Thursday, September 28, 2006

Citizen on Patrol—Day One

Today was my first day of official volunteer work, where I was given a police radio, a city truck, “volunteer” decals for the truck and the duty of keeping a mindful watch on the city’s numerous parks. It was fairly exciting, even though nothing remotely interesting happened, at least not that I saw.

There were some punks skating in the skate park without helmets (which is a sizable monetary violation for their parents), but I didn’t call it in. Half of me figured the best medicine for those kids is to see one of their friends crack open his skull on the pavement so they’ll learn that helmets—though they’ll mess up your hair and make you look like a tool—actually help keep you brains inside your head (what brains they have), and the other half of me knew that there was nobody to call for something like this. Sure, it’s a crime, technically, but if the park ranger or code enforcement officer are not on duty (whom I would first call for something like this), it isn’t a serious enough crime to radio the police dispatcher about. Though nothing would have given me more satisfaction than busting a bunch of skater punks, I ultimately let it go, grudgingly.

Listening to the police radio told another tale, however. I’m not hip to all of the slang and lingo they use, but I picked up a bunch of it in the three hours I was on patrol, as many of the things that went on were explained by the officers enough where I could make out the situation. It was like listing to a radio show in Spanish; I know enough Spanish to understand a few key words but I missed most of the subtitles. A number of interesting events occurred that the police had to handle, from some high school kid yelling at the administrative folks in the front office of his high school because he thought they stole his cell phone to a guy “taking care of himself” in the parking lot of the movie theater parking lot. For the high school kid, the police call for that is a 415—disturbing the peace—and I only know that one really well because my brother Jason was in a garage band in high school and we had several visits by the police for that exact call.

They wrote a song about it. It was a favorite of mine.

For the other guy… I don’t know what they call it but he gave a foot chase and I only hope he zipped up first, as an additional crime could have been transporting a load not properly tied down.

I couldn’t understand if they caught him or not, as most times I couldn’t translate the radio codes (or hear through the static that probably everyone else on the frequency is used to) quick enough to decipher the outcome. There were a couple of fights at the high school and a cadre of people pulled over, vehicle checks, safety checks, pedestrian checks and property checks. Plates were run, drivers’ licenses checked, people cited, justice done…if you believe in justice, of course.

In the big park next to the airport, I met up with the code enforcement officer and a “black and white” to issue a citation to a homeless woman for the camping violation. When we rolled up (that’s what they call “arriving,” rolling up,” she had pretty much taken over one of the picnic shelters and had, I’m going to guess, everything she owned in a couple of bicycle trailers and two coolers. If she was walking down the street, you would have no idea that, when she was kicked out of the flood basin last week, her and her boyfriend, aptly nicknamed Trippy, lived under the freeway overpass. It seemed cliché, but it was real. She reminded me of a brown-haired Calista Flockheart—rail thin, long hair, sunken cheeks. She didn’t take off her sunglasses, spoke slowly and moved as if she was under water.

She also had a dog, and before you tilt your head to one side and give a pitifully “aww” for the poor dog, he looked great, well taken care of, surprisingly happy. It is the one thing that I’ve noticed on these patrols, that most of the pets I’ve seen with the homeless look like great animals, sometimes more fit and full than their owners, which is a testament to the transients: They take care of their animals better than they take care of themselves.

She still got a ticket, one that she will more than likely neither pay nor appear on (and it was her second one this week; the flood basin was the other), and they will arrest her, put her in jail, take away her stuff to storage and her dog to the pound if she doesn’t have someone to give it to.

Now you can go “aww,” because that’s the real tragedy, just a loving loyal dog who knows nothing of homes or backyards.

After giving her a ticket, we explored the trees and bushes surrounding the park and discovered a hobo camp of sorts, complete with all of the accoutrements you’d expect. We posted an sign that required its removal within four hours and made a call to city services to come have it removed. I have always been an observant person, and when I was a kid, one of the games I played when I visited my grandparents house was to see what was different about their family room when I first walked in. My grandmother loved it and I enjoyed the challenge.

Because of my ability to notice small details, I impressed the code enforcement officer, though I wasn’t trying, just “doing my job.” The homeless woman adamantly denied that the stuff in the bushes belonged to her, and there was reason to believe her (what did she have to lose as she was already getting a ticket for that very thing), but I pointed out a few things to the code enforcement officer that linked her to the junk in the bushes. For one, in the bushes there was a tangle of dirty yellow rope stuffed in one of the bags, the very same type and condition of rope the woman was using as a dog leash. One of the bicycles in the bushes was the same make and model as the woman’s bike by the picnic tables, and there were dog tracks in the dirt everywhere.

It’s not much, but the officer said, “We should get you to teach the observance class.” It is always nice to get a slap on the back on your first day. I’m such a sycophant!

Good times.

I drove through the main park, the old park that has been in the city since the city began, like Central Park for NYC (before you write me and tell me that they didn’t start building Central Park until 1857 and New York was founded in 1609, I know, but I was just making the point that the park is old), a comfortable place where all of the drunks go in the afternoon. Great trees, comfortable benches… and prying eyes. The moment I pulled in the circular drive that led to the main lot, all eyes were on me, and they followed me, some with smiles, some with glares, until I drove away. They weren’t doing anything wrong, anything obvious to me anyway, so I had no reason to contact anyone about anything.

All in all it was a good day for me. I got a real taste of the work, I saw the plight but I did very little to change it. Did I make a difference? No, probably not, but my primary directive—to be a visible element in the city—was accomplished by only me driving around the various parks for three hours, listening to people getting tickets, cops calling in break-in searches with the alarms wailing in the background and numerous stops on a variety of things, nothing too serious. Well, unless you’re the guy behind the movie theater who’s going to have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life; that’s pretty serious, I guess.

I ended the shift with an interview for the local paper (the very one I’m trying to write a column for that they’re dragging their feet about…but then if you’ve been following the technological turmoil with the country’s newspapers, you’d understand the long wait) and a photo session to accompany the article about the volunteer program. I’m in the background, actually standing behind the truck in a quasi-natural pose you find in cigarette ads in magazines… you know, the high-society party where everyone is smiling or laughing, usually holding a high-ball of some kind of whiskey, wearing sportcoats with patches on the elbows and turtle neck sweaters… I’m the guy behind the bar, like Wilson on “Home Improvement,” so you’ll barely be able to see me… if you get the local paper here next Wednesday. If you don’t, no big loss. I've got lots of pictures of me if you need one.

The end result of today was the fact that I had a new responsibility, authority, a tangible purpose to a etheral and lofty goal. Patrolling the streets of the city offered me a chance to play sheriff, and it was pretty fun.

I’m just glad I didn’t have to use the radio for a call; at least not yet.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Insult and Injury…Lucky Me

I hadn’t driven my Volkswagens in a while, and it is something that gives me mixed feelings. We’ve had a horrific hot spell this past summer; three months of triple-digit numbers, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in an un-air-conditioned car for any amount of time. Plus, I rarely have anywhere to go. I don’t like to leave them for long, as it takes only seconds to steal an unlocked VW, so I’m not going to leave them in the City Hall parking lot while I’m doing my volunteer work and I couldn’t go… well, other than that, I don’t really go anywhere. And I can’t drive the Single Cab at night; you can barely ready by the six-volt headlights much less alert mind-numbed drones that I’m driving down the road.

I stand in the garage a lot and look at the three of them, peacefully sitting there, all three enjoying probably the best time of their lives: They’re well taken care of, protected like ostridge eggs, and I am as proud of them as if they graduated from Harvard. Their last mention on these pages was the one time where all of them ran flawlessly; moments afterwards, they each took their separate path down the equally slippery slopes of disrepair, all without me even turning the key.

Betty, the Super Beetle, has a fuel issue, a minor clog of some kind that robs it of a smooth idle and creates a nice flat-spot of power at the stoplight. I pulled off the carburetor and rebuilt it, blowing out all of the passages and cleaning out the jets, and since I didn’t have a new fuel filter or the time to go through the fuel lines all the way to the tank, that’s all I did. I adjusted the mixture and the idle and it seemed to run better, but there’s a sneaky underlying power issue that I can’t put my finger on. It’s like going to work with a cold; you know you don’t feel well but you’re putting on a stoic demeanor, albeit with a declined production output for the day.

It’s my fault really. There’s only 200 miles on the car since the restoration, finished two years ago, and at that level, the car has barely broken in, much less settled down into a machine hone into reliability.

Sally, the 67 Beetle, needs a valve job and an oil change. I’m worried about the new engine that was just recently installed. It’s a gorilla in a mini skirt: It looks great as long as the gorilla doesn’t move. I should mention that at any moment, I wholeheartedly expect the engine to either grenade into an expensive molten paperweight at the slightest hint of elevated rpms or just tear itself loose from the transmission mounts and launch into a low orbit above my house.

The battery is strong so it starts every time, but idles like a Sherman tank; I admit that I enjoy the growling saber-tooth tiger sound and the slight vibrations are soothing, but I haven’t had enough seat time to feel comfortable enough with the car on long trips. Oh yeah, I already told you that I’m hearing a clunking sound during shifts into and out of third and fourth gears, which only means one thing: clutch cable tube malfunction. The only fix is to pull up the carpet and cut two sizable holes in the tunnel, certainly not a do-it-yourself job for me to tackle, and I’m not looking forward to taking it in for repair. What’s the worst that could happen? The tube could completely break rendering my clutch useless; it’s happened before when the clutch pedal on the Super broke off—its drivable but tricky without a clutch.

