Monday, April 30, 2007

Sore (adj.)

People get sore quite a bit. Sleeping the wrong way, lifting things, or running into stuff are all easy ways to bruise or strain ourselves, creating a sense of discomfort on the skin or in the muscles for a short time. Being sore can be a big inconvenience, but it is also something I have come to live with and even cherish in a way. Soreness makes me conscious of things--of myself--in ways I would not be otherwise. While a set of sore eyes after reading all day is a little painful, it is also a reminder that I do have eyes--a fact I take for granted most of the time.

I think I might have a higher tolerance for ongoing discomfort than most. A combination of amblyopia and strabismus causes my eyes to pull against each other, making my eyeballs and the muscles around them feel stretched and sore. I was also diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease as a child. I've never gotten it treated because a) it was "growing pains" for a long time, b) doctors always suggest the easiest and most ineffective treatment first, c) by the time something actually needed done, there wasn't the time, and d) insurance companies are bastards. It hasn't gotten better, so I've been used to feeling my tendon pull my tibial tuberosity outwards from where it is supposed to be for almost nine years. Some times are worse than others. There's always a mild discomfort I've grown used to, but in inflamed spells it can keep me awake crying. I am very conscious about my knees and eyes.

I was an early teen when I figured out that the pain in my eyes and knee would probably never go away...at least not for a reasonable price. Part of me always laughed internally about people complaining from lifting weights and running--those seemed temporary and mild in comparison. I still believe that modern people and city people lack an innate toughness that older people and country people possessed, and I regard that toughness as a virtue. It is why, except in extreme cases, I refuse to take pain medication. In the immortalized words of Captain Kirk in Star Trek V, "I need my pain!" I believe that my body is pretty much what I am, and I like to be conscious of all its unique quirks.

Townhouse (n.)

I have assisted in moving Kerry's possessions, as well as many of my own, into the townhouse which will become our mutual residence on June 23. It isn't much yet, but the basic layout of our home is visible. Once the finer emplacements of our existence are meticulously arranged so as to appear organically strewn about, it will make an absolutely awesome home for the two of us. I can't wait for the new life...the good life...and the townhouse has become something of a symbol for that.

One thing that Kerry and I both have thought about, though, is whether to call it a townhouse or an apartment. Townhouse, when spoken, seems like a pretentious word to rural Arkansan ears. I more often refer to it as an apartment in speech. While it is called a townhouse on the lease, it is in an apartment complex. It has crossed my mind that putting up with uncontrollable second story temperatures and paying the extra money entitle us to the right to say, "we live in a townhouse," but apartment rolls off the tongue much more easily.

Either way, I have always been fascinated by vertical living spaces. One apartment complex I would have considered, but didn't seem desirable to Kerry, was a charmingly run-down place on top of a mountain overlooking the Arkansas River. The complex was a series of buildings virtually built on top of each other, reminding me of those industrially vertical places which abound in Japanese manga and anime. The roads were a series of twists and turns that would have been incredibly fun to bike down, even if destructive on the knee. The townhouse is like an internal version of this exterior: a tall, narrow staircase separating the arrangement into two tiers. I really do adore it.

I'm also a fan of very low, spread out spaces. My dream home would probably be something like Bjorn's abode as described by Tolkien in The Hobbit, but that's a different entry.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Cellphone (n.)

Six years ago, I got my first cellphone. Since then, I have gone through three of them--all Nokia, all Cingular. I was enraptured by the gadgets at first, but I have become leery of them over time. Granted, they do network people on a scale still unimaginable to many, maybe most, human beings. The cellphone has made life more convenient, easy, and fun! But what else has it done?

My cellphone angst probably started when I was in high school, for two reasons. The first is that I had to take it with me whenever I drove anywhere. At any point in my meditative drives, teenage courtships, or conversational meals, parental authority had its way of tearing any moment into shreds to the tune of William Tell. Aside from getting a call in the heat of passion, nothing--and I repeat, nothing--is more annoying than watching a plate of piping hot grilled shrimp go cold while being grilled about coming home. If I turned the phone off for a movie, I'd have to call back as soon as it was over and justify it to worried parents who would assume the worst until notified.

