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Little Things Matter

Little Things Matter

The devil is in the details, or God is in the details, depending on who you ask. Little things mean a lot. The things that sometimes we tend to overlook in favor of the big picture are often the things that make the picture big. Details matter.

Anyone can have a relationship with another human being, but it takes hard effort to make it work. One must learn to compromise and value the other persons values, sometimes ahead of one’s own. One must develop a thick skin and understand that things said in anger or in irritation don’t necessarily mean much. Maybe they are indicators of how that person really feels, but do they indicate something that is worth fighting over? Clearly one must use a clear head to consider such matters.

Da Queen and I have had what is by all accounts a good marriage but if anyone would say it’s easy, it’s because we make it look easy. The truth is, we irritate each other all the time. Sometimes we miscalculate the other’s mood; other times we get pissy and deliberately irritate the other or look to pick a fight. There are times I honestly don’t know what the hell I’m saying or doing and yet I say or do it anyway and afterwards I wonder if there’s some sort of alien parasite inside me, manipulating me to do and say things that I know are wrong. I think we all feel that way sometimes.

That’s why the ability to forgive the other’s transgressions becomes a big thing in any relationship. Even though your feelings are hurt, you just have to get past it and move on. There are times I’ve legitimately felt bad about what my wife has said to me in a moment of anger but I realize that it’s just a moment of anger. Occasionally, something leaks out that has to be addressed; when that happens it should be done as calmly and as rationally as possible. Of course, some couples need to fight things out – that works for them and it might work for you. Da Queen and I are far too sensitive for such things. We tend to work better when we’re discussing things as rationally as possible.

But it’s not just about the negatives; it’s about creating the positives. Taking the time to do things for the other indicates that they are important to you. They don’t have to be grand, expensive gestures. Little things can mean a lot; picking up her favorite snack when you’re at the store without being asked. Doing a chore around the house that she doesn’t expect. Making his favorite meal when he’s had a bad day. Things like that can make all the difference between a successful relationship and a failed one.

Making the effort can go a long way, even if you aren’t necessarily successful. There are times when my disability prevents me from finishing a chore around the house but my wife appreciates that I’m at least trying to help out. There are other times when she gets involved in a project that seems to take all her concentration – my Queen can be a bit obsessive about projects. That’s okay; I know that is just her nature and generally speaking her projects tend to be about good things, things that make us or other people happy. It’s hard to argue against that although there are times I have to gently remind her to take a step back. She’s the kind of person who needs to be mentally occupied at all times.

It’s not just your romantic relationship this should apply to; friends, family and colleagues should get the same consideration. How nice is it when someone brings a box of bagels into work unexpectedly, or when you’re invited over to a friend’s house for a night of movies and pizza? Isn’t it wonderful when you feel included and important? That’s a feeling you should pass on to others and FYI it’s the kind of thing that gets that feeling passed back to you more often.

However, this kind of behavior means that we have to think about others instead of just about ourselves. In fact, it means putting others above yourself. In this day and age where selfishness is encouraged and self-centeredness rewarded, that’s not an easy proposition to undertake. However, it is the right thing to do. It is the right way to be. It doesn’t mean you have to be Gandhi. It doesn’t mean you have to donate half your income to charity. It doesn’t even mean you have to spend hours you don’t have at the local soup kitchen. It just means you have to take a few moments out of your day to be considerate to others. It means occasionally thinking about what you can do to make others around you happy. Maybe it means spending twenty bucks at Dunkin Donuts. Maybe it means buying your wife flowers from a roadside stand on your way home from work despite there being no occasion to do so. Maybe it means just means making a list of DVDs you’re getting ready to sell and letting your friends pick and choose the ones they want first and then giving them to them.

I personally think if we all did just one considerate thing a week – just one – the amount of good it would do would be amazing. Can you imagine what America would be like if everybody committed to doing one considerate thing a week for others? Maybe people would be less stressed because there’s a constant barrage of considerate things coming their way. Maybe the divorce rate would go down because couples are feeling more appreciated within their relationship. Maybe this country would end up being a better place to live in.