The Single Cab was my star pupil until today. When I compared the three I always said: “The Super Beetle starts great but runs poorly, the 67 starts poorly but runs great, and the Single Cab starts great and runs great.”

Since I’ve owned it, it has been plagued with unforgivable electrical problems, and I thought the worst was behind us, as it has worked without question since Christmas, so much so that I thought it was ready for the cosmetic improvements I’ve been planning. Since January 2008 marks it’s 50th birthday, I wanted to have it restored by then, new paint and bodywork, new interior, etc. I figured the tribulations of the running gear were solved, at least abated for a while. It has been about two months since I’ve driven it for any length of time, and the last time I started it was just to pull it out of the garage to sweep the floors.

This brings us to today. Today, I thought it would be nice to run down to Subway, grab a couple of sandwiches for Kara and I and pick up some frozen yogurt as well while I’m there. On top of it, for a special treat for me, I figured I would take the Single Cab… for all of the reasons I mentioned above. I didn’t want to take the 67 because, for one thing, it isn’t registered or insured yet and I didn’t want to run the risk, and the last time I took it on this very trip—Subway and frozen yogurt—it decided it didn’t want to start for about 20 minutes, just wouldn’t turn over. Once bitten…as they say, so it stayed home while I jumped in old reliable for the short trip.

I couldn’t remember the last time I got gas and I would have sworn under penalty of perjury that it was nearly empty. In fact, the last time I took it out anywhere, I swung by In&Out for hamburgers one Friday afternoon and I sat in the drive thru sweaty with worry that the engine was going to shutter to a stop after sucking the gas tank dry. So, today, the first stop was the gas station, and I was going to take advantage of the falling prices by topping off the tank.

Gas pumps are funny if you don’t work them right, especially on an old car. If you don’t get the nozzle in as far as possible, that rubber sheath won’t accordion up and the pump won’t work. For example, when you’re filling a gas can, you need to pull it back before you can start to pump. I crammed the nozzle into the tank and it filled in one gallon and stopped. I reinserted and it leaked out a tenth of a gallon before clicking to a stop again. I assumed I was having this problem, so I pulled back the rubber sheath and continued to pump, and after a few tenths, it stopped. I had only pumped approximately a gallon and a half into an empty eight-gallon tank. The next time, I was going to really fix it for sure. I held the nozzle away from the tank so it wasn’t touching anything, pulled back on the accordion sheath and pulled the trigger. I heard a gurgling sound, and to me, that was a reassuring sound that everything was working, gas was flowing, and the tank was filling.

A second later, gas sprayed out of the tank, all down the side of the Single Cab and all over the ground. Oh yeah, and all over my hands, which was especially nice, and all of the money I was happily saving by filling up on the downswing of the gasoline industry ended up in a puddle under my truck.


Before I replaced the cap, I looked in the tank and saw that the fuel level was about three inches from the top of the neck. It’s not like I could siphon it back out right then and there (there was an In&Out straw in the cab of the truck, but I don’t think it would have worked so well), so I got back in and put the key in the ignition.

And there was a hint at my first problem. The thing didn’t start. I’m used to it firing up at the very notion of flicking the key, and now the starter rolled over itself in that groaning wail that moaned of an electrical problem. It did start, rather reluctantly, after three or four slow cranks, and if I was a smart man, I would have gone home and traded cars… but I’m not and I didn’t.

The trek from the gas station to Subway was uneventful. I hit all four signals, of course, but it was nice to drive, relaxing and unusual. I always have an unusual experience when I drive them; as it is outside of my normal events. It’s the only one of its kind on the road usually, and the car gets looks, some smiles and some puzzled. It makes me feel good that maybe some six-year-old will tell his folks at dinner tonight that he saw a weird car that he’s never seen before. That’s what I like.

I ordered the food, waited while Beavis and Butthead behind the counter debated whether it would be “more awesomer” if “that Japanese dude who ate all of those hot dogs in 10 minutes” would come and see if he could eat a six-foot sandwich in one sitting or if they’d rather see some regular person plow through three foot-longs in one of the booths. Since I ordered three sandwiches (I had a coupon), I weighed in with my opinion that I could probably do it. I could probably eat all three feet of the sandwiches I was ordering. They looked at me with skepticism and then begged me to sit down and try it. I told them that my wife would be disappointed if I ate her sandwich, and I told myself that if they bet me a replacement sandwich for Kara that I’d do it. They didn’t offer so I left, and that was probably the best thing I did for myself all day long.

In the frozen yogurt place next door, it was an exact opposite scenario. High school girls always run the place; I’ve never seen an adult behind the counter and I think the establishment is a castaway from “Bugsy Malone.” I’ve never seen a boy there either, for that matter, at least one that didn’t look like he sang soprano in the choir and enjoyed shoe shopping. It’s probably one of the reasons boys don’t go for frozen yogurt jobs too much, as I’m sure they’re seen as “chick” jobs. However, both of the girls tried their darndest to look like Paris Hilton, at least their interpretation, and I would be willing to gamble that if someone came in there without wearing pants, one of them would have said—in their best impersonation of the floozy—“That’s hot” just because she’s been dying for just the right opportunity to say it for months.

It goes without saying that I had to navigate my way around all of the listless boys that hang out there, boyfriends, suitors, wooers… who knows, but none of them are actually eating frozen yogurt and it is hard to order a half chocolate, half strawberry regular cup of yogurt when the girls is making googily eyes at some mop-headed lanky skater punk who uses the word “yep” like an urban illiterate Shakespeare.

Back in the Single Cab, I turned the key and nothing. It rolled, wheezed, chortled and stammered, each time more faint than the last. The battery was dying, squeezing out the very last juice in the bottom of the carton and it just isn’t enough to turn the heavy flywheel. Sigh.

I sat there for a moment, muttering swears of frustration while giving the battery a chance to gather together the last remnants of strength for another go at it. Nope. It just isn’t going to do it, and of course, my “woohoo, I found a parking space right in front of the store” mentality, made me park downhill, headed in, when I suspected that I might have this problem, and I passed up plenty of parking spaces at the top of the lot's incline. Dummy.

Now, granted the Single Cab only weighs 2200 pounds (2207 exactly) but pushing it out of a slumped in park space to higher ground, in sandals no less, isn’t entirely easy, but not impossible. A nice woman, whose husband bearing a kid on his shoulders and who held the door for me at the frozen yogurt place, offered some assistance. Well, I’m sure she was volunteering her husband’s help, and I don’t know why I politely refused, but I did. Maybe I don’t like to be a nuisance or I don’t want to involve other people in my problems, because once they start helping me, they’re obligated to see it through to the end, as it is nearly impossible to come up with a convincing excuse to leave the scene before my car starts again.

So, I shoved it out of the parking space hole that it was resting in and toward what I thought was an uphill part of the lot, about 25 yards away. My plan was to kick start it, something I’m no stranger at doing, as I had done so to the Super Beetle probably 100 times in our 18 years together. Sitting there at the top of the lot while I caught my breath, I felt like a pilot staring out the cockpit window at the runway before him and saying to himself, “Not enough space, not enough; we’re never going to make it. We're going to crash into the trees.”

There was very little I could do short of pushing it around the corner of the lot; the 25 yard of near-flat terrain would have to do.

I shoved, trotted along beside it while pushing at just over a walking pace, and when I was nearing the end of the lot—toward the sunken space I had come out of—I jumped in, threw it into second gear, dropped the clutch and gave it some gas. It sputtered. My heart raced (It wasn’t exciting, remember, I’m out of shape). I fluttered the pedal like a survivor on a deserted island with his last match stoking a swirling wisp of smoke in the desperate anticipation of staying alive another night.

It started and purred like nothing ever happened, so I headed for home, glistening from a light sweat. Then I noticed that my knee started to hurt a little, like I had dragged a sharp finger nail over it, nothing too serious to worry about, I was sure… so sure, that I didn’t bother to look down at it until I got home. I remembered banging my knee on the door as I jumped in but I honestly justified that there was nothing on my Single Cab that would hurt me, like a friend. Seriously. Maybe I was a little light headed from pushing.

After pulling the VW back into the garage and killing the engine, I examined my knee and there was a deep wide gash sliced down the top of my knee! Gads! How did I get that? I examined the door frame for anything jagged, and I finally found the source: There are a dozen exposed “cheese head” screws that hold down the door panel, and under one especially nasty looking one, I discovered a surprisingly large scrap of fleshy-colored skin, my skin, enough to cover the gaping hole newly etched on my knee.

Then it started to hurt, as if seeing it and seeing the source woke up my mind to the fact that I earned a pretty deep gash. What an ending to a disappointing little trip to provide dinner for my family.

An extra fun insult to add on top of my injury (which came after the original insult) was the taste of my foot-long sandwich. I don’t know how many of you have ever drenched your hands in gasoline while you’re filling your tank, but for those of you who have, you know that merely washing your hands several times won’t get rid of the smell. All through dinner, as I raised my sandwich to my mouth and my hands near my nose probably 50 times, my tongue tasted ham, but my nose smelled nothing but gasoline.

Let’s just agree that ham and cheese with a pungent aroma of gasoline wafting around your face doesn’t say good eats.

Maybe next time I’ll try the Super Beetle. It has yet to fail me on the road.

**Forgive the pictury goodness of my bloodfest, but I figured a graphic illustration to go along with the story would make for a nice touch. Frankly, I'm more disgusted by the amount of hair on my knee than I am the wound. It's like Sasquatch. What's up with that?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Where Do We Come From and Where Are We Headed?

Every now and again, usually when I’m stuck in a situation that I don’t want to be in, be it if I’m in a meeting and bored silly only wishing I could be somewhere else or I’m learning “common sense” information… like the other night, I drift off into a waking sleep and daydream about my own reality.

