Help

My mom always worried I would end up “dead in a ditch.” I’m still alive, but I did take care of the ditch part last weekend.

Let me back up. As most of you know, the Dallas area experienced a bit of an ice storm last week. It started Thursday evening and dumped a few inches of sleet and freezing rain over the area. I had to work every night during the storm. By Friday morning when my shift ended, the streets in Dallas were slushy but still drivable. I slept a few hours in a Company-provided hotel room. It was a nice gesture, but due to a noisy heater and my constant expectation that the housekeeper was about to knock on my door, I didn’t sleep well and finally gave up around lunchtime.

By then the Dallas streets still looked the same – dirty slush and drivable. However, since the temperature was forecast to stay below freezing all day, I didn’t want to drive all the way home and then all the way back that night for my next shift. So I hung out in northwest Dallas all day. I ate unhealthy and delicious food (try the Cinnabon things at Taco Bell – oh my). I slogged up to the Cinemark and watched the new Christian Bale movie (great acting, OK story). I felt a little proud of myself for not being one of Those Texans who cower in their homes the minute a snowflake appears.

Trying to kill some time, I looked for a Starbucks where I could enjoy warm coffee and play on my iPad. However, the neighborhood I was in didn’t seem to be a Starbucks kind of place. So I parked at McDonald’s near a big shopping center that was surrounded by low-income apartments. Lots of people were wandering around in the parking lot, some walking to the grocery store or a restaurant, others chipping ice off their cars or trying to tweak something under the hood to get the engine running. My Sheltered White Boy senses started to tingle. I decided not to carry my iPad into this tiny McDonald’s and sip warm McCafe. Instead I hurriedly chipped ice from my wheel wells and hoped no one would ask me for Help.

Confession time: I try to be a generous person. I want to help people and like the idea of helping people. I give money to build wells in South Sudan and feed/clothe/educate needy children in Ethiopia and repair damage from tsunamis and chemical explosions and Storms of the Century. But there’s a catch – I always prefer to keep my distance.

By giving money through a computer rather than time, I can keep control of the situation. Actually getting involved with people’s problems directly and having conversations face to face and looking them in the eyes is way, way out of the comfort zone for a shy, introverted guy like me. Sometimes real people need something tangible like money, or a ride somewhere, or help with their cars, or gas, or a job. Situations like that involve talking to strangers and starting relationships. Relationships can be messy, inconvenient, and awkward. It’s easier not to get involved, especially with people you’ll never see again.

“You know where the nearest Wal-Mart is?” a voice from behind me asked. I turned and saw three young men. They seemed nice enough, but The Voice inside kept asking whether they were sincere and what else they might want. I have helped a few sincere strangers who approached me in the past. I have also gotten scammed. I once heard the same sob story from two different guys in the same parking lot a few weeks apart. For situations when someone might approach me needing Help, my default answer is no.

“Sorry, I’m not sure. I’m not from here,” I replied truthfully. They moved on.

I finished cleaning my car and found a Starbucks, a place where people who can afford to drop six bucks on a coffee and a cookie can hide and not get asked for Help. There, I felt safer, but also a bit ashamed. Those thoughts got stuffed into a dark corner of my soul as I warmed up with my venti cappuccino.

That evening I slogged my way to the office and worked my shift, finishing around 7:00am Saturday morning. The incoming morning shift people reported fairly good roads. Tired of hiding in Dallas and missing my family, I chose to brave the ice and drive home. Playing with my sons in a winter wonderland is a rare treat, and my wife was a bit stir crazy from being cooped up at home with all their energy.

As expected, most section of the roads and highway provided decent traction. However, the bridges, overpasses, and a few other areas were coated in ice. The slushy mess that covered the roads on Friday had frozen solid overnight as the temps dropped into the upper teens. I discovered my first so-called cobblestone ice, the tooth-rattling washboard of bumpy ice that tested both my shocks and my nerve. Along the way I passed a few cars that had gotten stuck and been ominously abandoned. Finally I turned north to highway 360, the final leg of my journey home. Just a couple of miles lay between me and my family.