Clearly that’s a best case scenario and likely getting the world to change is pretty much like trying to get the sky to turn purple but why not try? Our actions are solely within our own control and nobody else’s. If we all made that commitment who knows where it would lead? Wouldn’t it be great if we at least tried?

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The Bikini Dilemma

The Bikini Dilemma

It is a bit of a dilemma that women face. On the one hand, there is a push for them to be attractive physically. On the other, there’s a demand that they remain modest and chaste. If you’re going to save yourself for marriage, probably best not to show too much skin, right?

The beach becomes the great equalizer. Where else but at the beach are we urged to shed as much clothing as possible? Where else is it acceptable for a woman to be out in public in essentially a skimpy bra and panties and not be thought of as some kind of randy slut?

We are a nation of double standards particularly when it comes to women. We use the sexuality of women as an advertising tool; sexy women are used to hawk beer, guns and cars. We show the ideal of beauty to be thin  and the height of fashion to be the skimpiest of clothes. We tacitly urge women to be sexual, then brand them degenerate when they are sexual. We decry abortions yet we have been whittling away at the assistance that we give to single mothers when it comes to raising a child by themselves.

So what are young women to think? Well, let’s be frank – young women really aren’t encouraged to think at all. We give them a set of parameters to live their lives within and when they express some sort of opinion, we either ignore it outright or call them bitches for having the gall to say something. That is, when we acknowledge that they said anything to begin with.

We admire their nurturing side, their forgiving natures and their compassion and play those aspects of the female psyche up thus implicitly declaring that they should be submissive and obedient. We expect women to be the ones to give in over and over again even though they may know that giving in is the wrong thing to do. Say nothing and live a longer, happier life. Let your husband or boyfriend make all the decisions and keep your mouth shut.

So we dress them up in bikinis and take pictures of them on the beach. We give them skimpy dresses to wear in the clubs so that guys will notice them and dance with them. Everything targeted at women seems to be all about keeping them in a certain position in life.

Of course, the feminist movement tried to put an end to all that. Empowering women was a goal that in almost 40 years has been an ideal that has been achieved with qualified and somewhat uneven success. In some ways the radical feminists have established a different role for women – but a role nonetheless. It is the antithesis of the happy housewife, a role that establishes women as strong, ferocious and smart. Women who can stand tall and speak their mind. Women who can be leaders rather than followers. Leaders who are dominant rather than submissive.

The trouble with these roles is that I haven’t met a woman yet who wants to follow a pre-ordained set of parameters to live their lives within. No men either, truth be told, but in the second decade of the 21st century, women seem less inclined than ever to want to fit into a box of rules. Most of the women I know tend to blend qualities of both roles I just mentioned while adding qualities of their own. The women I know are sexual and chaste, submissive and strong, loud and quiet, self-confident and unsure, nurturing and self-involved, joyful and joyless, hard-working and lazy, driven and content. In short, the average woman fits no mold. In fact, I put it to you that there is no such thing as an average woman. Every woman is an individual with her own way of doing things. Even in societies where women are literally second-class citizens you will find women who chafe at their roles and women who are content to live the way they have for thousands of years. You can’t fit everybody in the same cookie cutter. The communists discovered that a long time ago.

So no wonder men have such a hard time figuring women out. Women do their own thing and they don’t necessarily follow the most logical paths, although some women of my acquaintance are the most sensible people I know. The one thing I do know about women is that they are each and every one beautiful in their own way. And they look absolutely divine in bikinis. If you want to call that a dilemma, I suppose that’s as good a word as any.

Left Behind

Left Behind

It has become predictable. The President proposes something, does something or supports something. The conservatives let out a howl, screaming how his actions or proposed actions will destroy our economy, wipe out what little respect we have left in the global community, further erode the Christian values that built this country, and as the late George Carlin might have said, “infect your soul, curve your spine and lose the war for the Allies.”

In fact, it’s something of a joke. Even when President Obama does thing that the right wants, things that they are clamoring for him to do, they find a way to make it an awful, terrible thing he’s done when he goes ahead and does it.

Take the recent exchange of five Taliban members from Gitmo for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, for example. He was the only American prisoner of war being held by the Taliban. Getting him back to the United States was a priority now that we are preparing to withdraw our troops from that country. The United States has always had a standard that nobody gets left behind. Our military lives by that rule and sometimes, dies by that rule. President Obama understood this and his team tried to negotiate a release with the Taliban to get Bergdahl home.

