The man coming toward me in the park, maybe 500 yards up the path, was walking a large, mixed-breed black-and-white dog. He (the man, that is) was bearded and graying, nattily dressed in black pants, a red plaid sports shirt and gray sweater.
Just ahead of me, walking in the same direction as I, was a younger man dressed in sweat pants and jacket and holding the end of a leash attached to a tan Labrador retriever.
Both men were totally absorbed in texting.
It was a slow-motion episode exquisitely orchestrated for a YouTube video, if only I had been quick enough with my cellphone; as it was, I could only watch, fascinated and wordless. They collided at full speed, one cellphone clattering onto the asphalt and one leash dropped. But there were no apparent casualties. The dogs, at least, had sense enough to have steered themselves safely onto the grass where they were sniffing each other with unconcerned abandon. I smiled politely and kept going.
The episode underlined the hazards of texting while walking, which can surely be as dangerous as texting while doing almost anything else. Almost: there are no available statistics on the adverse effects of texting while having sex, which seems popular in some demographics.
“The realization that I may have a problem (along with a lot of other people),” Bilton wrote, “hit me smack in the face, literally, a few weeks ago when I was strolling through Kennedy International Airport, avoiding obstacles with my peripheral vision as I clambered out a text message. Without any warning (as I couldn’t actually see), I was involved in a head-on collision with another man who was also texting while walking.”
Most walking-zombie texters do survive, as Bilton did, with only bruised egos or minimal damage, but that’s not always the case. An Ohio State University study links “distracted walking” to the dramatic increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.
Equally dismal, for the future of the planet, is how texting while walking may alter human interaction, whether texters live or die with their devices. One report, an interview with Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo, suggests an Orwellian solution to texting/walking hazards: a cellphone app that shows the landscape ahead, so that texters can text interminably, and see where they’re going without ever looking up.
Is there life beyond a 2 ½ x 5 inch screen?
It was an invitation to a fundraising event – this writer is on a strange variety of mailing lists – for a pregnancy crisis clinic. A friend who works at the clinic, and whom I respect although our opinions about abortion are poles apart, told me they never pressure or deceive women who come to the clinic. “We just explain that we don’t counsel on abortion,” she says. The fundraiser invitation sounds decidedly less compassionate.
The Shame word tears at my soul.
Thirteen-year-old Natasha, brutalized by more than one relative, is given another chance at childhood through an early abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic. On top of all the trauma she has borne, she is supposed to feel shame?
Or the couple with a developing fetus they desperately wanted and loved, who decide to terminate the pregnancy later in its term to spare their baby a brief life of terrible suffering. In addition to their deep sorrow, anguish and grief, they should be ashamed?
Or the countless young women in circumstances similar to my own: after choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy for widely varying, compelling, always unique, deeply personal reasons because we are rational women in control of our own bodies – we need a shameful scarlet ‘A’ tattooed on our foreheads?
The banners proclaiming “Abortion Hurts Women” – posted by groups that seek to end legal abortion – testify to this fact: The posters work, but the words lie. Abortion is in truth far safer than childbirth. It does not hurt women, it protects women. The words are not true. But they work in exactly the same way that the shame word works.
Some words, even when they lie, go straight to the emotions. Emotional appeals become tools to generate support for political positions which hurt women. They should shame those who seek to deprive women of dignity, health and autonomy.
‘Shame’, ‘hurt’ – the emotional trigger words are being used to turn the clock back to the dark ages when women had no voice, no power, no control of their own lives.
As one who has been hurt, not by abortion but by powerlessness, and who strenuously objects to shaming, I declined the invitation.
Women deserve better.
The Lunar New Year, Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram, is at hand. In honor of the occasion my acupuncturist — this traditionalist writer is an absolute convert to acupuncture – offered a special gift, in the form of instructions about how to start the year in the most auspicious way.
A good start is halfway to success, according to an old Chinese proverb quoted atop the instruction sheet.
“Both the timing and direction of your initial exit from wherever you are on February 19th, 2015 are of utmost importance,” reads the instruction sheet. We are admonished to make our initial exit between 5 AM and 7 AM, or between 11 AM and 1 PM. “To welcome good luck, walk in the South West direction. To invite divine help and wealth-spirit, walk in the West direction. Please do not have initial exit facing the South direction…”
Well, here’s the problem. The only exit from the building in which I live faces south. Walking in a southwest, direction, furthermore, will take me straight into the Post Street traffic, not a good way to start any year. I’m unlikely to get moving early enough to be headed out by 7 AM, and if I wait until 11 there will be meetings missed.
None of this is to disrespect the Lunar New Year.
Depending on which part of the Lunar-calendar-observant world you live in, festivals, rites and customs (such as the above) abound. My current favorite, passed along by a State Department friend newly arrived in Hanoi, is this one: “Vietnamese tradition,” she writes, “holds that, a week before the Lunar New Year, each person should release a live carp into the lake. The Kitchen God then rides the carp to Heaven, and reports to the King of Heaven about whether the people in that person’s family have been ‘naughty or nice.’ The King of Heaven either rewards or punishes the family, based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report.” The tradition strikes my diplomat-wife friend as “A little bit eastern, a little bit Christmas-y and a little bit smelly.” But definitely good for anyone fishing for carp – and unworried about pulling in one with a Kitchen God riding on its back.
