Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Is A Rant

     As the title implies, some of these posts are ruminations. This particular one is a rant.
     Whenever I want to annoy my wife, which is almost always, I point out that my public school education is superior to her far more expensive private school education. She's still naive enough to think that her four years of Latin has an application in today's world, while I point out that the nuns clearly failed to teach her basic math.
     And it's that mathematical advantage I have over her that has led me to realize lately that the "free" public education my kids enjoy is, in fact, not free at all.
     It came to a head this week when my daughter got a free ticket to a local minor league baseball game because she had earned a certain number of points in an accelerated reading program. As a loving father, I decided to take off from work so I could attend the game with her. As it turned out, the game ended up costing me about fifty bucks.
     Her ticket was free. Mine was not. That was the first twelve dollars. She had to ride a bus to the stadium and I had to chip in two dollars to pay the bus driver, even though I was driving to the same place myself.
     Parking was also not free. That's another fiver.  Lunch was not free. Six bucks apiece for a really bad hot dog, chips, an apple and a Sprite. By the way, my daughter doesn't drink carbonated beverages, so the Sprite went to waste and I had to shell out an additional four dollars for a bottle of water. And because the ballpark frank was inedible, we went to the concession stand and doled out another ten bucks for something we could stomach.
     Then, because there were no shaded seats in the place, we endured about three innings in the full sun before my daughter got sick and decided she wanted to leave. She felt much better once we got back to the car and she was able to cool down.
     Don't get me wrong. We had a great day together, but I could have taken her to a major league game with better food and better players for just about the same amount of money that the free game ended up costing me.
     The experience crystallized for me just how many, many things our family has to pay for each and every school year.  I expected to buy a pencil or two, but not the insanely long list of particular supplies that each of the kids' teachers feel are required. Then there's the activity fee that apparently doesn't pay for any activity because we are hit up each time there's another event. A foot race. A book fair. A luau. A "free" ball game.
     I'm beginning to understand the allure of homeschooling. I'm thinking it has to be way more affordable than the public schools. It's just too bad my wife's private school education has left her so ill-prepared to be a homeschool teacher. (Rimshot)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

     I have a friend who lives her life in fast forward. This woman does not believe in wasted motion. If she has something to tell you, she gets to the point and then leaves you on the way to her next task.
    She walks fast.
    She talks fast.
    I would guess that she sleeps fewer hours per night than I do, that she dresses more quickly, and that she has more energy. I also think she probably gets things done more efficiently than I do.
     Is she happy? She certainly appears to be, but I would suggest that she may be missing out on a very important part of life. It is the serenity that comes with doing absolutely nothing.
     I know some of you are saying, "Yep. I enjoy relaxing with a good book, myself."
     No.
     If you are reading a book, you are doing something.
     "Oh. Well, I meditate."
     No.
     If you are saying a mantra during meditation, you are doing something.
     If you are whittling on a piece of wood, you are doing something.
     If you are listening to music, you are doing something.
     I'm talking about doing absolutely nothing. I have become something of an expert at the practice. I will say, up front, that the best version of doing nothing is also thinking about nothing, but it's hard to control unbidden thoughts.
     You can, however, control your actions. Try it sometime. Sit down in a comfortable chair or lie down on the couch or in a hammock and just ... do ... nothing.
     How long can you keep at it before becoming restless? A minute? An hour? A day? I've never had the opportunity to test my theory, but I'm of the belief that I could spend several days doing absolutely nothing before I got bored. You have to factor in meals, bathroom visits, and sleep, but other than that your main activity would be no activity.
     Obviously, you can't do this with anyone else in the house, unless they, too, are committed to doing nothing.  Conversation, it seems to me, would be cheating.
     I first discovered my ability to do absolutely nothing as I sat on the front porch of my grandparents' house many years ago. My grandfather was there, staring off into the distance, and I decided to mimic him.  I found an inner calmness.
     I know many people report this same zen-like sensation from doing daily meditations. But meditation doesn't work for me nearly as well as just sitting and staring off into space. I'm not chanting in an effort to reach some peaceful place. I'm just gazing at whatever is in front of me.
