Thursday, February 22, 2018

It is the little things that matter

 Rocketing through this thing we call life, we often forget to look out the window. We are transfixed on the path we have chosen and ignore the little things that would actually enhance our journey. It's taken me many years and possibly retirement to get a real understanding of this. I've written about this concept a number of times, but please indulge me, as it becomes more precious each time I recognize it.

Whether we are leaving our living room, walking anywhere, or driving, we often spend our entire time immersed in ourselves. Where we are going, what are going to do when we arrive, what's next, and what's in it for me. How long can I stay, What am I going to eat for lunch or supper. Me, me, and yes, me. I've written about slowing things down; throwing out the anchor, and smelling the roses, so there is no sense beating your head against a dead horse.

Due to an incident where 6 "youts" decided to come into my back yard, I had cameras installed all around my house. Since I spend a considerable amount of time working on my computer as well as repairing others, I witness a lot going on, on my street. What I don't see, my neighbor with Asperger's sees all. He and I have daily conversations and seeing he operates on a different plain of logic than I do, sometimes it is enlightening and often a source of humor for both of us. I've known the fellow for over 10 years and watched him go from a kid who hardly talked and wouldn't make eye contact, to a social butterfly who knows everyone who lives near us.

I think he knows everyone on a couple streets in fact. If you are not familiar with Asperger's, they can be a little spooky at first meeting because they basically cannot read expressions. Socially awkward is a good description. For instance, he will occasionally hug me for no apparent reason, or stand uncomfortably close while talking. His choice of clothing is at times bizarre, or he will walk around the neighborhood with no shirt on while it is windy and 50 degrees. Mind you, he is 30 years old and until recently, had a beard. This alone is a bit peculiar and add in the fact that he's often barefooted, it might just raise a few eyebrows.

This morning while working on this column, I observed him pick up and read my newspaper. He made himself comfortable spreading it on my shrubs and took his time reading it. Now before I put the brakes on in my life, I would have yelled at him. Not today. After about 10 minutes, he simply could not roll it back up and put the plastic sleeve over it, so he brought it to the front door. I explained that it is my paper and I pay for it and he shouldn't be reading it.

His answer was typical for someone with his condition. "I know that. I just wanted to read the comics!" I closed the door, as courteous goodbyes are not recognized by him, even though the exchange was friendly. A couple of weeks ago, I asked him if he had observed the lunar eclipse. His answer had me guffawing for a solid minute.

"Yes and I DON'T WANT TO SEE IT AGAIN!" I almost got the vapors I was laughing so hard.  Yesterday, which was Monday, I checked the mailbox about 3 times and each time I did, he watched me. We have a small round table and 2 chairs in a flower bed in our front yard and this attracts him. He often sits in my flower bed, which I do not mind. He is after all, the street observer. I commented to him that the post office is running later than usual.

"Its President's Day, duh!"  I burst into a fit of laughter and asked him why he didn't say something earlier, to which he logically replied, "Didn't you check your calendar?" Any time anyone on the street comes out of their house to wash a car, or work on something with the garage door open, it is going to prompt a visit from him and seeing we live across the street from each other, I get the lion's share. Do I mind? No, I do not. He comes and goes and often, when he is done talking, he simply wanders off. He has taught me that its the little things that matter.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The illusion of obviousness alludes

 I remember just last year when the new Kroger opened on Garth Road and I was excited to see they had broken out of the Walmart paradigm of having a less proportionate number of checkers than people trying to check-out. Seriously, it wasn't that bad. Walmart is the world's worst store for checking out due to the many closed counters. When  you shop there, it is akin to going through a cattle chute. I shouldn't even point this out today because it is so obvious to everyone except the store manager.

No, the new Kroger had many open checking stands and a bagger at each one. Now months later, they are facing stiff completion from the new HEB store, so it would seem logical, that they would continue this great level of service, right? Wrong. I stopped in to spend a hundred dollars the other day and only one register with no bagger was available and the checker picked up the phone and paged someone for a price check.

Hark, there was an associate at the far left end where you get the pleasure of self-checkout who hailed me. "I can help someone down here!" I had about 30 or so items, so rather than be third in line, I rolled my buggy on down. She took over and methodically scanned each item and stacked most of them above, rather than bag them and explained she liked to do it that way, because she can then arrange them in the plastic bags more efficiently.  Meanwhile, an elderly couple (they were my age) were having trouble finding the code on a piece of fruit and over her shoulder, she was rattling off numbers for them to punch in (this was unsuccessful) and she kept stopping my scan to help them in the self check line.

