What are we talking about today?

Some days have themes. I don't necessarily post something in each of these topic areas every week.

Sunday: Church-related or spiritual things.
Monday: Running.
Tuesday: Books.
Friday: Green living.

22 June 2017

The Galling Sides

There's a little saying that tends to pop up a lot in social media land, often after a news story hits about a massive gaffe, but it also worms its way into everyday life. I've said it many times, and maybe you have, too. But these days just the mere hint of it is enough for me to roll my eyes and stop listening, and I'm writing this in part to understand myself why I'm so annoyed by one little platitude. What is it?

"There are two sides to every story."

Nice, right? Good way to remember that maybe the victim and perpetrator aren't as clear-cut as we were first led to believe. Good way to suspend judgment until all the facts are in. Good way to exercise the voice of reason in a volatile situation.

Here's the thing: it's not true.

Now I'm sure some folks have rolled their eyes and run off already. Maybe others are trying to pinpoint which thing in the news that I'm talking about. (I couldn't possibly pick one, so don't bother.) Someone is already writing their heated response to my obvious foolishness in their head. And all those reactions are exactly why the cute little saying isn't true, because there are waaaaaaay more than two sides to every story. 

Humans are complicated, y'all. We are big bundles of messy emotions and motivations and intentions. Think about all the times in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye mutters to himself, "On the other hand... but on the other hand... but on the other hand..." It gets a laugh, every time, at how quickly he runs out of hands. Until the time when he finally explodes, "There IS no other hand!" and then it's tragic, not funny.

Saying "There are two sides," when in fact there are many more sides, is a cop-out. It can be a stand-in for "I'm not choosing sides yet" or for "I have an unpopular opinion about this" or for "I think you're wrong but I don't yet have proof" or even for "Maybe this isn't worth spending our time arguing about" without really conveying any kind of meaning. At best, it sounds wise and reassuring without saying anything at all. At worst, it sounds wise and reassuring while being a passive-aggressive disagreement that's hard to refute, because who wants to disagree with both sides' right to their own agency?

Even the most basic die has six sides. Humans definitely
rate more sides than that.
Source: Armin Hanisch on freeimages.com.
The problem with this kind of "wisdom" is that we already know we have more than two sides going on inside ourselves at all times; why on earth would a conflict outside ourselves have only two sides? I may think a problem is with a coworker (although please note that I have no such problems at the moment), when really it's much deeper than that, with roots in our separate interpretations of company policy, and our relationships with the boss or with other coworkers, and with resonances of how a situation was handled in the dim and distant past that we may not even realize are still bouncing off the office walls. So one day when it all comes to a head, the simplistic "two sides" may bring temporary harmony, but it doesn't address the roots.

It's nice to jump onto Facebook with platitudes and try to be a voice of reason. It's great to get comments about how levelheaded one's interpretation is of the headline du jour. It even feels good to score some points against a hotheaded friend who chooses sides at the outset and then turns out to have read the situation incorrectly. But it's also good to remember that human interactions aren't equations with one correct answer. Let's not pretend every outrage that hits the evening news can be solved by hashing out the two sides until we declare a victor (and then, as is the wont of humans, go on fiercely defending the side we liked better ad infinitum).

Withholding judgment until more facts are available is wise. It's okay not to know who was right and who was wrong. Not saying so--biting one's tongue (or fingers, since they do the typing)--is harder when the arguments are piling on and you suspect other people are wrong. But "there are two sides to every story" is still a cop-out, especially if it really means "I'm not ready to rationally discuss this." If I'm that interested and that invested in getting to the truth, saying "there are two sides" and leaving it at that is not going to get me there.

Post title is an homage to the Mathnet episode "The Case of the Galling Stones," which is about a gem shaped like a dodecahedron. I'm still a huge Mathnet fan, and while I loved Kate Monday, I adored Pat Tuesday.

21 June 2017

Seeing Red (Lights)

I don't know what causes road rage. I do know what I'd like to do to people who act on their road rage. But studying the root causes of this behaviour is well outside my areas of interest.

