Bitter driving

I recently calculated that, in a typical week, I spend between five and six hours driving my car. That’s right: about 3.25 percent of my life is spent strapped in a metal box, powered by highly explosive fuel, moving at varying speeds down a strip of artificial rock surrounded by similar metal boxes. I admit, I am bitter about that discovery. (Are you listening, Bitter Ben?) Until we find a better way to travel—until Star Trek transporters become everyday devices—I can either drop out of life and join a rural commune, or I must continue my bitter driving.

Part of my bitterness about driving comes from the fact that these explosive metal boxes do not all travel in the same way. Some move faster and some move slower. George Carlin had a very funny routine about that fact, one in which he had vulgar insults for those who drove faster than he did and more vulgar insults for those who drove slower than he did. We all know that the highways would be safer if we all drove the same way. Various levels of government have made laws and posted signs about the speeds we should drive on different roads. Some drivers see those signs as mere suggestions, and they work hard to drive much faster, weaving in and out of lanes, dodging metal boxes with explosive fuel. Other drivers—for lack of confidence, or distracted by phone conversations and texts—drive slower than the limit, clogging our cities’ arteries like blobs of cholesterol.

One of the rules which many drivers take only as a friendly suggestion is Slower Traffic Stay Right. This rule has the corollary, always pass on the left. If there is only one lane of traffic, of course, this rule is hard to break. Where two lanes of traffic are traveling the same direction, slower traffic really should stay to the right and people who want to pass should be able to use the passing lane. Only one on road to I generally break this rule. Between work and home there is a four-lane road (two lanes each direction) with a lot of stores and parking lots, with traffic leaving and entering the highway. Here I stay in the left-hand lane for more than a mile, particularly since I will be turning left of this highway when I am nearly home. Of course if conditions allow, I am driving at the speed limit on this highway. I am bitter about those drivers who want to exceed the speed limit, who drive right behind me until I feel that I must be towing their vehicle, or who blast into the right-hand lane to zip beyond me. My bitterness is slightly relieved when I reencounter them at the next traffic light. I’m tempted to open the window and ask them if they enjoyed getting to the red light before I got there.

When three lanes are going the same direction, slower traffic should still stay right and faster drivers should still pass on the left. Depending upon traffic conditions, I usually follow this rule, but sometimes I will drive at the speed limit in the center lane, particularly in an area where a lot of cars are entering and leaving the highway on various ramps. I am bitter about those drivers who could pass me on the left but instead choose to pass me on the right. If they want to drive faster than the speed limit, can’t they at least do so in the fast lane? And why do those drivers who weave around the law-abiding vehicles think that they never have to single a lane change? If they are going to drive at unsafe speeds, can’t they at least let the rest of us have a clue as to where they are going next?

I am bitter about drivers who think that rules are for other people but not for them. I am bitter about drivers whose first priority is to reach their destination as quickly as possible, while safety is far down the list of their interests. I am bitter about roads that merge lanes due to construction or just to traffic design. I would prefer the zipper merge, in which each vehicle remained in its lane until the merge, at which point vehicles then would take turns—one from the left and the next from the right, and so on. Of course I’m not one of those drivers who follows the zipper merge. If a sign tells me that my lane ends in a mile, I get out of that lane as soon as possible. Then I am bitter about the drivers who go full speed down the disappearing lane to pass as many cars as possible. I am tempted to try to prevent those drivers from merging in front of me when their lane ends. Especially when another driver tries to continue to pass more cars after the lane has ended and turned into a shoulder, I want to strand them at the side of the road. In the interests of safety, I resist that temptation.

Driving makes me bitter. Having to drive from place to place can ruin an otherwise nice day. When, oh when, will technology get rid of these explosive metal boxes and offer us a better way to get from one place to another?

J.

Patrick Macnee

Patrick Macnee lived a long and full life. Last week he passed away at the age of 93. I realized that my youngest daughter was not familiar with his work, so I went through my video tapes and found the Avengers episode, “The Hour That Never Was,” and we watched it together.

