Jun 282015
 

I think this essay qualifies as an outright self-indulgent dive into personal nostalgia. Thankfully it’s ~pleasant~ nostalgia.

When I was a teenager in the 70’s, the brand of tennis shoe one wore was an overt display of how cool one was. The boys I associated with all seemed to have an understanding of how much certain models of certain brands cost, and the more expensive the model the better. I would imagine that process is still active today, but I can’t be sure. By the mid 70’s, Adidas seemed to be the dominant brand, much cooler than any sort of cheap Keds or even Converse Chuck Taylors. As I recall, there was an Adidas model with red stripes which was the cheapest, and to wear those was a bit un-cool. I think I had some, as my mother had grown up in the depression, and was VERY unwilling to spend money on ANYTHING that seemed extravagant. That said, I accept responsibility for my own poverty, as I really didn’t have the gumption to obtain any sort of part time job for myself while in high school. My friend Jeff had various jobs, and not surprisingly, he had more than one pair of clearly “cool” tennis shoes.

The weird and giant breakthrough for me came when my mother allowed me to buy a particular model of Adidas; the “Stockholm.” These had a blue suede upper, and a thin gum rubber sole. They were unbelievably supple, probably because the suede was so soft, and because the sole was so flexible. No one else had this model, and I don’t recall it gave me much social cache, but I didn’t care, as I believed I had found the ULTIMATE tennis shoe. They looked super cool to me, and more importantly they were the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever owned.

Being an impertinent youth, I didn’t treat them with the respect they deserved. I had always insisted on walking outside in the winter in tennis shoes. My father even commented on this, and I felt confused, as I didn’t have enough of my own spending money to go out and buy proper winter boots. I suppose I could have complained to my mother, but honestly I simply felt more comfortable in tennis shoes than boots. I think I rationalized that I was not harming the tennis shoes because “I was walking on top of the snow.” By now I think you see where this is going, as water and snow is death to suede. Indeed, the shoe’s flexion point beside my little toe on my left foot turned into a hole. I decided I liked my Stockholm shoes too much to just get a new pair. I used a product intended to waterproof heavy boots called Huberd’s Shoe Grease, which I see is still made. This was a product NOT intended for suede, but I used it anyway. Not surprisingly, it blackened the beautiful blue suede, and turned it weird and greasy.

I still had a problem, though, as there was still a big hole beside my little toe. Again, I tried my own “creative” solution, which was to sew a patch over the hole. Instead of using some sort of thread, I decided to use WIRE. To this day, I’m not sure what my thinking process was on that issue.

During this time in high school, we had a PE class that involved playing table tennis. This I quite enjoyed, then as now. One day in the class a ping pong ball rolled toward me, followed by a boy attempting to retrieve it. The ball came to rest against my greased and wired Stockholm shoe, and his hand touched my shoe as he grabbed the ball. I believe he noticed the weird greasy feel to my shoe, as he gave me a strange, silent, quizzical look as he stood up. At that point I realized how deeply weird it really was to grease my pair of blue suede shoes…

Not surprisingly, I had to abandon that pair, and move onto others. I wanted to get another pair of Stockholms, but they were not to be found! I was shocked, as I couldn’t imagine how something so cool could simply vanish! Didn’t other people venerate these shoes as much as I did? My frustration went on for years. In the early 80’s my brother visited France for a time. I asked him to buy a pair of Stockholm shoes if he saw them for sale, but he never did. Stockholm Adidas became one of those cool things from my childhood that went away forever, sort of like Quisp cereal and Space Food Sticks.

Many years later, I realized that shoes could be purchased over the internet. I never cared for shoe shopping; all the waiting around, being fitted by unctuous sales men and women, and pretending to know if they fit well by walking in them a few steps. On a lark, I searched Amazon for Stockholm Adidas, as I had “heard” that certain models were being re-introduced as a sort of retro style flashback. Amazingly, Stockholms were again available! And they were blue suede with a gum rubber sole, just like in the 70’s.

