Keep Going

This sizable, hand-lettered sign appeared yesterday on the Third Street bridge that links German Village to downtown Columbus.  At first I thought the sign might be referring to the typically snarled traffic on the bridge — because bad traffic sure can seem like hell — then figured it was just some general encouragement for anybody who might be facing a tough patch in their lives.  Since I was heading into work bright and early on a beautiful Sunday morning, the sign had some resonance for me.

What would motivate someone to create a sign like that, and post it on a fence on a public thoroughfare?  I can only guess, but I thought it was nice to know that somebody cared enough about their fellow humans to fashion and display a generally applicable message that might give complete strangers a boost.

The quote on the sign is often attributed to Winston Churchill, but there’s serious question about whether he ever said it.  Regardless of its source, it’s a useful thought to keep in mind when the super-busy or difficult times roll around.  I was grateful to the anonymous sign creator as I walked on to work.

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Building A Wall

Yesterday I took a break from the never-ending battle against the onslaught of dandelions and built two walls in the down yard.  One is intended to screen off an area where we’ll be composting yard waste, dead and dried weed carcasses, and other assorted debris,  The other one, pictured above, will mark the edge of what will be a little flower bed in a narrow crevice between two huge granite outcroppings.

I used stones for the walls, because we’ve got a virtually inexhaustible supply of them, and thought about Robert Frost the whole time.  I learned that trying to craft a stone wall can be a very enjoyable project.  It’s messy and muddy, and you get to see what kind of crawly creatures cling to the undersides of big rocks, which adds to the overall experience.  You get to lug stones around, too, so it’s pretty good exercise.

From an engineering standpoint, the key seems to be a create a level base for the wall, then find the right stones to fit into the right gaps, using the weight of the stones above to hold them all in place.  After some trial and error and experimentation with different stones in different places, I ended up with two walls that seem to be sturdy and level — at least until the next big rainstorm.  In the meantime, it was satisfying to actually do some manual labor with my hands, and see the immediate fruits of my effort.  For white-collar workers, that’s not something that happens every day.

Weekend Power

Did you ever have a week at work where you were so busy you really kind of lost track of the passing days in the crush — then, on Friday, you realized the weekend is just around the bend, a few hours away?

Weekend Just Ahead Green Road Sign, Business ConceptIt’s been that kind of week for me, and this morning I had that very pleasant realization.

It makes you appreciate the powerful allure of the weekend — and, in fact, the importance of the very concept of a “weekend.”  Our ancient ancestors, who knew no officially designated work week, never experienced the positive feelings generated by an approaching weekend.  Those poor unfortunates had to work all the time to avoid sabertooth tigers and other predators and engage in the hunting and gathering activities that caused them to be called hunter-gatherers.  They basically had no officially sanctioned down time.  Imagine how much they would have appreciated a weekend here or there, to allow them to catch their breath, stop the hunting and gathering for a time, and enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet?

Grip Evolution

Here’s another story to add to the slew of news articles about general health trends:  human beings, on average, are getting weaker.  In this case, the indicator is grip strength — that is, how much holding and squeezing force can a person generate with just the fingers of their hand.  Recent studies have indicated that grip strength has declined significantly, even in the last 30 years.

best-hand-gripper-exercisesSo what, you might ask?  You’re less likely to encounter the guys who give you a bone-crushing handshake, and you don’t see people walking around flexing those hand exercisers anymore.  What’s the big deal?  The big deal is this:  grip strength is one of those inverse health indicators lurking in the human body, with lower grip strength associated with increased mortality from all causes and cardiovascular mortality in particular.  And, especially for those of us who are getting up there, grip strength is a key indicator of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle that occurs as we age, and may also indicate issues with cognitive performance.

Why is grip strength declining?  Of course, gripping is a key part of the evolution of homo sapiens — whose distant ancestors needed a strong grip when they were swinging through trees, and whose more recent predecessors used their hands to create and then wield tools and weapons that allowed them to survive predators and gather food.  In short, humans needed that strong grip to make it through the natural selection melee and emerge at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  But in recent years, the need for hand strength at home or on the job has declined.  White collar workers need hand dexterity as they tap away at computers, not hand strength, and even blue collar workers now use automatic tools that don’t need the kind of personal strength that hand wrenches of the past, for example, required.  Mix those factors in with a general decline in fitness and increase in obesity, and you’ve gone a long way to explaining why human beings increasingly are becoming a bunch of unhealthy softies.

In short, as a species humans may be losing their grip.  It’s not a positive development.

Living In A Time-Free Zone

It’s June 21, which means it’s officially summer.  (Those of us in the rainy, cool Midwest may be forgiven for not recognizing that.)  June 21 also means the summer solstice has arrived and therefore, in the northern hemisphere, it’s the longest day and shortest night of the year.

190617165942-watches-on-bridge2-photographer-jran-mikkelsen-jpgSome of the northernmost cities of the globe have already been enjoying days where the sun never sets.  In Sommaroy, a Norwegian island that is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set for more than two months — from May 18 to July 26.  And during that period of constant daylight, the islanders don’t exactly follow conventional concepts of time.  In the early a.m. hours, when most of us are abed, Sommaroy residents are likely to be out doing activities that we associate with late morning or afternoon.  In part, that’s to compensate for the fact that, from November to January, Sommaroy doesn’t get any sunlight at all — but the practices of the islanders during this time period also recognize that standard concepts of time, set by a daily sunrise and sunset, really don’t apply when you have 24 hours of constant daylight.