    It becomes a form of self-hypnosis, a daydream, if you will, and I've found myself waking up from the nothingness on occasion. It's probably my body's signal that nothing time is over, and I need to get started on something. I'm always a bit sad when that happens.
     I've often wondered what would happen if I participated in an experiment where I could turn off the lights and sleep whenever I wanted, but would not otherwise know whether it was day or night. Would my body naturally fall into the same sleep pattern that having a family and a job and responsibilities forces upon me?
    I think I would probably sleep more often than I do now, but I also think I would get a lot more accomplished, both real work and a fair amount of practicing the art of doing nothing at all.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Book And Its Cover


     The other day I heard a woman describing how her husband-to-be had taken her to the rodeo on one of their early dates. Without consciously meaning to, I immediately envisioned what her spouse looked like. And when I met her husband a few days later, my pre-conceived notions about him turned out to be fairly accurate.
     But I have to say that I was a bit disappointed in myself for taking a minor tidbit of information and creating a virtual biography of this man in my mind before we had even met. I wish he had turned out to be a scholarly, academic type who walked around spouting Shakespeare or Keats, instead of a "dumbass hillbilly." (That's how he referred to himself.)  If it had turned out that he wasn't a hillbilly, I would have been forced to rethink my unfairly judgmental assessment of his looks, education and background.
     For many years, I have been a fan of professional wrestling. Take a moment now to conjure up what my other interests should be based on that small piece of information. I can guarantee that you are wrong about most of what came to your mind.  In fact, people who know me through my other interests are most often shocked (and that's not too strong a word) to find that I like 'rasslin'. They usually follow up with the inevitable "You know it's fake, right?"
     If I'm in the mood to engage them in conversation, I point out that I have been aware of the cooperative nature of the pro wrestling dance from the first time I watched it as a five-year-old.  I knew instinctively that, unless I was knocked out, no one of my approximate size could keep my shoulders on a mat for three full seconds. But guess what? I enjoyed watching the story unfold anyway.
     The same people who would ridicule my love of pro wrestling have no issue with my enjoyment of, say, Jackie Chan movies. They don't try to tell me Bruce Willis didn't kill actual terrorists in Die Hard. They seem to understand that movies are entertainment. They cannot understand that entertainment comes in many forms, from opera and ballet to mixed martial arts and monster truck shows. I like it all, to varying degrees. And I contend that what I like says absolutely nothing about my level of education or sophistication.
     But back to the point. I'm as capable as anyone of making inferential leaps. Even though my better self would rather judge people on their individual merit, I often find myself deciding that a person has "too many" tattoos or piercings to be taken seriously. I need to stop that.
    You have, perhaps, heard of a man named Charles Ramsey by now. He's the black man who helped a woman in Cleveland escape her kidnappers this week. When asked about what happened, Ramsey was quoted as saying, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something's wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she's homeless or she's got problems. That's the only reason she run to a black man."
     I find that statement both enlightening and sad. It rings more true than most of what I hear from so-called pundits as they talk about race relations in this country. In Mr. Ramsey's view of his neighborhood, something has to be wrong for a white person to seek out the help of a black person. I suspect the reverse is also true. And yet I continue to hope.
     In addition to pro wrestling, one of the things I watched as a child was the original Star Trek series. That was the one where a black woman, an Asian man, and a member of a different species all worked together without concern for skin color. (Or blood color, for that matter.) Somewhere along the way life experiences cause us to put people into convenient categories. Rednecks. Thugs. Jocks. Nerds.
     Sometimes, those stereotypes prove accurate, and they form the basis for some of the funniest stand-up comedy you'll come across. But, while I love a good ethnic joke ("Watch out, Scratchy! He's Irish!"),  I'd also like to squelch my baser instinct to automatically and unconsciously judge the book by its cover.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What Are You Scared Of?


     Once upon a time, when I was about 12 years old, I somehow ended up in the house by myself one evening and made the ill-fated decision to watch a vampire movie on television.  I don't remember the name of the film or anything else about it, but what I do remember is one particular scene. One of the female characters is in an RV when she decides to pull back the curtain on a window and, BOO!, there's the vampire's face looking back at her.
