These Regulations Have Teeth


People are weird.

This is a mantra and a truism worth remembering as you navigate the world, because it explains a lot of human behavior. Well, it doesn’t *explain* it, necessarily, or in fact at all, but what it *does* do is it allows you to stop driving yourself crazy searching for a proper explanation for the crazy stuff people do.

I could do a weekly — or in fact, daily — or scratch that, *hourly* post with examples, but sometimes the proper subject just jumps right up and punches you in the teeth.

Which is apparently exactly what an unruly passenger did on a Southwest flight in recent days.

I’m sorry, this is the sort of thing for which there is no excuse that will convince any rational person to side with you. If you’ve been alive in the era after 9/11 (which, if you’re reading this, congratulations, you are), you know that violence on an airplane, of any sort and to any degree, for virtually any reason, is a one-way ticket to being grounded for life, AKA getting blackballed by an airline and possibly incurring federal charges for your trouble. Unless you’re literally fighting off a terrorist, if you go violent on an airplane, you will not be arriving at your destination today.

Yet according to this article, not only did this recent incident happen (a passenger assaulting a flight attendant to the point of knocking out teeth), but incidents like this are widespread. Per the article, in the last year over 2500 incidents of unruly passengers have been reported by airlines, including over 1900 of them over mask mandates.

Look, folks, this is entitlement, pure and simple.

Personal beliefs and conspiracy leanings aside, if the airline has a mask mandate, then the only way to get out of it is by having a doctor’s note or finding another airline. You don’t get a pass because you feel the mask is a limitation on your personal freedom, in the same way you don’t get a pass on a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” sign, or a pass on paying the toll for the express turnpike, or even a pass through your high school geometry class just for showing up. The mask is part of the price of admission in this exchange.

Being asked to wear a mask in this situation does not impinge on your freedom, is not a violation of your constitutional rights, is not the tyranny of the woke left. It’s a public health measure. And your willful refusal to comply bespeaks, among other things, an utter disregard for the wellbeing of all the humans in your vicinity, to say nothing of your willingness to embrace repeatedly-disproven conspiracy theories.

Listen, I hate wearing masks as much as anybody, for purely selfish reasons. They’re a bit uncomfortable, certainly in the summer months they make my face too hot, and they make communication a little more difficult — in that some people speak softly to begin with and they can muffle your voice, and they remove the vital element of facial expressions from our social interactions.

But none of that is worth throwing a fit over being asked to wear a mask. And none of that comes anywhere close to worth throwing fists and getting escorted (read: arrested) off a plane.

Then again, if you feel that strongly about the masks in the first place, maybe you’re just hoping somebody calls you on it so you can fire up some righteous indignation and maybe earn yourself 15 minutes of fame as the latest oppressed patriot on Fox News.

Which might be nice.

But you still won’t be flying again anytime soon.


Optimistic Nihilism


A student of mine just dropped an H-bomb of a term on me: Optimistic Nihilism.

This is not a term (and yeah, okay, it’s two terms, but … just … I mean … come on) I was familiar with before this, and I don’t know how, because it sums up my philosophy perfectly.

I’m an atheist, if you didn’t know, and along with that atheism comes the sense that there is no grand, divine purpose for existence — mine or anybody else’s, up to and including the entire human race. There’s no “reason” why we’re here outside of the fact that somehow life got started on this planet and after a few billion years in the martini shaker, we popped out the other side. Once you embrace that idea, it is a very short step indeed to come to the conclusion that nothing we do matters. One needs only consider this image, famously called the “pale blue dot”, from Voyager I as it flew past Saturn into the outer reaches of the solar system in 1990.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot | NASA Solar System Exploration
For further inspiration/soul-crushing despair (depending on your predisposition), read Carl Sagan’s take on this picture.

When you consider that, from another vantage point, even a relatively close one in our galactic neighborhood, the Earth is nothing more than a speck, it is hard to see how human actions could make any difference at all in the scope of the universe.

This is hard to stomach, for some. So difficult is it, that Douglas Adams used it as a form of mental torture in a device called the “Total Perspective Vortex” in his Hitchhiker’s series. (Please to be reading it if you haven’t already.) The TPV, when entered by a victim, would immediately demonstrate to that victim their utter insignificance in the universe and reduce them to a babbling, psychologically disintegrated wreck.

So, there’s your nihilism. Nothing we do matters, our lives will come to nothing and those who knew us will themselves die and be forgotten, and none of it will make any difference.