Like the eastern mysteries of exit times and feng shui, western religions have plenty of their own.
Soon after studying the instructions about starting the Year of the Goat, I went to a Sunday morning Presbyterian church service about the transfiguration of Jesus. (Transfiguration comes right before Lent, if you’re following these lines of thought.) For serious-but-still-questioning Christians such as this writer, the transfiguration ranks right up there with the resurrection and the ascension. Disputed and discussed from every corner of Christendom (certainly including poor, avowedly neutral Wikipedia), these are central to the faith – and you want to believe, because the faith has such good, basic stuff about how to live in the world – but still. Most Christian beliefs require little more than loving justice, mercy and one’s fellow creatures and working to advance them all. But around holidays we do get pretty zany about Santa and the Easter Bunny; so stockings are hung and eggs are hidden — just in case.
Which brings the story back to personal behavior up to and on February 19. This sideline observer will pass on the carp thing, but my New Year’s Day plan is to exit the building sideways, facing west.
About that climate-change argument…
Snowstorm Barrels into Northeast was the headline on the New York Times at the door; Rainless January sparks fears, fires proclaimed the lead story in the San Francisco Chronicle lying next to it. At some point, the argument begins to seem absurd.
But it is easy to find individuals and groups who maintain that the globe is not really warming, the climate is not really changing, it’s all just part of Mother Earth’s cycle through her planetary life. Climate change deniers even have their own formal designation – which this writer only now learned: Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Deniers. By whatever name, Deniers are those who think we humans have nothing to do with it so we might as well go right on doing what we’re doing forever.
Some of us worry that forever could come sooner, rather than later, if we don’t pay attention.
Watching the ice melt in arctic regions, wishing for air conditioning in San Francisco in January – those things suggest paying attention to fossil fuels probably makes sense. Carbon dioxide sent into the air by the burning of fossil fuels is the proven culprit in global warming. One gallon of gas, when burned, puts 16 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere; the math is pretty easy to do.
We non-deniers worry about fossil fuels (which of course does not keep us from driving cars) but also about little things, like aerosols. Natural aerosols? Lovely. They translate into mist and fog and Old Faithful Geyser. It’s the un-naturals that are problematic, those tiny particles that spill into the atmosphere every time you reach for that handy aerosol can.
“Scientists call airborne particles of any sort — human-produced or natural — aerosols,” explains Carol Rasmussen on NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet site. “The simplest effect of increasing aerosols is to increase clouds. To form clouds, airborne water vapor needs particles on which to condense. With more aerosols, there can be more or thicker clouds. In a warming world, that’s good. Sunlight bounces off cloud tops into space without ever reaching Earth’s surface, so we stay cooler under cloud cover.”
But the bad news is that there are different kinds of aerosols, and different kinds of effects that are hard to predict – so cloud cover becomes sooty haze, and what bothers the people walking outdoors in Beijing can affect people fanning themselves in San Francisco in January.
Which brings us back to the news headlines:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and I think he was onto a larger truth. Of course, Frost – in his “Mending Wall” – was talking about rocks and neighbors, and the poem leaves us with ambivalence about the goodness of fences.
Fences and walls may, at times, make good neighbors – but the big ones tend to be symbols of enmity (think Berlin, Israel, Arizona…) and we just want them down.
A few months ago a high, dark fence went up around lovely Mountain Lake, in the San Francisco park that is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s a city park, but the lake (fortunately for us all) is part of the Presidio National Park and has been undergoing an extraordinary restoration for the past few years. It may not yet be back to the purity that made its water just fine for Spanish settlers (and probably the Ohlone and Coast Miwok indigenous people before them) to drink, but years of accumulated glunk, trash and sludge have been hauled away and the lake’s return to life has been a rare joy to watch.
The problem? Although the waters began to clear and native greenery emerged, a proliferation of non-native fish were quashing any hope of bringing back the fish who once belonged. We’re not talking just a couple of ordinary intruders. It was possible to stand on the beach near the murky water’s edge and watch goldfish the size of ahi tuna swimming casually back and forth. With native fish and turtles long displaced by casually dumped household pets, the lake was overrun with carp, bullfrogs – somebody reported a sturgeon – and who knows what else. This writer remembers the brief residence of an alligator, who famously evaded a gator hunter imported from Florida but was eventually removed to the local zoo.
Presidio Trust personnel tried snagging, netting and every known removal method before conceding that the only solution would be to poison the lake. They chose plant-based Rotenone, which kills everything with gills (and happily not much without) and disappears within three days. Thus the fence went up – presumably it was still not a good idea for gill-free people to be wandering near the water. Almost the moment the solution was poured into the four-acre lake, the alien fish died. They were scooped up by the thousands to be studied by ecologists (who reluctantly went along with the project) to determine their origin and soon composted as a final act of goodness. But the fence, for assorted reasons, did not come down.
