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!

 

 

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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.

 

Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.

 

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

In my life, I think I have never really mourned. I have lost people, and I felt those losses in varying degrees, but mourning as an act is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe I mean grieving. Are grief and mourning the same? Are both equated to sadness? I remember when my grandfather died. I was 13. My dad kind of burst into my room one Saturday morning, waking me as the sun came up. He announced the news about my mom’s dad’s passing rather like a trumpet playing reveille, lacking both subtlety and delicacy. I’m okay.

To be fair, my sister was also not terribly saddened by Grandpa’s sudden and unexpected death. There was a military funeral, and we kids stayed clear of any adult for the duration, and we were slightly – no, totally – oblivious to anyone’s grief, and, yes, I do feel bad about that, so sue my 13-year-old self.

I haven’t experienced much loss. On my dad’s side of the family, people live about 100 years or so. But my mom is the longest-surviving person in her immediate family. Both her brothers had all-too-brief lives, and both her parents were gone before she was in her forties. The younger brother was very close to me, inasmuch as he was 12 years older. But we connected and were what you would call kindred spirits. And when he died I was very sad, and I cried. But he wasn’t much on ceremony, and we didn’t have much in the way of a ritualized memorial. His friends and coworkers all came to pay their respects, and it made me feel like an alien. I miss him, and I think about him all the time. But I don’t know if I mourned for him. And I don’t recognize grief like I see in others in their loss.

I have over the years become this kind of funeral singer. I have been a semi-professional singer for many years, and one would assume that might include weddings. But for reasons I can’t quite explain, since about 1999, I have sung at more than a few funerals for friends and relatives. I sang at my father-in-law’s funeral, and years later, my mother-in-law’s. I sang for the mother of my closest friend. And I have sung at my own grandfather’s funeral, that of my dad’s dad.

It seems I have experienced more loss than I thought. But that only reminds me of my apparent disorder. Maybe I have no soul. Maybe I’m a sociopath. I don’t know. I’ve watched my parents getting older, and I can’t ignore the fact that they will pass someday, likely before I do. In my mind I’ve rehearsed eulogies. I admit it’s morbid, but I have also been thinking I need a will, and this is a product of getting older. You will get there. My wife and I talked openly about burial wishes on the return trip from her dad’s funeral. It’s on your mind at the time, and you do naturally go there.

Last year when Prince died, a lot of people grieved. They made pilgrimages to his home. They erected shrines and memorials. People wept and wailed. And most of them didn’t know him. I think the same happens with other celebrities, where fans mourn that loss as someone in their families. Recently, there have been a number of notable celebrities who passed, but I didn’t grieve for any of them like some might have. This doesn’t surprise me, but I worry than I might be somewhat cold. (I did check, and I have a pulse.)

I think I would react differently if I lost one of my parents or my best friend. I don’t like to think about losing people, and so maybe I am human afterall. I don’t look forward to experiencing real loss. I guess mourning is different for everyone. It’s a step in the process. Grief takes its course like a river flowing to the sea. Mourning is the canoe or kayak, or for some people, the speedboat. It depends on the individual. Does it matter how close we were to that person? It’s clear that my wife has grieved more over her mother’s passing than I did. But as I said, I am not sure I have ever really mourned.

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.

We Are Not Alone

Apparently, we have a lot more neighbors – by neighbors I mean planets 40 light years from earth – than was previously theorized. Scientists have estimated that there are millions upon millions of planets in our galaxy, and there are more galaxies than we can count. So it stands to reason that there is life out there, intelligent life. Perhaps there are people just like us on an earth-like planet around a distant star, wondering about whether there are people like them out there in the universe. And here we are.

But the problem is the space between us. Space, outer space, is immense, dark, cold, and unforgiving. And the vast distance between us and and our nearest stellar neighbor is expressed not in units of distance, like kilometers, but in the time it takes for light to travel between them. In the case of these seven new worlds, 40 light years indicates the time it takes light to travel from there to here, i.e., 40 years. It goes without saying that we don’t have the technology to travel at even one tenth the speed of light. For the sake of argument, however, let’s pretend we can; but even so, the trip would take 400 years! Our intrepid space traveler would not survive the trip.

Taking a step back from this conundrum, we find ourselves simply daydreaming of the possibility of reaching the stars. The prospect is the stuff of science fiction literature and movies. Some writers have imagined visitors to earth would be hostile, while others like to imagine the likes of “ET”, a curious traveler who means no harm. You have to consider that our first efforts in reaching out beyond our solar system have been with probe-type spacecraft.The Voyager and Pioneer missions  were launched with the hope of retrieving data from the farthest reaches of our solar system, as well as the space that separates the stars. After more than 40 years, it is still not possible to send humans into deep space. So we sent robots. I would expect our first encounter with extraterrestrials to be made in a similar way, by intercepting one of their probes and deciphering the cryptic, albeit rudimentary messages found with it.

More than distance would separate us. Consider that here on earth, cultures are divided by language and custom, and sometimes this is between neighboring countries. Here in Texas, there are people who speak only English, and those who speak only Spanish. Communication is not so easy, and we’re talking about people who live on the same street. Assuming alien beings from another planet even possess spoken language, the chances of being able to communicate effectively are very slim at best. (For more on this, I recommend seeing the movie “Arrival.”) But if we are somehow able to communicate, experience on earth tells us that that is not enough. Many people on this planet speak English, and that makes it easier for us to understand one another. But cultural difference abound, like the way we eat together, the way we greet each other, and the attitudes and customs of each group. For instance, people in Latin America tend to stand very close to the other person in a conversation. In other parts of the world this might make people very uncomfortable.

As much time and energy we have put into speculating about other worlds, perhaps they are doing the same. Or maybe not. It is possible that other worlds, even those capable of traveling to the stars, simply lack any curiosity when it comes to exploring the galaxy. It seems very unlikely. The others, the ones like us but not exactly, are probably exploring, just like us, but not for the purpose of making contact once a discovery is made. Perhaps they don’t care at all about their neighbors. Maybe we don’t matter that much, like our attitude toward the birds in the trees. We are aware of them, and we would miss them if they went away, but an individual bird is not important. It seems rather cold, but it’s possible our visitors are not emotionally invested in us. We’re simply a curiosity.

I like to think earth is special. But maybe we’re not remarkable in any way. Maybe there are millions of earths out there, much like this one, where “people”spend their days solving one problem at a time and raising their children and trying to make it one more day. Maybe all they want to do in their free time is to relax and enjoy their short lives, trying to forget how brief life is on their planet, and that it’s not worth their time to speculate about the vastness of space and the impossibility of reaching the stars, at least for the average person. Because space is huge, cold, dark, and inhospitable. Cue the song: