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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Another Saturday Night and I've Got 14 People Stuffed Into a Pinto Hatchback!

(c) 2012 by Tom King (excerpted from "Swimming Lessons" by Tom King)

The last couple of years I worked at camp, my beautiful wife, Sheila and I worked there together. I had moved up to Waterfront Director and we were ensconced one summer in one of the cabins attached to the camp store, one of the few air-conditioned places in the whole camp. I had wisely brought along my king sized waterbed and as a result, we had a nice cool place to take a nap on a hot Sabbath afternoon after church let out – it’s a Seventh day Adventist Camp, so Saturdays were treated as a day of rest. We took turns taking the campers on a long hike in the blistering Texas heat so the rest of us could get a nap. It was a wonderful way to recoup from the week’s strenuous activity before a new batch of campers arrived on Sunday.

Swimming on Sabbath was verboten, although you could wade in water up to your kneecaps according to an official camp director ruling, so long as no evidence could be produced that when you fell on your face and were forced to swim for your life, that you did so deliberately or exhibited any evidence of having enjoyed doing so) Adventists were a bit more strict about Sabbath observance in those days and a lot of really fun stuff was not permissible. Sabbaths were, therefore a hot and miserable time for everyone except for maybe the camp director who used to crash in his air-conditioned cabin for a 3-4 hour nap after Sabbath lunch.

After the staff had got all the campers and their unfortunate counselors pushed off down the trail on the obligatory Sabbath afternoon safari round the lake and nature scavenger hunt, my wife and I took our two little boys and repaired to the cool refuge of the cabin where we enjoyed about 10 minutes of solitude. Then came the inevitable knock at the door. Answering it, I would find one of the waterfront staff (a bold and self-interested lot) looking all bedraggled and pitiful standing on the front step. They always looked so pathetic. You could see them move their faces to one side to catch a waft of air-conditioning through the open door.

My wife, being a career mom and a notorious soft touch always invited the poor thing(s) in and told whomever it was to stretch out on the foot of the bed. Soon there was another knock and another and my Sweet Baboo would begin stacking them like cord wood crosswise on the waterbed from foot to head until we were at last forced to crawl out over the headboard and abandon our bed altogether, surrendering to the lemming-like hoard of ski instructors, canoe instructors, kitchen staff and the odd nature instructor (these guys were usually relegated to the floor as they were tended to be a rather shy breed and therefore the last to show up and claim a spot). Forced out of our own bed, we would pile the babies in our Pinto Hatchback and go for a drive for a couple of hours with the air-conditioner turned up high. By the time we returned, there would be 10-20 people piled all over the cabin, snoring contentedly.
Not Rene, but you get the idea....

Rene', our hunky canoeing instructor, would be lying at attention, back flat on the bare concrete floor and wearing only a tank top and his famous Speedo swimsuit, like some world class yoga guru lying on a bed of nails. Rene' and that Speedo were rather a legend at camp for a lot of reasons, though not for the same reasons that earned me an uncouth nickname several years earlier.  I used to catch the female staffers hanging their heads over the end of the waterbed and watching Rene's abs flex as he breathed heavily in his sleep. I’m sure it was his abs they were watching. These were good Christian girls we’re talking about.

One Saturday evening after campfire, the gang showed up at our place looking for something to do and badly in need of leadership. We counted vehicles and people and decided (using a twisted decision-making process I call ‘Lone Star logic’) that since there wasn't enough transportation to go around, we'd all share a ride to the K&N Root Beer place in Athens. I'm not sure to this day how we did it, but I packed ten lifeguard types, my wife and two sons into that Pinto and managed to close the hatch. I got in bringing the grand total to 14 souls on board and drove us to the K&N. We were so low to the ground that if I'd hit a paper cup, we'd have needed the Jaws of Life to get us out of the thing.
Imagine 14 people stuffed in this car...

When we arrived at the K&N, this perky carhop named Yolanda or something approached me. She'd seen me get out of my car and I think there was a rule against this practice due to some post football game hijinks by the locals or something.  By her determined stride, I guessed that she planned to make me stay in the car, but by the time she arrived, I'd opened the hatch and a flood of kids started piling out. She stood there with her mouth open as everyone came crawling out like from one of those Ringling Brothers clown cars. Even after she recovered her composure, it completely threw off her one car / one order system. Totally knocked off kilter, she wound up wandering around the group like a cocktail waitress trying to sort out our orders. Just collecting the money was a nightmare for the poor thing. Some of the guys paid their tab with pennies harvested from the sand around the camp store. The waitress seemed particularly flustered by Rene's order. He'd thrown on a tank top and some very short, tight jean cutoffs over his Speedo for the trip into town. I'm not sure that any of us got what we ordered, but we were all too thirsty to care.