The other annoyance stemmed from my cellphone's free minutes. Every night at nine o'clock, free time began. I would be obligated to call whomever I happened to be courting at nine sharp, and the furies of teenage romance would be released if I didn't happily talk for at least an hour--taking advantage of all that free "connection" time. Whether we had anything to say or not was irrelevant, because we had cellphones and free minutes! The phone would buzz and vibrate with ignored incoming calls, piling up to add even more return call time later. I actually became thankful for an enforced bedtime, because it gave me my only excuse to disconnect.

While I've been in college, the world has become more acclimated to cellphones. It is no longer considered rude to take calls at dinner, ignoring your co-diners. It has become odd for a conversation not to get cut into by an mp3 ringtone. Every day, I am subjected to countless one-sided conversations I have no vested interest in, and every night, I can be jerked from my sleep by some nut who thinks it isn't bad manners to call at midnight for now apparent reason. We generally admit that talking on cellphones in the car is a bad idea, but we do it anyway. What we should really be angry about is cellphones on sidewalks.

The devices do serve a useful function. When I wrecked my truck, I had a direct line of communication with my parents by which to summon them out of the ether to take me home. When I reflect on all of the aggravation it has caused in terms of people worrying about me, though, I would rather have used the wrecker's phone, found a payphone, or hitchhiked home. Humans have to be open to uncertainty to a degree. It is the nature of our ephemeral existence. Calling when I start home and right before I get there to keep everyone on the other end informed of my hour and a half travel status is unhealthy.

Conversationally, cellphones also have their pros. I enjoy staying in touch with the people I love. I can call Kerry with problems, concerns, questions, or just things I want to tell her and get an immediate response. We can tell each other about our days before we go to sleep, and wish each other good morning when we wake up--as if we were already married. But we also have the silences, the moments where we run out of things to talk about and make noises into the receiver, and the times when both of us would rather be doing something else but are too polite to say so. There are times when if we were together, we could just enjoy being ther. Being silent with someone, as noted by Mia in Pulp Fiction, is really cool. But it just doesn't work over phones...

Three days ago, I dropped my cellphone and broke it. After graduation, I'll go home and slip my SIM card into my older model (which I sorta like better anyway) and re-establish my network. When my phone broke, my biggest concern was that I had effectively nullified a very thoughtful Christmas present from my parents, not that I had broken my cell. I have enjoyed the past few days--fewer distractions, fewer interruptions, and a much greater value and appreciation of that value in terms of the conversations I do have.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Browse (v.)--continued

In a fun, postmodern twist, browsing has evolved beyond being a means to an end and has become a legitimate activity in and of itself. The journey has become a destination. We see this in channel surfers who flip through endless television programs and commercials without watching anything. We see it in the people who keep one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the radio dial, demonstrating an inability to finish any single song. Last semester, I get into the habit of accompanying any of my friends on their trips to Walmart. I would follow them around the store, look at and fiddle with things that caught my eye, and leave without buying a thing.

The most intense part of eating out in a group is deciding on a restaurant. Sniffing all of the candle jars on the shelf is inevitably better than taking one home to burn. We feel obligated to try everything on the menu before returning to our favorites. One of the biggest college pastimes is to browse through people on facebook rather than interact with them in real life.

I've always been a book and game browser. Of all the times I've hung out in Hastings, I've only walked out with a purchase a fraction of them. I like to see what is new on the shelves and see if anything catches my interest. If it does, I'll pick it up, look at the cover, read the reviews, scan a few pages of text, and then put it back. The next time I come into the store, I might repeat the process. I have done this to the same books for months before buying them.

And games! I have to know what Hastings and Walmart have in stock at all times or else I feel out of the loop. I seldom make purchases, though. I'm more likely to find a new game, be reminded of a game that was out two years ago, and then amazon it. I have made myself somewhat of an academic in the field of what computer game were in stock when and where.

With so much stuff, why not make browsing a hobby? It is pretty inexpensive...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Browse (v.)

Much of our modern American lives consist of browsing. Our civilization has given rise to so many different venues and options--it should astound us. Throughout most of history, people had relatively little freedom of choice in deciding the minutiae, much less the grand scheme, of their lives. There simply weren't that many options. The level of subsistence didn't allow many frivolities, and those that existed were hoarded.

They are still hoarded, but there is so much to go around that we still have a staggering amount of decision-making to do in comparison with any other people in any other time. We are free to choose between jobs, residences, mates, religions, loyalties... In our spare time, we have millions of diversion to pick and choose from for entertainment. Consider all of the movies, books, games, and pastimes there are, and it becomes clear that we are decisive creatures whether we realize it or not.

From hundreds of available restaurants, we can pick one at the drop of the hat. Then, we can choose between dozens of meals at any one sitting. Compare this to eating out of the same home-grown storehouse all year long. When we walk into a movie rental shop with thousands of options, we can choose one in a few minutes. When we browse book catalogs, we can pick one out of millions for silly subtleties that shouldn't matter at all. We browse through clothing, television stations, radio channels, vehicle models, apartments, blogs, and people as if we were born to it--and we were.

We're browsers. We made the internet. If we have all of these options to browse through now, what will our children's children have in the decades to come?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Toothbrush (n.)

The toothbrush is perhaps the singular most important accoutrement of modern civilization. Some assign this role to toilet paper, but I tend to notice my mouth much more than my rectum.

Taste and smell are the hardest sensations to escape. When I'm tired of seeing, I close my eyes. If a noise annoys me, I can put in earplugs. Aspirin or alcohol can deaden my sense of feeling. But taste and smell are always there. Even when the dentist shoots novocain into my gums, I can taste the metallic numbness. And even when sinus infections have my nose utterly ravaged, I still smell like I have a sinus infection. These two senses are always there...

The first thing I notice in the morning, after my alarm, is the rancidness of my breath. If I do not eat or brush my teeth posthaste, I'll lose my appetite until lunchtime. When I get up in the middle of the night, I either have to eat or listerine before I can sleep again. I can keep the naturally accumulating stench at bay while awake by eating, drinking, and chewing gum, but it is only a mask for the truly putrid natural state of my mouth.

There is so much bacteria in the human mouth that some of it is anaerobic. These little buggers can't survive in the presence of oxygen, but are shielded from it by the layers upon layers of other bacteria. Isn't that gross?

Look at the people in civilizations where there aren't any toothbrushes. Their mouths are like open, festering wounds. How much more unpleasant does that make eating, talking, breathing, and kissing? Maybe that is why they often have arranged marriages: nobody would consciously choose to be that close to another person's bad halitosis.

I can't imagine how miserable I would be in a world devoid of toothbrushes. Perhaps I would get used to the stench and take little notice when my yellow and black nubs began festering. It makes me shiver to imagine. As it is, I cherish my toothbrush, and those of everyone around me.

Pray (v.)

Bring of a missionary baptist family from the Bible belt, I've seen a lot of this. I'm not including meditation or thought exercises in this; I'm referring to the act in which people honestly think they are conveying their will to God.

People don't always expect their prayers to be answered. I have seen large groups pray for specific things for years. They stand, they bow on their knees, they sit before meals, they make circles at the front of the sanctuary, and sometimes they just randomly break out into prayer at work, social gatherings, or wherever. I have seen them do this and more, to absolutely no avail most of the time. Is their determination that they can communicate with God shaken? Not in the slightest. Perhaps they did not pray earnestly enough, or perhaps God "in his infinite wisdom" chose not to answer the prayer for the good of the supplicant or to answer it in an unnoticeable way. But Got heard. Absolutely.

Praying has become a sign of devotion, I think, just as much as it is an attempt at divine communication. By kneeling or putting their hands in the air, people automatically become more Christian (ironic, if you ask me, given Jesus's teachings). When people want to appear earnest, they fold their hands. When they want to appear deep in thought, they bow their heads and close their eyes.

Another way prayer is used socially is to express sympathy or concern. If I were to be hospitalized tomorrow, I would get just as many "I'll pray for you" comments and cards as anything else. When I have a discussion with a devout Christian, said opponent can always walk away with the moral high ground by saying, "I'll pray for you." It really gets annoying.

I really do wish that I could call down the personal attention of an omnipotent, benevolent divinity when I want it--or that anyone could, for that matter. I wish that praying for hungry people would actually get them food or that praying for amputees would make their limbs regenerate. It really is a romantic notion. One thing prayer does accomplish in such situations is stealing credit. When someone works long and hard to quit smoking, credit is given to someone else's prayer. When a heart surgeon saves a family member's life, it was really prayer. When I failed to yield while turning left at a green light and got rammed on the passenger side of my truck (I was sleepy), it was my parents' prayers for safety that kept me alive, not the fact that I was sitting on the driver's side... Even when nothing happens, it might have if not for prayer.

But I can't help but wonder how much of a waste of effort prayer might be. Again, I'm not referring to the intrinsic benefits such as self reflection and thought focus. Does prayer actually channel divine force on the behalf of human beings? If not, how many who are placated by praying for orphans, widows, and the poor would actually adopt, visit, or donate funds that instead go to maintaining an opulent "house of prayer?"

I can't decide whether praying is an overall good, bad, or value neutral thing. As a social coinage for saving face, expressing devoutness, and igniting concern, it is pretty effective. But for its intended purposes, I don't see even a remote possibility that it actually works. And it very well might stand in the way of real, human intervention that might make a real difference.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Busy (adj.)

Almost everyone claims to be in this state, from the doctors who sleep at the hospital more than at home to the college freshmen who have 12 hours of classes per week and live on scholarship money. Some people really do have too much to do, and I feel truly sorry for them. When a recent April fool's joke perpetuated the myth that the Honors College was going to shut down, my first thoughts weren't that my favorite institution in the world was going to die. They were, Poor Phil. He's worked too hard to be let down like this. I am thankful that people exist who constantly sacrifice sleep, family time, and entertainment for the good of others, though I wish circumstances didn't require it.

But for many, being busy just becomes the most convenient excuse—for everything. When people can't get motivated to do the things they want or need to do, when they get inexplicably depressed, or when they are simply invited to do things they would rather not, they can absolve themselves of all responsibility by saying, "I just don't have the time." A man can claim that external circumstances have driven him too far or that he has chosen to take on too much out of a good heart, and thus give himself a free pass. He can escape self-reflection. He can escape the critical judgement of his acquaintances. Matters of laziness, apathy, or mere preference can be wiped away and saved from explaining by playing the "busy" card.

I don't know how many people I know well, but I would calculate that three of them are truly busy on a regular basis. The rest just soil the value of those three's productive efforts through their whining. I've watched people claim they are too busy to fulfill their social obligations while playing games, watching television, and even right before taking a nap. Some get into stilted arguments with each other about who is the busiest, competing for the most masochistic life. Are these people serious?

Time is a beautiful thing. We all have an undisclosed amount of it to play with, and what we do with it is our responsibility. I think time is flexible. If there is something I want to do, I have never been unable to make time for it. Priorities shift depending on what I want from moment to moment, and I have to be on guard to keep my perceptions from getting skewed. Slighting my fiancĂ©e of her time with me because I am "too busy," but then being able to find thirty minutes to play a computer game that day, is not a matter of time—it is a matter of poor judgement.

But then again, perhaps I just have never been as busy as everyone else…

Row (n.)

We can put almost anything in nice, straight lines: paperclips, DVDs, cars, dominoes... But when I was a lot smaller than I am now, I thought of rows only in the context of Grandpa's garden. Horticulture was his obsession, and I was Grandma's, so I would hear all about rows on my frequent visits. Grandpa had rows upon rows of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, peppers, onions, potatoes, watermelons, strawberries, eggplants, cantaloupes, beets, pumpkins, and okras. Every day, he would spend hours outside planting, fertilizing, ploughing, hoeing, watering, and picking these rows. He would come in slick with sweat and rife with stink to plop down on his bean-bag and tell Grandma and me all about rows.