I should not be sad about the death of an actor I never met, but it seems strange to have “lost” both Patrick Macnee and Leonard Nimoy in just a few weeks. Both portrayed characters on television that meant a lot to me when I was growing up. I look at John Steed, and I see the man I want to be. I look at Spock and see the man I truly am.

Whether he was acting in character or just being himself, Patrick Macnee seems to have been a genuinely nice person. He possessed a soft-spoken charm, which is a very appealing characteristic to have. He could approach life with a strong masculine personality, and yet he could also express a boyish excitement about what he encountered. Steed was one of the first crime drama characters to face danger with a merry quip. Other actors have made that nonchalance commonplace—think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo or as Indiana Jones—but Patrick Macnee expressed it first.

For centuries, audiences have gathered to view drama, and they have celebrated their favorite characters. From the heroes of Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and MacBeth, memorable characters have shaped our view of who we are and who we can be. John Steed takes his place among the entertaining heroes from past times. (He even appears briefly in the Beatles’ cartoon movie Yellow Submarine.) A man can find far worse role models to imitate.

J.

Dave Barry fan

Dave Barry and I moved to Miami, Florida, the same summer. I was there for an internship; he has stayed in Miami. Reading some of his first columns after the move was compelling for me, because I was having many of the same experiences and reactions he had.

Aside from that, Dave Barry and I don’t have much in common. He has made a successful career from his writing; my writing has been little more than a hobby. He makes millions of people laugh with his observations; I often fail to elicit even a single chuckle. Dave Barry is able to describe life in this world with great humor and wit. Even when I disagree with his opinions, I always find his writing entertaining.

At first Dave Barry wrote a regular newspaper column. Over time, it appeared in more and more newspapers. Then Dave Barry started writing books. His first few books were simple humorous observations about home repair, parenthood, and the like. Gradually he developed a richer style in his books. By the time Dave Barry was writing about computers (Dave Barry in Cyberspace), he was showing great writing talent. In that book, he even included a short story which is written entirely in the present tense, and—what is more amazing—entirely in the second person. Dave Barry did not become less amusing or entertaining, but his writing gained substance and actually provoked profound thoughts in his readers. My favorite of his books was written about this time: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys.

I have one post card from Dave Barry. When he wrote about music (Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs), he observed that the city of Chicago does not have an east side. (He was critiquing the song “The Night Chicago Died,” which refers to the east side of Chicago.) Barry suggested that any police officer patrolling the east side of Chicago would be in Lake Michigan. I wrote Barry a letter pointing out that Lake Michigan, like Florida, has a rounded southern boundary. Chicago does indeed have an east side in its southeastern corner, located about where the Everglades are found in Florida. In reply, I received a handwritten, signed postcard which said, “J. Stop confusing me with facts. Dave Barry.” It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Dave Barry has written two novels: Big Trouble and Tricky Business. They are not as successful as his non-fiction humor. He has also turned to writing children’s literature. My personal library holds most of his published work, and some summer I hope to be able to read the entire collection cover to cover.

J.

Four more traffic myths

Shortly after I started this blog, I published a post on three traffic myths. Since that time, I have become aware of four more traffic myths that need to be addressed.

Myth #1: If the car in front of you stops too long at a stop sign, you are free to follow it through the intersection without an additional stop. I guess that some drivers believe that stop signs are about time and not about the flow of traffic. How else does one explain the frequency that one car follows another past the stop sign without actually stopping? The idea of taking turns seems foreign to drivers. At this point I’ve come to expect other drivers not to stop, to the extent that I’m sometimes surprised to see another driver follow the rules.

Myth #2: It is bad luck to be the first car at the light when it changes to green. The common belief in this myth explains the large number of drivers who keep on going in spite of the light changing first from green to yellow and then from yellow to red. The other day, I saw a near collision between a car going straight and another turning left, and both of them entered the intersection after the light had turned red. I don’t know what bad luck these drivers expect if they actually stop as soon as the light has changed to red, but clearly they would not engage in such risky driving without a good reason.