As part of my civic volunteering experience, I had to attend a radio/communications seminar at the police station here in town, where they filled us with common sense information about how, when and why to use a police radio during our patrols. At one point, I checked out, stared straight ahead and left my body for a minute. It happens every so often, as I transcend my own reality, my own present tense and step back to picture myself in whatever situation I’m in, in this case, sitting in a dark room watching a Power Point presentation about police radio etiquette. I see the back of my head, my shoulders, my arms and most of the rest of me before I “return” to reality. It isn’t though I’m mentally impaired for a few seconds; if someone said something that got my attention, I would respond, so I’m fully conscious, just zoned out. Picture a high school senior in economics two weeks before graduation and you’ll get the idea.

Part of “returning to reality” for me is an acute, finely tuned self-awareness. I become fully conscious that I am me and that I am sitting in that chair, living this life in this moment on this planet. I am me, the only me ever created and every time I make this revelation, no matter where I am, I wonder two questions: How? Why?

How did I get here and why am I here? These are two of the greatest questions man has ever asked, from the time cavemen peered up from the fire and at the strange lights in the sky to today. Where did we come from? And then that leads me to the ultimate question: What happens when we die?

The Bible would have you believe that man was created a few days after the universe, and my faith forces me to agree with this without question, but that doesn’t it make it true. It also tells us that Noah built his infamous Ark only 4000 years ago… and we know for a fact that isn’t true, so I wonder about the timeframe of Adam and Eve, if that’s how it happened.

Then again, biologists, anthropologists and those that follow the exploits of the HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin who suggested that mankind was developed from the theory of “survival of the fittest” would have us believe that Adam and Eve didn’t happen and that we have evolved from monkeys.

These two theories are completely opposite of each other. God made man, monkeys made man; which is it? Why is it so complicated? Let’s try out a few ideas, a couple of things I’ve been working on since I first began to think about life and death.

My great Adam and Eve theory is simple and it satisfies everybody from Charles Darwin, and Donald Johanson and Tom Gray (they discovered Lucy, that wonderful Australopithecus found in 1974 that is claimed to be 3.18 million years young) to Pope Benedict XVI. Here it is: Everyone is correct. God created multiple Adams and Eves and he created evolution, both at the same time.

Let that soak in for a minute. It isn’t sacrilegious, just my interpretations based on what I have read.

God was hedging his bets, and lucky thing he did because that Adam and Eve we know about didn’t work out so well, so he relied on other Adams and Eves nearby and evolution to populate the world. Genetically speaking, how did Adam and Eve do it? They had Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel and then was banished…and it is said that Adam and Eve had more kids (Seth specifically), but they’re not 100 percent sure if there were others (Bible: “And begat sons and daughters.”—Genesis 5:4). In the same thread, it says Cain had a wife. “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methushael, and Methushael begot Lamech.”—Genesis 4:16-24)

Where did all of these wives come from if Adam and Eve were the first man and women on the planet? Well, let’s say that maybe they weren’t. Eden was just one place on the planet, yet people have been found everywhere. The Bible suggests that Adam lived for 930 years and died, according to the chronological system created by Archbishop Usher—who said, in 1664, that the world began on October 26, 4004 BC—that Adam died only 130 years before Noah was born. How is it that Adam was the first man alive, but he lived long enough to watch the world populate enough (and to become corrupt enough) to make God wipe everything away by the big flood… if you believe that happened, of course (but I’m not going to get into that right now)?

Well, let’s suggest that it is genetically impossible for two people to populate the six billion people currently inhabiting this planet. Consider this: Marry your sister, have two babies with her, have them have two babies together and have those two babies have babies together…I imagine the results would be something akin to the Hatfields and McCoys rather than a productive, intelligent society.

Though it is a moot point, as according to the Bible, the great flood killed every living soul on the planet with the exception of Noah, his three sons, Japheth, Shem and Ham and their four wives. When the water’s subsided, Jephath had seven kids, Shem five, and Ham only four. So, from the gene pool of these 16 men (did they have any girls?) came the world’s population… but again, where did the wives come from? Who knows!?!

But a better question is this: How did people end up on the southern most tip of South America long before most of these events were taking place? The answer has two parts: Either God created a host of Edens and filled it with the likes of many different Adams and Eves (all created in the same manner and likeness) and… this is where it gets tricky… and evolution filled in the gaps around the world.

My four grandparents, who were born 100 years ago, had five children among them. From those five children came 14 cousins (of which I am one)…and I can’t prove it but let’s guess that those 14 cousins produced 35 children. Of this lineage, since all of my cousins are still alive and so are their parents (with the exception of one) it is safe to say that after 100 years of genetic regeneration, there are only approximately 60 people as a result of those four grandparents. And that took 100 years.

Let’s start with Noah’s sons and, based on this real-life model, see how long it would take for them to populate a world of six billion people. We’ll have to assume a few things to stay within the model. If my four grandparents took part in producing 60 people, we can say that six people would produce 90 people in 100 years (50 percent more grandparents make 50 percent more offspring) and those 90 people would produce 1390 people in the next 100 years… you get the idea. Well, according to my rough calculations, it would have taken Japheth, Shem and Ham only about 600 years to completely cover the Earth with people. But we know that didn’t happen, because even though all of these biblical figures lived for at least 600 years, there’s no way that the geography of the area could support that many people. Plus, it is a proven fact that there were only three billion people in 1960 So, what happened then?

We’re actually getting slightly off track here, so to realign the topic, I will return to my original suggestion that God created the concept of evolution to fill in the gaps of the multiple Adam and Eve groups placed around the world.

Here’s one that will have many a priests and pastors shuddering in their cassocks: Adam and Eve were monkeys. How about that? It satisfies every body’s theory. Religious zealots get their creationism and Darwinists get their evolution. Win-win. It may be unlikely as we are still deriving current mankind from two sets of genetic codes which is impossible, however tantalizing to think about.

Earlier this year, I read in Scientific America that someone discovered some sort of microbial on a meteor that crashed in India and he suggested that is how the Earth was populated, from outer space by a meteor incrusted with the right combination of chemicals that hit the planet at the right speed with just the right amount of heat.

Whatever theory you might believe (or perhaps you’ve got your own), we’re here and we can’t argue that… of course, we can watch “The Matrix” and argue the very concept of reality. But, whatever form of reality you subscribe to or whatever universe or plane of focus you think you might be living in, we are here in some form or another, and we’re going to leave here at the end.

Frankly, we all started dying the minute we took our first breath, but what exactly does that mean? Why do we die and where do we go? Heaven, Hell, Purgatory… Des Moines? I don’t know. I don’t have that answer yet, but billions of people have done it. There are a host of things about death: white light, music, talking to God, fire, brimstone, River Styx, and I don’t want to argue the details of where you physically go, even if that is a concept possible after death.

According to popular spiritual belief, your body is a vessel containing your soul, an intangible ether of swirling persona similar to “the force” in Star Wars, and it goes somewhere and does something after the body ceases to properly function. But where? Let’s first assume that it is returned to Heaven for all eternity, as that is one of the most popular beliefs, but assuming our soul started out in some people factory in Heaven to begin with, why do we come down here to Earth for only 80 or 90 years only to return to Heaven again for all of time? It seems like a colossal waste of resources. Why don’t we just stay in Heaven and forget about all of this Earth business? I don’t know, but it gives me the impression that our time here is the big test, much like they impressed upon you in Sunday School. If you’re good, you go to Heaven, but if you’re bad, you go to Hell… unless you’re Catholic and you can be as bad as you want as long as you resolve your sins in confession moments before you die than you’ll still get your ticket to the Golden Gates.

But what really happens when you die? I say nothing. As a big part of my secretly morbid personality, I “what if” about death quite a bit, so I say that absolutely nothing happens to you when you die. Your body is stuffed in the ground and you’re there waiting. Remember a couple of days ago about what I said about sleeping the whole night long only to wake up in the morning with the feeling that you only feel asleep seconds before? Remember the talk about the relativity of time and how it is different for everyone? When you die, time stops and your soul has no perception of anything. What then?

One of the parts of Revelations is the Second Coming of Christ, and when this happens everyone on Earth is rounded up, separated into the Good Group and the Bad Group (I’m sure with the help of Santa’s list). The Good Group gets to come along with Jesus, while the Bad Group gets to toast marshmallows in Hell. To me, ever since I first heard of this story and saw a painting in a religious book of Jesus standing in a big grassy field surrounded by people, but the important part of the painting (and the part I found eerily fascinating) was that it showed the souls of the dead rising out of the ground. Creepy yes, but it first gave me the theory that everyone goes to Heaven at the same time. Sure, you may have died in 1863, but your soul will stay in limbo until that Second Coming of Christ, whatever and whenever that is.

Again, my morbid curiosity compels me to wonder about death and dying and “the other side” while my sense of self-preservation and responsibility compels me to stick around until my number comes up, but when it does, I’ll make sure to take a lot of notes and give you a full report.

Maybe in about 60 years. Until then, live your life like it is a gift that can be taken away at any moment, but view your death as something as simple as walking through a door into another room.

If you’ve had a good life, I’m sure it’ll be nicely furnished.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Have Shirt, Will Travel

Writer, philosopher and naturalist kook Henry David Thoreau—you know, the one that decided to shun society and live in a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, only to limit his expenditures, his possessions and his contact with others—wrote: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Interesting comment, especially coming from someone we would, by today’s standards of society, have labeled a transient, but it is apt 160 years later even.

