Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why we respond to sneezes

When someone sneezes, common courtesy in every culture on earth is to wish a divine blessing upon them ("Bless you!") or, alternatively, good health ("Gesundheit!"). My friends over at Snopes do a fine job of explaining the whys and wherefores of this custom.

Unlike the vapid "Hi! How are you doing?" greeting , which is offered without sincerity or conscious thought by over 99% of those who say it, and whose response is usually ignored, the sneeze wish acknowledges the sneezer's existence as a person. It says, "I offer you this bit of caring, no matter how small, for your equally small discomfort."

I'll Forget You

A friend asked me to print the lyrics to this unforgettable gem from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Here ya go, kid. Thanks to Linda Eder for making it memorable.

I'll forget you
The more you stay inside of me, the weaker I grow
I'll forget you
Tomorrow I will turn and let you go
I'll grow colder
I'll lose myself in anything but you now
For there is nothing I can do now...but forget

I'll forget you
I won't remember arms that pulled me in, soft and slow
I'll forget you
There has to be a way to let you go!
No more shadows
No dreams of leaning in the dark above you
I will forget how much I love you ... any day

But ev'ry evening shivers
With the chance that you are near
And ev'ry morning whispers, "He is here"
Each morning is a fight
Not to rush into your light
Not to move closer
But to make you disappear!

I'll forget you
I've got to find the strength to pull away from your glow
I'll forget you
God help me see the way to let you go
I do not want you
And still you steal each breath I'm breathing from me
With just a touch, you overcome me
And I let you
I will forget you...
When I die...

I will forget you
I will forget you

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Judgment

A very wise man once said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." He knew the all-too-human tendency for us to judge each other, to pigeonhole people, to fit them into a box full of labels and preconceived notions, and to rank them above us or below us on the "worthiness to live" scale.

It's like the old joke about what two men think of each other when they first meet. In that split second before they smile and extend their hands to greet each other, in that very instant, they're thinking to themselves, "Yeah, I can take him."

(I don't even want to joke about what women think of each other when they first meet.)

The wise man followed his admonition with this observation: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

To illustrate this principle, allow me to paraphrase George Carlin. Carlin says that there are two kinds of drivers on the road: morons and jerks. A moron is anybody who drives slower than you. A jerk is anybody who drives faster than you.

The interesting thing about the morons and the jerks, according to the paraphrased Carlin, is this: in the eyes of all the morons, you're a jerk. And in the eyes of all the jerks, you're a moron.

Therefore, we ought to take the wise man's counsel to heart and not judge anybody, right? There are a couple of problems with that. First, humans are rational beings, and we are constantly weighing and evaluating everything around us. Second, we have to make judgments simply to survive in this world. For example, we teach our children to choose their friends wisely. We choose our own friends wisely (or not so wisely). We decide whether it's better to get drunk with friends or to stay dry and sober. We elect our political leaders. We decide which charities will receive our contributions.

Finally, and most critically, we are sometimes required by law or by fellowship to sit in judgment of our fellow humans. This is something that can never be taken lightly, because when we sit in judgment of others, we also sit in judgment of ourselves. When we hear a recitation of the faults and indiscretions of another, it causes us, rather than recoiling in disgust or revulsion, to examine ourselves for our own tendencies towards those same faults and indiscretions. In the end, no matter whether we condemn or pardon those we are required to judge, we sit condemned by our own consciences for our weaknesses.

And when judgment is rendered and sentence is passed, we murmur the ageless proverb, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Those who are anxious or willing (or hasty) to call down the judgment of God or Lady Justice on the heads of their fellow beings, to holler "Off with their heads!" must be ready and willing to accept their own portion of that judgment in payment for their own indiscretions. If they are not, then they stand doubly condemned by their errors and their hypocrisy.