Myth #3: It is bad luck to stay in the same lane of a multi-line street for more than four blocks. Some drivers weave back and forth between lanes—without signaling, of course—because they are slaloming around drivers like me who stick to driving at the speed limit. Others wander from lane to lane because they are busy texting or talking on their cell phones. Some drivers change lanes at random times for no apparent reason. I know of one street in a major city that consists of three lanes, all the same direction. Driving on that street at any time feels like being in the miniature car feature of a parade, with vehicles constantly weaving in and out of one another’s path while all traveling at about the same speed.

Myth #4: Louder is better. I actually saw a sign on the back of a truck in a parking lot which said, “Loud pipes save lives.” A picture of a tailpipe was part of the sign to make the truck-owner’s meaning clear. If the sign had shown a bagpipe it would not have bothered me, but governments require mufflers on cars, trucks, and motorcycles for two reasons: they reduce the noise of the vehicles, and they also filter out some of the air pollution. Vehicle owners who alter their mufflers so their vehicles make more noise are creating more air pollution in addition to more noise pollution. If I cannot hear my car radio over the sound of your engine, your engine is too loud. As I get older and crabbier, I am more likely to mention that fact to you if we are stopped next to each other at a red light.

As always these myths are being exposed as fallacies for the common good of all drivers. You are welcome.

J.

Meditation and prayer

For Christians, meditation and prayer are two different things. Meditation is thinking about God or about something related to God. Prayer is talking to God. In several places in the Bible, God commands Christians to pray to him. The Bible also mentions meditation and encourages it, but in no place does God command Christians to meditate.

Christian meditation can include contemplation on a verse from the Bible or on one of God’s names. This contemplation is generally done in a quiet place, although it could happen anywhere. The purpose of such meditation is to remember the promises of God and to find peace in those promises. A meditating Christian seeks the same benefit that other people seek from meditation, but the Christian focuses on God while meditating (as in all things).

Christian prayer is conversation directed to God. Some Christian prayer involves memorizing certain words (such as “Our Father who art in heaven…”), although Jesus did discourage repetition of formula prayers (Matthew 6:7-8), a practice found in other religions. Prayer can be spontaneous, although believers who advocate only spontaneous prayer often create their own formulas which they repeat (“I just want to thank and praise you…”). In either case, prayer should be sincere. God knows whether or not we mean what we say to him. We cannot fool God by talking to him while our minds are elsewhere. A Christian should mean whatever he or she says to God, for God will not tolerate a liar.

The purpose of prayer is conversation with God. Praying for any other reason defeats its purpose. Imagine a man who says, “Every evening I talk to my wife for ten minutes. I don’t know if she’s listening, and I don’t really care. I just feel so much better every time I can talk about myself for ten minutes.” What wife would tolerate that attitude in her husband, and why should God tolerate such an attitude in one of his people?

Some years ago I read in the newspaper about a park district program which included a meal for children. The leaders of the program had the children say a prayer at the beginning of the meal. Some parents asked the leaders to stop, since the park district belonged to the city government, and government agencies are not supposed to promote any particular religion. The leaders told those parents that the prayer was not intended to promote religion; it merely calmed the children so they would be settled for their meal. I don’t know how the parents felt about that explanation, but in my mind it causes red flags to wave and warning bells to chime. Prayer is not a tool to make children behave; prayer is a conversation with God.

I have prayed aloud in churches, in classrooms, and even with the state legislature. Whenever I prayed, my prayer was directed to God—I did not use the prayer to send a message to anyone else in the room. I prayed on their behalf, as they expected me to do. I spoke to God for them and about them. That is, after all, the reason for praying.

God likes to hear from us. Consider how rude it would be for you to spend an entire day with one of your friends and never say a single word to him or her. Even faithful Christians sometimes act as if they have forgotten that God is always with them. A simple occasional “thank you” for a green light or for a sunny day pleases the Lord. He does, after all, care about us.

I want to learn to meditate as a Christian, but I do not want to stop praying as a Christian. I hope that Christian meditation will provide me some of the same benefits other people have found in various kinds of meditation. Through it all, though, I want to be centered on Christ and his promises, rather than using him as a means to my own happiness.

J.

Grammar Dalek: Apostrophe’s

My name is Salvageable, and I am a grammar Dalek.