I would be exiting to the right, so I stayed in the icy right lane instead of moving over briefly to the smoother, drier left lane. Suddenly, I felt the back of my car start to slide. I’d driven on ice a few times over the last several years and recognized the feeling, but I had always managed to keep the wheels straight and pull out. This time, though, my back end kept sliding left. It happened so fast that I can’t remember exactly how I tried to recover. Soon I was spinning sideways into the left lane with my front end pointing toward the right shoulder. I kept spinning and started moving forward toward the shoulder.

“Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I kept sliding. A shallow ditch appear on the other side of a wide, icy shoulder. Finally, I came to rest with my left wheel in the ditch on a patch of icy grass and mud and my right wheel on ice.

Beyond feeling out of control, the experience wasn’t particularly scary. No other cars were nearby at that moment. My car was mostly on the road. The ditch was shallow. All I needed to do was back out and turn around. This was an embarrassing but minor inconvenience, I thought.

The ice and my front-wheel-drive, 100-hp Honda Fit had other plans.

Using reverse only spun my wheels. I tried rocking forward and back, turning right and left, and got absolutely nowhere. I got out and tried pushing but couldn’t get any traction on the ice. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had stumbled onto a problem I couldn’t solve on my own.

I needed Help.

After I flailed about for five to ten minutes, the first car stopped and backed up. A man climbed out and walked toward me. I initially waved him off, embarrassed and determined to fix this mess myself somehow, but he kept walking toward me. His message was simple: you’re screwed, so call a wrecker. I had already suspected that, but he helped me accept it. So I guess that was helpful.

I called my insurance company to get some use from my roadside assistance coverage. Due to all the other people who had crashed or gotten stuck on the ice, the wait was at least four hours. That was an awfully long time to wait in the car. On the other hand, my house was far enough away that if I walked there in those conditions, I would need to come back soon after I arrived. I didn’t want Jenny to pack up the kids and come rescue me, nor did I want to ask my dad or a friend to go out in these conditions. There was no good option.

As I debated, another car spun out directly behind me in the same icy lane. That’s when the gravity of my situation became a bit clearer. If I waited in or beside the car, I might get hurt or even killed. If I walked home, I might return to find my car smashed. I sat in the car trying to decide which bad option I would choose.

That’s when Help arrived.

The next car to stop contained two guys about my age or a bit younger, both wearing service technician uniforms from a Grapevine car dealership. For all I knew, they could have lived near the McDonald’s from the previous day that made me nervous. They said they couldn’t just leave me alone beside the road. They drove a Civic Hybrid and offered to try to pull me out with a tow chain. As we were discussing that plan, two other cars stopped and three more guys got out, probably on their way to work. First we tried it with the Civic Hybrid. One guy drove while the other four guys tried to push me out of the ditch. The Civic didn’t have enough power to get me out, so another guy hooked up his pickup to me while the other four pushed. After a few cautious attempts, Plan B worked. I was free.

And it was only because five strangers interrupted their commutes, took pity on a guy they’d never met, and helped him out of a bind he couldn’t undo himself.

I thanked them profusely. It might have been appropriate to pay them something for their trouble, but my car was blocking traffic and they needed to get going, so it didn’t work out. The guy who drove the pickup left me with a big smile and a simple, “Be safe!”

I tried not to cry.

At the very least, those strangers got me out of a major jam. In light of the other cars that could have spun out in the same spot and potentially crashed into me, it’s possible they even saved my life.

I’ll probably never see any of those guys again, nor can I ever repay them for their kindness. What I can do is remember this experience the next time I see someone who needs Help. Few things can humble a man like needing a hand from a complete stranger who has zero obligation to do anything for him. Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to pay this forward. Until then, all I can do is be grateful and tell their story.

Blog Soup 11/21/3013

Happy November and Happy Early Thanksgiving, everyone! I have a few moments and thought I would share a few thoughts and bits of news before I go tackle the huge pile of leaves in my front yard.