Here I stand, trained and in the required uniform of a city volunteer, prepared to go out and help clean up the town, just like Paladin. Tonight, our group of ragtag volunteers were presented in front of the mayor and the city council at the weekly council meeting, and it was nice to be recognized for our efforts. As well it was interesting to see the inner functions of the city, and the first portion of the meeting was surprising jovial, relaxed and disarming in that same manner our grandparents felt during Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio. The mayor came down from behind the impressive architectural structure of the council members’ desk and presented some awards to a couple of kids and a few plaques to the deserving and merited.

Each one of us were called up in our fancy shirts and hats and a presented with a short bio, how long we lived here, what we did for a living and our familial status, and we all received a round of applause from about the 50 people that attended tonight.

It was nice. Nobody gave us the key to the city or a ticker-tape parade as we left, but those in charge got to see some actual results of their plans, something I’m sure might be a rare experience in civic politics at the city level.

It is ironic that I chose Thoreau to introduce this little diatribe because Thoreau can be considered our first transient, a literary bum on the fringes of society, challenging not only his status as a citizen of this world but that of his relationship with the natural order.

Well, the difference between the theories of “simplify, simplify” from pseudo-bum Thoreau and the real, honest-to-goodness have nots that troll the city in search of the basics of life and alcoholism… is that Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and decided to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach.” Homeless people chose their course not because they want to see what life has to teach them, but because they want to hide from those essential facts of life in an effort to self destruct.

And they need help.

That’s where I come in.

I have a shirt and a hat: a new enterprise which requires new clothes.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Time Travel

I was watching "Back to the Future" for the umpteenth number of times the other day and I happily pontificated on what I would do if I had a time machine, which led me to consider the possibilities of such a journey, for which I decided that Marty McFly would be the harbinger of doom for all of mankind if he ever set foot outside his space/time continuum. After such thoughts, much to my disappointment, as I have always been a fan of fantasy and “what if” scenarios, I’ve finally given in and agreed with everyone else in the world in saying that time traveling into the past is virtually impossible… for two distinct reasons:

Reason Number One: You’d kill everybody. Hands down, no question about it, you’d be the new Bloody Mary (unless you went back to the time before she was born and then you'd just be Bloody...whatever your name is), so much so that you would probably fade out of existence seconds after you take your first breath in another era because you’d unwittingly kill your own ancestors. Consider this: Part of history that they don’t bother to teach you in school is that when the pilgrims and the Old World tourists made tracks to the New World and met all of the really interesting red-skinned fellows, they suddenly started dying. America wasn’t conquered by force, but by germs, as the Europeans brought with them vicious little creepy-crawlies the Indians hadn’t run up against yet and their immune systems couldn’t handle it.

Well, image yourself, today, stepping into your flying DeLorean and going back in time to the Middle Ages… or “to witness the birth of Christ” (as Doc Brown so suggests), and you’re standing there peering over the Three Wise Men at Mary struggling through her Lamaze breathing and Joseph is wringing his hands wishing he could have sprung for a motel… and you sneeze. I don’t know. Maybe you have a cold, or maybe the hay in the manger is tripping your allergies, but you sneeze all over the shoulders of the Magi who disregarded the five-dollar gift limit and brought the gold (makes those frankincense and myrrh guys look cheap). All of these nasty little viruses, germs and bacteria that you are playing host to are released on an unsuspecting population.

Everyone gets sick and Pontius Pilot ends up putting the guy who started Mormonism on the cross instead. Let me tell you, a billion or so Christians would be pretty disappointed (no, not that Joseph Smith would be crucified, but that Christianity was thwarted by your looky-looing through time).

Reason Number Two: Where is everybody? Over a year ago, two such conventions were held, welcoming potential time travelers from the future to the present. One was at a convention center at MIT Here and the other was down in Australia Here. At both events, not a single time traveler attended; however, it could be argued that some did and by some future time traveling law or guideline, they are forbidden to talk to anyone, but it is highly unlikely.

Perhaps the second reason isn’t as concrete as I had initially hoped, and maybe the dawn of the 21 Century isn’t that great of a place to visit if you’re from somewhere as exotic as the 36th Century. I mean, really, what if anything monumental has occurred in the past few years to make it pertinent for a time traveler to waste his plutonium on a visit here and now? I honestly can’t think of anything worth seeing again from a historical point of view that can’t be glossed over by more important events… then again, maybe the events in the 25th Century are gaining all of the time travel attention.

I mean, that’s where Buck Rogers went when he traveled through time. Ah, yes, Buck Rogers, and this leads us to our final point of the evening. Time travel is possible, most certainly, but just not in the direction everyone is interested in going. Consider the future, as it is most possible to skip though a few hundred years in the time of a couple.

Let’s ask Einstein. In not so many terms, he suggested a riddle: You’re on a train that’s moving at 50mph and you throw a ball in the same direction the train is moving. The ball leaves your hand traveling at 20mph. From the point of view of someone standing alongside the tracks, how fast is the ball moving?

Easy concept to grasp, isn’t it. The ball, from the point of view of the guy along side the tracks, is traveling at 70mph. Okay, here’s one that’s a little more difficult. You’re on a train again, but this time, it’s going a little faster, say half the speed of light, which would be 93,000 miles per second. You turn on a flashlight, and since light travels at 186,000 miles per second, how fast is the light leaving the flashlight according to the guy along side the tracks?

Did you say 279,000 miles per second? Well, sorry, you’re wrong. According to experiments conducted by James Clerk Maxwell, he discovered that light always traveled at the same speed regardless of its source or its relationship to any observer. It doesn’t matter who was moving and how fast they were moving; the speed of light does not change. That’s a proven fact.

We all know about the simple formula for calculating speed, right? Rate x Time = Distance. For the first question, it is easy to see that the numbers fit this formula nicely. In order for something to travel 50 miles in two hours, it has to be going 25mph. See? Well, when the speed of light is plugged into the equation, there’s a problem because the Rate always has to remain the same, no matter what. Therefore, you have to conclude that either Time or Distance must change. That’s the Theory of Relativity, courtesy of Einstein (who was 16 when he first thought about it…what were you doing when you were 16?).

In our train examples, the speed of light turns out to be exactly the same for both you and the observer standing along the tracks because time, as measured by your watch on the train, ticked along at a slower pace than time measured by the guy along the tracks. Not only that, distance changed, too. For the observer, a one-foot ruler whizzing by on the train would have measured less than a foot. The weird thing is that, for you on the train, time wouldn't seem to be moving slower and your ruler wouldn't be shorter at all—in fact, all would appear completely normal.

Now let's do some time traveling. Go on, board a spaceship and take off for deep space.

As the ship approaches the speed of light, time for you seems to pass as it always has, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and so on through the day. It takes you about five seconds to tie your shoe, but to someone on Earth (assuming they could watch you while you’re in space), you are moving at a snail's pace; it takes hours to tie your shoe. Anyway, you continue on your journey with your shoes nicely tied. You slow down, come to a stop, buy a Moon Pie and some cosmic dust and zip back to Earth at nearly the speed of light. You arrive home, grab a cab to your apartment, unpack, wearily go through your mail, as you’ve noticed it’s piled up quite a bit since you left… in fact, you received in the mail over 200 Happy Birthday cards from your mother. That’s funny; you only aged two years during your flight, but, remember, you were time traveling. Two hundred years have passed on Earth since you were gone.

Congrats! You have successfully traveled forward through time. Now you want to go back? Sorry. According to Relativity, you can only move through time in one direction.

That’s it. That’s how you travel through time. If only we could go the speed of light, but the fastest man-made object so far, the Voyager probe which is somewhere just outside the Solar System, isn’t nearly quick enough. It would have to accelerate 318 times its current speed of 35,000mph to go the speed of light.

The only time traveling we can do now is one day at a time.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Feeling Down? Buy a Pillow

So, I’m back at it again, vainly searching for just the right collection of cotton and batting on which to rest my weary head. Recently, I took my folks’ advice to seek shelter on a feather pillow, the very same kind my father had. I was told that his was made by his mother when he was a kid, and after laying on it for 30-some-odd years, it finally gave up the ghost and disintegrated. Every time I think about it, I picture a group of ducks in mourning standing around a coffin filled with feathers, and one leans to the other: “I never thought I'd see the day that our great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great-grandparents are finally put to rest.”

Thinking that feather pillows, in this day and age, have all gone the way of the Dodo, I was delighted to discover just such an example of bedding in the pillow aisle at the local Mother Ship (yes, Target). I gave it a squeeze and it had a reassuring resistance, heavy enough to support my needs but seemingly soft enough to provide comfort. Plus, it was feathers, the end all of pillow perfection. It's what rich heads rest on! Piled high on the cart, I took it home and looked forward to sleeping with the ducks.

Of course, I doubt they're duck feathers though. It’s probably chicken feathers or dog hair... or synthetic fibers designed to resemble duck feathers. I’m sure people have better things to do than pluck duck feathers and cram them into a cheap pillow for Target. It said feathers on the label…albeit, they failed to mention what kind of feathers they used. Horse feathers?

Either way, I looked forward to the healing help of (insert animal here) feathers to finally put to rest my quest for the perfect pillow.

First Night: I had a headache to begin with, so I figured the first night wasn’t a fair assessment of all that a feather pillow could offer, but after laying on it for nearly an hour, my head felt strange. First off, every time I moved, I could hear the crinkling of the feathers inside the pillow, and it was like putting a seashell up to your ear to hear the ocean. Only I heard quacking instead. It didn’t bother me too much, but what did was the fact that all of the weight of my head sunk down deep into the pillow and it seemed to concentrate on one solitary point on the pillow, and under the pillow case and the pillow sheathing, the solitary point was a single concrete feather, packed in there by an especially sadistic pillow stuffer. The pillow itself wasn't hard and it even had that heavy thud when I first threw it onto the bed, but that one point seemed like a iron beam thrust into my head.