This is what the K&N in Athens looked like.

I left her a nice tip to compensate for her profound befuddlement, packed my group back in the car and drove off. As I looked back, I noticed money-changing hands among the root beer stand's staff. I think there were bets about whether we could get everyone back in the car. I hope Yolanda won some serious money on us.

On the way back, the several collective gallons of root beer inside all of us began to be severely agitated by the flattened suspension system on the Pinto. If someone had hit us in the back end, it wouldn't have been the gas tank that blew up first. To compound the problem, we’d all had Vege-links for supper an hour or so earlier. If you don’t know what Vege-links are, you’ve missed a treat and I’d better explain.

Vege-links are vegetarian hot dogs. You make them by cooking down and processing soy beans into a concentrated bean paste, and stuffing it into a hot dog casing. It’s actually better than it sounds. For supper that night, everybody had eaten two or three at least with a nice coating of vegetarian chili also made of textured vegetable protein made from – you guessed it – beans. The vegetarian chili dog is, therefore, the most volatile form of protein ever to be consumed by humans as food.  For side dishes there was potato salad and (you had to have seen it coming) - baked beans!

My wife and the kids were okay up in the front seat with me and the guy who had his head shoved over the console between the seats, but the guys in the back had it pretty tough. As the carbonated water, Vege-links and chili began to swell within 10 stomachs, everyone soon discovered that they were packed in so tightly that they couldn’t all breath at the same time – at least not without really unfortunate results. In desperation, I took command and we quickly worked out a system of staggered breathing by teams that kept them from damaging ribs or triggering unfortunate explosive events by inadvertently all breathing at once. We alternated boys and girls and did fairly well till about halfway home when Frank the ski instructor, misbreathed and triggered an emergency evacuation of the car.

The doctor's did say Frank probably suffered no serious injury from his unfortunate experience. He was on the bottom of the stack at the time and when he mistimed his breathing, it triggered a pressure wave through the massed bodies. They said, however, that by rolling down the windows as quickly as we did, we were able to get sufficient oxygen to him and the other 9 trapped with him in the back in time to prevent permanent brain damage (at least no "new" permanent brain damage anyway). The EMT’s agreed that blowing the hatch and rolling everyone out onto the shoulder of the road probably saved lives.

After the incident, the camp director issued a directive prohibiting more than 4 vegetarians per car for any camp outing on hot dog night, burrito night and for 24 hours after the annual vege-chili cook-off. He probably saved some lives there too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Is this the end of.....

(insert pet cultural sacred cow here)
by Tom King (c) 2012

What got me going this time was a forum post that said in big bold letters:


Electronic entertainment didn't replace active sports and
gamesany more than sports and games replaced
productive work as some feared it would. Each
enhanced our recreational choices. Nothing more.
It included a link to one of those "educational" Youtube videos with dire predictions of the coming crash of the economy,  famine, flood or a massive shortage of cheese. In this case it was the end of "education". Of course this dude wanted to start trouble. Otherwise why be cryptic unless he wanted to get us to watch his "shocking" video and kick up the number of pageviews for his Youtube page's advertising?

As to the premise that something's going to "end education as we know it", I think it's highly unlikely.  Remember:

1. They said photography would kill art.

2. They said records would be the death of live music for the masses (mostly piano teachers worried about that - after all their livelihoods were on the line they thought).

3. They said movies would be the death of books and the theater and vaudeville. It only killed vaudeville and it can be argued that vaudeville needed to die.

4. They said radio would be the death of records. Why buy music when you can listen to it for free on radio?

5. They said TV would be the death of, not only radio, but also the movies and books. Apparently movies hadn't killed books completely yet.

6. They said computers would kill creativity.

7. They said video games would kill creativity.

8. They said the Internet would kill libraries, books, radio, movies and music. All of these, for some reason, have all kept on breathing despite all the murderous technologies that came before.

9. They said that testing would kill "real" education. By this I think some teachers mean the sort of education that nobody bothers to actually check up on once in a while to see if the kids are actually learning anything.

I have discovered that children are pretty much impervious to all attempts to turn them into robotic factory workers or mindless zombies. The German system of graded schools, which the US adopted in the early 20th century, seems to have had, as its purpose, to teach kids to show up on time, do repetitive work, shut up and follow orders. Turns out that's exactly what the Germans had in mind. That is after all how you make productive munitions factory workers. But, despite the arguably sinister intent of the German school system, the similarly regimented school system adopted by American schools seems to have utter failed to squash the creativity out of our own childrens.