Now Sommaroy residents want the Norwegian government to recognize their practices officially, and declare Sommaroy a “time-free zone” during the constant daylight period, which would allow businesses and schools to have flexibility in their hours of operation.  Visitors to Sommaroy during this period are encouraged to acknowledge the “time-free” concept by leaving their watches on the bridge that connects the island to the mainland.

Many of us live lives that are governed, to a certain extent, by the clock.  We get up, eat, work, watch TV, and go to bed on a schedule that is derived, in large part, from the rhythms established by the sun.  What would it be like to live in a place where there was constant sun — or for that matter, no sun — and therefore no standard concept of time?  Would you still follow a schedule, or would you simply sleep when you wanted, eat when you wanted, and work when you felt you had to, without regard to the tyrannical clock?

Most of us don’t have to think about that, because we don’t live in places where there is constant sunlight, or constant darkness, for any part of the year.  But if humans venture into space, and take years-long interstellar voyages or live underground on inhospitable planets and moons where sunrise and sunset are not daily occurrences, our prevailing notions of time will be put to the test.  In a way, our time-free friends on Sommaroy may be giving us a peek into what human lives might be like in the future.

Emphasis Added

Anyone who does much writing will eventually confront the question of the best way to give emphasis to a particular word or phrase in what they have written.  Maybe it’s a desire to attach special significance to part of a quote, or a need to make absolutely sure that the reader doesn’t miss a central point — but the time will come where, to be on the safe side, emphasis must be added.

9154299_web1_171030-pan-m-alexander-browne-top-hat-1So, what’s the best way to emphasize the written word?  The basic options, currently, are using underlines, italics, or boldface.  Some people then use a combination of the three to give even more emphasis.  (Back when I first started working, in the days long before social media and texting, some people used all caps to provide emphasis.  Now the all-caps look is generally perceived by the reader as screaming, and there’s very little being written about that needs that much emphasis.  What you want is for the reader’s internal voice to “think” the word being emphasized just a bit louder than the rest of the text, and not have them mentally screaming like a character in a bad teen horror movie.)

My emphasis tastes vary depending on what I’m writing.  For blog entries like this one, I prefer to use italics to give a word that special nudge.  For legal briefs, however, where case names are italicized and section headings are in bold print, I tend to use simple underlining to emphasize specific text.  That way, there’s no mixing up the message.

And I don’t like using various combinations of bold, italics, and underlining to give extra-special emphasis to certain words or passages.  For one thing, I think random mixtures of “emphasis-adders” is confusing to the reader; it suggests that there is some emphasis hierarchy that the readers hasn’t been told about, which may leave them wondering about relative emphasis rather than concentrating on what is written.  (“Let’s see — is don’t supposed to get more emphasis than don’t, or is it the other way around?”)  And using multiple combinations for some words seems to devalue the words that merit only a single emphasizer.  I think emphasis-adders should be used sparingly, and if you’ve got to use combinations you’re probably overdoing emphasis to the point where the message is being lost.  You might want to think about editing your sentences to be shorter and clearer, instead.  Plus, the use of random combinations of emphasizers makes the printed page look messy, like a riotous fruit salad.

So, my rule of thumb on adding emphasis is to stick to one — and only one — technique, and to use it sparingly.  If you write clearly, you’ll be just fine with that.

The Power Of No

We’ve all got friends who seem to be absurdly stressed, all the time.  They’re constantly harried, rushing from one important commitment to another, complaining all the while about how incredibly busy they are.  They’ve got their jobs, of course, but also a number of other activities and obligations piled up on top of their work, occupying pretty much every minute of every day.

Three Signs In Male Fists Saying No, No and No Isolated on a White Background.If only they’d learned to say “no”!

Over the weekend The Guardian published an interesting article about saying no.  The article points out that people who are miserably overcommitted aren’t powerless — they can directly affect their situations by carefully considering their own interests and saying no to things that they really don’t want, or need, to do.  By declining unwanted invitations, and shedding obligations that aren’t really rewarding or essential, they free up time to do what they actually want to do with people they really like.  And, as a result, the stress level goes down and the enjoyment of life goes up.

This recommendation mirrors my own experience.  Some years ago I realized that, with work, charity involvements, and other obligations, I wasn’t enjoying much free time — on weekends, or otherwise.  I looked at what I was doing and decided I needed to lighten my load, and then I went through my commitments and decided which ones could reasonably be eliminated — and then I eliminated them.  When I did that, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders and my free time was multiplied, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

I do disagree with The Guardian article in this sense:  it suggests that most of the over-busy folks are people-pleasers who feel they just have to say yes.  I’m sure there are people in that category, but I think there are two other categories at play.  One is people who want to help and make a contribution, and just find out that they can’t manage all of the obligations they’ve assumed.  The other is people who perversely like projecting to others how busy they are.  The first category just needs to understand the power of saying no.  The second category doesn’t want to say no.