When a proof of life video was received by the military sent off alarm bells as to the deteriorating condition of Bergdahl, the consensus from the Obama administration was that recovering Bergdahl was an immediate and urgent priority and the deal was made.

This did violate the law. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 clearly mandates that all prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay require a minimum 30 day notice to Congress, and the President did not do that. The President cited “unique and exigent circumstances” for not complying with the law, feeling that the health and safety of the soldier was more important.

Of course, the right went bananas. Republican congressmen have called for a Benghazi-like hearing on the matter and some voices on the right are calling (again) for Obama’s impeachment. Rather than celebrating the return of one of our own back home, they are instead attacking Bergdahl, questioning whether he had deserted his post and even implying – or saying directly – that he’s a traitor.

First of all, none of this is germane to getting him back home. If he did violate military conduct, then court martial him – but do it here. Let American rule of law apply to American soldiers rather than Taliban law. You would think that the right would be on board with that right?

Wrong. Many have expressed the belief that “Bergdahl got what he deserved” and that he wasn’t worth the price that was given up for him. Some commentators have questioned his father who had grown his beard out as a sign of solidarity for his son and looked somewhat like a mullah. Then again, put a Turban on Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and so does he.

The hypocrisy here is that we all know that if it was George W. Bush who had engineered the transfer, the right would have been singing the praises of the deal. They would have praised Bush for proving that “America never forgets its own” and praised his strength as a leader. Would the left have raised an outcry in that same situation similar to what the Teapublicans have done? I honestly don’t believe they would have.

We are politicizing everything these days and everything has become if you will excuse the expression, black or white. As in when you’re on the right, everything that Obama does is black and everything that opposes his actions (or inactions) is white. The same cannot be said of the left who are as likely to criticize the president in many cases as praise him.

I don’t think President Obama should have signed the NDAA of 2014. I think he should have sent it back and reminded Congress that in order for a President to be effective, he needs to be able to act decisively when a situation calls for it. However, once he signed the law he should have adhered to it. While I agree that the safety and well-being of our soldiers takes precedence, the President should be censured nonetheless for failing to give Congress notice that he intended to exchange those five prisoners. Certainly, the administration was aware that the Taliban was insisting on those five; in fact, portions of the story broke in mainstream publications including the Wall Street Journal late last year before negotiations broke down. Congress could have been notified that the potential that these prisoners might be exchanged for an American prisoner of war and that when the exchange took place it would of necessity be without a whole lot of time for notification. That would have satisfied the law and if the President so chose, he could have also mandated that criminal charges be leveled against any member of Congress or their staff who leaked the information to the media as it might endanger the life of the American soldier in captivity.

I also find senators who grandstand about “not receiving information” about the situation and call a press conference to complain about it – while skipping a briefing session designed to give them information in order to call that press conference – reprehensible. I’m looking at you, Senator McCain. And while we’re at it, is there some kind of competition for King of Hypocritical Politicians that you’re trying to win? Because you’ve been contradicting your own statements regarding not only the Bergdahl situation but things like gun violence and the VA scandal as well. Try to remember that the things you say are pretty much recorded non-stop – so rather than parroting the party line, try sticking to your guns. However, in fairness, you have worked with Bernie Sanders in getting a bill written that might actually help veterans so I will give credit where it is due.

Getting back on point however, let’s just remember a few things – the soldier we’re talking about is an American citizen who volunteered to go and serve his country. Whether he was the worst soldier ever or a Medal of Honor winner, his country still owes him a debt and the least we can do is everything in our power to bring him home alive. If Bergdahl violated his oath, if he walked away from his post, let him suffer the consequences of it but let those consequences be determined by a military tribunal, not a politician or political commentator to leave him with the Taliban to rot. That is a distinctly un-American thing to do.

Gold Drives a Man to Dream

Gold Drives a Man to Dream

Another season of Survivor ended recently and next year the show will celebrate 15 years and 30 “seasons” of castaways marooned on a tropical island. Every year Da Queen bitches that they’re never sent to a cold weather environment but every year I remind her that there are no bikinis in cold weather environments nor are their bare-chested men, emaciated as they may be by the end of the season.