I would like to describe a small piece of punctuation that is called an apostrophe. If you are not familiar with that particular piece of punctuation, please look at the title of this post. That little mark near the end is an apostrophe, and it does not belong there. I put it there to be ironic.

The apostrophe has two uses. It signals that letters have been left out of an abbreviation. “I am” becomes “I’m”; “have not” becomes “haven’t”. An apostrophe also signals that someone owns or possesses something, although it is used that way with nouns and proper nouns, but not with pronouns.

People are always getting confused about pronouns and apostrophes. It’s always means it is; if you want to show that it owns something, the word you want is its. You’re always means you are; if you want to show that you—not you, the other you—owns something, the word you want is your.

When a noun or proper noun ends with an s, the apostrophe of ownership is put after the s, and then another s should not be used. The correct form is Jesus’, not Jesus’s. When speaking, the word Jesus’ should sound like Jesus, not like Jesuses. Some style books are now allowing the additional s. This makes sense only if a word ends with a silent s. To speak of something that belongs to Illinois as Illinois’s makes perfect sense, but when Texas owns something, that still should be Texas’.

Sometimes people will use an apostrophe with a plural noun, especially when that noun is not commonly used in the plural. Someone might write, “There are too many n’s in that sentence,” but they would be wrong. There are not too many ns in that sentence, and the plural of n is ns, not n’s.

The misuse of apostrophes is an epidemic that should be exterminated. When I see that a writer has used an apostrophe in the wrong place, my opinion of that writer plummets. Not that anyone really cares what I think about their writing, though. I’m just a grammar Dalek.

J.

Alphabet soup

I usually distrust personality surveys. Dividing all the people in the world into just a few categories seems no more meaningful to me than relying on horoscopes. Admittedly, if one were to matrix the Chinese horoscope of twelve years with the Babylonian horoscope of twelve months, and then throw in the traditional poem about Monday’s child and Tuesday’s child, one would have more than a thousand categories—would you rather be a Taurus dragon who is fair of face or a Gemini rat who has far to go?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator strikes me as relatively accurate and useful, though, and not just because I like the nickname for my personality type. According to Myers-Briggs, my personality type is INT-J, also known as the Mastermind. This personality type seems to be relatively rare, with different sources measuring this type as belonging to anywhere from one to five percent of the population.

DISCLAIMER: I have done a small amount of internet research on this topic. I have a little training in psychology and in counseling, but I am by no means an expert in either field. The following observations are more about me than they are about the Myers-Briggs Type indicator.

The first letter, I, stands for introvert as opposed to extravert. Being an introvert is not the same as being shy, although the two can go together. An introvert is refreshed and empowered by being alone; an extravert is refreshed and empowered by being with other people. Introverts like me can teach a class or deliver a lecture, but afterwards we are tired and would rather be alone. Extraverts would follow a tiring day at work by going to a party somewhere, but introverts like me would prefer to stay at home with a good book. I am not going to belabor the point: many bloggers have written excellent posts about introverts. You may read two of them here and here.

The second letter, N, stands for intuition as opposed to sensing. This distinction is related to how people with different personalities prefer to gather information. Those who lean more toward intuition tend to use past experiences and knowledge already attained to process new information and experiences; those who lean toward sensing tend to be “in the moment,” trusting their senses, and less interested in the big picture. I would guess that Plato preferred intuition and Aristotle preferred sensing. My place in this distinction is not as easy for me to see as is the introvert rather than extravert distinction. On the other hand, when I teach history, I want my students to grasp the larger picture rather than focusing on the details. I do not want them to memorize things they can look up for themselves; I want to give them a reason to look up the details and an ability to understand those details when they research them.

The third letter, T, stands for thinking as opposed to feeling when making decisions. Of course, since I am Spock, I have no trouble accepting this description of myself. For as long as I can remember, I have believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of feelings—for example, courage is not the lack of fear, but rather the ability to do what is necessary in spite of fear. No one who wants to convince me of something by telling me about their feelings will have any luck changing my mind. Give me evidence, logic, and a reasonable argument, and I might change my mind.

