Thursday, December 27, 2012

Headphones and humans: don’t believe the hype

What I think I see...

The world is going mad. Or maybe it’s just me. I was sitting in the waiting room while my mom was getting a routine medical scan. The place was packed with patients but that’s not what was driving me crazy. Instead, it was what a couple folks were wearing: headphones.
It’s not headphones I object to per se. I don’t have a problem with folks wearing them in public. In fact I’m all for it. Headphones give some (i.e., younger folks) a way to enjoy listening to whatever without subjecting others (i.e., older folks) to their uh, peculiar preferences. Not that I’m a prude when it comes to music. Actually I have fairly eclectic taste. In fact, I love hip hop and rock. Of a certain vintage. But I digress.
The thing I’m obsessed with, and I’m fully willing to acknowledge it may be my own problem rather than theirs, is the size of the headphones. I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s because when last I checked, technology made it possible for headphones to be really small. So small, they call them earbuds. Small enough that if you’re not really looking, all you might notice are wires dangling from somebody’s face.
Instead, a growing number of folks are, in some cases quite literally, running around with what looks like plastic-wrapped bagels over their ears. And I can’t get the image out of my head. Some headphones are gigantic; others less so. But my point is why?
What I really see...
Maybe I’m prejudiced in favor of micro-technology. Or perhaps I’m just out of touch. But it strikes me as wrong-headed that a person would want to saddle themselves with bulky obstructions when smaller, more ergonomic options are available. I see marketing as the culprit. It’s brainwashing people, especially younger ones, into believing clunky is better than discrete.
I remember when there was no such thing as earbuds. I grew up during a time when prodigious headphones were the only option. Eventually they got smaller, but were still clumsy to wear and a pain to carry, particularly when traveling and not in use. Today headphones, with their fancy names, colors and logos, are a status symbol.
Big business and celebrities have convinced Joe and JoAnn Consumer that bigger, pricier, harder to stow headphones are better than smaller less expensive earbuds. Many who wear them think themselves cool and prestigious, just like I did in the shiny pleather platform shoes I nearly broke my neck walking in back in the day. When I see folks sporting large headphones, I’m reminded of workers on the airport tarmac slinging luggage or directing planes with those pointed orange flashlight thingys. It’s driving me nuts.
To be fair, I went online to read about these trendy audio accessories. The claim is they help suppress outside noise and improve sound quality.  I get that. I want my music pristine and crystal clear too – at home. Not so much when I’m jogging or ordering a Big Mac with fries. I guess supersizing was only outlawed at restaurants.
What I'd rather see...
Still, excessive size has its place; that’s why there’s Texas. On a more serious note, this all reminds me of a time when cell phones held the same dimensions of bricks, yet everyone coveted them. And while smartphones are starting to grow in measurement, at least there’s a reason for it: You Tube.
In the end, to each his or her own, I guess. Besides, I’m always preaching about being tolerant of others. And I suppose there’s a place at the table for large yet rational purchasing choices: like that wall-size flatscreen TV I’ve got my eye on.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Don’t let moral panic control the gun debate

More shooting. More mayhem. More calls for gun control. More calls for more guns to control guns. More, more, more…
               Panic is in the air; moral panic. According to experts, moral panic is a collective human condition that involves an extreme social situation in which agreement on action is difficult because the core issue of the matter is taboo. In this case, the taboo is gun control – brought about by various interpretations of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
               A growing fear is sweeping the nation that has the potential to spiral us toward remedies that may not be appropriate or adequate response to the issues of extreme violence we’re facing. Make no mistake, America is experiencing a significant cultural dilemma that continues to threaten our way of being. Yet, according to an old adage, fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.
               When fear envelopes decision making, it can foment excessive and even irrational action. We begin to imagine we can control all situations with force when it may not be possible. In most cases, control is an illusion. Just ask any battlefield officer when the shooting starts. And with respect to responses of violence in civilian society, courses of action are typically disproportionate to the actual threat posed.
               America seems to be experiencing a collective anxiety attack as a result of the recent shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Our worse fear happened: murderous havoc was perpetrated on our culture’s most innocent of innocents -six and seven-year-olds. The response has been predictable: fear and anger. The burning question in many people’s minds is what immediate action do we take, right now, to protect ourselves and loved ones? It’s a reasonable query for the short term. Yet, might an equally prudent question be, what’s at the core of gun violence and how do we address it?
               There are two distinct camps of thought: gun control and gun proliferation, and it’s all or nothing because America’s blood is up. Been that way for a while. Folks have stakes in the ground based on their own personal experience and understanding of violence – what causes it and what stops it. Right now, it’s ‘either or’ among people. Might there be middle ground? Is there room for compromise? At this point, there seems not to be.
               Fear can be a powerful and controlling factor in a person’s thinking. Right now, most are letting fear drive decisions. Thinking processes are short-circuited. And although the threat of violence is not imminent, we are taking action based on perceived, not actual threats. We’re not thinking, we’re doing. It’s the American way.
               Then again, my kids weren’t one of the 20 who were shot three times with an assault-grade military weapon at close range. Had that been the case, I’m not so sure I’d be waving a flag that says, ‘Let cooler heads prevail.’ By the luck of the draw (because these shootings seem random, geographically), that places me in a position where empathy and reasoning is easier to grasp.
               A final comment about moral panic: although it’s highly volatile, it tends to disappear as quickly as it appears because of the tendency for the public to lose interest or move on to the next big news event. Let’s not allow that to happen. It’s time for America to face its issues around guns. Until we focus on the ‘why’ questions (i.e., why are these shooting rampages happening?), we’re all destined to remain in this lottery of extreme violence where, like it or not, everyone has a ticket. Let the correct debate begin.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remaining Silent Encourages Human Oppression