This year we watched Tony, the cop from New Jersey, play a skillful game and manipulate nearly every situation to his own advantage. I didn’t particularly like what he was doing but, I kept telling himself, it’s just a game. That is, until he said during the final tribal council whether it was worth disrespecting his father (for breaking an oath Tony took on his father’s grave) for a million dollars. His answer: Yes.

That got me thinking. This is an officer of the law who just admitted on national television that for a million dollars, he would lie. What else would he do for a million dollars? Would he break the law? He had recently saved the life of a man who was having a heart attack (after returning home from the tropics) but what if someone offered him a million dollars not to? Can anyone in his community trust him as a cop again?

My dissatisfaction with the game doesn’t lie with the most recent champion. Survivor is a game in which deceit is rewarded. By any means necessary is not just a phrase in this game; it is a winning formula. Alliances are made and broken; backs are stabbed and friends thrown under the bus. It is, in short, a game in which those without conscience prosper.

The more I thought about it, the more troubled I became. To me, the game has become a microcosm for American culture in the 21st century. The game is the ultimate expression of Darwinism with the fittest surviving however they can, with money being the ultimate reward. When you think about it, isn’t that what our society has become? A greedy, self-centered money-worshipping charnel house in which the good are trampled by the wayside and the strong keep the weak down, using them for their own purposes until they are no longer useful at which time they are cast aside like so much chaff. This is what capitalism has become.

Nobody looks out for the weak in Survivor The moment you are perceived as weak you can rest assured that there is a vote with your name on it. Showing loyalty is weakness. Helping your team out is weakness. Paranoia is your only friend. And this is one of the most popular television shows in history. Is this what we are becoming? Is this what we have already become?

I’m not saying people shouldn’t watch Survivor. I’m not even saying it’s a bad show, or a show that is intrinsically bad. I just wonder if we should admire it the way we do. Often, I watch what people do in the name of going farther in the game and am completely appalled. Would we do those sort of things to get ahead in life? In order to get a promotion at work, would we spread rumors about our competitor for the position that they are thinking of going to another company – another tribe? Would we tell our co-workers that our competitor was talking smack about them behind their backs when they weren’t, just so we become more popular in their eyes?

The producers of Survivor, which include Mark Burnett who has lately been making a number of Biblically inspired programs for cable, aren’t responsible for the way contestants act nor are they responsible for who the jury votes for. All they do is create the situation, set up some challenges here and there, sit back and watch what happens. Host Jeff Probst often refers to the game as a “social experiment” and he’s not far wrong.

That’s why I wonder about our society so much. The show is merely a reflection of what the values of our society are at the moment. In a different era, it is unlikely that people would be quite as ruthless. In previous years, we might have seen more chivalry, more honor. Klingons would be horrified at Survivor. Chances are most of the winners would be killed by the families of the losers within minutes. You don’t mess with a Klingon’s honor.

So what do you think? Do you even watch the show? Do you find it as depressing as I do? Or is it just a game? I admit I could be reading too much into the show – and at the end of the day that’s all it is, an entertainment. The actions that take place on the show are the actions of the individuals who are selected to participate. That surely doesn’t constitute a fair sampling of the population.

Yet it seems that season after season the behavior of the players grows worse and more self-centered than ever. Even on the familial “Blood vs. Water” editions have the same sort of “win at all costs” mentality with family members throwing each other under the bus. So again I’m left to wonder; is it just a game? Or is it who we are?

Free the Internet

Free the Internet

The Internet can be a pain in the ass. I tend to think of it as an adolescent, like a six year old who is still trying to figure things out. Making it profitable was one of the big things in the last decade when revenues were scarce and mainly came from advertisements which over the years have become more intrusive and more obnoxious. These days, we use the Internet for a significant amount of our purchasing, enough so that it has become a viable tool for most of us. In fact, a real argument can be made that the Internet is driving our economy these days.