The final letter, J, stands for judging as opposed to perceiving. This means that—already being labeled as intuitive rather than sensing and thinking rather than feeling—I now know that I will more likely use thinking rather than intuition to make a decision. Perhaps that is why I could see the introvert and the thinking more quickly than I could see the intuitive part of my personality.

I like the fact that this is a personality type, not a syndrome or a disorder. Moreover, I believe that all four descriptions could be viewed as a spectrum rather than a clear one-or-the-other choice. To be an introverted Platonic Spock does not seem like such a bad thing, though. It may not change much, but at least I now have some short-hand language to describe myself. And now you know more about me.

J.

Bullies

A recent study looked at the victims of childhood bullying, and at adults experiencing anxiety and depression, and it found a significant correlation. Apparently, the team making the study expected to find that children who were bullied at school were as likely to become adults with symptoms of anxiety and depression as were children who were abused by family members. Instead, the study indicated that children bullied at school were more likely to experience anxiety and depression as adults than children abused by family members.

I was the victim of bullies from the fifth grade into the ninth grade. People go to school to learn, and I learned these lessons from the bullies:

* If someone does something that annoys you, don’t let them know they are getting on your nerves; if you do, they will keep on doing it.
* Only mothers and fathers are impressed if you get straight As, write short stories, or learn a musical instrument. Otherwise, those things just make you different.
* The people in charge cannot prevent others from being cruel so long as those others are determined to have things their way.
* The people who consider you worthless may be wrong, but they still can be very convincing.

Not that developing anxiety as an adult is entirely a bad thing. I am a very good defensive driver, since I always expect other drivers to do foolish and dangerous things-I’m prepared for the worst of them. Anxiety has given me useful habits. I never close a car door until I see and feel that the keys are in my hand. I never leave the secure workroom without touching my magnetic key to make sure I can reenter the workroom. Driving to work, I check at least once each morning to see that I have that magnetic key with me in the car. At home, I always lock the doors and turn out the lights before going to bed. If I frequently have a nagging feeling that I have forgotten something important, at least I remember to stop and review my schedule and make sure that nothing has been forgotten.

I could be resentful about the way I was treated years ago, but what’s the point? There’s no going back today to change the way things were. If I face each day with a touch of paranoia, at least I am prepared to defend myself. If I don’t expect people to like me, I am never disappointed by their attitudes, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Every day has challenges, but most days also have victories. As a wise man once said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

J.

Christian mindfulness

In the last few weeks, I have become aware of an approach to life called Mindfulness. I first learned about it from another blog, then did some internet research about Mindfulness, and then was loaned a book about Mindfulness. I am only beginning to learn; I am by no means an expert in this field. Yet my early reaction consists of mixed feelings and mixed opinions about Mindfulness.

This way of life comes from the Buddhist religion or philosophy. Buddhists acknowledge the reality of suffering and of problems, and with that Christians agree. Buddhists see the origin of suffering as desire, and to a certain extent Christians agree with that teaching as well. Buddhists propose that it is possible to stop desiring and so to bring an end to suffering. They speak of an eightfold path that leads to an end of desire and of suffering. Christians find it hard to agree with those teachings. Christians are told to love God above everything else and to love their neighbors as themselves. Perhaps it is possible to love without desire, but that idea is hard to comprehend. More important, Christians are told that they are rescued from suffering and from all evil, not by their efforts, but by the grace of God and by the rescue mission of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I am not prepared to discard Mindfulness because of its Buddhist origins. Buddhism is arguably a philosophy that can be pursued by polytheists, monotheists, and even atheists. As such, it is similar to other philosophies that arose in the world around the same time, including Confucianism and Daoism in China and the Greek philosophers who culminated with Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were polytheists, but Augustine was able to blend the philosophy of Plato with Christian teachings, and Thomas Aquinas succeeded at wedding the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Of the five, I see the best possible blend involving Daoism with Christian teachings, but I am not prepared to reject the possibility that one could pursue Mindfulness while remaining faithfully Christian.