Adidas Stockholm

I ordered a pair in my size from Amazon. As I recall, they were ridiculously expensive, over a hundred dollars. I think they were shipped from Hong Kong. Alas, nostalgia has a way of exaggerating details in the mind, and when I wore these ULTIMATE shoes, I discovered they sole was actually ~too~ thin, and didn’t quite offer enough padding. The suede uppers were as supple as I remember them, but these days I simply need a thicker sole for more comfort. I’m also vain enough to worry about wearing expensive shoes, even tennis shoes, out into the real world, lest they get scuffed!

The most recent pair of shoes I bought were also Adidas, but from Costco, for only 30 dollars! Because the uppers are a synthetic mesh, they “breath” nicely, unlike even thin leather. They are running shoes, probably the cheap “trainers” but the soles are thick, especially in the heels, and provide a nice feeling of “rolling” forward when I walk.

Costco Shoes

I will always have fond memories of those Stockholm shoes, and will doubtless wear the pair that I now own, but I must concede that my nostalgic mental model is better than present reality.

 Posted by on 06/28/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on My Ultimate Pair of Tennis Shoes
Jun 272015
 

Last night I had a brief spiritual experience. Let me describe the antecedents to this experience.

Seattle has been experiencing a bit of a heat wave recently. Mild by the standards of many parts of the rest of the country, but challenging for Seattle “weather wimps” such as myself. I walked from my house to Seward Park and back yesterday morning, which took about an hour and a half. This route includes a bit of elevation rise and fall, so I consider it legitimate exercise. I try to stay hydrated. I bought a new pair of running shoes yesterday afternoon, and was curious to try them out for walking.

So last night I drove down to Alki Beach and went rollerblading. The sun was out, and I believe the temperature was in the 80’s. But when I got back to my car, I felt good, and wanted to try walking in my new shoes. I put on my shoes and headed north on the sidewalk. At about 20 minutes into my walk I suddenly, spontaneously, and unbidden, transitioned into an altered state of consciousness. It was pleasant, almost euphoric, and I immediately recognized it as a meditative state. For those who don’t meditate, I suppose it would be analogous to a mild cannabis high, or the anxiolytic effect of benzodiazepines. I would hasten to add, though, that this naturally occurring state had NO drug side effects, no cannabis induced anxiety, dry mouth, or lethargy.

I kept walking north as I experienced this positive state of consciousness. I began to key into the people around me. I began to experience a mild form of “universal love” at least in that I stopped perceiving other people as simply physical obstacles to move around, as I walk fairly briskly, and judging them, to seeing them as part of an organic whole. This is hard to describe, but I would say I saw them as just like me; simply a member of Homo sapiens out enjoying a beautiful evening. It was an empathetic and loving perception.

Not surprisingly, this experience faded. I think it lasted two or three minutes. It was less intense than the experience I had at Costco some time back. I was not quite as giddy as I was at Costco.

Today I am more inclined to attribute this experience to the practice of meditation than I was before, simply because its character was almost exactly like that I’ve experienced during meditation. But I hasten to add the elements of physical exertion I’ve mentioned. I suspect it’s similar to the “runner’s high” or even the meditative states experienced during the milder exertions of yoga.

I am concerned that some might find this account boastful, perhaps on the grounds that such experiences are “personal” and thus should be kept to one’s self. I hope I am not being boastful, and have decided to share this because I increasingly find meditation truly transformative, and wish I had started many years sooner. Believe it or not, meditation is somewhat demanding and difficult, and one must engage in some degree of self discipline to proceed with it as a habit. Last night’s experience was a wonderful reminder to me that disciplined practice can have real-world benefits.

 Posted by on 06/27/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Another Spiritual Experience
Jun 222015
 

While waiting at a stoplight recently, I began thinking about working a clutch, and more generally, how I learned to drive.

I grew up in Montana, where one could obtain a driver’s license at age 15. A “learner’s permit” allowed one to drive at age 14 if accompanied by a parent. I had heard through word of mouth that kids even younger than that were allowed some sort of special dispensation if they lived on a farm, and operated farm vehicles, but I never followed up on that claim and I don’t know if it’s true.

Back in the 70’s, our high school offered “driver’s ed” or driver’s education, if one chose to learn how to drive through conventional means. This was one of the few classes that kids looked forward to, at least in considering it a legitimate means to an end, as opposed to something like algebra class. Over the years I recall learning that high schools do not offer driver’s ed as routinely as they once did, but I don’t know this as a fact.

I was lucky, in that my mother saw fit to teach me how to drive even before high school driver’s ed. We lived in Missoula, which encompassed Fort Missoula, just on the outskirts of town. Its grounds were open to the public and had wide, flat roads between buildings. The buildings were either not in use, or were used by few people, so the place was largely deserted. My mother and I drove out there in our metallic aqua Ford Galaxy station wagon. Not surprisingly, this vehicle had an automatic transmission. I’m firmly of the belief that one should learn how to drive with an automatic transmission, simply to master the basics of starting, steering, stopping, signalling, and basic control before attempting the tricky business of working a clutch. Frankly those lessons were so prosaic I barely remember them. I probably drove no more than 25 MPH on dry, flat roads with few stop signs and no traffic.

My mother didn’t care for our big Ford station wagon, as it was something of a boat; she regularly drove our Renault 12. She and my brother were Francophiles, and had previously owned a Renault Dauphine, which must have been one of the smallest four door sedans ever made. The Renault 12 had a clutch, and I needed to learn how to work it.

For those who have never driven a clutch car, it’s tricky learning how to engage it without stalling the engine, especially when starting from a stopped position in first gear. The clutch pedal is first depressed all the way to the floorboards, then slowly “feathered” out while simultaneously pressing the accelerator pedal just a bit. Perhaps others had an easy time learning this task, but it vexed me significantly at age 14. Inevitably I would “rev” the engine a bit too much, and “pop” the clutch pedal out too fast, and kill the engine. My mother was remarkably patient in allowing me to try this. She was also remarkably tolerant in allowing me to try this without even a learner’s permit!

One time our Renault was parked over at my grandmother’s house, which was only about two blocks away from our house. My mother gave me the keys and allowed me to walk over and drive the car back. I was thrilled she would let me try this! I walked over, got in the car, and tried to start it. I couldn’t! The steering wheel had a locking mechanism that was becoming popular in the 70’s, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it. In retrospect, this was a bad idea on the part of my mother’s as there was a stop sign on the road between my grandmother’s house and our house. A vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver stalled in the middle of an intersection would have been a foreseeable outcome with a driver still learning how to work a clutch…

I remember finally mastering the clutch; again with the Renault parked at my grandmother’s house. Again my mother allowed me to attempt driving solo. This time I knew how to work the locking steering wheel, and managed not to kill engine while feathering out the clutch pedal! But what now? I drove into the intersection in first gear then pulled a big U turn and drove back. Instead of parking across the street from where I started, I decided to park on the same side from which I started, facing the wrong way. I came in WAY too sharply for reasonable parking, and managed to hit the front wheel on the curb! Amazingly, my mother was not particularly upset by this. I dodged a couple of bullets on that day…

Eventually I took driver’s ed class at Hellgate High School. This involved a combination of classes and supervised driving. The cars used to teach students were big sedans with automatic transmissions, and brake pedals for the instructor in front of the front passenger seat. All in all the instruction seemed quite reasonable, except for the “Link Simulator.” This was one of the most absurd and insane wastes of money in the name of education I’ve ever seen. It was contained in a semi trailer parked in a parking lot on the south side of the building. Inside was a movie screen at the front of trailer, with the rest of the space given over to weird driver consoles that sort of duplicated a car interior with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal, turn signals, a brake pedal, and probably a seat belt. Being the 1970’s, there was no feedback between what the “driver” did behind the wheel and what appeared on the movie screen. This was not a video game. The movies were relentlessly square, Leave it to Beaver – Readers Digest Americana, with scenes of picket fence neighborhoods navigated by cars driving about 10 miles an hour. We were told that somehow our “scores” were being recorded, as allegedly the Link Simulator could tell if a driver over corrected with the steering wheel, or failed to brake at the correct time. When I was a student we were never given these “scores” and I have to wonder if we were simply being lied to in an attempt to keep us from completely screwing around. Imagine if you were being taught how to throw free throws, or hit a tennis ball using a video game in which there was no feedback; it’s an insane idea from an educational standpoint.