However, I do have my suspicions, every time I hear someone complain bitterly about heavy traffic or road construction or both. (Or, of course, hear them complain about having to slow down for a few seconds to safely pass a person on a bike. Here's a little tip that should be no surprise to anyone--if you complain to me about that, expect an earful. No one has ever made that mistake twice.) It seems some folks expect an easy-flowing, obstacle-free drive to everywhere, at all hours of the day, every day.

You're going to get stuck. It's going to happen.
Source: Lonnie Bradley on freeimages.com.
My friends, the automobile industry has sold us a bill of goods. And of course they have--it's in the interest of their own pockets to convince people that getting from A to B is easy peasy. No matter how many cupholders an SUV has, images of it stuck in a colossal traffic jam are not going to get many vehicles rolling out of the showroom.

As with so many other areas of our collective lives, it may be time to lower our expectations. No one is always going to get every green light. No street is exempt from folks crashing their cars into things and causing a snarl. Traffic lights fail, natural disasters don't care about your route to work, roads crumble and have to be repaired.

And if that weren't enough, when the majority of Americans own cars and the majority of Americans drive alone and the majority of Americans go to work at about the same time of day, traffic can't possibly flow right along. No matter how badly we want it to. No matter what it used to be like just a couple years ago. And as the saying goes, you aren't sitting in traffic--you are traffic.

If all of this is making your blood pressure rise just thinking about it, then maybe it's time to reconsider what you expect from your car. What do you get to control? The temperature, the music, who comes along with you. What can't you control? How many other people want to go the same place you do. What can you control? Your reaction to delays and detours and things generally going wrong. Cars aren't teleporters. They aren't magic. Other road users aren't your enemies. They're just people also trying to get on with their lives. And if you get into your car knowing ahead of time that something on your route will go awry, expecting that delays will happen and jams will get jammy, then maybe your reaction to it happening will be less outraged surprise and more "good thing I'm enjoying this podcast I'm listening to."

And a little less rage goes a long way toward a pleasant trip.

(Before my fellow active transportation users get out the pitchforks and torches--if you can avoid driving, by busing or walking or biking or even by taking turns carpooling, your trip is likely to be less rage-inducing and more relaxing. There's even some research about that.)

20 June 2017

In the Weeds

I'm participating in a Bible study group this summer that's reading a book called Uninvited, by Lysa TerKeurst. Normally, this is so not my kind of book. Every couple of years I pick up whatever Christian book everyone is raving about, fiction or non-fiction, to almost inevitably put it back down unfinished. I just can't even with Christian literature, although I keep giving it a try to see if it's gotten better. (This is not an invitation to send me suggestions, by the way. You should only do that if you want to end up on my Highly Suspicious list.) 

Image source: Goodreads.
But, this is what the group is reading, and I don't hate it so far. In this week's chapter I ran across this bit which I (mostly) appreciated, as a person who grows things: "Time grows the seeds that are planted, watered, and fertilized. Plant beauty, grow beauty. Plant thorns, grow thorns."

That first sentence? I love it. She nailed it. She nailed it so hard I wish she'd pushed the metaphor on and reminded us that the planting and watering are work that require constant attention to make sure the beautiful things that were planted continue to grow and thrive. Because the truth is that you don't have to plant weeds for them to grow. They sneak in, very much uninvited. In fact, they don't even sneak--they push up through the ground with brazen confidence, unfurling their leaves and growing at a breakneck pace. Because the weeds are racing the gardener, trying to pollinate before she notices their presence and brings them to a speedy end. If you want to plant beauty in your life--a new skill, or a friendship, or an exercise program, or a tidy house, or whatever your thing is--you have to pull the weeds all the time that you're nurturing the thing you want to grow.

Grandma told me over the phone
that her weeds were waist-high.
I'm not sure whose waist she was
referring to, because it sure wasn't
mine or hers. This thing was as
tall as I was and left a giant hole
after I dug it up.
Of course, Ms. TerKeurst isn't wrong about the thorns. Anyone who wants a weedy or thorny life can have one practically for the asking. It's a lot less work. And, IMO, a lot less worth living. 

