So long, Santana; the dream was already gone

Kirby Puckett rookie cardThere was a time in my life (I happened to be 13) when I was a huge baseball fan. I had the giant baseball card collection to prove it. I even chewed the nasty gum a few times.

My enthusiasm was richly rewarded in 1987 when my hometown Minnesota Twins won their first World Series. Life was good.

But eventually I moved on. My brief, albeit intense, interest in baseball (and pro sports in general) faded in high school, and although I still enjoy going to a game once in a while, it’s just too expensive and too corporate, and I’m too cynical, to sustain that kind of passionate enthusiasm. So when it was announced that Johann Santana was traded to the Mets, I barely even raised an eyebrow.

It wasn’t until I read Nick Coleman’s column on the matter that it really hit me what this means, especially in the context of the Twins’ controversial new stadium:

[W]hen you’re a kid, your town’s team manipulates your immature emotions in order to get you to tug on daddy’s sleeve and beg him to buy a pair of $50 tickets and a souvenir jersey so Dad can go to his grave knowing that his boy will remember him through misty eyes and support the next billion-dollar stadium proposal when the stadium opening in 2010 needs to be replaced a few years later.

He’s right. And he goes on to show just how trivial a slice of the pie, given the ludicrous sums of money floating around in the world of professional sports, Santana’s salary really is. It’s the stars like Santana and Torii Hunter that make a team like the Twins worth going to see. Which is where the money comes from in the first place.

Fear of a Blank Planet

No, I’m not referring to the most recent Porcupine Tree album (although I do highly recommend it). I am referring to my rather strange phobia.

This fear — well, not really so much a fear as just a source of inexplicable anxiety — is something that’s been with me for so long (and is so inconsequential most of the time) that I scarcely think about it, and even more scarcely ever think about how weird it is. But today in conversation with a couple of co-workers, I happened to mention it for some reason, and I really think they thought I was nuts.

So what is this phobia of mine? I’m afraid of blank spaces on maps. What does this mean exactly? It means that studying a map, and letting my eyes drift off into an unmarked void (or even worse, scrolling Google Maps to a point where recognizable features disappear) freaks the shit out of me. It’s even worse when I have Google Maps in aerial view, and I scroll off into open water, or God forbid, zoom in to a level where they don’t have any photos. (And don’t even talk to me about the cheese on Google Moon!) I’m immediately overcome with a visceral agitation at the site of, well… nothing, and I have to scroll the map back to civilization (or at least non-nothingness) or close the window immediately.

I searched for any sign online of anyone else with this particular quirk, but came up empty. The promising term “cartophobia” turned out to refer to the much more mundane (and much more understandable, I suppose) “fear” of maps in the sense that a person is intimidated by maps and doesn’t understand how to read them. My problem, I think, is precisely the opposite: I love maps and can study their minutiae in detail for hours. And I think that is exactly why “voids” on the maps freak me out so much… it’s like stepping into non-existence.

Although I don’t know the date, I can pinpoint the first moment in my life when I was struck by this fear: I was probably around 10 or 11, and my parents had gotten me a large poster-sized map of the world, for which I was quite grateful. I enthusiastically unrolled it and began examining it in detail. After what was probably several hours, I got ready to put it away, and then I made that most dreadful mistake: I looked at the blank reverse side. It’s nearly impossible to convey this in a way that doesn’t sound completely stupid, or that effectively communicates the apocalyptic panic that ensued. It really felt like I was staring right into the heart of nothingness, like the universe didn’t exist.

Certainly this phobia of mine is a minor inconvenience at best. It is not incapacitating in any way. As I said, I rarely think of it, and although I think I’ve talked to SLP about it, this is probably the first time I’ve ever mentioned it to anyone else in my entire life. But still, it’s real. And still, I wonder if anyone else has ever experienced it.

Dispatch from the Daily Commute

A few days ago I was reading the introductory chapters of a book on the core philosophy of Buddhism (if you care, it’s called Buddhism: Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen). I was intrigued by the importance Buddhism places on living in the present moment, being fully aware of your situation at all times as it is, rather than as you want it to be, as the key to “awakening.”

