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.

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
The Book of Good Living: How to Avoid Being Killed By A Train
Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
  • 1000 Needles

    Great article. I enjoyed the metaphor, and would like to draw it out a little more.

    Eating a full tub of ice cream is a relatively safer thing to do in one’s youth. However, it is dangerous to ignore the increasing risks of heart attack, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases that one must confront as they age.

    Similarly, religion may have been more benign in the infancy of our civilization, but it is a dangerous habit in an era of high technology and world-ending weaponry.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      The Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) is believed to have killed about 10,000 Cathars and others. The famous quote Neca eos omnes, Deus suos agnoscet (“Kill them all, God will know his own”) comes from this crusade.

      While modern technology has made it easier to kill large numbers of people, the will to kill large numbers of people for religious reasons has been around for centuries.

  • JeffT

    Good one, Hank! I also hated those damned Houston cockroaches.

    • 1000 Needles

      I had a similar experience with palmetto bugs in Tallahassee that also led to a customary towel inspection.

  • Markita Lynda—it’s Spring after the Winter that wasn’t

    Oh, Hank, what a kick in the guts! One moment of inattention and bad luck is all it takes.

    Actually, my impression is that walking along with traffic is much safer than walking against traffic, because drivers ARE watching ahead and they also look in the direction that traffic comes from. The times I’ve almost gotten hit are when a driver pops out of a driveway looking the other way until well past the sidewalk. They don’t look for pedestrians particularly, but your chances are better if you are where cars would be.

    I live in a large city where many people bike on the sidewalk because they feel safer ‘away from the cars.’ About 10% of the population walk or bike to work, so drivers are relatively used to looking for bikes–on the road. They don’t look for them on the sidewalk, where they move faster than a walker or even a runner. Consequently, 2/3 of car-bike accidents happen when the cyclist is on a sidewalk or has just come off a sidewalk. Check the statistics for your area and see if they aren’t similar.

    • Hank Fox

      Actually, my impression is that walking along with traffic is much safer than walking against traffic, because drivers ARE watching ahead and they also look in the direction that traffic comes from.

      My stand on any traffic/pedestrian question is that you NEVER hand over responsibility for your safety to some stranger on the road. You NEVER bet your life or health on what drivers might do, people you don’t even know.

      (As far as my hindbrain is concerned, apparently I also sometimes feel that way about friends: Some years back, I attended one of those team-building retreats with the crew of a magazine I captained. There was an activity where you fall backwards from about 8 feet up, and your team members catch you. I simply couldn’t do it. I trusted those people in every way that was germane in the office, but I did not trust them with my own physical safety.)

      • Matthew

        I developed a similar habit in my motorcycle riding days. Assume that anyone who can hit you will and make sure to have a way to prevent it. I still slow down when people tailgate and look for the empty patches in the traffic.

  • Markita Lynda—it’s Spring after the Winter that wasn’t

    Looking alert, wearing bright colours, listening for cars, and trying to make eye contact all help, but most pedestrians who are hit by cars have the right of way and are crossing with a green light.

    • Matthew

      …and if you pay attention to traffic you can (usually) notice and avoid the folks who are running the lights or not paying attention. Stepping out into the road without checking and assuming that the rules/laws will protect you is risky behavior.

    • Happiestsadist

      Every time I’ve been hit or almost hit (I come from a place with notoriously bad drivers), I’ve been crossing with the right of way at a crosswalk or on the sidewalk. An ex of mine got hit by an SUV crossing at a designated crossing as well.

    • Leslie

      You don’t have the right of way unless someone gives it to you.

  • Big Mountain

    Palmetto bugs, yellow spiders and little anole lizards down in Orlando… If the thing could take a stomping before I used it, I usually did.
    Great article Hank!

  • hotshoe

    Wonderful. I loved this post, every word of it.
    I must say, it does make me a little uncomfortable to think that my beloved pecan pie is equivalent to religion.
    In a few seconds, I’m going to get up and fix myself a slice with some yogurt (not frozen yogurt, just plain nonfat storebought yogurt) and think about it some more while I eat.
    If it’s that difficult (well, to be honest, it feels impossible, not just difficult) to give up my favorite sweets, maybe I can have some sympathy for the difficulty my family has for giving up their favorite church.
    And here I’ve been feeling so superior to them and angry at them up till now ….

  • Grendels Dad

    OK, I do the towel snap thing too. One time, fourteen years ago, I found a spider on my towel the way you mention. I am -not- a fan of spiders. I wont say I’m phobic, but I am definitely not a fan.

    Unfortunately I didn’t see the spider until I had already begun drying myself. I had never realized until that moment how much a water drop cascading down skin feels exactly like a spider. And since I had just begun to dry, there were a lot of water droplets left.

    As I ran through the house squealing, the only thing I could think to do was Stop, Drop, and Roll! So I dove onto the bed and thrashed around like an epileptic trout out of water until some semblance of sanity returned.

    Since then I don’t care where I am, that towel is getting a good snap before it comes anywhere near me. And the same goes for religion, lol!

  • Erasmus

    Took me a while to make sense of the whole section on crossing the road as pavement in the UK (at least in Liverpool) refers to what you would, I think, call sidewalk in the US.

    I thought you sounded absolutely bonkers, as you can imagine, until I read the bit about sharing the pavement with cars (which, you know, shouldn’t happen) and then I realised the switch.

  • rich12321

    Having been hit by a truck as a pedestrian I can say for sure that drivers are not watching out for you. GTF out of the road. Be safe.

  • John

    My favorite peeve along those lines is people who tailgate in traffic. Personally I don’t trust anyone driving not to suddenly hit their brakes or something similarly stupid.

  • Happiestsadist

    Excellent piece, though. I still enjoy my ice cream, though. I mostly eat fresh, from-scratch stuff, so a treat now and then isn’t too bad.

    Every once in a while, if I get up at night to go to the bathroom, I still catch myself doing a stupid little hop back into bed if I’m more than half-asleep. Apparently if I’m not remotely awake, the part of my brain that’s still four years old and fears monsters kicks in.

  • Rick Schauer

    Tis @1
    I used to teach history and the example you gave for the crusades is one I have known for a while but it really amazes me when someone pulls some esoteric history out in public…and gets it right!

    Have you read any Niall Ferguson? Rothschilds? Cash Nexus? Pity of War? I’d love to discuss those works with someone but I know of no one who has read them.

  • Tex

    Second motorcyclist here to share the point that people behind the wheel are not paying attention at all and should never be trusted to avoid you.

    I have a similar habit to the towel snap, grew up near San Antonio so we had plenty of scorpions, and we left our shoes on a rack in the garage, so before I put my boots on in the morning Im in the habit of shaking them out to make sure there’s not a scorpion in there.

    Also liking the metaphor of our society having outgrown the need for religion.

  • left0ver1under

    Another example of what’s left behind is how we try to get our way as children. The younger and less knowledgable one is, the more likely one is to use violence (bullying, pushing) and emotion (crying, tantrums) to get one’s way. But as one matures, rational thinking and maturity (i.e. “You’re not the only person in the world”) helps us to realize that we won’t always get our way, that sometimes we have to share or lose sometimes to win other times.

    Why is it the song that best describes the feeling mentions “god”?


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