      I was so startled (scared, freaked out) I almost wet myself. I didn't watch the rest of the movie. I couldn't sleep that night, and I had nightmares about the face in the window for several months after. I'm not sure why. The face of the vampire wasn't particularly scary. It was just a guy with his hair combed back, wearing fake teeth. But the image haunts me to this day and I still jump if I see someone unexpectedly pop up on the other side of a window.
     That irrational fear began for me, I think, as a much younger child when I watched the "family" movie The Wizard of Oz. The flying monkeys didn't bother me, nor did the tornado which lifted Dorothy's house. What I was most frightened by was the scene where Dorothy tries to call out to her Auntie Em whose face has appeared in a crystal ball, only to have the witch's face pop up and start laughing. (Excuse me while I take a moment to calm the shiver that just ran up my spine.)
     The fear rekindled itself during a viewing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Can you guess when it happened? It was during the scene when the Child Catcher slowly lowered his big-nosed face upside down to peek through,  yes, a window, while chanting about all the candy that he had for little boys and girls. Again, a so-called family movie that scared the stuffing out of me.
     So you can understand where I'm coming from when I disagree with my beautiful wife as we have our ongoing discussions about what movies our own children should be allowed to watch. I can only imagine that unlike me, she was never scared out of her wits by images on TV, at least not in the way that I was. If she had been, she would think twice before allowing (and even encouraging) our children to watch certain movies.
     Over my albeit mild objections, my wife has let the kids watch Jurassic Park, Jaws, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She thought by telling the kids to close their eyes during the scary parts, they would enjoy the movie without being permanently scarred. That was before one of our children crawled into bed with us for two weeks straight because she kept seeing Gollum's face in her dreams. Oddly, the other child kept insisting that the "Frodo movie" was cool. That's the same child who is spooked by episodes of Scooby Doo.
     So, as you can see, it's a bit tricky. We are all scared by different things, be it spiders or blood or monsters. Plus, I'm usually overprotective. I thought Monsters, Inc. was a bit much for the kids, although they loved it.
     Their mom worries more about real-life dangers like what might happen if they ride their bikes past a pedophile house. She also refuses to park next to panel vans with no windows in the back because, you know, that's the type of van that kidnappers use.  She has fewer concerns about pop culture influences.
     Who's right? The safe answer is that she is right. The more complicated answer is that, to some extent, we both are. I'm probably more like our older child -- affected by scary images, but less concerned about the evil outside our door, while my wife is like the younger child -- oblivious to horrors on the screen, but keenly aware of the weirdos in the real world. 
      Still, if they ask us, we'll both tell the kids to never, ever watch The Exorcist. We can't sleep with them every night forever.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Catch-22 For Hypochondriacs


     Many of you may know that the premise of the classic Joseph Heller novel Catch-22 is that it's virtually impossible for a soldier to get a Section 8 discharge from the military if that soldier believes he is going crazy.  The logic is that someone who was actually going crazy would not know it and would not ask for the discharge. Ergo, anyone who is lucid enough to make the request is clearly not crazy enough to warrant one.
     I've been wondering recently if that same Catch-22 situation would occur in people who are growing senile. And, because this can be a sensitive subject for people dealing with bonafide mental health issues, let me emphasize that I'm referring specifically to myself and my own hypochondria. The question is if I'm losing my memory, would I even remember it?
     This comes up because, as I say, I'm a hypochondriac. I didn't do a blog post yesterday because I was feeling incredibly ill. In fact, I had been feeling sick for most of the week, but had taken the approach that if I ignored it long enough, I would eventually start to feel better.  And, in this particular situation, I would, in fact, feel better for awhile. But then I'd feel worse again. Without getting into the specific symptoms, of which there were many, the best way to describe it is that I felt incredibly weird.
     Now, the hypochondria kicks in when you start thinking about all of the things they MAY be happening to you. Am I going to have a seizure? A stroke? A heart attack? Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Should I call my doctor? Should I call an ambulance? Why call an ambulance when I can drive myself to the hospital? Stop being so dramatic. I'm not about to die. Am I?
     A word of advice. If you find yourself in a similar situation and you're as prone to hypochondria as I am, it's best to stay off the Internet.  There are diseases and conditions that you've never even heard of that fit the symptoms you may be having. In fact, it seems to me that many illnesses have the exact same symptoms, which is probably why good doctors run tests before making an official diagnosis. 