I stood and watched this overly energetic lady work her routine with all earnestness (and chipper attitude mind you) while the lady who had been in front of me  - down there, rolled past with her groceries. The aged folks in the line behind me just couldn't get that danged code correct and as soon as my helpful clerk scanned my last item, she departed to get those numbers with a "you got this?". It was logical that the other line needed to purchase their goods in an expedited manner.

I paid my hundred plus bucks electronically, but thankfully, using my special Kroger Plus card, I saved a whole bunch of money and began the process of sacking my own groceries. Foolish me didn't realize that you could spin the bin around until she yelled over her shoulder and pointed out the obvious. In the meantime two more shoppers rolled past me on their way out of the store, carts loaded down with bagged goods. I figure the whole process took 3 times longer than simply being patient and waiting for the single cashier to scan and bag my stuff. Stupid me, it should have been obvious.

I remembered why I shop at Food Town on North Main for most of my groceries. If they ain't scanin', they waitin' to scan. On top of that, they are running some really good deals. Its obvious to me that the store manager realizes there is an HEB in town. Now if we can just get Walmart and Kroger to figure this out, we will have some super stores. Why isn't it obvious to retailers that we live in a 24 hour a day town where time management (excluding Millennial's of course) is paramount to success?
The old days of mom and pop stores where they would let you inside as much as 30 minutes early is gone. Mom and pop wanted to make a sale. They were helpful in that regard. If I go to Walmart at 3am and yes, it is 3:13am as I write this, there will be one lane open and no one at the register. You will stand there and look around and finally someone will come strolling at a painful 1 mile an hour and with no emotion whatsoever check you out. Its Walmart for goodness sake. Honestly, how on earth is this place even in business with this reputation?

Many a time I can have an entire cart full of groceries at Food Town and by the time I place everything on the conveyor, my checker is cheerfully announcing how much I owe and my stuff is already bagged and in the cart ready to go? The manager of that store hovers around like a bird of prey looking for a meal, that's why. This is why I often tip the cashier.

Maybe I am being too harsh on Kroger. Maybe it was shift change. I honestly don't think I could ever be too hard on Walmart. Maybe the Mont Belvieu store is better. I don't know. With the traffic, its a half hour drive from Chaparral Village, but that's obvious.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Hamster Wheel Caching!

"Go, go, go! Hurry and get in! The next cache is .3 miles away and if you punch it right now, we can make the light!" Here is another common scenario: "I ran this macro in GSAK and if we follow it and don't fool around, we can get all the caches in this geotour in less than 3 hours! We won't have to spend a dime and can be home by 5pm!"  One more: "I got 50 geocaches yesterday!" "Did you see anything interesting other than the caches?" "What? Well, we ate at Subway..."

I remember finding my first 100 or so geocaches and what an adventure and how exciting each and every one was. I can still read about them in my profile and describe everything. Sure, we all have total recall on caches, but we do it now at hyper speed. We speed eat and chain smoke our caches, for lack of stating it properly. We have become more focused on our wake than on the pursuit of the adventure. Sure numbers matter, but honestly, is filling in your grid or calendar the 3rd time to qualify for a challenge actually important in the scheme of things? What about the 4th time, because its on the horizon.

Amberita13 & HoustonControl
At one point do we actually take time to savor the game rather than seeing how much we can cram down our throat to get a daily full stomach? Do we really need a power trail to get us excited, or make a run with friends on 59 LPC's taking turns signing the log? I have contended for some time that burdening ourselves with a daily find streak is nothing more than placing a curse on us and takes away from the fun of the game. Why put yourself under something like that?  Why not return to your kindergarten days and just have fun finding caches? Sorry, but your streak means very little to anyone but you and sooner or later, you will fall into failure.

If you think like I do, you set a target of say 500, 750, or 1000 caches a year. If you make it, great. If you don't, well, maybe next year. Seriously, other than numbers, what is the difference if you have 5300 caches and 7100? Or 18000 and 22000? Does it impress anyone to the point that they lose their breath and fan themselves when you arrive? Do you get free 14 ingredient pseudo coffee when you walk into Starbucks because of this amazing accomplishment? Is there shekinah glory surrounding you when you make your appearance at an event with accompanying fireworks and a 5 jet flyover with F-16's?