House

Since Facebook prematurely outed me (darn you, Facebook! ::shakes fist::), I’ll go ahead and share some house news. Once Jenny finishes school in May 2015, we are tentatively planning to move to Grand Prairie near Joe Pool Lake. There are two main reasons for the move:

  1. Family – We’ll live near my sister (currently 30+ minutes away) so our kids can go to school together. Instead of being 45 minutes from Jenny’s family, too far to see them very often, we’ll be 15 minutes away. It won’t put us too much farther from my parents and maternal grandparents, either.
  2. More Space – When we moved into our current house, we had nine-month-old Brenden and no Jonathan. Now that our family is complete and we have two very active boys, we’d like to have a bit more space, including a big game room upstairs where they can play, a study downstairs, and a media room where I can watch movies or play games late at night without worrying about waking anyone up. We can get a lot more house for the money in south Grand Prairie/Mansfield compared to the Mid-Cities.

With that plan in mind, we have been updating our current house to get it ready. I might share some more details in another post if that would interest you.

Things That Make Me Go Hmm

A few interesting observations:

  • I recently sent my ex-fiancee a babysitter recommendation. We are friends on Facebook, and when she posted a request for a good babysitter, I had one to offer. It was a bit odd, but it’s nice that we don’t hate each other despite the breakup.
  • A friend of mine got a bachelor’s from a private school, worked a bit, got a master’s in a really specialized field from another private school, and probably financed everything through student loans. Now she is married and staying home with her kids, but they are so strapped for cash that they’re selling every spare possession they can on Facebook to reduce their debt. I’m all for staying home with the kids if that’s what’s right for your family, but I don’t understand taking out massive loans for private colleges if you don’t plan to work.
  • Some people say you should rake and bag your leaves because they choke off your grass, blocking air, water, and nutrients from reaching your lawn. Others say you should mulch the leaves back into the soil. For years I’ve been mulching them, but I’ve had problems with thatch development. This year I’m going to compost the leaves instead of mulching them. Wish me luck. I need it!

Baylor

As you probably figured, I am greatly enjoying the Bears’ football season. Jenny and I went to the Baylor-Oklahoma game in Waco earlier this month and had a blast. I’ve thought all along that our toughest test would come this Saturday in Stillwater, OK, against a tough Oklahoma State team. If we can win this, and Bama loses to Auburn or Mizzou, we have a chance at the national title game. That. Is. Crazy.

Obamacare

I held out high hopes for Obamacare despite my eventual decision to support Medicare for All instead. I defended it. I explained it to people. But now that the exchange website has experienced so many problems, and so many people are getting their policies canceled despite Obama’s foolish promises that “if you like your policy, you can keep your policy,” I have little appetite left for defending Obamacare. I love the new requirements – expanding coverage to the uninsured, no ban for preexisting conditions, keeping your children on your plan longer, coverage for contraception, etc. – but the overall scheme is too complicated to work well and isn’t going to draw in enough healthy young people to make it financially feasible. So in a sense, maybe the Republicans were right on many points. However, the answer isn’t going back to the old crappy system. The answer is expanding Medicare, a system that already works well for tens of millions of older Americans, to cover every single American, much like most other civilized countries do. But I fear that after the disaster of Obamacare, the country will have little appetite for further health care reform.

To the Edge and Back

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.
- Albert Einstein

Recently I became curious about a mysterious phenomenon: the near-death experience, or NDE. Despite my general preference for evidence, science, data, and the like, I’ve always been a bit intrigued by events that seem to defy scientific explanation. Being also curious about the afterlife, I bought a couple of books. Maybe this NDE thing was just misfires from a dying brain like many skeptics claim, but maybe it was something else…

An NDE from Someone Who Should Know Better

One book was Proof of Heaven, a personal account by a respected neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander who had an NDE while comatose with bacterial meningitis that should have been destroying his brain at the time. After spending his entire career dismissing NDEs as nonsense, he woke up a strong believer in them with a remarkable tale to share.

The Book That Coined the Term

Next was the book that coined the phrase near-death experience, Dr. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life. Moody gathered and studied 150 accounts of NDEs and looked for recurring elements, thinking that if NDEs were real, they would probably share many similarities. He was correct.

What Happens During an NDE?