My head felt like I had laid it on the sidewalk for a couple of hours. But then, I had a headache, so I figured I would need to give it another chance; you know, try to make it work, for the sake of the pillow and the 10 bucks I spent on it.

Second Night: The second night, sans the headache, was a repeat of the first night, but I figured out what the problem was: There’s not enough feathers in it. What was happening was that my head was settling down through the pillow, as all of the feathers parted to either side of the pillow like the Red Sea, allowing my head to rest on the mattress and not the feathers. Instead, they poofed out all around me, engulfing my head, so I found myself sleeping on the very corner of the pillow and mostly on my arm that was thrust under the pillow to give it some additional heft.

I awoke disappointed, which has been the usual reaction to a new pillow, and I tossed it on the pile of pillow failures ever growing in the corner of my room. What’s next? Shell out $30, $40, $150 for one of those contour pillows that is designed to cradle my head in luxurious splendor during my sleep? That’s quite a gamble for something that may or may not work, especially for the way I sleep.

That’s the conundrum I’m currently facing; Most of those pillows I’ve run across are designed for the side and back sleeper, of which, I am neither. As I previously admitted, I’m a stomach sleeper, and my favorite position is the “Heisman Trophy,” where one knee is up to the side and one arm is up under the pillow (Can’t picture it? Here), like I’m climbing a rock wall or I’m that crawling soldier in the bag of plastic Army men.

That’s how I’m most comfortable and that’s how I sleep best. Sure, there are other ways to sleep, and I’ve tried them all.

On my back, I feel like I should be in a coffin, as there’s nothing for my hands to do but fold them peacefully across my chest. Also, I snore…not like a hibernating bear, I’m told, but I do buzz through my share of logs when I’m on my back. Side sleeping is out too, as I hate it when any part of my body touches another part of my body while I’m sleeping and on my side, my legs are resting one on top of the other. When it gets hot, they stick together in that uncomfortable way a bare back sticks to vinyl car seats; plus, at some point in the night, I’ll clack my ankle bones together, and that has to be, bar none, the most agonizing pain ever to experience from the knee down. Also, on your side—let’s say, the right side—what do you do with your left arm? It’s just hanging out there and it ends up slumped over my side like dead weight and it always falls asleep to the point that it wakes me up and I have to physically pick it up with my right hand and shake the blood out of it again. Plus, either it sticks out of the covers and freezes all night or it is tucked under with me... then my upper arm sticks to the side of my chest. Sigh.

I don’t need that, so over the course of the last 12,000 nights (give or take 100 or so that I may have not slept on a pillow at all: camping, sleeping in my car… I slept in a bathtub once, didn’t have a pillow then), I’ve learned to sleep on my stomach.

Where’s the pillow made for me? It doesn’t exist, so I’ve been forced to sift amongst the riffraff designed for other types of sleepers and cobble together something that will work. I had somethign that worked rather nicely for me, but it died.

So here I am.

I thought feathers were the answer, but I guess I’m back to the drawing board, yet again.

It’s too bad, as I rather enjoyed the quacking.

An astute reader may have noticed that, besides the initial title, I avoided all of the usual tasteless and lame duck jokes (please excuse that one too)… even the easy “down.” puns that were just begging to be used.

Go on, thank me.

Natalie’s Joke

Natalie has developed for herself a nice sense of humor, and I can tell that she is starting to pick up on things at school. Half of what she says, I wonder where they came from, and the other day, she bound into the room just tickled pink by a new joke she must have heard from the other kids at school. To my recollection, this is the first time she ever told a joke, a standard two-liner with the setup and the punch line, not just something silly she made up.

Kara and I were putting her down for the night earlier this week and she asked, “Do you want to hear a joke?” We couldn’t turn down an offer like that, so of course we said yes. She smiled at the very thought of telling a joke.

“What’s on a cow’s back?” she asked, and then burst into hysterical laughter, and you could tell the way her eyes turned into half-moons and she threw both hands over her mouth that the punch line was just bouncing around inside of her head and she couldn’t wait to get it out before she exploded with laughter.

I can’t remember all the times my brother and I traded elephant jokes (Here, see for yourself) in the darkness of our room late at night and how we spent half of the time trying to suppress howls of laughter before we could even say the punch line. The first one is always stupid, but the 101st one is insanely comical.

That was Natalie, rolling with hilarity before she could even get out the punch line.

We were driving to… where else, right? Target on Friday night and Natalie was in the back seat chatting away about the usual things, taking the “wiggly road” and if she can see Target yet (the road into Target is up on a hill so you can look down at it on the way in), and then she tells me to “slow down.” I wasn’t driving fast but it makes her happy to tell me what to do, I think (she is her mother’s daughter), and then she says, “Slow down starts with S.” We were pretty amazed. Kara told her how smart she was, and then asked her what “smart” started with, to which she responded, “S!” We tried it with a couple of other words, one that started with W and another that started with N, and she got them both right away.


Oh, right, so anyway, “What’s on a cow’s back?”

“His tail.”

Of course.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Life on the Mean Streets

As part of my training to be a volunteer with the city, I had to accompany the Park Ranger on his patrols throughout the city for two two-hour blocks both on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons this week from 4pm to 6pm when the most problems happen.

On the first night, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we first got in the truck, but I was excited all the same. Our first stop was in one of the parks more frequented by transients in this city, on the north side about three miles from my house. We got out and approached a group of five extremely dirty individuals lounging on the grass and surrounded by the usual debris you’d associate with a group of homeless people. Not being in this situation before, I was apprehensive about getting near them, and I think I would have been more comfortable walking up to a pack of dogs than these people; at least with a pack of dogs, you can tell what they might be thinking. I couldn’t tell what they would do upon seeing us, and I figured they didn’t have a whole lot to lose; at least if they went to prison for attacking us they’d get something to eat and a place to sleep.

After making contact with the group, I should express my initial confusion, as I wasn’t sure if I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t start yelling, throwing cats or running wildly in circles on the grass in front of us… or if I was disappointed that they didn’t do any of that.

I expected them to, I think.

I expected more insanity, more Turrets Syndrome and more of the crazy outspokenness I believed ran rampant in the homeless community. I mean, they’re bums, outcasts of civilization, without care for themselves or their surroundings; what should I expect? How should I consider them? My equal? My better? My contemporaries? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I have a job and a house, and I’ve worked hard for these things… more importantly, I have the drive to get these things and to live in relative comfort. If I lost my job (which I have several times in my life), I concentrated on nothing but getting another one and returning to my former status. I didn’t start drinking or ignoring the problem so that it might go away. Bad luck happens to all of us, and sometimes bad things happen to us because we either allow it to or don’t do anything about it once it happened. These people have decided to skip out on being a respectful and responsible part of the community by escaping from reality with drugs, alcohol, crime, prostitution…and mental impairment.

I expected babbling, crazy eyes, conflict, hostility and resent that we—the law—were yet again trying to disrupt their quiet way of life. I expected everything you see on TV about the homeless, only real life and in my face.

Instead…instead, I discovered that they were well mannered, polite, sober (for the most part) and cooperative to the point of respectful. The Park Ranger I was with knew them all by name and he knew their background rather intimately.

And they all knew him.

There was Roberta, who didn’t speak any English and was probably illegal as she produced either a passport or consulate paperwork, and her daughter (I didn’t get her name) were warned to clean up the pots and pans, as cooking in the park is against the law. Roberta was around 50, but looked 100, and had long gray hair that flew about her head in wisps, lines deeply etched on her face and those kind of eyes that didn’t really look at anything, but instead, pierced quite through to some other place. She didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs and wasn’t a prostitute; she just had a rough a few years back in the day and decided that living on the streets was a better route to take. And with her she took her daughter is now probably 30 and knows of no other way of life.

Also in the group was a guy named Vodka Jim, for obvious reasons. I couldn’t place his problem, initially, but he did have the wild eyes, the crazy kind from Peter Lorre’s “M.” He was paper thin, with sunken pock-marked cheeks from bad acne as a kid, dirty blonde hair and several skull tattoos on his arms. He fiddled with his hands a lot and he was visibly shaking. He had a bicycle, and his parents kicked him out several years ago, but they come around from time to time to check on him and make sure he doesn’t need anything. I’m sure there’s quite a bit more to it than that, but that’s all I learned. He was completely drunk, eyes crimson red, neck muscles relaxed and his speech wasn’t slurred but he spoke like he was juggling marbles in his mouth.

The Park Ranger gave a few warnings about the various things—the trash, the pans and the drinking—and we left them there full of promises to shape up or get out of the park. The Ranger is compassionate, more so than I think I might have been, but he’s been working with these people for three years. He knows them all, their stories, their families, their problems. Maybe he sympathizes with their plight or feels that with the right combination of tough love, citations and assistance something will click and they’ll get out of it… and I’ll bet he sees them more as human beings than as misfits of society.

Later on, there were two women pushing a shopping cart down the street, on their way to the homeless shelter about a mile away. We stopped them and took away their cart instead of giving them (another) ticket for possession of a shopping cart. They were nice women, coherent, rational, agreeable, lucid and if you gave them a comb, some makeup and fresh shirts to wear, you could put them anywhere in town and nobody would know the difference. Instead, they’re out on the street because that’s where the turn of events put them and they’re content. From time to time, they get jobs, money under the table that they can use for whatever they need. They both drank a lot, but were sober when we met them—or at least they acted well—and their last job was as stock clerks at Target (not the one we go to), but were “laid off”… those are air quotes, folks, as I got the impression they were fired for drinking.