Eventually I got my learner’s permit, and drove around a few times under the watchful supervision of my father. I turned 15 in August 1977, and very much looked forward to getting my real driver’s license. I dimly recall taking the “practical” portion of the test, which involved parallel parking. I must have passed, as I was given my license. I recall driving the Renault 12 by myself all the way through Deer Creek and Pattee Canyon that day. A genuine adolescent rite of passage!

I moved to Seattle in 1987, and was shocked to encounter people who either didn’t own cars, or who didn’t know how to drive. I couldn’t fathom how young people wouldn’t WANT to own their own cars and know how to drive! Personal power and freedom felt so good, why didn’t everyone want this?

Sometime in the late 80’s I was involved with a woman who didn’t drive. I decided to teach her how. At the time I owned a 1987 Dodge Daytona.

Dodge Daytona

Unfortunately for teaching purposes, this vehicle had a clutch, so my poor student had to learn this to start with. One night we drove out to Northgate Mall, as I believed wide open parking lots would be a good place to start. Not surprisingly, this episode didn’t go well, and we never repeated it. There’s a great scene in Breaking Bad in which Walter White tries to teach his son how to drive in similar circumstances. It’s a cringe worthy scene, and reminds me of my own attempt.

As I mentioned at the start of this essay, I recalled my clutch history while waiting at a stoplight. I realized, decades after it could have helped, that actuating a clutch is MUCH easier if the car is already in motion, and the easiest way to do this is by gliding down a slight hill. Jebus, such a simple tip; why didn’t I think of this years ago, or learn it in driver’s ed?

 Posted by on 06/22/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Learning to Drive
May 172015
 

I loved Star Trek as a child. I deeply identified with Mr. Spock, and loved science in general. I probably saw re-runs of the original series first when I was in about the third grade, and re-runs were in heavy rotation on TV in the 70’s. Consequently, I understood the deeper issues raised on Star Trek somewhat incompletely.

I recall a paradox that occurred to me when I was watching The Gamesters of Triskelion. I must have been in about the third grade, as I say, when this dawned on me. At that age, time seems to move at a different rate. One year of childhood seems to move more slowly than one year of adulthood. Schooling seems to take forever. Even as a child, it seemed discouraging to me to imagine my future; namely how many more years I’d have to be in school!

What got me thinking was the climactic scene of the episode. Thankfully, the script of the show is online, and I’m copying the relevant passage here. Captain Kirk has just defeated the thralls in the big climactic fight.

ONE [OC]: You have won, Captain Kirk, unfortunately. However, the terms of the wager will be honoured. You are free. Remove your collars.
(They come off easily.)
KIRK: The thralls will be trained?
ONE [OC]: They will be trained. We have said it.
KIRK: I think you’ll find it a much more exciting game than the one you’ve been playing. I’m sorry, Shahna. I didn’t lie. I did what was necessary. Someday, I hope you’ll understand.
SHAHNA: I understand, a little. You will leave us now?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: To go back to the lights in the sky?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: I would like to go to those lights with you. Take me?
KIRK: I can’t.
SHAHNA: Then teach me how, and I will follow you.
KIRK; There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars. Shahna. (he gives her a farewell kiss) Scotty!
SCOTT [OC]: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Beam us up.
(They disappear in a twinkle.)
SHAHNA: Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember.

What really got me was this statement by Kirk: “There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars.” I sympathized with Shahna, as I imagined it would be impossible for an adult to learn enough to build a star ship, if they started learning as an adult. It would be impossible for her to meet Captain Kirk in the future. Sadness!

