Throwing Out Leftovers, Civilization-Wide

I’m gonna tell you about four things I used to do. Four actions – habits – I picked up when I was a kid and continued at least into my early adult life.

First, I used to eat large amounts of ice cream and other rich, fatty foods at every opportunity.

Second, I used to actively avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk when I was walking.

Third, I used to vigorously snap my towel when I stepped out of the shower and pulled it off the towel rack.

Fourth, I used to look both ways when I stepped out into the street.

As to crossing the street, never fear: When I say I “used to” look both ways, I mean I did it back then, but also, I still do it.

The reason I still do it is because … well, because it has actual survival value.

Not only did I once run across the street and almost get hit by a car, but ever since then, I’ve seen actual real-world examples of why it’s a must that you look, not just both ways but all ways, anytime you’re sharing the pavement with these large, fast-moving blocks of metal.

Not two months ago, I met a beautiful little girl at the local granola-head cafe, a college student with poreless, perfect coffee-and-cream skin, a bright, cheerful personality and an intelligent way of talking that made you instantly think “Whoa, this is someone with a lot on the ball upstairs.”

Within days after I met her, my roommate came home and said “You remember that beautiful little girl we met the other night at the Moon and River, the one going to Union College? She’s dead! She was crossing the street and somebody ran a red light and killed her instantly.”

Talk about your cautionary tale! It was a real punch in the gut. The impression of her was so fresh and positive in my mind — I was talking to her, liking her, marveling pleasantly at the bright possibilities of her future, only days before.

In fact, “looking both ways” isn’t the half of it, as far as I’m concerned. I exercise a completely paranoid level of caution anytime I’m on pavement. I look all around me, ceaselessly. I never stop looking ahead, behind, to both sides, the entire time I’m crossing a street, a parking lot, or even a sidewalk near a road.

In fact, I’m so firmly into this sense of what I consider “proper” safety, it offends my sense of rightness anytime I see people not doing it.

Heh, I’ll give you an example of something personally offensive:

Picture a young couple walking side by side, pushing a baby stroller down the road. Walking on the side of the road, halfway IN the road. The girl is pushing the stroller, and she’s actually on the roadway – I’m assuming because the gravel roadside is tough to navigate with the stroller’s little plastic wheels. The guy is just off the road, walking safely on the gravel verge. And they’re both facing away from traffic.

I actually saw it happen. The imaginary conversation in my head, all the things I wanted to stop and say but didn’t (hey, there was traffic), goes like this:

Are you people fucking insane? You’re walking facing away from traffic, and you’re right out on the actual pavement? Do you have any goddam idea what you’re doing? You’re betting your life that every person who comes along that road is completely sober, not distracted by a phone call or texting or kids cutting up in the back seat, is young enough to have good eyesight, or remembered to bring their glasses today, and gives enough of a shit to not accidentally run over two idiots walking on the roadway without paying attention!

You’re tossing your own safety into the hands of complete strangers! What makes you think they give a damn about you? What gives you the right to stupidly assume that?

To make it worse, you’re throwing the life of your baby onto the betting table too. You have no fucking right to do that, you dumbasses! If you don’t care any more about the kid than that, sonofabitch, give him up to somebody who does care.

And if I can be a complete chauvinist, little mister, how dare you walk on the safe part of the road and put your woman and baby out on the dangerous part! Don’t you have any of a man’s natural protective sense toward your family?

Do either of you know what this will do to you if one of you gets hit? For the one of you, it will either kill you or make you wish you were dead – put you in the hospital for months! And even the one who doesn’t get hit, it will fuck you up with guilt for the whole rest of your life, knowing you should have been more careful with the life of your loved ones! Hell, it will force that same life-destroying guilt onto the person who hits you!

Okay, well … sorry about the excitement. It’s been more than three years since I saw that, but it was so personally outrageous that just remembering it still gets me hot.

So: Look both ways. Something that makes sense at every age. You learn it when you’re a kid, you continue it for all the rest of your life.

The business about snapping the towel when I get out of the shower, that’s something I learned to do when I was a kid for a completely icky reason: We were fairly poor when I was growing up, and lived in a ramshackle house in lush, humid Houston … with bugs. If it wasn’t roaches – and I’m talking big meaty insects close to two inches long, critters that would sometimes fall off the ceiling or the wall at night and land with an audible thump (sometimes on you) – it was spiders of every variety. Or, sometimes, the odd centipede or chigger.

