Rockports hasn’t held up as well as the first. Actually, I wear them all the time. They’re perfect for work, and they’re also good all-around shoes for any occasion. Unfortunately, the uppers have torn away from the sole, and my initial thought was that I needed to replace them. I did, with a pair in brown, which I wanted anyway. But I hesitate to throw out the now defunct pair. My thoughts went to finding a cobbler in my city. Surely I could find someone who specializes in shoe repair. Surprisingly, there aren’t as many as you would expect. I guess part of the problem is we tend to throw away things that have lost their usefulness. That’s unfortunate.

I make attempts to reuse things, or at least I make the things I have last longer by protecting and maintaining them. I still have cookware I purchased in 1991, when my wife and I first moved in together. We also still have the plates, cups, and bowls we started out with. They’re decent dishes. One reason we hang onto them is also their sentimental value, I admit. But why get rid of them? They’re quite functional, and they serve a purpose.

I think I’ll call a couple shoe repair shops in the morning. I’d like to know how much it would cost to fix those shoes. I’m curious if it might be more expensive than buying a new pair. But what if it’s about the same cost? My shoes would be as good as new, and I could support a local business in the process. It seems like a win-win. If it turns out to be more costly to repair them, I’ll consider that, but I might just spend the money anyway. What could it hurt?

 

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Vikings in Oklahoma?

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we2018 04 23_5043 enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to acc

ept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma. The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was viking4 pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to accept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma.

The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

Whether you believe any of it or not, it’s a beautiful site. They even have led-lighted viking helmets. Say hi to the staff at the Southern Belle, and order the cherry cream pie. You will have a good time. You just have to kind of roll with it.

Perseverance

I was raking leaves in my front yard one day when I stopped to notice the bustle on my neighborhood street around me. Cars were driving by, and people waved at me as they passed my house. Kids on bicycles and skateboards drifted along, while others played basketball in the street, occasionally interrupted by a passing car. I started thinking about how idyllic the scene was, yet surely not everyone would share my joy for what I took as the perfect day. While I felt like there was hope, perhaps another felt despair. I relished in the simple joys of the perpetual struggle against the cycle of nature, while someone else might perceive it as eventual defeat. Nature always wins.

Must we always think of things in terms of being successful or failing? I thought of the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” But what race? When shall we say, “I have won?” Naturally, there are moments when we do compete: when interviewing for a job, in a debate, or playing a sport. Of course you can be declared a winner in many situations, but oftentimes there is nothing to win. Take gardening, for instance. As I raked the leaves, or as I pulled weeds and grass out of flowerbeds today in preparation for planting, it occurred to me that it will never end. As long as I want to have a garden, I must work to keep nature from taking over. Year in and year out, I return to the flower beds, get down on my knees and toil. All summer, too, I struggle to keep the unwanted plants out, while fighting to maintain the ones I want. I clip and prune, mow, and mulch. Slow and steady, yes. But winning is not possible.

Some things don’t seem worth the trouble. When I see the results of my determination, however, I realize giving up was not an option. All summer I get to enjoy the flowers and watch the bees and butterflies hop from one to the next, rejoicing in the richness in the array of beauty.IMG_9251_lgIn a few months it would all fade away, and I would be faced with the task of preparing for the next season. The show was fantastic, and the denouement deflating. But I convince myself to start again from scratch each year, knowing I won’t “win”.

Looking at the picture above, I am inspired again. It amazes me what can result from simply planting seeds smaller than the tip of a pencil. But gardening is not an activity for the slacker. It requires dedication and perseverance. You must keep at it; otherwise your beds will be overrun by invasive roots, vines, weeds, and ants. Pretty soon, you have anarchy.

I often like to use this as an analogy for working hard in spite of the obstacles, but sometimes a flower bed is just a flower bed. And I’m losing daylight.

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

Deoxyribonucleic Acid and You

The great thing about me, about you, and all of us, is that we are made up of the combined heredity of a myriad of people; but moreso, we are made up of two – our moms and dads. Every one of us is a not-so-symmetrical blend of our parents’ DNA. You can see it when you meet the child of someone you have known for years, or for that matter, meeting that friend’s parents, and you will either say that one closely resembles the other, or that they are very different. People have been telling me my whole life – bringing me much distress during my teenage years – that I look very much like my dad. I continued rebuking everyone who pointed out the similarities until I saw it for myself in the mirror one day. It was some facial expression or mannerism, or a combination of many things, but there he was, my dad, looking right back at me. It comes and goes, but deep down I’ve always known.