And over the long weeks that followed it was as if the park itself was inhabited by an alien being. Children still played on the adjacent swings and slides, dog walkers still tossed tennis balls, this writer still exercised on the bars of the fitness trail – but the now-sparkling lake was hidden behind its foreboding shield. Even when the gulls could be heard returning beyond the black screen, and actually seen if you peered through the mesh, the park felt bifurcated and somehow forlorn. Thanksgiving came and went, Christmas was less merry, the New Year not yet happy.
A few days ago, the fence came down. Mountain Lake, the shimmering heart of Mountain Lake Park reappeared, putting on a show of new life. A few familiar ducks may never have left; now they have been joined by coots and grebes and a spiffy ruddy duck who is apparently courting two slightly less flashy lady ruddy ducks. Western pond turtles, chorus frogs and native fish will begin to return in the spring.
The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.
Where is Robert Frost when we need him?
A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute took a new look at an old game being played – anew – by anti-abortion, anti-women forces. It is called the Personhood Game. If anti-women forces win, a fertilized egg becomes accepted as a person. Which means that every fertilized egg is accorded rights above those of the woman in whose body it is housed – fine for eggs, but pretty dismal for women.
Not a lot of rational people, including rational people who vote, think it makes sense for eggs to be deemed persons. This was made clear last year by the failure of such bills in several state legislatures. Not to be dismayed, players of the Personhood Game have simply switched their energies to fighting contraception. The more contraception bans succeed, the stronger the eventual case for declaring fertilized eggs sacrosanct. Why? Because contraception bans are based on religious doctrines that hold such a view. Though keeping their distance on personhood politics for now, anti-abortion groups including Americans United for Life, the Heritage Foundation, Susan B. Anthony List and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are among those working hard and widely to ban access to contraception.
Is there a disconnect here? Since effective contraception lessens the number of unwanted pregnancies, and thus the number of abortions? Well, yes. But the people playing the Personhood Game simply have their eye on the prize: Fertilized egg wins, woman loses.
Writer/blogger Joanne Valentine Simson, who is credentialed in both science and poetry, has posted a number of thoughtful and informative essays on contraception. Simson points out three critical factors seldom considered in all the arguments for and against contraception: women’s physical wellbeing, women’s social wellbeing, and overall environmental impact. “These are larger issues about long-term human survival,” Simson writes, “(than) the false debate about whether a cell (or cluster of cells with 46 chromosomes) is a human being.” To conflate contraception with abortion simply bypasses every one of them.
But the Personhood Game players are as adept at bypassing reality as they are at steering the debate.
“The influential organizations behind this anticontraception agenda,” writes Joerg Dreweke in a recent, comprehensive Guttmacher policy review, “have compartmentalized the debate, which allows them to pick and choose when contraception should be viewed as abortion and when it should not. They are essentially able to pursue a “personhood” argument in areas where doing so is politically feasible, but at the same time feign moderation by keeping the full-fledged, politically toxic “personhood” agenda at arm’s length. This deception is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy to limit women’s access not only to safe and legal abortion, but to common methods of contraception as well.”
If this seems devious, and underhanded – well, it is. But it’s the way the game is being played.
For women – who are both pawns and victims – it is a dangerous game.
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.
The good people of WordPress opened their Year-End Review with those words – below this worldscape with bursting fireworks – and what blogger could resist? They went on to report that my busiest day was February 24, that one of the most-viewed was a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt from 2013 (Mrs. Roosevelt has nothing if not staying power) and most viewers were from the U.S. “with Brazil and Canada not far behind.” Come on, Brazil? The country of my birth comes through.
The cold, hard truth is that there are plenty of blogs that are viewed 5,800 times a day, of course, but you’ve gotta love the subway train analogy.
The sheer amount of data collected on our life’s work, and our lives, can still give one pause. WordPress is entitled. Without the nifty platform, easy-to-use format, multiple tools and automatic archive this writer would be virtually wordless. (Or restricted to Huffington Post, which attracted way more than 5,800 viewers to essentially these same words, but there’s a lot to be said for freedom of the WordPress.)
But what about Facebook’s now ubiquitous Year-In-Review? Who could resist at least scrolling through her life of the past year (and I hereby admit to posting the thing.) What boggled my mind was the uncanny way Facebook picked almost the exact photos I would have chosen. How did they know? Spooky.
Books have been written – and at least one film made – about The Examined Life, although I seriously doubt the Facebook algorithm-coders have read them. It has to do with trying to make sense of things, figuring out what’s important, sorting the good from the bad. Elevating the good from its place within the ordinary. Occasionally – though the idea was always for one to do it oneself – these Year In Review things may help with such a task.
But any way you look at it, our lives are undoubtedly being examined.
Farewell, 2014, and Happy New Year each and every one.