I dug some very real, non-metaphorical weeds out of my Grandma's flower beds last weekend. She doesn't grow flowers any longer, but she doesn't want weeds there, either. So all summer long she gets outside on nice days and digs up the weeds that have taken root, all the while muttering about how she just dug this one up by the roots last week. Now, Grandma has lived a long life filled with hard work, so I don't blame her for not wanting to go to the bother of flowers at this stage of the game, but she knows as well as I and Ms. TerKeurst do the truth about weeds--the best way to keep them out is to grow the thing you want instead.

What are you growing?

19 June 2017

Upward

Have I mentioned that I live on top of a hill? A lot of places in Cincinnati are on top of hills, of course, and I live in one of them. Some of the ways up are steepish, others not so much. All of them are sweaty.

There are some advantages to all these hills, of course.
So it was that one day I had gone for a bit of a ramble round and was returning home via the steepest of the possible directions from my house. The hill before mine is not as high, but from the top of it I looked across to see that not only was I not level with the top of the next hill, but also that the top of the hill was obscured by trees, which made it look even worse than it really is. As I headed down and the next hill loomed ever larger, it continued to look steeper the closer I got to the bottom, and it was almost hard to believe this was the same hill I've been easily up and down dozens of times.

Guess what made the hill flatten out and not look so awful? Going up it, of course. Tackling something up close, taking it step by step and inch by inch, is rarely so insurmountable as trying to take in the whole thing at once. (Alas, those times when up close really is worse--well, that's why we have chocolates and friends. Friends with chocolates, if at all possible.) As Samwise Gamgee so wisely put it, "It's the job that's never started as takes longest to finish." And a hill will never get smaller from standing at the bottom staring up at it.

I'm just going to go apply this thought to as many things as possible before I forget again.

16 June 2017

Fill it In

A few Sundays ago, the minister made an offhand remark about the local landfill during the sermon. Note to everyone: offhand remarks in my presence tend to turn into blog posts. Ye be warned, if you weren't already.

So the local landfill is colloquially called "Mount Rumpke," because Cincinnatians are a delightful group of quirky weirdos. This was the first time I had heard the preferred nomenclature, though, and it came along with a comment about how the speaker doesn't really know how landfills work. Which, naturally, activated the "Oooh, oooh! This is a thing I know!" section of my brain (and let's be honest, that's like 90% of the brain cells that aren't dedicated to things like breathing and circulation).

"But how could you possibly know about landfills, Su? Your areas of expertise are bikes and books." 'Tis true, but I am descended from a man who loves nothing more than to talk for hours about the things he knows (shut up), and said man has worked for a landfill for over 40 years. (He'll tell you 50, if you ask. But he was not working there as a 10-year-old.) So here's what he's managed to teach me in that time--what I've managed to hang onto without firsthand knowledge of working in one, that is.

If you imagine a landfill to be a giant mound of trash, with carrion birds circling overhead and plague-bearing rats headed in and out, you're thinking of an old-style open dump, the sort of which have not existed in the U.S. (not legally, anyway) since the late 70s. A sanitary landfill is exactly as the name describes: earth is excavated from site so the rubbish can be packed in and the floor and walls are lined to keep the nasty stuff in. The area will be divided into cells, and as rubbish trucks arrive, they're directed to empty in/near the cell. Large and heavy equipment will pack rubbish into its cell as tightly as possible, and once that cell is full, it's covered back up with dirt and packed in some more. Then the next cell gets its turn, and so on, because Americans produce quite a lot of rubbish. Which is why, if I ever hear anyone complaining about a landfill, my first question is about what they're doing to cut back on the trash they produce. No one's hands are clean when it comes to waste.