So it was settled: I had become my father. Naturally, I take after my mom, too. I have her sense of humor and her tastes for music, art, and politics. I share my dad’s love for sardines. Go figure. My brother also has a curious blend of our parents. He got the good hair and the lean, muscular build. I got the brains. Seems fair. It’s all a roll of the dice, unless you subscribe to the principles of eugenics, where children can be customized and engineered, a model for humanity based not on natural selection, but on individual preference. This is a frightening prospect, leaving nothing to chance, manufacturing human beings for a potentially nefarious purpose. This might inspire someone to create a “master race” of superhumans. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

Fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective, we must leave it up to fate. From my perspective, being childless, I don’t have to imagine how it could go wrong. I would like to have seen what kind of child my wife and I could have had together. I’m sure it frightens young couples to think about the possibility of seeing manifest the worst aspects of their respective families – perhaps some alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness, or a tendency toward violence. Some things may be difficult to avoid. It is believed that personality and inclination are developed through experience. My cousin who has identical twins might disagree. But much of who we are was not packaged with us at birth. For instance, I am much more skeptical now than when I was younger. And I appreciate flavors I used to find disgusting as a child (wasabi, for instance).

When you look through old photos, you can see resemblances. You will see it more and more as time goes on, because in the 21st century, everyone has been photographed at least once in their lifetime. My great-grandparents might not have even owned a camera. A hundred years ago, having a portrait made was a big expense, and not everyone could afford it. If you have pictures of certain family members when they were young, consider those priceless. Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and those pictures proliferate the internet. Therefore, as we get older, more photos will be available with better quality, and future generations will be able to see likenesses with greater resolution and clarity than ever before.

We are not carbon copies of either of our parents, but instead a unique blend of them both. Actually, it does go far beyond our parents. I have my paternal grandfather’s nose, and my brother has our maternal great-grandfather’s build. That photo album will reveal more as you go further back in time. But there are more segments of our past beyond the outward appearance. You might have your grandmother’s laugh, or you might have your dad’s sense of humor.

For some reason, I have to say, I have a good ear for music. I am a singer, and I play several instruments. A few people in my dad’s side of the family are musically inclined. It’s really a small percentage. I could say it runs in my family, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. On the other hand, I’ve met artistic couples whose children show no interest or talent in the arts. I’m grateful for my talents, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I do wish I were more naturally organized. What little focus I have, I have had to work to achieve it. Being organized definitely does not come naturally to me, even if it is featured among some in my family.

There are a lot of traits we can credit one or both parents for. Most of my features I get from my dad – everything from hair follicles to body shape to culinary inventiveness. Sometimes it seems I am a carbon copy of him. That’s not so bad. He and I are not likely to agree on politics, and he is probably disappointed that I couldn’t give him grandchildren (I think he’s moved on to my brother). But I suspect he also stays up late on his computer, perhaps rambling about some idea that was keeping him awake. It wouldn’t surprise me. After all, I really am my father.

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

Purpose

We all arrived on this plane essentially the same: naked, cold, and outraged beyond our ability to communicate our complete displeasure with being forced from the only comfort we had ever known. Mother was at a distance of eternity compared to where we had spent the first ten months, albeit mostly deaf and blind and therefore unaware what our world even looked like. And then, suddenly, there we were. Welcome to the world; this awful, horrid, dirty, smelly, noisy world.

Since the first moment any of us drew breath, we’ve been suffering. Now of course some suffer more than others, and if you live in a part of the world where you can read this nonsense, perhaps your variety of suffering is what may be commonly adorned with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. This response usually accompanies complaints about not being able to find good help, having to park in a remote lot, or not enough foam in your latte. People like to bitch about a lot of things, and our tendency to complain is not abated by our elevation in socio-economic status. There simply is no end to our suffering.

Except, there is real suffering all around us. We would notice it if we would just look up from our smartphones and tablets. Suffering is a system default of humanity. We are born suffering, and we will live with it in some degree, and people die. Some of us are lucky. My degree of suffering – I shall refrain from using that term, because I really don’t endure much – my burden is nothing in comparison. I have tmj, chronic sinusitis, hypertension, and a few other ostensibly preventable afflictions, some, like seasonal allergies, are manageable. So, I try not to complain too much.