Those of us who believe in a God who judges us according to our works and/or the desires of our hearts, who hope that He will treat us mercifully in our weaknesses and our errors, had better be willing to extend that same hand of mercy to our fellow travelers in their moments of error or weakness. I don't believe in karma per se as a religious or spiritual principle, but as a fundamental law of nature, I'd say that there's something there. What Christians call the Law of the Harvest ("whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap") comes close to it. The judgments that we render have a funny way of being reflected back on us, sometimes immediately and sometimes years down the road.

I'm not saying that laws are irrelevant and that there's no such thing as crime. Nor am I suggesting that we should roll over and let thieves pick us clean. Some principles of right and wrong are absolute. For example, cold-blooded murder for its own sake has been a universal crime for millenia. Wrongs must be righted. Villains and monsters must be uncovered and removed from society. We must shield our children from abuse and depravity until they are strong enough to handle it on their own. The influence of justice, like the influence of gravity, can be temporarily avoided but will always prevail in the end.

But as human beings, put here on this rock we call Earth to test ourselves and prepare (we hope) for something better, we will come a lot closer to that "something better" when we endeavor to lift each other up more than we pull each other down. I think we all get a little closer to perfection when, rather than fall upon our fellows with the swift sword of justice, we defer that justice (when permissible) to Him whose right it is to judge, and instead extend to them the arms of mercy and fellowship.

Most of those who surround us are trying just as hard as we are to be successful, not just on the physical or material plane, but on the spiritual plane as well (however you want to define "spiritual", and whatever word you want to substitute for it). We gain a lot by showing the same love and mercy to our fellow travelers that we hope will be shown to us when we need it most.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Summer in Colorado

I imagine that Colorado appears on many people's lists of favorite vacation spots. Either they've been to Colorado on vacation, or they want to go there someday. It's probably high on the list, somewhere near Hawaii, one of the Disney resorts, and the ocean beaches.

And most people come to Colorado for the Rocky Mountains. This chain of mountains, the backbone of a continent, stretches from New Mexico on the south all the way through Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada, to Alaska. I didn't mention Wyoming and Montana, did I?

I will write about the beauties of the Rockies in those states and provinces another time. But when you mention "the Rocky Mountains," the vast majority of people think of Colorado. (This may not be true north of the World's Longest Previously Undefended Border.)

Ah, Colorado. In less than an hour, I can be on a mountain trail, walking beside a stream swollen with snowmelt, the air filled (I mean redolent) with the smell of pine, spruce, wild herbs and wildflowers. If I'm paying attention, I can also take in the fresh smell of water splashing over rocks and cliffs, and the bracing alpine crispness of air above timberline.

The mountain views are ... well, the term "breathtaking" has become a cliché, but there's no better way to describe them. It doesn't matter if you're viewing the mountains from the plains sixty miles away, from a highway or trail deep in the middle of them, or from the summit of a fourteener: the view really does take your breath away. Tourists and natives alike, on Colorado's mountain highways, stop to admire the view and try to get their breath back.

I live on the plains, a ten-minute walk from the foothills, and every morning I look to the west, see the high places of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, and think, "Boy, am I lucky to live here." Every evening when I drive home, the setting sun plays with the mountains, casting highlights and shadows on different ridges, and I realize that I've never seen the same sunset twice.

If you're lucky enough to be up in the mountains on a moonless night, you will see a star show like you've never seen before. The air is so thin, and so clean, that no celestial feature is obscured. The absence of light pollution creates a black velvet backdrop for the trail of spilled diamonds that makes up the Milky Way. The stars' colors are easy to discern: the red of Arcturus and the blue of Sirius, for example. You can see the double star in the handle of the Big Dipper without squinting. And if you let your eyes adjust, you will see the world at your feet illuminated by nothing but starlight.

At the right time of the month, you can be sleeping in a tent or sleeping bag and be awakened by the light of the rising moon, its brightness rivaling the mercury-vapor street lamps you left far below.