We also use it for recreation and information gathering. We use it for socializing. We use it for expressing our opinion, and for posting selfies. We figure out what restaurants in town are getting the best reviews on Yelp, where the best hotel and airfares are on Kayak, what deadly diseases our symptoms best fit on WebMD. We look for discounts on Groupon, stream movies on Netflix, arrange get-togethers on Facebook. We figure out what our friends are up to on Pinterest, do our shoe shopping on Zappos, look up our family trees on Ancestry and check out what our favorite celebrities are saying on Twitter. All of these actions have varying degrees of importance. The most important thing when it comes to the Internet however is Net Neutrality.

You’ve probably heard the term bandied about and some may wonder what it means. The term originated in 2003 with Columbia University professor Tim Wu as an extension to the existing concept of a common carrier. Essentially it means that Internet Service Providers or governments treat all data equally without discriminating against user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment and/or modes of communication. It is considered a crucial component of an open internet in which all users have equal and unfettered access to all sites.

This past April 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a reversal of their previous position supporting net neutrality had been reported to be considering to allow new regulations that will allow content providers to use a faster track to send content which will in essence create a two-tiered system of access. What this would mean to users is that sites that use this faster track will only be available at an additional charge. That means that you will not only pay your ISP for Internet access, you’ll also pay additional charges if you want to use the more popular sites.

This will undoubtedly lead to tier pricing much like cable and satellite television services use, with a “basic Net” access but if you want to access to, say, news sites like The New York Times, Digg, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN, you pay an additional $5 a month, while if you want to use video-streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO you’ll pay an additional $20 per month. Interested in social networking on Facebook, Twitter or Match.com? That’ll be $15 every month.

I have no objection to allowing ISPs to be profitable, nor do I think it’s necessarily a bad thing to allow the most popular content providers to allow their services to be directed at people most likely to use them. After all, there was no hue and cry when cable operators began the current pricing structure that is pretty much universal these days.

But cable and satellite systems are a different animal than the Internet. Giving the content providers who can afford it more speed and clearer pathways is preferential treatment. It creates a situation similar to that in the early 20th century when large companies who needed to transport their goods via railway managed to negotiate favorable rates, allowing them to charge much less for their product and price the competition out of the market. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was notorious for this; eventually his trust got broken up because of his tactics which didn’t allow for fair competition.

So why is this important? Other than raising prices and limiting access to certain sites, why should we care? Well, look at who is going to profit from this – the cable providers who these days control most of the access to the Internet. Folks like Time Warner, Cox Cable, Verizon and Bright House. While to this point they have claimed loudly that they have no intention of charging customers extra for these faster access sites, that doesn’t ring true. Why would any company deny itself an opportunity for additional profit? What makes this shadier is that the Chairman of the FCC is Tom Wheeler – who previously ran the lobby for the Cable Industry. Think he’s looking out for the consumer, or for those who used to pay his salary? Even those large companies who would have that faster access – folks like Netflix and Amazon – have objected to this scheme.

In that sense, the Internet is similar; what net neutrality proponents are fighting for is fair access.  As a content provider myself, I don’t want to see anyone charged for the right to access my blog and I wouldn’t accept money from such charges even if that were an option; after all, the whole point of expressing myself in this manner is that anyone can read it and then either agree or disagree. Blogs like this are the editorial columns of the global newspaper that the Internet is..

And the Internet does fulfill the function that the newspapers once did; we get most of our information from the Net. We find sales and print out coupons from the Net. We check out the classified ads (i.e. Craigslist) and read net comics. Sure, you couldn’t play video games in newspapers nor watch video clips of news events or of cute kittens. There are no selfies in newspapers nor have we ever done any chatting through our newspaper (although we did because of our newspaper – different era) but the basic comparison is sound.

How much freedom we have on the Net in the coming decades is going to be decided in the next couple of years. We have the responsibility to be vigilant and make sure that bureaucrats and corporate and political interests don’t muddy up the waters of the clean and cool stream of information that is the Internet. We don’t want a Net like China’s which is heavily censored, nor do we want one that is controlled strictly by money and political influence. This is OUR Internet and the fight to keep it ours is just beginning. The good news is that you can contribute your voice right now. The FCC is seeking public opinion about this issue and you can state yours here through June 27. However, be patient; a recent comedy sketch by John Oliver on his HBO show Last Night Tonight inviting people to troll the FCC comments site has resulted in a slow down in service. Nonetheless if you can get in, get in. It’s important that your voice be heard.