Make no mistake, I recognize these folks as senior geocachers, but guess what? They have  trouble finding the same caches I do most of the time and the LPC's are just as easy. Truth be told, they far surpass me in experience, so finding lots of caches is a plus, but often people cache in groups and if you phone a friend (PAF), they will confess someone else in the group found it and they can't help you.

A geocacher I admire is skunkonthefog. He only searches for geocaches that interest him. When he finds one, his log reflects the first thing that comes to mind when he puts a pen to it and this is often quite humorous. Another couple is 2katz and KeyResults and they are serious about the game and work it whenever they can into their busy schedules. Both of these geocachers don't have giant numbers, but love the game and play it for the long run. These 3 and many others embody what this game is about and I'm not taking away from those who run the power trails.

What I am saying is, are you on the hamster wheel of caching? If you are, you will never get enough caches to get off it. Never. You are like the billionaire trying to get more money, or the hamster with its cheeks so full of food and trying to stuff in more. The numbers will never satisfy you. The numbers game is addictive and illusionary. It is not the game. The game is fun and savory and log worthy. Remember when you wrote logs? Remember when they weren't rubber stamp copies? Remember when logging your caches was actually fun or logging trackables was specific to the TB or geocoin? I can't either.

"Discovered at blah, blah, event," has become the norm and doesn't say anything about an interaction with you or the TB or coin or your knowledge of its mission. Why? Because we are in a big hurry, that's why. We are on the geocaching hamster wheel, where speed is more important than content. I'm not pointing fingers because I feel it too. Why can't I log 80 caches in a day, or even 40? Its because I am repairing, or replacing the logs to keep the game going. I want the cache to succeed. I want newbies to feel the fire. I want to see the spark.

I'm ready to get off the geocaching hamster wheel and start enjoying this game the way I did when I had 10 caches under my geoname. Who will join me?

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Baytown can still shine like a diamond

Photo credit: Steve Liles - Cedar Bayou at Roseland Park 2017
I feel very optimistic about the city of Baytown. There, I said it. Being a citizen of this town since 1974 and watching it grow, I haven't always felt this way. It helps that I am a member of the Strategic Planning Advisory Committee (SPAC) and had input in which direction the city should take over the next 5 years. Incidentally the city is about 6 months into implementing the changes, so progress is actually happening.

Kingwood Trail
This past week 4 of us intrepid geocachers took our bikes up to Kingwood to geocache and we rode along the numerous Greenbelt trails there. Surprise! They were nothing spectacular. Basically we rode on cement trails along highways with occasional dips behind subdivisions and although there are miles of trails, they are basically just sidewalks in the shallow woods.

Here in Baytown, we don't have the luxury of planning development in this manner for the most part. Sure, when a new subdivision goes in, we will see a retention pond added with a cement walkway around it and sidewalks. There will be cookie-cutter landscape added every so many feet to give the appearance of a perfect place to walk the dog. The pond might even have a token fountain and mail order kids playground. Is this really what we want or need? I am for all of this, but it also should be unique and well thought out.

Houston's Donovan Park
Baytown leaders and planners need to put extra effort into making Baytown's parks and trails different and more interesting than places like Kingwood and The Woodlands. When the 4 of us went geocaching, one was from Webster, another from Sugar Land and Larry Houston and I from Baytown. We spent money there too, because after about 5 hours on our bikes, we were hungry. If we make Baytown unique and capitalize on our concessions, people will come here. Our Texas Avenue venues, our disc golf courses, our trail systems, and our new boat ramps all can be draws.

When the SPAC presented our 5 year plan to the city, my small part was to push the idea of uniqueness. I urged the city leaders to take field trips to look and see what other cities are doing to provide anything other than the "same old stuff". Recently I talked to a young man and he urged me to see if Baytown can install a BMX bike track, similar to the 2 skate parks we have. I urged him to gather a petition I could present to our park planners. He informed me that it would be wildly popular and the surrounding cities have nothing like it. This is what I am stressing. Let's be unique.

Espee BMX Park, Chandler Arizona
I have the highest regard for our Parks department and we are making progress. I would love to see a first class BMX park built here, as well as a certified and clearly marked 5K trail in Jenkins Park. A flyover pedestrian bridge connecting Blue Heron Parkway to Jenkins Park would provide hill training for athletes and connect the 2 trails. It simply takes vision and eventually the money will follow. Yes, I feel optimistic about our city. I hope and pray our next mayor follows in our current mayor's footsteps.