This morning, as I crawled along I-285 on the morning commute, I figured it was as good a time as any to try “awakening” myself.

I have had a few, rare moments of true enlightenment in my life. It hits you like a lightning bolt, and for a brief moment you see things in a new way, feel a greater perception than that of yourself and your finite existence. This morning definitely did not feel like one of those times. But I made some interesting observations nonetheless.

My first observation was a pair of bumper stickers on a Toyota Corolla. Thanks to the Superman vision I get from my new glasses, I was able to make both of them out. One said, “My kid and my money go to Duke.” The other, “I live in this car so my kid can go to school.” Great message. It’s nice that you care enough about your kid to support them in their pursuit of advanced education at a prestigious school like Duke, but I do detect a hint of resentment there, eh?

Next up, the car dancer. You know how it works: You spot a car ahead of you that seems… well… not to be pursuing the enlightenment that comes from a full awareness of the present moment. The car lags behind the flow and then surges ahead, weaves side-to-side, and shakes strangely. As you get closer, you learn why: The driver of the car is reliving the excitement of a weekend spent “clubbing,” with music blasting, head shaking, hands everywhere but where they should be… on the wheel. As long as this person manages to keep a few neurons focused on the road ahead, everyone is safe and witnessing the ecstasy can be amusing rather than life-threatening. Fortunately, today that was the case.

At this point, the traffic started to snarl, and I found myself spending the majority of the remaining, excruciating crawl to the office staring at the back of a Lincoln Blackwood. Now this is something someone has to explain to me. I hate to sound like a stale Jerry Seinfeld stand-up bit, but what’s the deal with these new luxury SUV-truck hybrids?

Luxury SUVs are a strange enough concept as it is. I don’t expect to see too many Lincoln Navigators really navigating anything other than Peachtree Street. At least back in Minnesota it makes sense to have 4-wheel drive in an urban environment. In Atlanta, where we get one feeble snowstorm a decade, seriously, what is the point?

Concurrent with the development of the luxury SUV came the SUV-truck hybrid. You know, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac (where’s the “k”?), the Chevy Avalanche, etc. It’s the El Camino of the 21st century. But then, the worst… the luxury SUV-truck hybrid. It started with the Cadillac Escalade EXT. Basically, take a Chevy Avalanche, lose the cheap, charcoal-gray molded polycarbonate trim, add some of the characteristic chiseled edges that are the hallmark of Cadillac’s “innovative” new designs, throw on some faux gold trim, and you have it!

The Lincoln Blackwood is an even greater mystery. It looks more like a truck than the Escalade EXT, but that begs the question, why on Earth would you want a luxury pickup truck? Isn’t that a complete contradiction? Pickup trucks are inherently utilitarian vehicles, but how much utility can you really get out of them if you’re afraid of dings or paint chipping? I stared at the back of that Blackwood for several minutes, pondering this question and wondering how it could lead to enlightenment.

And then, it hit me. As we rounded the curve approaching “Spaghetti Junction,” direct sunlight struck the back of the truck for the first time, and I finally noticed that the sides of the truck really are black wood, or at least an elaborate woodgrain veneer.

At this sight, I understood the full nature of the situation, and at last achieved some small semblance of enlightenment.

I was expecting there to be a logical reason for the things I was observing. That was my folly! Thousands of people cramming onto the arteries of a city at once, morning and night, racing to-and-fro, accumulating “stuff,” basing their value as human beings on their ability to spend money on useless “utility” vehicles, working a job they loathe all week just for the next opportunity to hit the nightclubs on Saturday night (sounds a bit like Tony Manero), or sending their kids to an expensive university, apparently just so they can complain about it to complete strangers. As SLP posits in her dissertation prospectus, why bother?

Of course, these are things I knew already, things I had already pondered in the course of my life. But it’s easy to get swept up in that parade of the mundane, the minutiae of daily life, or to chase hollow symbols of “status” and “success,” and never really live.

At least, that’s what I’ll say until I get enough Benjamins to indulge in a bit of the bling-bling myself.