It has to go somewhere after it goes on the truck.
Image source: Niklas Johnsson on freeimages.com.
Here's the thing about sanitary landfills, and my real reason for wanting to share this: things aren't supposed to break down. If you're putting something in your trash thinking it's biodegradable, and it won't be around for that long anyway, please take that thing right back out of the trash and stick it into your compost. Things that biodegrade = compost; things that recycle (glass, plastic, paper, cans) = recycling; things that do neither = trash can. PLEASE. Because you know what happens when stuff breaks down? It releases gas and liquid, both of which can be harmful when you consider the company your rubbish is keeping. Liquid seeps and can get into the groundwater; gas is smelly, potentially poisonous, and when trapped underground, can sometimes get a bit antsy and violently force its way out. Which is why sanitary landfills have regulations about what they have to do to protect the groundwater, and methane wells to keep the gas under control. Mount Rumpke converts the methane into natural gas, which powers some local stuff, but persistent problems with the methane wells are what keeps Mount Rumpke much smellier than it's supposed to be. (I grew up around a landfill. I know what it's supposed to smell like. That's not it.)

Of course, the planet has its own way of dealing with things, and just because rubbish isn't meant to break down or leak in a sanitary landfill, it still does, just very slowly. Rain finds its way in through the tiniest of cracks, earthworms say, "Hey, what's this?" and basically the planet acts a bit offended at having a bunch of useless crap shoved in it. Which is why, after a landfill is closed, it has to be monitored for at least 30 years before anything else can be done on top of it, in case something decides to shift.

And to answer the other question brought up in church that Sunday: Mount Rumpke is expected to be operational until at least 2022.

Tl;dr: Don't put anything in the trash that is biodegradable or recyclable. Better for the planet, better for your community, and if your local rubbish collection charges by the size of the container you use--better for your wallet.

06 June 2017

False Starts

Today would normally be my "What I Read" post, but as I look at my Goodreads list I see that I finished not a single book in May. Good grief. I started a whole bunch, but finished? Nope. That 2017 Goodreads Challenge is not going so well.

Source: Goodreads.
So, here's one of the things I'm reading. I'm on my second try of Catch-22, and while it's hilarious, it's not hard to remember why I put it down the first time. It's a book that requires a lot of concentration and is only pretending to be a light read. I have a few other books out from the library that I'd also like to read, so maybe I'll end up taking this one back if I run out of time before I run out of book. I have no objections to picking it up a third time.

And this is hardly the first book that it's taken me a few false starts to get through. Les Misérables took two tries. Little Women took at least three. (Also, it's one of the free public domain books I loaded onto my mother's tablet a few months back, and on my last trip home she told me she was having trouble getting through it. There are a few parts of that book that are a serious slog for the 21st-century reader.) Lord of the Rings took a couple trips to my house before I finished it, although that was more due to all the things I had going on in my life right then that were crowding out my reading time. And even the entire Chronicles of Narnia series was a seven-year adventure of me not being ready for some of the later books even though I loved the early ones--I started them in the 5th grade and didn't finish until a couple months before high school graduation.

More recently, I took Wicked back to the library after my second attempt to read it through. Will I ever pick it up again? Maybe someday, if I'm in the right frame of mind.

I know there are folks who feel that once a book is started, they must finish it, even ones they aren't enjoying. I have too many books on my to-read list to be that person, but if you are one, please hear this: if you're struggling, if you're not enjoying that book, if there are other things you'd like to read right now--it's okay to put that book down. Stick a little bookmark in it and put it back on your shelf to give your brain a break. Write it down somewhere so you remember to go back to it and then take it back to your library. Loan it to a friend who might enjoy it more than you do. The book isn't going away, and it will always be ready for you when you're ready for it.

Those books I mentioned before? Little Women, Les Mis, LOTR, Narnia? They're all all my favourites list now. I've re-read every single one of them, some of them multiple times, and my relationship with those stories is none the worse for my having taken my time to befriend them in the first place. So if I do return Catch-22 still unread, it will be with no regrets and the knowledge that it will come to me again when I'm ready.

What's something you've had to put to one side to await a different season in your life?

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