Sunday, May 19, 2013

Balto, the Iditarod and Centers of the Universe

The more I hang out in crowded areas, the more I understand the world's problems. Many people are oblivious to their surroundings. After spending a Saturday afternoon in a Costco, I understand bad drivers. I see how people drive their carts, like they are alone. They stop in the middle of an aisle and chat with a friend coming the other way oblivious of the fact that they are blocking everyone in a crowded marketplace.

The advent of the cellphone makes this even worse. I was in a crowded movie theater in Manhattan last week.  I had the pleasure of paying $21.00 to see Iron Man III on the IMAX. It was good fun, but on the way out, a few hundred people had to pile out of the theater into the rain via a revolving door. We lined up. In line approaching the exit, the man in front of me approached the door and then stopped to write a text on his phone. Of course, I walk into him and like dominoes, the crowd behind me walk into me. Apparently, he is the center of the universe and we were supposed to have read his mind to avoid hitting him. Next time you see someone do something really stupid in traffic, that almost kills you, it is easier to forgive them when you realize that the person doing it is the center of the universe. Since everything revolves around them, it doesn't matter that the actions of the oblivious few waste our time, cause us harm or even, threaten our lives.

I mention this because while in New York City, staying at a hotel on West 79th Street, I wanted to find the statue of Balto, the heroic sled dog, in Central Park. On Saturday, on my walk to the zoo, I found it. Everything that is right about this city can be found in the Central Park on a Saturday afternoon. It is crowded but manageable, diverse and friendly. You have joggers, runners, walkers and chatters. If you miss your dogs while traveling, the park is where to be. The dog I was looking for was a bronze one, Balto, the famous hero of the Iditarod. I was surprised to find a crowd of people at Balto. Since it is near the children's zoo, apparently it is a favorite spot for picture taking. It is obvious by looking at this gorgeous statue, that the children climbing on it, are destroying it. Bronze holds up fine in the elements of rain, snow and wind, but it does not hold up to the natural oils in the hands of humans. Kids climb on top of the statue for pictures and they touch his ears, his saddle and his mane. You can see the damage in this picture. The bronze has become discolored. So instead of telling their kids "no," they let them climb up on it and contribute to its destruction. This is where the next generation of oblivious citizens come from (the offspring of the Centers of the Universe). In a decade or so, the statue will be without ears or a tail.

Balto, in Central Park, NYC
Who is Balto? In 1925, the diphtheria epidemic hit Nome, Alaska. The only serum in the area was in Anchorage (which wasn't even a city at the time) , 674 miles away during blizzard conditions. With a temperature of −23 °F, the only plane available had a frozen engine. The children of Nome were dying so the people of Anchorage did what they had to do, they crossed the wintry tundra by dog sled. Balto's team (he was the lead dog) was the first team to arrive in 5.5 days in what is now called the "Great Race of Mercy" or the Iditarod. This was worldwide story and Balto was the most famous dog on the planet.

The Iditarod sled dog race is now run annually. They alternate two routes, every other year, tracing the original routes from 1925. A team can have up to 16 dogs with minimum of 12. Siberian huskies are bred to run and seem to love doing it. The dogs that compete get better health care than most Americans with yearly EKG's and veterinarians stationed along the race. The race has changed over the year.  Now you can follow the racer via GPS on

It is too bad not everyone has a little bit more respect for the public artwork and for our history.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Universal They and the Non-inclusive We

Considering the poor communication skills I see exhibited each day, I am amazed that actual communication ever happens. Yet it does. In reading on-line message boards and social media, it seems people are very interested in expressing themselves and connecting with others, but don't want to spend the time to be clear, to spell correctly (not only pass spell check but actually use the correct words as well) and proofread. I still get correspondence from people who confuse "since" and "sense" and who think "alot" is a word. But the miscommunication goes beyond this, the use of cliché and vague tropes are ubiquitous. I am talking about the Universal They and the Non-inclusive We.

The Universal They is the use of the pronoun "they" when you want to blame someone, but you are too lazy to research the specifics. This particular trope is handy for the paranoid among us. Certainly, just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean no one is out is to get you, but at least you could specify whom you are talking about when you share this with the world.  The paranoid use the Universal They to describe the government "They are tapping our phones," to describe corporations "they are poisoning us," or the world in general "they want to steal my poetry." The last one is from a friend who once asked me to help him setup a firewall for his computer to protect his poetry. "You setup a firewall to protect your computer from viruses, not protect your poetry. No one wants your poetry," I said. I am not very tactful, but subtlety rarely works with the paranoid.

Whenever anyone invokes the Universal They, for clarity's sake (and sanity's), always follow up with "Who are they?" When you push for deeper specifics, you usually find kinks in the armor of their paranoia. Who is tapping your phone?  The government. Who specifically? The FBI. Why would they be doing that? Are you a member of a cartel or a mafia family? Why would the federal government exert any money or energy on you? Political discussions on social media can be fun but also scary at times. People believe this stuff.

The Non-inclusive We is less innocuous. Those who use it are not paranoid, just self-righteous. Those who use the Non-inclusive We want to say something about society at large, but want to exclude themselves. They say things like this "We are a selfish society" then go on and talk about how unselfish they are.  They say "We are obsessed with material goods" and then continue to tell you about their low-budget DIY holiday season. They are a less scary crowd than the Universal They folks but more annoying. They are usually more educated, so should know better. You can see this in a lot of editorial writing. I see it sometime with writers I actually like. Here it is from Barbara Kingsolver in her essay "Jabberwocky" which is full of the Non-inclusive We:

    "But we bought the goods, or we kept our mouths shut.
    If we felt disturbed by the idea of pulverizing civilizations
    as the best way to settle our differences --- or had trouble
    explaining it to our kids as adult behavior --- we weren't
    talking about it. "

This is from page 222 from her fabulous collection of essays High Tide in Tucson from HarperPerrenial. I agree with everything she has to say in this essay. I just wish it was a better essay and less self-righteous.

While in casual conversation, how do you respond to the Non-inclusive We? We assume it is inclusive. "We" is a collective pronoun after all with the assumption that the speaker is included in the "we."  So next Christmas, when one of your self-righteous friends says to you: "We are a selfish, materialistic culture," respond by asking them, "Why are you so selfish?" That should get the conversation going!