I can’t make a difference on the scale of the universe, or the galaxy, or the solar system, or even on a scale as (relatively) small as our planet or our home country. But I *am* here, and I’m alive *now*, and I have other people in my life who I love and who love me, and maybe for the little time I have, I can bring some happiness to them and they can bring some to me. And we can make this life, which we all seem to be sharing (let’s steer away from the murky waters of solipsism today), a little less meaningless.

So there’s your optimism.

Optimistic Nihilism.

It’s got a bit of a ring to it.


The Training Wheels Problem


Our oldest took his first bike ride without training wheels this weekend.

He’s 9, which is old for that step I guess, but our house isn’t the most conducive to practicing bicycle riding and he had never been particularly motivated to pick it up, so it was no big deal … this year, though, he and little sister have the bug and we’ve been going to the local soccer field and doing laps in the parking lot.

(By the way, and just as an aside, the build quality on kids’ bikes is garbage. It feels like we can hardly go five minutes without a pedal unscrewing itself (seriously, what engineering genius threaded it so that it spins WITH the natural pedaling motion instead of AGAINST) or the chain jumping a tooth on the gear and falling off (that one I *might* attribute to the sprout’s bombastic way of “crashing” when he wants to stop…. he’s not exactly gentle on the machine).)

So we’ve been going out for several weeks, and they’re gaining in confidence, like they do, as he’s riding on the training wheels. And the training wheels are … they’re this double-edged sword, right? They keep you from losing your balance and falling over entirely, but they also inhibit the natural function and physics of the bicycle. (It’s impossible to take a sharp turn at any speed greater than a crawl, because on a bicycle you have to lean into the turn, and … well, the trainers don’t allow you to lean.)

This is the training wheels problem: they allow you to do a thing that you may not yet have the skill to do, but they don’t give you the full experience of the thing. If you lean on them too long, they actually stop you from getting better.

And I’m watching, and he’s getting surer and surer of himself, and I’m watching, and on this last pass around the parking lot, the trainers don’t touch down on the ground even once. So, okay, it’s time for those things to come off.

I tell him so.

He freaks.

I’m not ready, dad. I still need them. I’m gonna crash. I can’t keep my balance yet.

“You *are* ready, kid. I watched you ride a hundred yards without using them… you just can’t feel it. You’re ready.”

I’m not, dad. Please don’t take them off. I need to use them for a few more weeks.

This is where parenting gets weird, because you want to respect the kid’s wishes, and what’s a few more weeks? If it’ll make him feel better, what’s the big deal? But you also know things the kid can’t know — namely that these things are doing him more harm than good at this point — so what do you do?

In my case, I tell him.

“Nah, buddy. Next time we come out here, those things are coming off.”

He thinks it over.

Okay, well, if you’re going to take them off next time, can I try just once without them, with you helping me?

“What, right now?”

Yeah.

As the cool kids say these days? BET. I’ve got the ol’ crescent wrench in the van. I whip them thangs off lickety-split. His eyes get big as they clatter to the ground. (I don’t bother setting them down gently; I let them fall dramatically, and allow them to make a ton of noise, because I’m theatrical like that.) I walk the bike over to him.

“All right. Hop on. I’ve got you.”

Don’t let go, okay?

And here’s the lie every parent in this situation tells their kid: “You bet.”

He starts to pedal, I give him a little push, and immediately let him go. He takes off like a shot, loops around the parking lot. I jog to keep up, but it’s never in doubt; he’s 100% dialed-in. He zooms. He leans. He doesn’t crash, not even close. And from there, it’s a total reversal of energy:

Did you see me? Wasn’t that awesome? Did you see how fast I went? Were you watching me lean? I didn’t think I could do it, but then I did it!

This is not exactly a subtle metaphor. It gets re-used all the time, nowhere so heavy-handedly, or adorably, as in Onward, the most recent Pixar film to make me cry. Ian, the younger brother, is learning to use magic, but he lacks confidence along with knowledge. His brother, Barley, knows all about magic but can’t use it. The two need to cross a chasm, and this can only be accomplished by means of magic, so Barley convinces young Ian to try out a levitation spell with the assurance that he’ll keep a rope tied around the young man’s waist, just in case the spell fails. Well, the spell works, and the rope runs out of slack and comes untied, and Ian makes it to the other side entirely out of the safe grasp of his brother… and realizes, safe on the other side (okay, he falls a little bit because movies gotta complicate everything), that he didn’t need the support at all.