Moody identified twelve elements that kept appearing in NDE reports. Each report was a bit different, and none of them contained every element, but several elements popped up repeatedly, including:

  • A sense of being outside one’s body in a separate and immaterial body of sorts, often looking down upon one’s physical body as medical people struggled to save it.
  • Remarkable peace, lucidity, and lack of pain.
  • The ability to move, often to other parts of the hospital where the subject often heard or saw things they shouldn’t have been able to hear or see. Many of these instances were verified later, much to the surprise of the medical professionals and families.
  • A dark tunnel or cave, through which the subject often moved at seemingly great speed.
  • A being of light whose presence enveloped the subject in an overwhelming and indescribable sense of unconditional love and peace.
  • Meeting other beings, generally deceased relatives or occasionally close friends.
  • A life review in which the subject reviewed his entire life or just certain parts, but with the ability to better understand their significance and how his choices affected others. The purpose of this life review was always the person’s own education, never as a determinant for a heaven/hell decision.
  • A decision to return to one’s body. Sometimes the subject chose to return to attend to unfinished business such as raising a child, while other times the decision was made for the subject, sending him unhappily back to his broken physical body.
  • Profound life change after returning, characterized by a complete loss of the fear of death and greater love and compassion for others.

Moody and Alexander, both physicians, took pains to evaluate the natural explanations that skeptics often suggest, such as low blood oxygen, drug-induced hallucinations, mental illness, brain malfunctions, dreams, and recalled memories. Although convenient and widely accepted in some circles, none of these explanations really holds up under closer analysis. The problem with most common explanations is this: NDE reports nearly always involve a high level of awareness, recall, lucidity, and complex thought. Low blood oxygen, painkillers, hallucinogens, or a malfunctioning, dying brain would make one’s brain foggier, not sharper.

Hmm.

Mounting Evidence

I am now on my fifth book on the subject. Yes, there are plenty of personal accounts in books and on TV, some of which might be frauds trying to make an easy buck. But the books I’ve been reading are by physicians who once believed that NDEs should not be possible, but have been convinced otherwise by studying the evidence and, in Alexander’s case, also by personal experience.

Most of my books have focused on analyzing large numbers of NDE reports. These reports are often submitted anonymously or de-identified prior to publication, so there is little incentive for false reports from people looking to sell their book or get on Oprah. Even in studies larger than Moody’s seminal study, and even when comparing NDE reports among different languages and cultures, the same elements appear time and again. Sometimes the respondents interpret or describe things differently based on their cultural background, much like travelers describing the same landmark in different ways, but the elements themselves get repeated in a surprising number of cases. Interestingly, the elements don’t vary significantly by nation, culture, gender, or (perhaps most surprisingly) religion. Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims all reported the same types of NDEs. If these reports are true, the traditional Christian view that all non-Christians go to hell seems to be mistaken.

I’ve been wrestling with a lot of questions lately, really over the past year. Along other things, it’s been difficult to believe there truly is something else beyond death. Remember, I like data and evidence and sound reason, and since I haven’t died yet that I know of, I have no personal experience to use as evidence. Although this blog post probably hasn’t convinced you, the books I’ve been reading about people who have been to the edge of death and returned are making me more convinced that the afterlife is real, albeit different from many people’s expectations. That growing conviction comforts me more than I would have expected.

Do You Have a Story?

Estimates suggest that around five percent of all people have experienced an NDE, although many of them never discuss theirs publicly for fear of ridicule. So I suspect that some of you either have personally experienced an NDE or know someone who has. If so, I would love to hear about your experience.

If you’d like to read about some NDEs without buying a book, check out NDERF.org.

Unbroken and the Mystery of Enemies Who Become Friends

I drive a Japanese car, a Honda Fit. Unlike some Japanese cars that are built by Japanese companies on American soil, my Fit was actually made in Japan and shipped over. One of my favorite foods is sushi. Another is anything prepared hibachi-style. My family plays video games on a Wii U, a Japanese system, with audio run through a receiver made by Sony, another Japanese company. I love the spare, haunting simplicity of Japanese music and art and the minimalist beauty of its architecture and furniture design. One of my favorite spas is a Japanese gem outside Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. In my lifetime, Japan has always been a country full of innovation, great culture, and solid values that offer an interesting alternative to our Western individualism.