So what shall I do with myself? As I have mentioned previously, I am quite fortunate, and undeservedly so. I didn’t earn my genetic gifts. I had nothing to do with the fate I have. So I try to be thankful all the time. Others have not been so lucky, and I don’t know what to do for them beyond treating them the way I would expected to be treated. A few generations ago, people with afflictions and disabilities were shuffled off to asylums or worse. Autism and mental illness were viewed as something of a curse, and still are in some communities. If we are all God’s children, God should be irate with us for treating the “least of these” worse than we treat stray animals. That’s the most troubling thing about our society right now. All the wars and conflicts and arms buildups are atrocious, but the way we treat people who can’t take care of themselves is deplorable. And we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I was daydreaming when I thought about what the purpose of my existence could be. Why are we all here, I asked. What’s the reason for all of this? If God was lonely, he had his angels and all the other creatures he made who weren’t afflicted with free will. Why did he have to make us? We’re a disaster. We’ve currently got a presidential candidate who is stirring up a nationalist fervor, and radical religious groups have killed and kidnapped innocent people, destroyed ancient cities, and displaced millions in the name of God. And I’m positive God does not approve. In the meantime, there’s more suffering than ever before, mainly because there are more people now living that have ever lived on this earth. It stands to reason that if there ever was suffering, it was never to this degree.

So what are we doing here? We are born, we live, and we die; and the cycle continues. And the population increases, more people fighting for less of a stake, more hunger, more diseases. I could see no solution to this equation. Then it hit me: our purpose is simple. Not why were put on this planet. That’s still a bit of a mystery. But while we’re here we might as well do some good. And what better good can we do than to bring comfort? Our purpose can’t be simply to feed our faces and leave a mound of waste for someone else to toil to clean up. I look at the producers of society, instead of its consumers. Those who have given more than they had taken. The artists, the poets, doctors, nurses, mothers, and pastors – the good ones. Nobody’s perfect, mind you, but it’s about quality, not quantity.

The mission is to soothe, to console. We are here, all of us, to ease others’ suffering.

Who are they, those who suffer? Like I said, we will not fail to notice them if we would just look up once in awhile. This coming from someone who was obsessed with Infinity Blade II. That was addicting. Had I not been so consumed, I might have come to this conclusion years before. I gave away my Ipad, my XBox, and my video games. That was a liberating experience, even though I still have a strong desire to play Skyrim (nerd alert).

I’m not telling you this because I want to be lauded, or that I want others to do this. It was something I needed to do, because I realized it was consuming me, devouring me. I still spend hours in front of a computer, if not working to manage huge amounts of data, then to continue to write about the things I think about when I am able to capture a moment to myself. And in between all those minutes of the day that are crammed full of the ephemera of living in the 21st century, I am able to look around me and make discoveries around me. I see people, instead of looking at my phone. I notice individuals on the verge of breakdown. I see worry and fear in people’s faces. I hear trembling in a person’s voice.

How can I possible ease their suffering and pain? It’s something I have learned to do, and I am in no way an expert. But I do make an effort to not make things worse. I have often said entirely the wrong thing. I’ve laughed when I shouldn’t have. I have looked uninterested, yawning, being distracted. But I learned. And I suppose it was because I was to endure some hardship, small though it would be. It is through suffering that we become empathic. You would think this ought to be universal, but some people are complete assholes, and they have suffered much. Still others are complete jewels. Go figure.

Want to make a difference? I do. It’s kind of a passion of mine. I feel compelled to make some impact on humanity through my writing or photography. I dream of becoming a journalist, traveling and hearing people’s stories, learning about their plight or their joys. I did photograph a wedding once. It was very festive, even if a little unconventional. I loved being part of the experience. If I were a full-time wedding photographer, I would like to photograph unusual weddings, celebrations of people rather than exhibitions of wealth. Those seem to be a little sad to me. And I don’t understand why. I guess it’s because it cost so much, and the stress was about to kill the bride’s parents.

How can we ease this suffering, this first-world problem? Is it worth any effort? Perhaps. I intend to make a difference wherever I am able. Maybe it’s not in being a writer. Maybe I can make my impact just being around people and bringing them happiness. Can we spread joy even if we are not joyful? Have you ever tried to make someone laugh and not laugh yourself? The easing of suffering would therefore be reciprocal, and hat better reason would you want to spread some cheer?

Since we are all in this together, why not make the best of it? I see people who are miserable fucks. And I ask myself why they would want to be in that state. Many people feel stuck. They feel like they can’t escape their circumstances. Perhaps that is true for some. But I have seen some really cheerful people in desperate situations. What then is happiness, and how do we find it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. I’ll sign off now, but I will visit the idea of happiness, and perhaps I’ll write a book on the subject.

In the meantime, be joyful, and don’t cause any harm. The world is already a better place just by our thinking about it.