No laughing matter.
The recent local newspaper coverage of World AIDS Day served as a reminder that sometimes I can be a pretty pathetic ally when it comes to speaking out on issues of oppression like homophobia, sexism and racism. Case in point was an incident earlier this fall at a college football tailgate.
It was bitterly cold but we’d won the game, so it didn’t matter. A group of us regulars huddled in a circle happily discussing game highlights when a stranger from the tailgate next door wandered over. As is our tradition, we welcomed the middle aged man as one of our own.
Boisterous and talkative, he steered conversation in the direction of the imported beer he was drinking. After going on about the rich characteristics of his brew, he offered me a sip. I politely declined. He continued on about its outstanding qualities and taste and circled back around to me again. After declining several more times, I finally relented so that we could move the discussion to other mindless topics. What happened next was shocking.
Right as I tipped the bottle for a swig he cried, “You don’t have AIDS do you?” He followed his question with gut-busting laughter. My initial reaction was to punch him in the face. Instead, I regarded the rest of my crew. There were a couple short, uneasy chuckles but most just stood in quiet discomfort – like I did.
Politics aside, would you drink from this person's glass?
My mind was dizzy in a way that no alcoholic beverage could produce. Several expletives formed in my throat but before they erupted, the creep added, “Just kidding,” then asked if anyone else wanted a sip before taking a gulp himself. A minute later he was gone. What remained was my rage. But it wasn’t directed at him. Instead I was looking inward, wondering how I had let myself get sucked into being the butt of his sick joke. I was completely annoyed that I let the moment pass without saying a word.
To this day I’m unsure what fueled his twisted crack. Was it the fact that HIV in America impacts the African American community (of which I am a part) or the gay male community (of which I’m not) at alarming rates?  Or was his comment a drunk-inspired childhood prank akin to accusing someone of having the coodies? Whatever the case, I was angry because I’ve committed a lot of energy to facing down oppression, no matter what group of people it involves. Yet in this textbook case of prejudice I didn’t say a word.
In my defense (and it’s lame), I tend not to be quick on my feet when my emotional buttons get pushed. Only later did I come up with what I felt were appropriate responses: “People die from that disease, you know.” “I know folks who’ve died from that disease.” Or more to the point, “What’s your problem?”
Not responding to that insensitive jerk that day reminds me I need to up my social justice game. I need to get better at remaining vigilant and to call out homophobia, sexism and racism when I see or hear it in the world. That’s because in less polite company, people can get verbally savaged, physically hurt or even killed – all in the name of intolerance.
In terms of accountability, I wasn’t the only one that day who should have said something. What does it say about society when we let affronts on fellow human beings go unchallenged, just to keep the peace? What has to happen before people of good conscience will act when they witness injustice and oppression?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