Obviously, had I been born half a century earlier, my perspective on Japan would have been radically different.

A Tale Worth Reading

This realization hit home for me while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding World War II biography called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater. After his plane crashed, he crawled into a life raft with two men from his crew and began drifting west toward Japanese-occupied territory. His story was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever encountered. The book taught me much about the Pacific side of World War II, a subject I sadly haven’t studied in depth even though both my grandfathers served in the Navy during the war. It also gave me a portrait of a will to live that is strong enough to endure unfathomable suffering, despite circumstances that would have made me want to give up many times over. Hillenbrand, also the author of Seabiscuit, spent seven years interviewing POWs, historians, and Zamperini himself, poring over scrapbooks and photographs and military records, and weaving together this mountain of information into one of the most compelling nonfiction books I have ever read.

Japan as a Hostile Nation

The disconnect between the 2013 Japan I know and the 1940s Japan in the book jarred me a bit. Without spoiling the book for you, I will say that Zamperini does eventually encounter some Japanese soldiers, and the results will make you squirm.

How can two countries go from being mortal enemies in the 1940s to being begrudging allies against the Communists the next decade, to say nothing of our strong relationship today and our affinity for Japanese culture and products? Political necessity certainly played a role initially, as the United States wanted all the allies it could get against the Soviet Union and China. Economic considerations also helped, as helping Japan to rebuild presented a large trade opportunity. The passage of time faded painful and fearful memories, and the millions of babies born in the post-war Baby Boom were already separated by time from the horrors of the war. For me, a child of two of those Baby Boomers, the idea of Japan as a hostile nation feels strange and out of place. And finally, as many of the World War II veterans learned after returning home, hatred and bitterness make a terrible burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.

Closing Your Eyes Is Easier, but Opening Them Is Worth It

Studying the horrors of World War II filled me with a variety of emotions: sorrow at the suffering and death of so many people on both sides of the conflict, anger at the people who started it, confusion at how so many people on the Axis side could believe in ideas like racial superiority, wonder at the amazing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and the civilians, and a wave of many types of gratitude.

I am thankful this brutal war ended as soon as it did. I am grateful that my grandfathers and so many others returned safely despite the enormous risks they faced. I am grateful that people, and nations, can change over time, that former enemies can shake hands and sometimes even form friendships, and that forgiveness is possible even in some of the worst situations imaginable.

Happenings from the Week

It’s been a pretty good week. Here are some items of note.

First Taste of Caribbean Dispatching

In the lower right, you can see the first first I’ve ever gotten to flight follow to a destination outside the continental US, SWA 742 from Orlando to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Honestly, someone else had planned it and followed it most of the way. I took over maybe 10 minutes before it landed. But that still counts, right? I got to plan my first two SJU flights Monday morning. Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, flights to and from there aren’t much different from an operational perspective. We just try not to divert to Cuba.

Uncle Charlie

The saddest part of the week came toward the end. After a long and debilitating battle with Alzheimer’s, my great uncle Charlie passed away on Thursday morning. Nearly all his family and many friends got to gather on Saturday in Wichita Falls to say goodbye and celebrate his life. Although we are certainly sad that he’s no longer with us and will miss him, it’s a relief when long-term suffering ends for someone you love. He was a good man. Several family members shared moving stories about him that gave me a clearer picture of his high character, sense of responsibility, and devotion to his family. Rest in peace, Uncle Charlie.

NBA Player Jason Collins Comes Out

This article from USA Today has more details, but this week Washington Wizards center Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in any of the big four American sports. Other pro athletes have been out for many years, such as tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and sprinter Carl Lewis. Perhaps competing in individual sports rather than team sports made coming out easier. Until now, gay NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL players have always stayed in the closet. But it was only a matter of time, as statistically about 3 percent of people are gay or lesbian. Overall, the public response to Collins’ admission from other players has been very supportive and positive, which is very encouraging. Bravo to Collins for having the courage to take a huge risk and go first by being honest about who he is. Others will follow. You can count on it.

South Padre, Baby!