     So what was happening with me? Here's the story:
     Last week, I called the automated phone system at the pharmacy to refill a prescription and was told that I was out of refills and that my doctor had to authorize another one. Would I like the pharmacy to contact my doctor? Yes, I would. Mr. Robo-Phone then told me that my prescription should be ready by Monday. But it wasn't. The automation had failed and my doctor had not been called. So I made a mental note to call him myself ... which I promptly forgot to do.
     By Monday, I had begun feeling slightly ill, but thought a good night's sleep would take care of it.  As it turns out, I slept horribly on Monday night and felt worse on Tuesday. Maybe it's a stomach bug, I thought. I'll feel better tomorrow. Wednesday comes and goes, and I'm not feeling better. I have a bad sleep again Wednesday night and by Thursday, I'm thinking: "I should call my doctor." And the bell goes off. D'oh! I was supposed to call him on Monday! I was clearly suffering from the side effects of not taking that medication for several days. Once I took the magical pill, the weirdness went away.
    So I'm happy to report that I'm feeling much better, but am now concerned about why I would forget something as simple as a phone call. Am I forgetting other, more important, matters? Would I know it if I were? It's a real Catch-22.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Five Things I Don't Need To Hear From You

     I'm sure there's a college course being offered somewhere about the development and ever-evolving use of social media in this country, but I'm not sure anyone quite has a handle on just what does or doesn't work when it comes to sharing information.
     I've complained before about people who post things without regard to their accuracy, but I've noticed, more on Facebook than any other place, that I can categorize most posts (say that three times, really fast) into one of about five different categories, not including that one special category of "Things I'd Actually Want To Read."
     A lot of my friends don't express their own thoughts or showcase their own pictures. Instead, they see lots of stuff online that they think needs re-sharing. I'm not against re-sharing as a rule, but I'm coming across far too many status updates that, frankly, qualify as spam.
     Category 1: The "I'm playing a game" post. This one has gotten so bad that even Facebook now gives you the option to ignore games that auto-post to your news feed. I adopted a policy long ago that I would not play any game that insisted on posting to my social media accounts. Unless I've been hacked, if you see post from me, I've written it.  I'm sure my friends are fascinated by the fact that I'm playing The Simpsons Tapped Out, but I don't want the game telling them to join me. I can do that myself.
     Category 2: The "This is where I am" post. You can't be on Facebook for long without seeing one of these.  John Doe is with Jane Doe at a restaurant. Nothing else. To be fair, some people make use of this Where's Waldo feature to at least something about the place. My favorite was when my friend, Adam Cravens, noted that Rib City was more like a village than an actual city.  Most, though, are simply letting you know that now would be a good time to burglarize their home.
     Category 3:The "I support a charitable cause" post.  Again, most of these are simply people re-posting something they didn't come up with. And it's not limited to charitable causes, although charities seem to get more shares.  For the record, I'm not against the idea that we should find a cure for cancer or that we should take time to think about people who have cancer or any other challenging health issue.  I'd just prefer a personal story to a picture that essentially tells me nothing I didn't already know and urges me to "Share this if you agree." Which leads us to ...
     Category 4: The "I have a great relative" post.  Moms, Dads, brothers, sisters, and cousins. We all have great ones, don't we? My relative is the greatest. In fact, he's so great, I couldn't possibly tell you anything about him, but I can put up this cool meme about that particular type of relative. Isn't it cute? Why don't you re-share?
     Category 5: The "I love Jesus" post.  This category may get me in trouble, but let me clarify. I actually enjoy reading about the faith experiences of my friends. Sadly, very few of my friends take the time to write about their own faith. Many more of them choose to re-post what comes across as an overly self-righteous meme that basically says, "I'm a Christian and doggone proud of it. If you weren't such a back-sliding, shameful heathen, you'd post this on your wall, too!" If your religious convictions are that strong, stop taking the easy way out. Don't simply share an image. Take the time to actually write down and share what you believe and why. It will have a far greater impact.
     One last thing. If you agree with this blog, feel free to share it.