In fact, my biggest concern about pursuing Mindfulness is not that it fails to be truly Christian, but that it may fail to be truly Buddhist. In that respect, I have the same concern about Mindfulness that I have about yoga. Yoga as practiced in the United States of America is generally thought to bring peace of mind, better health, and other kinds of self-improvement. In India, the purpose of yoga is not self-improvement. The purpose of yoga is escape from the self. Hindus practice yoga so that, through control of the body, they can remember that the body is merely an illusion, and that the mind or soul likewise is merely an illusion. The entire point of Hindu practices is to escape self-awareness, to become one with the universe. Reading about Mindfulness, I am concerned about a similar departure from the original purpose of the discipline into an American, self-centered, “it’s all about me” exercise that is meant to feed the ego rather than to escape the ego.

Of course many Americans practice Christianity for the same reasons, yet the origins of Christianity are not concerned with self-improvement. Jesus told his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. He said that those who tried to claim themselves would lose themselves, but those who lost themselves for the sake of Christ and the gospel would gain themselves. The focus of a genuine Christian is upon Jesus, not upon oneself. As John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

I am prepared to practice—or, if necessary, to invent—a Christian Mindfulness, one which keeps Jesus Christ front and center and seeks service to him rather than to the self. Many Christians in the past have pursued such a path: Meister Eckhardt and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing in western Christianity, and a great number of teachers in Greek and Russian Christianity. The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”) is used as the basis for meditation in some Russian Christian groups. As an experiment, I have tried using the words of Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”) as an exercise in meditation. I breathe in with the first four words, pause with the word “know,” breathe out with the last four words, and pause again. It is too soon to say if this sort of meditation is accomplishing anything in my life, but I would be content if it did no more than remind me that God is in control and I am not.

I intend to try to continue this sort of Christian Mindfulness for the rest of the summer and the fall. Over the coming weeks, I expect to post more thoughts about Christian Mindfulness, about Christ and the self, and about the difference between meditation and prayer. God bless.

J.

Well-meant lame advice

One of my out-of-town relatives noticed that I am spending Saturdays at the library to avoid Mrs. Dim and the clatter of her lawn maintenance. He writes to tell me, “Really? Advice—Don’t sweat the small stuff and that is definitely small stuff. Relax and enjoy and focus on your awesome family.”

I ask myself: is this a teachable minute for my out-of-town relative, or should I roll my eyes and ignore the well-meant advice? If he knew that I battle depression, would he tell me to cheer up? I didn’t used to understand anxiety and depression even when I was struggling with anxiety and depression. How do I explain these things to a person who probably doesn’t get it?

“Relax.” I’d love to relax. I’m taking two pills every morning that are supposed to help me relax. I’m regularly in therapy learning how to relax. By the way, my therapist considers it a good move to avoid the Saturday noise since that noise triggers panic attacks. Ever had butterflies in the stomach? How about a sparrow or a finch flapping about behind your sternum? Because that is how I feel a lot of the time, and I would really like to relax.

“Enjoy.” Enjoy what? The sound of the lawnmower and blower and trimmer? The beautiful uniform green lawn that they produce? I’d rather enjoy my clover and violets and daisy fleabane, if it’s all the same to you. I do enjoy my awesome family, but that doesn’t erase my frantic energy when hours of loud continuous noise have me wanting to rattle the bars of my cage. (That’s a metaphor, folks—no one has locked me in a cage.)

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Put that bumper sticker on every car in the city and see if it puts the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors out of business. Anyone who possesses the self-control to label a problem “small stuff” and then be done with it is doing well. Sorry I can’t be one of those people. I have spent a lifetime ignoring emotions, bottling the anger and the anxiety, doing what has to be done and thinking that such self-control makes me a good person. Now that the bottle is open, it’s not easy to replace the lid again.

I do have a wonderful family. The last few months they have been great (most of the time) about understanding what I am facing and helping me through the rough patches. I don’t know where I would be without them. As I try to be a relaxed and happy person, I still remain, most of the time, Spock on the surface and Bail Fawlty underneath.

This is why I blog. I can be Basil Fawlty here without screaming my head off at Mrs. Dim or at my out-of-town relative. Thank you for tolerating my tirade. Back to trying to relax and enjoy.

J.