The following day, I was first riding with the Code Enforcement Officer whose baby this volunteer program was, and we stopped at a series of abandon houses on some forsaken side street because the police had detained an old woman and her five… yes, five shopping carts full of God knows what, for trespassing on private property (the abandon houses). She was the quintessential Cat Lady, as she carried bags and cans of cat food, pooper scoopers, plastic bags and brooms, and I was told that about 30 cats live at these two houses that she takes care of. Behind the short wall, a burned out house was completely boarded up and splattered with graffiti. The top windows and attic vents were scarred from fire, and the inside—I was told—was completely gutted by fire. Several of the houses on that street are in the same condition, owned by a company that is callously waiting for the housing bubble to burst so they can come in, demolish them and construct some retail establishments. Meanwhile, drugs, vagrancy, drinking, and worse (I won’t share with you what) happen on the property, which is littered with broken bottles, trash, cans of food and other garbage. Everything had a sheen of disease to it, and I didn’t even want to lean a bare hand on the block wall for fear of putting it into who knows what kind of filth.

The woman’s name was Patricia and she must have been around 55 years old, completely gray, shaped like a pear, wearing an old dirty black skirt and a surprisingly clean white blouse. She was hunched over and had to twist her head to the side to look up at anyone taller than her (which is everyone taller than Emmanuel Lewis) and she hobbled on thick stumpy legs and black sandals. There were three police officers and five code enforcement officers (including me) on the scene, and we had to clean out the shopping carts (yes, we all wore gloves) and bag up all of her belongings. It was unpleasant to root through a homeless shopping cart—my first time—two were from Sears a couple miles away, one from Albertsons and two without a plaque, and I was very intent on not letting the stuff get to close to me as I helped bag it up, all the while, cautiously observing if anything was moving on the piles of clothes, old newspapers, empty boxes and other debris. The whole time I was wonder what happens to these carts, and I pictured them being returned to the shopping centers and merely slid back into circulation for the next unsuspecting shopper to use; I vowed to being anti-bacterial wipes on my next visit to the store.

The officers called what we were doing “pruning,” because if you didn’t take away their shopping carts and cull down their collection of possessions from time to time, the obsessive compulsiveness that these people suffer from compels them to gather as many things as possible, and her train of carts would be not only endless but quite a blight on the cityscape. I did notice that the code enforcement officers were trying to confuse her as to what bags were hers and what she should leave behind, and a couple of them put several of the bags behind a small wall so she couldn’t see them. Regardless of this, Patricia had a deep desire to possess things, anything, and one officer told me about the time they took away her shopping carts and one of them was full of nothing but dead cats.

She was as insane as they can possibly get, in my opinion. It was clear to her that her problems were society’s, as she felt it owed her. She was upset that the police were stopping her when there was so much “real” crime going on, and she accused some of the police as being thieves, taking her money and things when she wasn’t looking. She repeatedly claimed that she needed all of her stuff, but she didn’t know which shopping cart was actual hers…or what bags belonged to her. She was upset about the cats, and didn’t want to leave them alone (though I didn’t see any), and was horrified to hear that they would call Animal Control on her behalf. At one point, a disheveled man in shorts and a fedora walked down the alley and began to criticize the police for hassling Patricia. “She’s a friend of mine, and you should leave her alone. Are you okay, Patricia?” She didn’t answer. His name was Barry, and he was near homeless (but had a cell phone oddly), living in converted garages and condemned buildings. Funny enough, this year he is running for City Council; I’m not sure what platform he’s running on, but the comedy factor would almost be well worth my vote. After the police told him that he’d be arrested for obstruction, he got on his cell phone, spoke to someone for a while, and then announced our little civic group we had gathered that, “They’re on the way for you.” We were puzzled, of course, but I was told that he always calls his lawyer (poor guy) and he has the phone numbers of various council members. Barry in ’06!

We came upon Peter at a freeway off ramp. He was holding the standard “please help me” sign and was wearing an old t-shirt and desert camouflage pants. Though he was only 25 years old, his thick dirty blonde beard made him look much older; blood red eyes didn’t hurt either, and when he came over to talk with the Park Ranger, he was clearly drunk. He was abused as a child, and later on watched his father murder a boy roughly his age. Now, his grandfather takes care of him when he can. At one point, he was doing well, had a job, a car, and it looked as though he was pulling himself back up, but then, one day, let go, got a DUI in the car, lost his job and found solace on the streets again…and in a bottle.

Then there was a call of a naked guy in a park, showering with a hose. By the time we got there, the police had been called and they had him in custody after a brief chase, so we didn’t even bother to go near the scene for fear of getting in the way. I’m sure it wasn’t the funny naked guy you’d see streaking a Dodger game or the naked guy expressing his freedoms at a peace rally. This was homeless naked guy…

I think learned a little bit about people in my two days patrolling the streets of this city. I saw some things I had only disregarded as filth from my car as I drove by, but now that I’ve seen them up close, it is hard to fluff them off as less than human and animal like, though sometimes their actions beg to differ. I don’t feel sorry for them, like I thought I would, because now I understand that most all of them choose this lifestyle. They’ve chosen to drink and do drugs and not get help. Yes, I felt bad that people had let themselves get like this, but it isn’t as though nobody’s trying to help them. Patricia refuses care at the shelter and Vodka Jim, according to him, doesn’t have a problem.

You can only callously stand back and observe someone self-destructing, and there’s nothing you can do about it, especially when the person doesn’t want to do anything about it themselves. There’s no helping those that won’t help themselves, and that’s where I draw the line on my conscious. I don’t feel for them; I can’t. There is no amount of money you can give to an alcoholic to keep him from drinking or to a druggy to keep him clean. Plus, every dollar they get from some sympathetic person on the freeway off ramp, and every free needle or condom or blanket or pile of clothes they get from a shelter is only one step further into the entrenchment of their lives, further encouraging their beliefs. Either they’re so far diluted in their way of life that they don’t know or understand any different or their sickness (one of many, I’m sure) won’t allow them to see the rational side of society, the handouts and the help up from the streets.

Give them nothing, and they’ll come looking for help. Keep hounding them, like society’s children who constantly misbehave and don’t conform to the norms, and they might just wake up one day, realize that their lives are on the brink of destruction and ask for help or they will die. For now, shelters, churches, programs and random people who thrust a dollar out of the rolled-down window at a stoplight are just sustaining them.

One thing I didn’t get from my tours around the underbelly of society, and that is the answer to “how?” I don’t understand how someone can let themselves live like that. At what point do you hit bottom, look up at all you are missing and all that is happening to you, and seek out help? There was one man we came across, an older man, 65 or 70, who has a full-time job, but makes minimum wage and can’t afford a place to live near his job so he lives in his truck. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and he minds his own business. He has enough money to buy himself food and gas for his truck, but otherwise has nothing but work. We didn’t actually meet him, just drove by where he was currently parked, and I had more respect for that one man than I did for the entire collection of 25 homeless people currently leaching off of society in my city. He has nothing, but he’s trying to make it work and has been for years. If you don’t have any family or friends or anyone who can help you get you started back into the civilized world again, there are countless charities that cater to this exact thing. So, why? Why won’t they accept help?

When we went back to the first park at the end of the shift yesterday, we came upon Vodka Jim again, who was stone cold sober and sporting a brand new portable CD player his father gave him… yet he’s homeless because he chooses to be.

I just don’t get it. Maybe they’ve given up on themselves and I can’t possibly fathom why.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What the Buggy Hell is This?

You never really sit down and realize how many thousands of strange bugs there are in the world until one of them strolls onto your patio and starts accosting people like he owns the place. This unusually odd looking bug, half beetle, half praying mantis, half cricket marched along the base of the house on the patio yesterday, and nothing seemed to bother him as he investigated his new surroundings. Usually, when you pat the ground near the back end of a bug, he’ll scatter away, but this one had the moxie to turn and charge at my hand!

At first I thought it was a cricket of some kind, but then it looked slightly more evil in appearance than a cute lyrical cricket. For starters, where’s the violin? And this one has these separated buggy eyes that acted independently of each other, and when he was challenged by my patting, some sort of pincher device unfurled on his back and spread out menacingly. I hope that there aren't any more of them out there, as they looked like a vengeful lot, and I can see my house overrun by little beetle whateveryoucallits looking to even the score for the death of their friend.

And he was quick on his feet, like a six-legged Carl Lewis...not quick enough as it seems.

Natalie, at first was apprehensive about going near it, but after I showed her that it wouldn’t hurt her, she was quite enraptured by the little thing…she even gave it some food from Elsa’s bowl. It didn’t eat it, of course, but she was very interested to watch it scamper around the patio... no doubt, running for its life and probably saying to itself: "Why'd I leave the nest during the day? Why? Why?"; that is until Elsa discovered it. She lumbered over to where we were crouching to look at the bug, “Whatcha all lookin at? Oh, hey… Can I eat it?”

And so she did.

So much for the mystery bug.

What’s Your Phobia?

Everyone’s afraid of something it seems, and nobody is either so solid in mind and resolve or so secure in their own skin not to be afraid of one thing or another. Me? I’m afraid of unpredictable things like quick moving mice and fast spiders. Mice and spiders by themselves don’t bother me, but when they’re free to run as they please, there’s no telling where they’ll head…and that just freaks me out. I’m afraid of other things too, the usual, really: Falling, drowning, electrocution… you know, the normal things that usually kills a person.