Since Star Trek is set centuries in the future, it dawned on me that for humans to reach that level of technical sophistication, a great deal more discovery would have to occur. This knowledge would have to be imparted to young people at the university level. Even as a child, I supposed that there must be a finite limit to how much knowledge a human could assimilate in one lifetime. I imagined that one would have to be in school essentially their entire lifetime before they could learn enough to build a Star Ship! Are there scientific discoveries and technical accomplishments that are simply beyond what humans could accomplish, simply because they would exceed a human lifetime of education to break new ground?

In retrospect, I didn’t really consider the notion of ~specialization~ by which only some people would become Star Ship engineers. I didn’t really understand that intellectual breakthroughs, or scientific and technical developments, are profound and difficult at the time they occur, but are much more easily assimilated by the lesser minds that follow. I discovered a great illustration of this latter point just recently. I’ve been reading through older blog entries by Sam Harris, and discovered this beautiful passage by Harris illustrating how profound Newton’s intellectual accomplishment was at the time:

“Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text—scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually—in this email exchange.”

I agree with Harris when he states that “one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement.” Yet many students at the undergraduate level routinely manage to learn and assimilate calculus. I suppose that the scientist, or more likely scientists, of the future who unlocks the secrets of warp drive and dilithium crystals will be as Newton or Einstein in coming centuries, yet successive generations of students will have not have to rival them intellectually to understand the concepts.

Clearly human minds have progressed from hunting on African savannas to building GPS satellites and decoding the human genome. The trick seems to be ~specialization~ which is something I didn’t quite understand when I was in the third grade…

 Posted by on 05/17/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Gamesters of Triskelion Paradox
May 142015
 

I believe I only attended Lutheran church service about three times. I attended Sunday School largely because my mother told me to, although I don’t recall feeling victimized by attending. I went through confirmation, which consisted of a series of night classes taught by the pastor. I remember studying Luther’s Small Catechism, though I don’t recall learning about Luther’s weird and hateful ideas about Changelings and Jews.

From there I remember attending regular adult church services about three times. My memory is hazy, but one element that really stood out was the recitation of what I believe was the Apostle’s Creed, specifically the Lutheran version. Per the Wikipedia entry, the text is as follows:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Christian Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The part that seemed weirdly unsettling was the line “He descended into Hell.” I always wondered about this: Why did this happen? Why did Jesus go to Hell? I would imagine that His crucifixion was somehow not enough propitiation for God himself, that he needed MORE torture. Considering that the crucifixion story is a major centerpiece of Christian theology, I had to wonder why Jesus’ time in Hell was not discussed more widely. How do we know he went to Hell? Did he tell the dudes at Emmaus with whom he dined, post resurrection? Why was the above ground crucifixion story given so much more prominence? Why wasn’t crucifixion enough punishment? Perhaps Jesus went to Hell to hang out with sinners. If so, what was that outcome? Did he save them through his Grace? Did they go to Heaven?

I’m sure those with a more sophisticated understanding of Christian theology have ready answers for these questions, as I’m surely not the first person in the last 18 centuries to wonder about this. Ultimately of course, there is simply no evidence whatsoever that Jesus went to Hell, or that Hell exists at all. And that’s what really matters.

I became curious about these matters not long ago, as I began to wonder how more liberal strains of Christianity concluded that Hell was not a real place. Again, it’s an enormously complex question, and ultimately not grounded in any sort of good evidence, so it could be argued that it’s a fruitless intellectual exercise. Yet it’s a fact that many people are truly terrorized by fear of Hell. As long as an idea is in one’s mind, it can be troublesome. Sometimes as I fall asleep I experience rather frightening “visions” of falling out of a burning World Trade Center building. When I saw 9/11 coverage on TV, I had enough understanding of my own mental health to know that watching images of this atrocity would do ~some~ psychological damage. Still photos of humans jumping out of the burning buildings were particularly disturbing for me. I can’t “unsee” the images. I imagine for some Christians, “Hell” is a very real place, and this is the sort of pathological meme that damns the Christian religion: The propagation of fear based on claiming to know things that are not actually known.

 Posted by on 05/14/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on He Descended Into Hell