How does that old TV commercial go? “I’m not a teacher, but I play one in the community.” Okay, maybe that ad was about being a doctor or something, but the point is I like to teach. It's in my genes. My mom was a teacher. So are a bunch of my relatives. I think I'm just programmed to teach. It’s part of who I am.
Of course, my compulsion to teach rubs a lot of folks the wrong way. For instance, most teenagers are certain they already know it all. Then there are adults who know they don’t know it all but aren’t necessarily interested in what I’m offering. Then there’s the fool (me) who believes all people want to be taught in the first place.
That's why I like teaching younger kids. They’re like little sponges when it comes to learning. I also like teaching animals. Particularly dogs. A few weeks ago, my girlfriend was out of town so I decided to take her dog on a long walk. I chose a park with a familiar path that runs by a river. Along the walk were numerous points of interest; things this dog would typically avoid or sniff at casually before passing. Not today. Enter the teacher.
Since it was early morning, and few if any people were around, I decided to challenge the dog to an obstacle course consisting of stairways she descended and climbed, park benches and picnic table seating she had to launch herself upon and traverse. The goal was to expose her to new things. I also walked her along the river’s edge.
At first she was more interested in the scents and aromas left by other dogs among the plants. When she got bored with that, she finally noticed the ducks and geese swimming on the water. It was my impression she had never really regarded them before, even though she’d been down by the river numerous times. Not being a water breed, she eventually lost interest so we moved on.
It was chilly and I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to teach her a lesson in aerobic exercise. Now I'm in fair shape as a runner. And since the dog didn’t get long walks very often, and virtually never gets to run for extended periods (this community needs a dog park), I decided to test her meddle and broke into a jog. Then I increased my pace to break her out of a trot to a slow canter (or whatever it’s called for dogs).
Tail wagging the dog; I'm not the only one...
The object of my run was to exercise her in a way that pushed her beyond her normal performance envelope. What happened instead was the dog taught me a thing or two about having four legs instead of two. I reckon we traveled half-a-mile or so before I was breathing hard. Really hard. I was struggling at about three-quarter speed, way faster than my usual jogging pace. Meanwhile, the dog was still quite comfortable in what for her was a very slow run.
In the end, I was the one pushing my own envelope and it nearly exhausted me in the process. Here I thought I was the teacher and yet it was a hilarious case of the tail wagging the dog. It was humbling too, as are most instances when I go in thinking I know it all – just before I get set straight.
Oh, I forgot to mention one other thing I'm really good at. Learning. I was open to this experience, which first began as the teacher, but quickly turned into the student. That said, lesson learned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deer Hunting: At What Cost?

As winter approaches in the Midwest, it’s time to shine light on a practice that’s controversial, even offensive to many. It is the tradition of hunting. Specifically, deer hunting. Each year, men, women and older children enthusiastically take their guns and bows into the wild hoping to bag a deer. Now I don’t hunt, but here’s the thing: I have a hard time harboring negative feelings about it and here’s why.
From providing food (meat) and clothing (fur), to even creating tools (bone), hunting has been an ancient way of being for humans. Many believe there’s no longer a need to hunt animals in America. After all, there are other food sources, artificial and plant-based materials for clothing, and plastics and metals to forge tools. They say hunting is cruel and civilization has evolved beyond the need for such primitive practices. Not so fast.
Hunting taps into the core of who we are as a species. According to Natural Selection, we’re the product of two million years of evolution, with about 400,000 years as homo sapiens species, better known as modern man. We evolved as hunters (and gathers), and like it or not have become the most effective, most adaptable predators on Earth.
I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘sport’ being applied to hunting, but if it is for food, I’m all for it. A hunter’s connection to the earth is often stronger than the average city dweller. You cannot simply stroll into the woods and shoot a deer. The landscape must be read, understood, and listened to. Then again, there’s the increasingly popular business of “canned hunts,” in which so-called hunters stalk and kill animals in enclosed areas. The practice is disturbing, especially to hunters who have respect for the animals they take down.
Hunting is a ritual for some. Whether by stalking or ambush, it’s not so much the killing that drives this brand of hunter. Instead it’s the ‘woodsman’ spirit associated with the tracking, identifying and taking aim on the prey. The kill is the end result of a long process that begins before game is even spotted.
Now to the meat of things: I get antsy when folks claim hunting is inhumane. That’s because many of those naysayers conveniently look the other way when it comes to the way food corporations breed, raise and slaughter livestock. These days, most people who eat beef and poultry purchase it in a form that looks less like food than it does shrink-wrapped Play Doh. In fact, most of us go to the meat counter with no thought to how the animals they consume lived – which typically is in warehouses with no natural light or ground, nor adequate space to roam. In some cases, they’re caged with no way to even move.
Of course, all this fuss about the merits of hunting presupposes that I’m referring to the kind of hunters who take themselves seriously. The ones who study and prepare for the hunt. The ones who take down game for reasons that extend beyond their desire to show off 10-point antlers. It’s understandable the complaints brought against ego driven trophy hunters and the I’m-a-real-man-because-I-hunt types. I’m ardently opposed to killing lions and tigers and bears, etc., for the sake of a congratulatory wall mount. But to never kill an animal for food or clothing?
Nothing is liability free. The environmental and energy price we pay to manufacture synthetic materials for garments (think polyester, nylon and pleather), and to house livestock by the thousands can be significant; in some cases toxic. There are costs associated with every ethical and social position, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind when we think about them.