Sunrise and sunset might be my favorite times of day. The clear blue daytime sky (or the starlit blackness of night) gives way to a multicolored wash, across which the moon and the planets chase each other in an ever-changing race.

Every afternoon, the cold air tumbling over the mountains collides with the warm air rising from the plains. Great billowing cumulus clouds rise higher and higher into the sky, until the jet stream shears off their tops and stretches them into the anvil shapes of cumulonimbus. The clouds, heavy with moisture until they cannot hold any more, let it all go. The winds and the moisture build up massive electrical charges in the clouds and, with or without the rain, Mother Nature puts on a light show to rival any Fourth of July.

Although Colorado residents normally take to the hills between Labor Day and Memorial Day, leaving the summer months for the tourists, summer is the best time to enjoy the Rockies. My favorite time of year is early to mid-August: the mountain passes are open, the streams are still flowing, the wildflowers are still in bloom, and the wild berries are ripe.

To hoist a backpack and disappear into the mountains for a week or more, or to park the car and walk half a mile to a scenic overlook, so carefully hidden that you'd swear you were miles from civilization, that's what makes summer in Colorado so perfect. Sometimes I can't believe my luck, to live in a place that is a destination for millions of people, and call it home.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Telephones: Not Ready to Give Up my Land Line Yet

I like cellular phones. They have changed civilization as much as fire, the wheel, and indoor plumbing. I covet the iPhone and one day I hope to own one.

We're in a transition period, between a world that is 100% land lines (that's the new term for wired-into-the-wall-somewhere telephones) and a world that is 100% cellular phones. Most people or families have both. Some of my friends have gotten rid of their land lines and gone completely to cellular phones. They have several reasons for switching, some of which are listed below:
  • convenience and portability
  • freedom from the monopoly of "the phone company"
  • one-stop shopping for voice, text, internet, whatever
  • connectivity
(I've written about connectivity before. It's not necessarily a good thing.)

I'm not ready to give up my land line yet. My reasons for keeping it are listed below:
  • cost
  • reliability
  • latency
  • sound quality

Cellular phone service has come down in price, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. The cellular phone companies are great at nickel-and-diming their customers for additional services and for miscellaneous fees, a technique carried over from their land-line billing practices. If times get hard and I have to trim my budget, I can save a lot more money by discontinuing my cellular service than by unplugging my land line.

Unfortunately, discontinuing one's cellular service is not that simple. Most cellular providers lock you into a service plan for a certain period of time. Some providers, such as Cricket, do not, but most do. This means that you won't start saving money until your contract ends.

Land lines have it all over cell phones as far as reliability is concerned. Cell phone service is always a gamble, and not just when you're driving in a car. Dropped calls happen at the most annoying times, even when you're merely sitting in your living room. In the event of a widespread power outage or other natural disaster, cell phones are useless as communication devices.

As for land line handsets, if you still have one of the old-fashioned Western Electric electromechanical phones (the kind that only plugs into the phone jack and not into an electrical outlet, and that has a real bell inside), you can send and receive phone calls through some of the worst disasters, including power failures.

Latency, in Cell Phone Land, refers to the delay between the time you say something and the time the person on the other end hears what you said. We have all experienced the awkward cellphone conversations where one person tries to respond too quickly, or both start talking at once and don't realize they're talking on top of each other for a second or two. Latency is a phenomenon dictated by the laws of nature. Like gravity, it's something you can't avoid.

With land lines, latency is near zero. Computers and modems can detect the latency on a land line, but humans can't. It makes for smoother conversations, less frustration and less stress.

And finally, the voice quality on most cellphone calls is terrible. I don't really understand why we spend more money to make our voices sound so bad - sometimes downright unintelligible. I often catch myself wondering if I sound as bad to the person on the other end of the line as they sound to me.

Cellphones are the future of mankind; it's undeniable. But don't be too quick to abandon the past. Some moves to embrace the future are not necessarily good moves (like "upgrading" from Windows XP to Windows Vista).