Since I hated most vegetables, and still do, it never seemed significant to me. Grandpa worked like a dog to turn rows of dirt into food for which I didn't particularly care. Nothing seemed more mundane or tedious to my micro-machines oriented mind. But after seventeen years in some form of educational institution or another, I begin to see the significance of rows. Granted, sometimes the convention is broken with strange, newfangled circles, but nearly all of my education has taken place in rows--rows of cheaply-made, uncomfortable plastic or wooden desks that sometimes come with the convenience of a foot-rack.

Year after year, I have been transplanted from one row to another to be tended to by different teachers. I have been seeded with basic concepts and had those fertilized and grown into amazing things. Seventeen years ago, I was taught how to scribble out the English alphabet. Now, I am turning in a historical seminar paper and an Honors thesis. Students are amazing things, bearing fruit on a level to which the world's greatest tomato plant can't dream of aspiring.

A stray strike with a hoe can end an eggplant's life. How much more dangerous can mistakes be when made by the tenders of human beings? How much care has to be taken to give the rows just the right amount of nurturing without spoiling them? Just enough knowledge without choking them? I have teachers who knew how to tend to their rows and teachers who didn't, but both had profound effects on me. Now that I am three weeks away from my bachelor's, I can't help but think about my journeys up the rows, and I start to see the importance of Grandpa's rows.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sidewalk (n.)

The name implies that they must be adjacent to streets, but many just go from one possible destination to another. In places like business clusters and universities, sidewalks become streets with their own intersections, loops, bridges, ramps, etc. Many scales of comparison combine to determine the character of any specific sidewalk: bright-dim, new-old, smooth-rough, clean-dirty, high-low, busy-deserted, quiet-noisy, and so on ad infinitum. Sidewalks truly are diverse creatures.

So are the people who walk on them. Every pair of feet that stamps its way determinedly towards its goal supports the body of a unique human being. These humans make their way to and fro, forced into the presence of one another. There is perhaps no place on Earth where people see more of each other than sidewalks. When on roads, we become isolated in the extensions of our bodies we call cars. When we are at our private destinations, we are usually with the same people time and time again. When we are in public places (besides sidewalks), we are usually focused on food, a show, a film, but not on dancing and dodging around each other.

I can tell a lot about people by looking at how they walk down the sidewalk. Do they saunter or prance? Do they look around at the passing scenery or immerse themselves in their individual i-pod universes? Do they walk in silence, talk on cellphones, or greet the people who pass by? Do they walk on the right or left side, or shoot straight down the middle? Do they step on the grass to cut corners or meticulously keep every step in sync with the slab pattern? When I make eye-contact, do they acknowledge by smiling, ignoring, scowling, looking away, or flicking their heads nervously to focus on something else--air perhaps? Do they apologize for bumping into each other or pretend it doesn't happen? When they stop for whatever reason, do they step to the side or remain in place?

There are so many reactions to gauge from the sidewalkers. Even more intriguing is thinking about how I instinctually respond when someone imposes their existence on mine. Even when I am consciously thinking about what I would do if a hypothetical person were to bump into me, I am going to be at a loss when it happens. I am going to react off the cuff, probably awkwardly, and continue about my way. And how I react depends on who I meet. Even if I don't know the person, how I respond to being bumped will imply a value judgment. When I look back on these encounters, I try to peg what it was about their appearance that made me act a certain way--and I never can quite put my finger on it. It makes me wonder sometimes if more was passed between us in those brief moments than I can understand in terms of the five senses.

Perhaps sidewalks are like conduits from one mind to another. And perhaps there is nothing mystical about that claim at all. How many times did I see said theoretical person before the encounter without consciously noticing? How perfectly have I come to examine people's bodies, faces, and movements while silently observing them in the hours I've spent sidewalking? When I approach a door behind another person, I always know whether or not that person will hold it open for me. Always. It is something that has become so mundane that I take for granted.

It would be nice to just wander around and discover the many secrets of the sidewalks and their walkers. But then where would I be going?