Mars

Mars

There is a popular relationship book from a couple of decades ago called Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus which was written by John Gray, a relationship expert. While some of his ideas were and are controversial, there is some merit in some of his basic ideas – that men and women have very different thought processes and ways of handling stressful situations, so different that they might well be from other planets and that our inability to at least understand the opposite sex is the foundation of a lot of the clashes that occur within relationships.

In 2014, that lack of understanding has made its way into the political arena. Much talk has been going on about the “war on women” being undertaken by Republican legislators, particularly those affiliated with the Tea Party. Certainly there is a war on reproductive rights. While some Republicans are beginning to realize that gay marriage is a war they can’t win, they continue to carry the flag for pro-life and anti-abortion causes.

While Roe vs. Wade remains in full vigor, Republican think tanks and lawmakers have been finding legislative ways around that landmark decision and some have worked so well that legalized abortion is endangered in some places. Rather than attack abortion itself, they are going after the places that provide them. Take Texas, for example.

In 2013 the Republican dominated legislature of the Lone Star state enacted draconian legislation that essentially made it nearly impossible for abortion clinics to operate. The new laws stipulate that clinic doctors must have admitting privileges at a local hospital (defined as being within 30 miles of the clinic). That would be fine and dandy if a), it were medically necessary and b), if hospitals were willing to grant those privileges. As many progressive activists foresaw, the inability of many clinics to get those privileges (since Texas hospitals, not wishing to be affiliated in any way with abortion clinics, chose to refuse to grant those necessary privileges) which forced a pretty significant number of those clinics to close.

When the law was enacted there were 44 clinics providing abortions and other reproductive health services to women in the state of Texas. At present there are less than 20. When the second part of the bill begins in September – which requires abortion clinics to have an ambulatory surgical center which most do not it is believed that there will only be six clinics in the entire state able to perform abortions. Six.

As you might expect, things are looking grim for Texas women. Many are resorting to self-inducing through herbal remedies or with vaginal insertions. It is 1962 all over again in Texas – and soon will be in other states that are looking to enact Texas-style legislation. While I’m unaware of any women having died as a result of a back alley abortion in Texas or complications from induced miscarriages, I do believe that sooner rather than later some poor desperate woman is going to die because she couldn’t get the abortion she wanted and needed. And that is blood on the hands of Governor Rick Perry and the mostly male Republican-dominated Texas legislature. This is why Wendy Davis heroically filibustered the despicable attempt to cram this despicable bill into law at the last minute during a special legislative session.

Many raise the flag of the sanctity of life and wave it fiercely as they defend their support of Texas Senate Bill 5 but that’s absolute crap. It’s a lie. These same conservatives who scream “sanctity of life” when it comes to abortions have no compunction to executing criminals in the state with the greatest number of executions in this century, nor are they concerned with the sanctity of life when they resist stricter and more detailed background checks for gun sales. If they cared so much about the sanctity of life, they’d be against capital punishment and private ownership of guns. They’d also be pacifists. I’m fairly sure that most of these legislators are for none of those things.

The problem is that these legislators in Texas and other states where they seek to make it harder to get abortions are only making it impossible to get medically supervised and safer abortions. They aren’t reducing the number of women who will want them, and that’s really what they’re after – to control our own sexuality. The Bible-thumpers who make up the majority of the Pro-Life movement have this absurd and naive notion that by taking abortion out of the picture, people will stop having sex. What they really want is to enforce their own religious beliefs on everyone else.

That’s what it boils down to. Yes, the war on women is largely a religious war. The fact that the ERA has never been passed, ensuring equal pay for comparable work between women and men, is also a function of the Biblical view that women are inferior to men and are meant to serve men. Talk about being from an entirely different planet.

These anti-abortion laws are abominable and must be stopped and those that have passed must be repealed. If one woman dies because she is unable to get the care she needs when making the decision to terminate a pregnancy it is one woman too many. For a party that claims to be all about free market solutions and against government interference in commerce and the lives of its citizens, they are making a mockery of their own platform. What are these laws but government interference into the businesses that provide these services, and interference in the lives of women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? It has already been determined that women have the right to control what happens to their own bodies; this is political chicanery circumventing that right.