I enjoyed Gary Larson’s “Far Side” for many years until his early retirement in 1995; I always got a kick out of reading them, and one of my favorite panels shows a kid being chased around a kitchen table by a pair of Timber Wolves with this caption: "Luposlipophobia: Fear of being chased by wolves around a freshly waxed kitchen floor, while wearing only socks on your feet." That’s great, and it led me tonight to wonder this simple question: Since phobia-related words are always big, cumbersome and hard to pronounce, is it possible to have a fear of big words so much that the mere phobia that describes your condition scares you?

Apparently there is.

According to Urban Dictionary, Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of big words.

Ironic, ain’t it?

For a complete list of real phobias, click Here.

Monday, September 11, 2006

I Saw My Feet at 199

For the past 10 years I have been engaged in a nutritional experiment of sorts. Scientifically, I hypothesized that a 23- to 33-year old man, of otherwise normal health and fitness, can eat as much as his stomach can hold for 10 solid years without any side affects to his health, his fitness, his longevity or his lifestyle. I wanted to prove without a shadow of doubt that I wouldn’t gain a single pound by living this way and I would still be able to run the quarter-mile in the same 52 seconds that I did when I was much younger.

To facilitate this experiment, I just needed to eat what I wanted…all the time, with no regard to any consequences; rather my life has been a free-for-all cafeteria of indulgences, knowing neither boundaries or limitations of what I will eat, when I’ll eat it and how much of it I’ll try to ram down my gullet at any given sitting. “All You Can Eat” was a personal challenge to best any previous record I had set. Since I’ve been married and somewhat responsible for my own nourishment, I’ve slowly expanded, ballooning up well past my optimal weight for my height, settling well into the 200-pound range.

I’ve been hovering around 210 pounds for nearly a year, and if you were to compare a picture of me now to one taken 10 years ago (don’t worry, I’ll spare you), it is as if I’ve swelled from some kind of exotic bug bite.

Something is going to give: Either I will die early from gluttony or I will drag out a most unpleasant life filled with illness, disease and geriatric ailments that plague the unhealthy.

Therefore, it has been decided that the free-for-all is winding down to a close. No longer can I, in good conscious for my own well-being, can I keep up this way of life. The kitchen is not longer a come-as-you-are kind of place where everything is free for the taking without regard to nutrition labels, quantities or content. No longer can I eat 10 scrambled eggs for dinner, nor can I snack on a box of Teddy Grahams dipped in cake frosting. A mixing bowl full of cereal topped with a quarter gallon of milk and a half-cup of sugar is a thing of the past, as is 32 Little Debbie cookies in two days, a bag of chips, two rolls of Ritz crackers, a carton of Pringles, all 24 Twinkies from the box, a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a large pizza, three hamburgers, two Double-Doubles (and fries…and a strawberry shake), five Taco Bell bean burritos, 18 inches of Subway sandwiches, two-liters of Diet Coke/Pepsi a day… you get the idea.

Did you see lettuce or carrots or spinach in that list? Nope, nowhere to be found. How about a garden salad? Nope. A bowl of mixed vegetables? Not even close. Frankly, I’ve learned to be lazy, as it is easier to pick up the phone and order a pizza than it is to microwave a bowl of veggies or toss up a salad in a bowl. I like salads; I always order one when I go out to eat, but I rarely eat them here.

Since Kara’s been working on her weight, every pound she drops (and she’s cruised by the 25-pound mark) makes me look a pound fatter. Am I inspired to follow in her footsteps? No, I don’t like to be told what to do and a rigorous regime such as her program is too fastidious for my tastes. I plan to cut out the garbage in my diet, maybe see what it is like to take a walk around this neighborhood and start feeding my body some food that’s good for me… for a change.

I’m sure Elsa would appreciate getting out of the yard.

I’m tired of being tired. Either I’m asleep or I want to be. I’m sick of waking up in the middle of the night because of some horrible food I ate (in mass quantities) is turning south on me in that slick, greasy feeling of eating a seagull pulled from an oil spill. I lack energy; I’m lethargic, sluggish, sloth-like… but with an impeccable ass-groove on the couch where I while away the hours staring into the idiot box (at reruns, no less).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a born-again epicurean by any stretch of the imagination, but the increased nitrates consumption that I enjoyed last week really checked my views of my own mortality. Sure, I’m not old, but I’m not getting any younger. Given my family history, I’m about a third of the way to the finish line. Being sick last week, made me realize that food—in great amounts—can actually kill you (they don’t write that on the package), so I’ve decided to lose some weight, nothing drastic, just enough to get down to what I think would be a good weight, 190 pounds.

The good news is that I’m halfway there. This morning, much to my surprise, I looked down at the scale and it blinked on 199. It was an eye opener, as I haven’t seen the number 199 on the scale in a number of years…as far as I can remember at least.

It was good encouragement, but as the day wore on—though I only had a couple glasses of Pepsi—I gained two pounds, perhaps I sapped moisture from the atmosphere. I don’t know. So, wish me luck, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve actually wanted to lose something.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

We Break It; We Fix It

I was looking forward to today…at least for a week, as today is the day the new appliances arrive and I was looking forward to installing them. The good folks at Lowes called last night to let me know that they’ll arrive during the prerequisite four-hour block of time between 11am and 3pm, so I had steeled myself on the couch to sit there and wait three hours and 59 minutes for them to drag in my new appliances. However, much to my surprise, the clock had barely rested on 11am when the doorbell rang. I had them dump the boxes in the front room and take away the old ones that I had removed yesterday and left on the driveway.

As I sat on the floor in the triangle of new appliances with the various installation instructions strewn around me, Kara’s first and only question: “Are you regretting that you didn’t have them install them for you?”

At that point, the day was fresh, and I was happy to put together the new appliances, so spending another $300 bucks for some guy to come into my house and make me feel like a white-collar professional who owns a screwdriver and some kind of saw, but I don’t know where they are… or how they work.

And hey, it only took one trip to Home Depot, definitely a success in my book.

First up should have been the microwave, but I pushed that until second and tackled the dishwasher first. It isn’t the easiest of the three (that would be the stove), but it wasn’t the microwave, which requires drilling holes in perfectly good walls and cabinets. The dishwasher went in without trouble, expect for one missing part that I needed to retrieve at Home Depot.

Back at the old house, I had to replace the garbage disposal under the sink, and at the time, I was perplexed that the new disposal didn’t include a power cord. Either the new one was missing or part of the installation instructions recommend scavenging it from the old one. I still don’t know why that is, but yesterday, when I was pulling out the old appliances, I wondered if this was the same situation as with the disposal. Just to play it safe, I pulled off the electrical cord, drain hose and supply line from the dishwasher and the gas supply connection from the stove.

I was right, none of these appliances came with these things (except for a new drain hose on the washer), so I started the day with a nice pat on the back. However, the trip to Home Depot involved a connector for the fresh water line, and while I was there, someone actually helped me beyond any reasonable expectation. I figured I would replace the copper fresh water inlet pipe from the wall to the washer, and he suggested that instead of spending a lot of money for copper that I get the stainless steel model instead… at it came with the appropriate connector to boot. Nice.

Long story short (for once), all of the appliances went in easy as could be. The mounting bracket on the microwave nearly matched the old one, but I had to drill new holes for the top mounting points and for the cord as it is in a different location than the old one.

Natalie helped. She seems to enjoy my tools, as every time I had to go to the garage to retrieve another one, she wanted to come along and get one of her own. I needed a big wrench, she got a small one, and once she had a fist of tools, she was well into the project, proclaiming: “We break it; we fix it!” as if it has become some kind of family motto or something. Every time we got new tools, she’d announce “We break it; we fix it, right Daddy?”

That’s right, honey.

She was elated when we used her purple level (that I got for her at Target…for $1) to make sure the stove was perfectly level. I taught her how to use it and she helped tell me when the bubble was in the middle. What a big helper.

It took us four hours to install everything (including the trip to Home Depot), and I think it went smoothly. Nothing blew up. I’ve still got all of my hair and fingers, and that makes for a good day. So, did I regret not having them installing the appliances for me?

Not one bit because I had a great helper.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Photograph

It has been around for nearly 190 years but the concept is three times older than that. Joseph Niepce, a failure at drawing, and his primary fascination of lithography didn’t pan out after his artist son was drafted to fight in the battle of Waterloo, he turned his attention to capturing images that he referred to as heliographs, Greek for “writing from the sun.” He is credited with shooting the first known image (shown here), a low-quality washed out picture difficult to decipher. It shows a building, with a tree to the left, and since the exposure lasted eight hours, the sun had a chance to shine on both sides of the building.

This was in June or July 1827, after 12 years of research and experimentation. Excited with his results, Niepce moved from France to England to request the assistance of the Royal Society, which was then the leading authority for all things relating to science, but since they had a strict rule that they would not publicize any discovery that contained an undivulged secret, they turned him down. Dejected, he returned to France and met with Louis Daguerre in 1829, and in one of those unfortunate twists of fates, Niepce died four years later and never enjoyed the fame and popularity of his invention.

Daguerre took over the experimentations, developing new plates on which to capture images, reducing the exposure time down to a half-hour and discovered that the images could become permanent if they were immersed in salt.

Leading scholar and well respected historical painter Paul Delaroche was asked by the French government to head a committee to study the new Daguerreotypes. In his report, he declared, "from today, painting is dead!" which turned out to be a similar and mistaken comment that has been attributed to the development of the telephone, radio, television, Internet…each one supposedly leading to the demise of the former. In fact, an interesting side note is that one would expect the invention and proliferation of the cell phone to herald the end of the pay phone, but it is just the opposite as there are more pay phones in operation today than ever.