Of course, some kids will always grow up to be mindless zombies, but then if they didn't where would we get our politicians and tax accountants from? Anyway, I don't think we need to be entirely discouraged by the educational doomsday prophets. After all it turns out that:

1. Photographs became their own art form and painting continued to flourish.

2. Recordings encouraged people to learn to play music and now they make their own recordings and more people's music is actually heard today than every before.

3. Movies brought stories to life, gave tens of thousands of people jobs putting those stories on film and encouraged thousands to take up writing and music and cinematography and acting. It even borrowed stories from the theater and revived interest in plays. The Lion King started out as a Disney movie before it became a hit Broadway musical. And vaudeville simply went on TV, radio and Las Vegas casino stages. What's "America's Got Talent", but a vaudeville review.

4. Radio actually popularized new types of music and brought genres like country and bluegrass music to a vast new audience and gave us Earl Scruggs whose radio gigs made him a living when he needed one.  Radio actually invented rock n' roll - not a destroyer it turned out, but a creator.

5. Television took radio stories and let us see the action. Radio changed. The theater and TV cross-pollinated to the benefit of both genres and the artists that worked in both mediums.

6. Computers allowed millions of people to produce works of art, writing and create new technologies. Computers turned out to be really good tools and not mind-sucking brain controllers after all.

7. Video games, it turns out, encouraged a generation to create new worlds and new ideas. Video game technology has spurred advances in movie special effects, interactive story-telling has become a whole new genre of writing and can even be used to help rehabilitate and retrain minds injured by trauma.

8. The Internet quickly became the instrument for connecting libraries and book collections everywhere, so effectively that if you want to look up a 200 year old book, you can probably download the entire text from the net in a matter of seconds simply by doing a word search. Libraries have begun putting rare materials online where everyone can look at them and not just the few who can get to Walrus Hollow Maine or the Library of Congress to dig around in the stacks.

9. Education is as it has always been. Any time you place children in proximity with ideas and books and art and music, they have this uncomfortable (for their elders) habit of thinking thoughts you never intended for them to think.

We tend to think original thoughts, despite attempts to indoctrinate us to a single set of values or beliefs. We have an indomitable desire to create that is hard-wired into us.  And our innate free will allows us to choose what we value and belief despite our upbringing.  We can either choose not to be what our fathers were or to be exactly what they were.  These traits of human beings make me hopeful for the world.

And remember, these very traits of humans were what scared Lucifer so badly that he rebelled. He thought God was making a serious mistake to make us the way he did, with unfettered free will. I have to side with God though. I think He did the right thing making us stubborn, resilient and independent like we are. I think there's hope for us - at least those who bother to learn how to use the brains we were given. I think most of us will learn the right lesson in the end, in spite of the best efforts of our teachers to keep the truth from us.

Just one man's opinion

Tom King

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

To Those of You Coping With Depression - From a Loved One's Perspective

In response to a blog post by a colleague with depression:

I read a post today by a well-known business consultant in which he asked his readers to indulge his occasional mention of his bouts of depression and not to try to "help" him with advice when he does it. Essentially his point was that mentioning that he's having symptoms of depression is part of his coping mechanism. He does it so that, if people detect a less than cheery attitude in his work for the day, they might understand and cut him a little slack.

As someone who is relentlessly cheery, I can't say I understand chronic depression from personal experience. I went through a brief bout of it after my son died in 2006. The doc gave me some medication for it, but I quit taking it after two weeks. It didn't help me. The particular medication took away the sadness alright, but it also took away my motivation to get up in the morning and get back to work. Another medication might have worked better for me, but I was able to bounce back without it.

Work, for me, was my medicine for depression. That said, what works for me in no way works for everyone, or for even anything more than a small minority of people suffering from recurring or chronic depression. Everyone's depression is different. It comes from different places. It responds to different sorts of treatments.

I have a couple of loved ones like you with depressive disorders.  Both are up around 9.5 on the Richter scale for Bipolar Disorder if there was such a thing. They experience periods of high energy on the one hand.  One gets massive anxiety attacks and an overpowering urge to clean everything in sight.  The other becomes king of the world and begins planning its conquest.  Next day they may be curled up in a fetal position planning how to commit suicide.

Medications can keep folk with bipolar alive, but as people with depressive disorders soon realize, it may take a couple of years to get your meds right and that's only if you've got a good psychiatrist working with you. It's understandably frustrating for you who have bipolar, because your loved ones so often do exactly the wrong thing in trying to help.   We tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you have no bootstraps. We ask you, "Did you take your meds?" and that really makes you mad. We hover over you like you're a bomb fixing to go off and you hate that.  We give you advice when you can't bear to hear it. We pitch remedies at you like a snake-oil salesman.  Worse still we run away when you need us the most to be there.