Yes, men are definitely from Mars. Who else but followers of the God of War could enact legislation this reprehensible, this invasive? This is war and when there is war between the sexes, as Joe Jackson put it so eloquently, there will be no people left.

Just Be Yourself

Just Be Yourself

Travel broadens us. It can’t be helped. Even if, like most of us, you just hit the tourist attractions – you know, the Empire State Building, the Field Museum, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, Alcatraz, Yosemite and the like – you still will find yourself inevitably changed by the experience.

Most of us don’t think of going to a grocery store when we travel, but to me that is one of the most fascinating places to people watch. For one thing, even if you go to the huge chains you get an idea of what’s locally available although it’s far better to go to a smaller market along the lines of a Trader Joe’s or a Fresh Choice. However, the big attraction for me is seeing people living their lives without having them put on their “I’m in a tourist area” face.

I do think we tend to feel more comfortable in a grocery store. We let down our guard a little bit. After all, we’re getting our sustenance. Generally, it’s a pleasant thing to do – although if you are on a limited budget it can be excruciating, particularly when you see someone waltzing out with two fully loaded carts. Still, you get a sense of people in their homes.

It is places like grocery stores, pubs and local burger joints that you catch people in the act of being themselves. Think about it – how much likely are you to be yourself when you are in a place that’s as familiar and as comfortable as your own home, and what fits that description better than the places that you hang out in regularly? Are you more likely to make friends with an out of town visitor at some tourist attraction or sitting next to them at your neighborhood tavern?

That’s one of the reasons I prefer to eat at local hangouts rather than at national chains. Sure, I love eating in fine restaurants with signature dishes and sometimes. an eatery becomes so associated with a location that it becomes something of a tourist attraction in itself (see The Lady and Me in Savannah, or the Carnegie Deli in New York). Still, I like eating where people know each other. Maybe the food isn’t five star but the experience is. It is what it means to be a tourist, to learn something about what people do in other places. It generally isn’t that far off from what we do ourselves but there are some subtle differences.

Catching people living their lives helps you attain a level of comfort you don’t generally reach when you’re doing the tourist thing. It helps you, in fact, to be yourself. Recently while visiting Phoenix we stopped in a grocery store and while I waited for other members of my party to finish their shopping, I got to observe people doing what they do on a regular basis – pick out the goodies they were going to nibble on in front of the TV, the meal they were going to cook that night, the sale items that were too irresistible to pass up. Isn’t that what life is, the little things?

I’m not saying don’t go and see the Grand Canyon, or avoid going to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, or the Coliseum in Rome. These are things that should be seen; I can’t tell you how my life was changed by experiencing the Great Wall of China or how my perspective was changed by the magnificent Redwoods in Northern California. These things should be part of your trip.

But why go to a place if all you’re going to do is follow a guidebook somebody else wrote? Why not blaze your own trail? Talk to a local and ask them where you should eat, what places you should go, which beach is less crowded or more affable towards children. Guidebooks are helpful but they shouldn’t be your sole source of information. Research shouldn’t just consist of getting on the internet and doing a Google search for  whatever destination you have in mind, be it Atlanta, Alberta or Albania.

The best travel memories I have are mainly of going off the beaten path and interacting with a place that I’m in – not the glittering casinos and fine restaurants of the Las Vegas strip but the hole in the wall that a bartender recommended off in Henderson – and again that’s not to say that my time in those casinos, resorts and fine dining establishments haven’t been memorable but it’s always the real unexpected joys that you always remember.

Our time on this Earth is limited and as it is we spend far more time working than we probably should. We need to see the world. We need to explore new places. We need to try new things. Otherwise, we grow stagnant and stale, like a cake doughnut sitting too long in the shelf. Who wants that when they can have a fresh doughnut with yummy chocolate filling and a pomegranate-citrus frosting?

Travel helps us expand our horizons. It helps us define our worldview and adjust it upon occasion. More importantly, it helps us by discovering the world around us do something unexpected – discovering who we ourselves are. The best thing about travel is that it teaches us how to just be ourselves and what better lesson is there to learn than that?