Photography today is taken for granted, easily enough with the advent of camera phones, digital camera, webcams, security cameras and hidden cameras. Photography is everywhere today, but back in the day where the concept of capturing a likeness of a person, scene or landscape without the use of paint, canvas or, above all, talent, was a remarkable sensation that swept the world as soon as the Daguerreotype was announced. In a book written by Marc Gaudin in 1844, he provides an eyewitness account of the excitement that followed the announcement of the Daguerreotype:

“The Palace...was stormed by a swarm of the curious at the memorable sitting on 19 August, 1839, where the process was at long last divulged. Although I came two hours beforehand, like many others I was barred from the hall (and) was...with the crowd for everything that happened outside. At one moment an excited man comes out; he is surrounded, he is questioned, and he answers with a know-it-all air, that bitumen of Judea and lavender oil is the secret. Questions are multiplied but as he knows nothing more, we are reduced to talking about bitumen of Judea and lavender oil. Soon a crowd surrounds a newcomer, more startled than the last. He tells us with no further comment that it is iodine and mercury... Finally, the sitting is over, the secret divulged... A few days later, opticians' shops were crowded with amateurs panting for daguerreotype apparatus, and everywhere cameras were trained on buildings. Everyone wanted to record the view from his window, and he was lucky who at first trial formed a silhouette of roof tops against the sky. He went into ecstasies over chimneys, counted over and over roof tiles and chimney bricks - in a word, the technique was so new that even the poorest plate gave him unspeakable joy...”

The Daguerreotype was not without competition, as is every new discovery. William Henry Fox Talbot, also a failure at drawing, turned to mechanical means of capturing images. After countless attempts, he developed a process that cut the exposure time to only a few minutes, and, by accident, created a new development process that used paper instead of metal and glass plates.

The earliest surviving paper negative is of the now famous Oriel window in the South Gallery at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where he lived. It is dated August 1835. Talbot's comments read, “When first made, the squares of glass about 200 in number could be counted, with help of a lens.” Quite annoyed that Daguerre was getting all the attention for something he felt he deserved credit for, he became pleasantly surprised to discover that his process was different than Daguerre’s and equally patented, which he did so on February 8, 1841. From this negative image, he was able to develop a positive paper image, the first to do so.

The term “photograph” is credited to Sir John Frederick William Herschel, the only son of a distinguished British astronomer William Herschel, in a paper titled “Note on the art of Photography, or The Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purpose of Pictorial Representation,” presented to the Royal Society on 14 March 1839. He also coined the terms "negative" and positive" in this context, and interesting enough also the pedestrian term “snap-shot.”

He became interested in photography after seeing the results of the Daguerreotype and was associates with both Daguerre and Fox Talbot, knowing first-hand the outcome of their experiments. Herschel took the first photograph on glass in 1839; it shows his father telescope in Slough, near London.

The rest is history.

Like any new technology, taking a photograph was an expensive one-time adventure for many wealthy people. The process was complicated, time consuming and required a great deal of skill and talent to combine the right chemicals at the right times in order to produce any recognizable image. Soon the process was simplified, new equipment was developed and put into the hands of hordes of people.

One hundred and six years ago, the Brownie camera was introduced by Kodak, literally putting the first cameras into the hands of thousands of people. In 1898, George Eastman asked Frank Brownell, his camera designer, to design the least expensive camera possible while at the same time making it effective and reliable. Eastman realized that if the cost could be reduced that more people, especially children, might take up photography which would lead to future film sales. Brownell came up with the Brownie Camera which Kodak started selling in February 1900. “The Brownie” was named, not as a variation of Brownell’s name, but instead after the characters created by the Canadian author and illustrator Palmer Cox, a popular series of characters for children throughout the 1890s. By adopting the name and using the characters in advertising, Eastman gained a major marketing advantage, and the term “Brownie camera” has been synonymous with popular photography for the last 100 years, producing the line of cameras well into the 1960s.

Today, one would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t own a device that takes pictures of some kind, and the vast majority is certainly digital. But, technology may be the problem, as the digital camera may be the worst development of the photographic genre in the preservation of the world around us. It is temporary, transitory, everything paper photographs are not.

When is the last time you held a digital image in your hand? When was the last time you opened a photo album only to discover you pictures were corrupted? Yes, I have a digital camera and yes, I use it extensively to record everything about my life and the lives of my family… and sometimes I use it to capture the images of the dumbest things. The difference is that I print them out, creating a hardcopy paper evidence that we actually existed, unlike those that may have recorded their child’s third birthday on a Beta tape. How can you play it back?

There is something magical about a photograph, especially if you can get past the subject matter. If you can stripe away the emotion associated with the image—you baby or your long lost grandmother—and see it merely as a person in a picture, it becomes a time machine. It is one of the reasons that black and white photography carry with them an aura of artistic quality about it; the color isn’t there to get in the way of what is really important about the picture. If the picture is good enough and the photographer knows what he is doing, attention is immediately drawn to a specific point in the picture—the eyes, a smile, the focus of the image—and then the viewer is led through the photograph, which is where it really tells a story.

Take for example this portrait by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), one of the 20th Century’s most instrumental photographers in making photography an acceptable art form along side painting and sculpture. It helped that he took pictures that resembled the finer arts. In 1902, with camera clubs all the rage, he organized an invitation-only group dubbed the “Photo-Secession” with the main goal to elevate mere picture taking to an art form, “a distinctive medium of individual expression.” The elite group of shutterbugs, including Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White and Alvin Langdon Coburn, published “Camera Work” a quarterly photographic journal.

When you look at this picture for the first time, what do you see? Eyes, right? As human beings, we strive for communication so it makes perfect sense that we look directly to the eyes first; it is a portrait photographer’s key to an emotional story within the picture. What’s next? Did you look at the mouth, maybe the nose? I saw the mouth and then my eyes dropped down to her elbow. Did yours? The three locations, the eyes, the mouth and the elbow are all related in emotion and those are the actual subjects of this picture. An akimbo elbow shows impatience, disappointment, disenchantment maybe? She looks as if some element of her life—or at least something in her field of vision—is disturbing. But wait, look at her other hand, the one grasping the fence. It looks strained, desperate to hold onto something tangible, solid and reassuring.

If this were in color and not black and white, all of these subtleties of light and dark, the one great contrast, would be lost. The fence would be brown, the trees and mountain behind her green and her skin probably a little off of pink, but there would be tones of color. All of the emotion would be lost. The subject would be an older woman standing by a fence in her backyard.

But it just isn’t the case, which is why this picture lends itself closer to art than just a regular snapshot you’d find in anyone’s scrapbook. But who is the woman in the picture? Ironically enough, the subject of this photograph is Stieglitz’s wife from 1924 until his death, a famous painter in her own right, Georgia O’Keeffe. Throughout their time together, he took hundreds of pictures of O’Keeffe (and later nude shots of heiress Dorothy Norman) and these photographs are often considered the first pictures to suggest that singular areas of the body have the potential to be considered art.

Do you see it now?

Photography can be haunting. Physically haunting in some cases, as in the case of the Chiapas Highland Mayans around the communities of San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Mexico, who are still afraid of cameras because they not only don’t like being exploited by random tourists and get nothing in return, but on a deeper level, they feel that when someone takes a picture of them, the impersonal exchange of the photographer is robbing them of their chu’lel, a complex Mayan concept of the “vital energy” or “life force,” something that all Highland Mayans share with other objects. It isn’t their soul a camera robs in question, in this case, but instead it is akin to someone walking into their house without knocking—an impersonal action the Mayans detest.

Take this photograph for example. What do you see? Again we look at the eyes first, but this time we see something darker, slightly haunting. Her puffy jowls pulls those eyes down and the shadows provide a deep sunken appearance. She dressed as Little Red Riding Hood with her basket in the forest on the way to her (by then dead and devoured by the wolf) grandmother’s house. The camera isn’t capturing her image as much as she is staring it down, demonically. Black and white… rather the absence of color, this time, doesn’t do the emotions of the image any favors. It darkens the red of her cloak, the blue of her dress and the green of the trees, whereas color would brighten this photograph tremendously. Believe it or not, but she’s a blonde… and just to give you a sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this little girl’s uncle called this portrait of his niece “a gem.” And this little girl? Why she’s Agnes Grace Weld, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s niece (on his wife’s side), and the man behind the camera was none other than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man that represents everything exciting and beautiful about a child’s imagination… you may better know him as Lewis Carroll.

Pictures like this one and millions of others are especially haunting because they show a person who is in all likelihood, dead. If you look at it like that, you are quite literally, looking back in time to a person’s life, something no painting could ever capture. There is no life in a painting, at least, an semblance of reality because a painting is only a facsimile of nature, regardless of how accurate the artists.

The next time you look at a picture of someone, a woman standing by a fence or a little girl playing dress up during story time, look beyond what your eyes actually see. You’re missing most of what the photographer was trying to tell you, but most importantly, remember that you would never have been able to even see that photo if someone didn’t preserve it all these years.

Get your digital images off of your computer, onto acid-free paper, and into a photo album. Protect that album as if you were protecting your future. After you’re long gone, they are all the remaining evidence that you ever existed. Do you want your life stored on an irretrievable hard drive of an antique computer that is resting at the bottom strata of the local dump for all eternity or maybe in a museum showing what it was like to be alive during your era of history?

. Perhaps the Mayan’s were onto something: Maybe your life force can be stolen by a camera. I know when I see a picture of an old ancestor in my family tree, I see a tiny bit of myself in that grainy black and white.

All of this from a photograph

web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post