Please understand that we love you and are only trying to help. It's not an excuse, it's just how it is.  We know you are in pain. We instinctively want to help.  The problem is that your depression and the emotional pain you experience is unique to you. What's happening is that your brain is experiencing random emotions due to the misfiring of neuro-chemicals in your brain. You are then betrayed by the very mental mechanisms that make intelligent thought possible.

Usually there is a precursor to emotions.  You see something. It is either processed by the upper brain, or if it is a familiar thing, it goes straight to the lower brain. Either way, an emotion is created to match that experience you just had.  You laugh if it was funny, cry if it was sad or jump back if it was scary.

What happens to you when you're depressed, anxious or manic is that you experience the emotion first.  The brain goes, "Wait a minute, why am I feeling that?"  Then, like a good brain it goes looking around for the precursor that made you feel that way, just in case you need to do something about it like fight or run away or give it a cookie to make it stop crying.  If it can't find a reason for the emotion you are feeling, it will make one up in order to make sense of the world, because that's what brains do.  The brain is a storyteller. It tells stories so we can make sense of what's happening around us and react appropriately.

Unfortunately, sometimes your mind writes fiction.  Sometimes you feel an emotion, that has no story behind it and so your mind comes up with one to go with how you feel. Your brain basically lies to you. Things that make perfect sense to you in this story make absolutely no sense to people around you. And that's where the disconnect occurs.

And you're absolutely right.  No one understands what you think and feel because no one shares the story your brain has created to explain why you are depressed.  Of course, you may have a perfectly good reason to be depressed.  Who doesn't have things to feel bad about in their lives?  Unfortunately, your mind is working backward from the powerful chemically induced emotion to the event it's seized on as the cause of that emotion and incorrectly makes it worse than it would be otherwise.  A car breakdown goes from being a minor frustration to a full blown, world-shattering tragedy.

Those who love you want to understand.  Because we love you our natural inclination is to want to help.  For years, I've worked from home in order to watch over my loved ones with bipolar. I know they are under terrible stress with the disease.  Between them we've had multiple serious suicide attempts and at least 5 hospitalizations in the past 5 years related to their disorder..

And I admit it. Sometimes I make it worse. I have to be careful to give you guys room to find your own ways of coping. I find that if I'm too "helpful" or try to "talk you out of it", all I succeed in doing most times is making it worse. Sometimes all I can do is bring you a cup of hot tea or an ice cream bar and listen while you talk. Sometimes I take you out to a movie or a restaurant just to get out of the house  for a bit.

But, like you, I had to learn what works and what doesn't for coping with depression. In some ways it's harder for us to know what to do since we can't get inside your head to learn what story is currently rattling around in there in response to your latest depression.  We're just guessing most of the time.  You've learned that if you do tell people what you're thinking, they just want to argue with you and you really can't deal with that, because if you lose the story in your head, then there's no reason for you to feel the way you do and suddenly the world would not make sense and who can handle that. So you don't tell us what you're thinking.  You may share how you're feeling with us, but where problem-solving is concerned, that's backwards. It's effect to cause reasoning and results in the cause being manipulated by your every helpful brain to match the emotion you are feeling for no real reason other than that some chemical is squirting into your bloodstream that shouldn't be at this time.

Having knowledge about what causes depression helps me a bit, but it doesn't give me an instant understanding of what I can do to help.  Every person's depression is different. Every person has a different coping mechanism. I have 28 graduate level college hours in rehabilitation counseling psychology and it still took me years to figure out how to be helpful after the onset of my loved ones' illnesses and I still get it wrong about half the time.

The best thing we can do is listen hard and try to find out what you need for us to do and what you don't want us to do. One big lesson I have learned was that it can be just as important to NOT do certain things as it is to do something to help sometimes.

So on behalf of all those who love someone with a depressive disorder let me offer you people with depressive disorders our collective sympathies as people who love you.  Let me ask your indulgence of our ham-fisted efforts to "help out". You see, we not only have to figure out what you need when you're depressed, but we also have to figure out what we CAN do to help so we don't feel completely useless when you're obviously in pain. It's important for us to feel like we're helping in some way, if it's only to bring you coffee and hold your hand. 

You see, we have our own stories to write in our heads so the world will make sense to us.

I'm just sayin'

Tom King - (c) 2012
Puyallup, WA