I looked back at one of my columns from 12 years ago and I had the same optimism and boy howdy, we are a completely different town. Many naysayers believe it is always better some place else, but as a person who is always on the move geocaching in the Houston area, I can tell you there is a plainness to many of these "nice" areas that smacks of sameness. There are also parts of this huge metropolis that make Baytown look like a shiny diamond contrary to what some profess. Maybe beauty isn't a good description, as in keep Baytown beautiful and maybe we see what we want to see.

I do know that accepting things the way everyone else does isn't for Baytown. We need innovative parks and great access to our waterways. We need vision. We need more people to step up for litter abatement. We need to recognize that the future of Baytown is everyone's responsibility.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Start Slow... and Taper off

"As I get older I'm more and more comfortable being alone." This is a quote I came across quite by accident and is attributed to Sienna Miller. She's 36 years old. It is a one line testimony to just how frazzled our world has become. Henry David Thoreau once spent an entire day, from sunrise, to sunset sitting at his doorstep. He never stood to eat, or use the bathroom and later declared it was the most productive day of his life. That left a profound effect on me when I read it years ago.

This coming June, I will enter my 4th year of retirement and still have to remind myself that I can take time to sniff the flowers. I do not have to be almost anywhere other than for appointments. Like Tom Hanks character in the desert island movie, I lived by the clock. Sure, I love to arrive early for everything. Punctuality is a dying practice, but hanging around afterward has never been an option for me. I was always rushing off so  I could "sit on the couch".

JoAn Martin's Tuesday column about 85 year old folks being content gives me hope that not worrying about stuff I can't change is in my future. I sat across from the Sun's managing editor, David Bloom and exclaimed that I would love to write about glitter and unicorn sightings, but there is just so much negative fodder available; I get sucked into writing about it. It's a black hole I simply have trouble avoiding.

Emma's Hugs is staging a fund raising event at McLeod Park in Mont Belvieu February 24th from 4pm to 7pm and I was asked to support it by gathering geocachers there for an event, which I am going to do. Why not? I have time and its a noble cause. This past weekend, SETX geocachers staged 2 trash bash CITO events right here in Baytown, even attending the event set by Baytown Tourism. The rain forecast curtailed their plans and they cancelled, but that didn't stop us from showing up with about 20 people and cleaning Blue Heron Parkway and associated trails.

Like Ms. Miller and Mr. Thoreau, I like my own company, in spite of the fact that I will group up now and again. My dad was the same way and would spend the whole day fishing in his boat far away from other people. He wouldn't even take a radio. I drove down to Galveston Sunday for a geocaching event that got delayed and decided to look for geocaches by myself for the rest of the day. I had a ball and found over 20. I might have turned on the radio though.

Years ago when I was a runner, I learned of the incredible running man, Walt Stack. His motto in his old age was "start slow... and taper off," but he always kept running. From Wikipedia: For 27 years, from 1966 until 1993, Stack persisted in covering a set training route. His highly visible training routine made him a San Francisco institution. "I'm going to do this 'til I get planted," Stack decreed. Starting on his bike, he would ride six hilly miles from his Potrero Hill home to Fisherman's Wharf. Once there, he'd strip off his shirt, displaying tattoos of peacocks, wild horses, and bathing beauties across his broad chest, and then proceed to run a 17-mile route over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back, after which he would take a one-mile swim in the currents of the San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz Island.

Even with folks in tow, Walt's exercise regimen was a solo sport. He wasn't doing it for anyone but himself and like my dad fishing, or me wandering around Galveston Island geocaching, a great deal of peace and contentment is enjoyed going solo. On top of that, the phase I have entered isn't measured by how fast I can accomplish it. Boy howdy. That is a revelation. I do not have to race.

When I was a runner, I always timed everything and always tried my best to set a new personal best time. Jogging slowed that down a bit, but then I went for longevity. I never stepped out to run, just to run. Now after nearly 4 years, I'm learning I can enjoy life a whole lot more by not racing the clock. When I was a Process Operator, I spent about 90% of my time alone and to this day do not regret it. I would tell people I was social by my own terms. Now that I am retired, I am enjoying people more than ever.

What's more fun than people? Maybe its a balance of them and me.

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