You snapped the towel when you pulled it off the rack to make sure there wasn’t something crawly and chitinous lurking on the back of it. You know, before you started rubbing it all over your face, or tender private bits.

Later in life, and somewhat richer in fortune, I had to worry less about having a spider on my towel and probably could have stopped doing it. But there came a time in my 30s when I lived briefly in a buggy old cabin in the wilds – I called it The Kingdom of the Spiders – and the lesson was reinforced. So, just on the off chance, I still snap the towel before I dry with it.

“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Did you hear that when you were a kid? Of course I didn’t spend a lot of time believing it, but I did it, avoided stepping on cracks, as a sort of half-compulsive game. It was just something to do as you walked. Plus, you could play it just about anywhere – in a store, in an office building, on the sidewalk.

Eventually, though, I stopped. I squelched the habit because it just wasn’t worth continuing, and it was a distraction from more important things that needed to be going on in my head.

Finally, the eating of ice cream and other fatty foods. I know you’re saying “Don’t even go there. I’m not giving up my ice cream.”

I did though. First, I cut down on the amount of it. I could have eaten an entire carton of chocolate fudge ripple all on my own when I was in my teens and,  hell, tossed a pepperoni pizza chaser after it. Every day of my young life, I was powering down fat bombs at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Later, when I started battling the middle-aged flab, I cut down even farther. And still later, I cut it out entirely. Half the time when I ate ice cream, all the sugar would give me a headache. And the fatty stuff started giving me … fat. I eventually realized I had habits of eating that I had to completely alter, taking up a different pattern of eating, in order to stay healthy in my advancing years.

For each of these things I might say “the reason I still do it,” or “the reason I don’t do it anymore” and that wording would be perfectly intentional. I do actually mean I thought about each action analytically and found reasons to continue or discontinue it. I didn’t just thoughtlessly continue to do it because I’d always done it, and I didn’t just stop for no reason.

What I’ve laid out here is four habits that occupy a range of necessity:

Four: (looking both ways): The thing you did when you were young and that you examined and found to be greatly useful, even life-or-death important, and so continued doing.

Three (towel snapping): The thing you did when you were young that you examined and found to still be potentially useful, just as an extra precaution, and so continued doing.

Two (avoid cracks): The thing you did when you were young that you examined and found useless, and so stopped doing.

One (ice cream/fatty foods): The thing you did when you were young that you examined and found necessary to stop doing, because it was actually bad for you.

These four things, once happily done, I eventually came to deem Good, Iffy/Okay, Useless, and Bad. Or possibly Useful, Marginal, Useless, and Bad.

And here’s the thing, those four grades apply not only to my own small life, but to larger life, and to civilization itself.

There are things we learned to do in the youth of human civilization that fit into all four categories.

For now, I’ll leave you to decide which things you think fit into those first three categories. Listing them is just more than lazy me wants to get into right now, and more than I want to subject readers to in this one piece. I want to focus on the last one: Bad.

Here, I’d put child abuse. Bullying of people less physically or politically powerful than you, including women and minorities. Having powerful leaders, kings and such, and denying equality and rights to all those under him. Rape. Prejudice. War. Genocide.

All of them were comfortably familiar when we were a younger people, just starting out and ignorant of everything, even the value of our own lives.

But they’re not-okay, even dangerous, now that we’re growing up, growing into compassion and broader-ranging intelligence that knows about consequences that come due from certain actions, in that future we all have to live in.

There’s one more thing I’d throw onto the list. Something that sort-of-worked in the infancy of our species. Something we continued into our semi-civilized adolescence because we didn’t know any better, and because it gave us certain comforts. But something that turns out to be overtly, blatantly – both at the grand level of civilization, but also at the level of individuals – damned dangerous.

And I say this not in vague general terms, or based on nebulous past examples, but considering events of the present day, where we have actual presidential candidates in the most militarily powerful nation ever to exist on Planet Earth hectoring us on its necessity, but also at the level of individuals, where misguided parents make medical decisions based on it that kill their own children.

That thing is, yes, Religion.

Regarding which, I say this to all of us: There’s a real world out there, kids, and it’s time to grow up and live in it. Time to keep the good stuff, and abandon the bad.

Time to think about what we’re doing. And then do something to change it.

Anything less leaves us standing blindly in the road while crushing disasters rocket down upon us.

I have a few posts coming up around Earth Day to make this next point more fully, but I’ll give you this here:

I really don’t think we have a lot of time.

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The Book of Good Living: The Social Minimum
Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style

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