Soon we plan to take the boys to South Padre Island for a couple of days. In addition to lots of beach time, we also want to visit a rescue facility called Sea Turtle, Inc., take the boys sailing on a replica pirate ship complete with a pirate show, and enjoy some tasty seafood.

Helping West

I decided not to attend the West memorial at Baylor to counter-protest Westboro. My firefighter friend Jeremy did, though, and said it was very moving and well-done. I made a donation to the Salvation Army’s West fund, which is probably more useful than picking a fight with ignorant hatemongers, anyway. My sister and her husband went down and volunteered in West on Sunday, bringing an amazing number of cookies to the displaced residents and helping with the food efforts in person. They were nice enough to bring me some kolaches from Czech Stop, which helps West and me both.

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Colorblind Children

One thing I love about suburban living is the amazing assortment of nearby public parks. I count at least seven parks with solid playgrounds within a five minute drive plus an awesome, huge one that’s maybe ten minutes away. Why spend $1000 or more, not to mention a weekend full of cussing and imposing on friends and family for assembly, to put a smaller playset in our backyard? We can visit a different park every day of the week virtually for free.

Another advantage of playing in all these public parks is the boys’ opportunity to play with other kids. My sons aren’t exactly shy. When we show up at a park where other kids are playing, they happily jump right in and assume they are now part of the group rather than awkwardly lingering on the fringe hoping to get an invitation. For this shy dad, it’s a joy and a relief to see how comfortable they are with complete strangers.

Last week we went to the “Blue Park” – we’ve given each park a name that’s easy for them to remember – that sits near the apartments where Jenny and I lived when we first got married. Lots of kids were playing at the playground that day, many of them connected to a large family gathering that was grilling at a nearby picnic area. As usual, Brenden and Jonathan jumped right in. As I watched them play, I noticed that they were the racial minority at the playground. Most of the kids were black, the ones from the family gathering, and a few might have been Latino or white. I was struck by how, for my boys and seemingly for the other kids as well, race was an absolute non-issue.

They didn’t care whether the other kids were white, black, brown, or any other color. They were just happy to have someone with whom to play superheroes and pile up on the slide and giggle and run around and swing. One of the black boys was older, apparently the leader of the group. He was very patient and helpful with the younger kids of all races. At one point he even pushed Brenden on the swing for a bit, and Brenden loved getting attention from a big kid.

This little experience reminded me of a truth I’ve known for years but sometimes forget: racism is learned, not natural.

Let me be clear and honest here. I’m not perfect in the prejudice department. I’m not completely colorblind, nor am I sure that’s even a good goal given that race is part of one’s identity and is often tied into one’s culture, values, and much more in ways that are difficult for an American white male to understand. I still jump to inappropriate conclusions sometimes based on someone’s race. I still laugh at some racial humor that I probably shouldn’t condone. I choose to live in a suburb with a good school district, and that district does happen to contain mostly white kids. But Jenny and I are trying not to taint our sons’ worldview with any inappropriate prejudices, generalizations, or stereotypes based on a person’s race. I think that’s the main reason why being around kids of other races isn’t a big deal to them. Since we don’t make race an issue, they haven’t gotten any notion that race is worth considering. I like that.

I also want to preserve that perspective in them for as long as I can. I don’t try to persuade them to go to the parks where mostly white kids hang out. (I do try to steer them toward parks that have actual bathrooms rather than Portapotties or secluded trees, but that’s another post) I try to keep them away from racist people so those people’s hatred and ignorance don’t taint my sons’ young minds. I try hard to avoid the subtle Texas racism of describing a white man simply as a guy but a black man as a black guy, even though the man’s race is completely irrelevant to the story. Using language that way reinforces the idea that race is a thing when most of the time, it isn’t.

I also don’t plan to hide my children from “the minorities” by enrolling them in a private school or homeschool them for their entire school careers to keep them away from kids who are different. Brenden starts public kindergarten this fall, and we plan to keep both of them in public school through their senior years, just like we were. I want them to be around different types of people – different races, languages, religions, genders, socioeconomic classes, cultures, and sexual orientations – so they will have a better understanding of how people really are.

I am convinced their lives will be richer as a result, and so will ours.