Big Questions and Stupid People

“Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

–Albert Einstein

“Remember Kyle, there are no stupid questions, only stupid people.”

–Mr. Garrison, South Park

Ever since I was a kid, I have pondered the “big questions”: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why are there so many stupid people around? OK, maybe I didn’t ask that last question until I got a little older. But it certainly muddies the waters in which I contemplate the first two.

Another way to look at this is, are there really stupid people, or just people who do stupid things? Well, I know for sure the latter is true. I have even witnessed people I would not consider to be stupid doing stupid things, so definitely there are people who do stupid things. Perhaps whether or not anyone actually is “stupid” is irrelevant. But I digress.

It seems to me that any comprehensive worldview, any theory that attempts to “explain it all,” needs to take into account the infinite human capacity for stupidity. Though many of us like to raise our heads and lift our hearts with visions of the noblest acts of humanity, this is really just the equivalent of spraying air freshener in a befouled bathroom… no matter how advanced we become as a society, some of what we do still stinks.

So we are left with somewhat more complicated questions: Why are we here — in an overcrowded world with a bunch of people who hate each other for no good reason? What is the meaning — of all of the stupid, mindless actions that clutter our striving for a complete and satisfying life? What kind of God would create such a beautiful world and then fill it with creatures who seem hell-bent on ruining it?

The televangelists are starting to make sense to me now.

Freeway to Hell

As a resident of a major metropolitan area (presently it’s Atlanta, although in the past I’ve called both Los Angeles and Minneapolis home as well), I naturally spend a more-than-desirable amount of time dealing with less-than-desirable circumstances of living in close proximity to millions other people. Granted, the daily frustrations of urban life are an easy target for a rant, and I am striving for creativity here. Consider this a purging of the system so I don’t have to bring this up ever again.

The most obvious nuisance of life in a large city, particularly if it’s a city whose population grew significantly after the advent of freeways is, of course, traffic. I could veer off into a dry and potentially-controversial, were it not so mind-meltingly boring, treatise on the ills of our society that have led us into such a situation, but I believe a rant is not really a rant if it carries a relevant (or for that matter, even a merely coherent) message. So on to traffic.

I have ridden in cars before with drivers who, as incomprehensible as it is to me, do not seem to care about getting to their destination in absolutely as short a time as possible. I always suspect they are newcomers to “big city” life, but chances are they just possess greater control over their emotions than I do. At any rate, the time I spend nervously twitching in their passenger seats is split in roughly equal proportions between a somewhat ironic jealously over their apparent zen-like state, which I by my very nature seem destined never to attain, and a deep, visceral compulsion to lunge across the parking brake and push the accelerator to the floor with my bare hand.

Anyway, since I (naturally) have little patience for riding with people who have more patience than I do, my encounters with these parkway pacifists usually come when I am behind the wheel, in the form of my rapid approach to their rear bumpers. This is my real frustration with traffic… there are just some people on the road who don’t care about keeping pace, no matter how much those of us behind them tailgate, flash our lights, blast our horns, raise certain fingers in colorful gestures, or turn on our cruise control, climb out our driver-side windows, jump onto their trunks, climb in their passenger-side windows, and indulge our deep, visceral compulsions to lunge across the parking brake and push their accelerators to the floor with our bare hands.

All of this staring at rear bumpers during rush hour seems to have a secondary, interesting effect, at least on me. I have developed a completely relative sense of speed. I really, honestly, have no sense of how fast I am driving anymore, except in terms of my speed relative to the other cars on the road. And I have one simple goal: I need to be going just a little bit faster than any other car I see around me. This can become truly dangerous at times of lighter traffic, such as this past Saturday morning, when, headed southbound on I-285, I looked down at my speedometer in utter amazement to discover myself driving 92 MPH. (Did I mention the 55 MPH speed limit on that road?)

Alas, I’m learning too late that one small rant cannot possibly contain all of my obvious, clichéd frustrations with the transportation woes of modern urban life. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of my own mild affliction with terminal road rage. Once the boiling blood in my brain and sour bile in my throat have receded enough for me to be able to see and comprehend the computer keyboard again, I will file another installment.