And this is the way, right? We use these safeties to teach kids how to do things, and then we slowly take the constraints away. This is education 101. Heck, it’s even how we do bowling with little kids now: those bumpers on the sides of the lanes? They’re just training wheels to keep you from throwing a gutter ball every time you take the line, to give you the kick of knocking some pins over, that dopamine hit to bring you back to the line and throw it a little bit better next time, until you don’t need them at all anymore.

We use training wheels, like we use all safety constructs, to keep ourselves from crashing too hard when we’re learning a thing… but who’s there to tell us when to take them off? When you learn new things as an adult, most of the time you’re learning them on your own. And maybe you put your own “training wheels” in place to one degree or another.

But if you want to really ride, you have to take them off sooner or later. Because we all know that riding a bike with trainers on isn’t really riding a bike. Somebody riding a bike with training wheels is capable of so much more.

Where, in our lives, are we relying on training wheels without even knowing it?

And what would we be capable of, if we just had somebody to take our training wheels off?

Child, Tricycle, Play, Drive, Bike, Bicycle, Toy

They Don’t Teach Teachers This Stuff


Teaching is such a strange job.

You can be going through a perfectly ordinary day, doing perfectly ordinary things, and then, suddenly, at 2:37 PM, something un-ordinary floats through your door and turns the entire day on its head. And you can’t push this thing until tomorrow, because it has to be dealt with right now. And you also have the rest of your day to get through and you have to pretend everything is still perfectly ordinary even though it’s not.

Okay, that sort of thing can happen in any job, I guess. But for teachers there are kids involved.

And, okay, okay, that sort of thing can happen to parents, too. But for teachers, it’s somebody else’s kids.

And you want to help them out, and you want to do the right things for them, but you can’t because … well, because you can’t, and the best thing you can do is hand them off to somebody else, somebody hopefully better equipped to help them than you. But you feel a certain kind of way about that because this kid came to *you* for help, they trusted *you* enough to come to you, and all you can do is send them on to somebody else, somebody they didn’t *want* to go to.

And you feel sick inside, tearing yourself up with questions like “did I do the right thing” and “was there more I could’ve done” and “have I made things worse”, but due to the nature of these things there will be no answers forthcoming right away or, maybe, ever.

And for obvious reasons, there’s very little about any of this that you can share with anybody, to say nothing of a webpage that’s available for anybody anywhere to read.

We are supposed to have all the answers, but I feel as useless as a square tire.


My Favorite Dinosaur is the Thesaurus Rex


I found myself reaching for a thesaurus the other day.

Well, “reaching” is not the right word; I went to www.thesaurus.com, which was quicker than finding an actual thesaurus and had the benefit of not requiring me to stand up in the midst of my writing session. Then I went into a dumb thought-spiral, because of course I did, when I remembered a little nugget of writing advice that goes something like:

“Never use a twenty-five-cent word when a five-cent word will do.”

Did I butcher it? I may have butchered it.

I take that advice to heart. I almost never use a thesaurus. Reason being, I figure if a word isn’t in my immediate lexicon, odds are it’s not in the average reader’s lexicon either, and it’s no good busting out fancy words just for the sake of fancy words if only a tiny minority of readers are actually going to understand them on first read. (And sorry, for the most part I don’t hold truck with writing that has to be read multiple times for the meaning to sink in. I have things to do. And so do the rest of us.)

Anyway, there’s another writing quote I like a lot, which starts off something like “writing advice is bulls***.” This is true, inasmuch as for every bit of writing advice you can find out there (and you can find a lot, if you go looking), you can find countless examples of writers — and writing — that flat-out breaks those rules. Good writing, even! “No prologues?” Surprise: lots of books have them. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs?” You may be somewhat shocked to learn that even this meager sentence has multiple adverbs! “I before E except after C?” Who cares, that’s why God invented spell check.

So you can ignore most writing advice. Except that the second part of the second quote (“writing advice is bulls***) is that “bulls*** fertilizes.”

What’s this to do with my thesaurus? (Sorry, my thesaurus.com?)

Well, you *shouldn’t* replace a five-cent word with a twenty-five-cent word when the five-cent word will do. But thesauruses (thesauri, my English-teacher brain screams but I cannot make myself say aloud) don’t just have twenty-five-cent words in them. They have loads and loads of five-cent words. And sometimes you want to tear your hair out when you realize you’re using the same five-cent word too much.

Sometimes you have to reach for the nickel term. Probably you don’t want the quadrant morpheme.

Point is, it’s just another tool like any other tool. Use it where it’s useful. Circumlocute it when it’s dyslogistic.


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