Tuesday, April 21, 2015

One Bad Decision...

I think it’s human nature to make snap judgements before we really know what’s going on. We often jump to conclusions even if we only have a small set of facts. I heard an experience recently that showed how there’s always another side to the story.

This involved a young lady breaking into my friend’s car—a car parked in plain view of a large office building full of employees and police officers. A herd of incredulous people watched the whole thing happen, including her prompt arrest. The lady was a poster child for meth addicts: all skin and bones, with scabs and missing teeth.

Everyone’s first reaction was, “Duh, we could all see you!” She could have walked two minutes to a nearby neighborhood full of cars not under surveillance. And it seemed pretty obvious she was only feeding her addiction. If she’d never gotten hooked on drugs in the first place, or had tried to get clean, she wouldn’t have ended up in jail.

But like most things in life, there’s a less-obvious back story. In her case, that back story is tragic, and it could happen to anyone. I heard the humbling details from one of the arresting officers.

This hardened, drug-addicted, wasted lady was once a young, promising athlete at her high school. The daughter of a prominent and well-off family. Popular, pretty, with a full life ahead of her. One day she had a serious sports injury and her subsequent recovery required strong pain killers. The powerful medicine soon led to an addition. The addiction led to dropping out of school and hitting the streets. Living on the streets eventually led her to a parking lot where police officers watched her break into my friend’s car. And that, of course, led her to jail.

Think for a minute of her family and former friends, those who loved her and perhaps watched her fall into a life nobody would want. Think of her own broken dreams and lost hopes, and her long-gone athletic career. Think of what she herself has thought about as she’s slept on the streets.

This story hit me hard as I thought of my own children and their many sports injuries. How easy would it be for them to follow the same path? What about my own injury-of-the-week program and the meds I’ve needed?

It’s very easy to judge others. Why didn’t you just quit the pain killers when you first had a problem? Why didn’t you reach out to others for help? Why didn’t you try a recovery program?

But when I heard the back story, I had a different question.

Why have I been so lucky to not end up just like her?

There have been so many times in my life where a simple decision could have led me down a very different path. I truly believe that I—and all of us, really—am only one bad decision away from a disaster. No one should be so arrogant to think something like that could never happen to them.

I don’t know what happened to the young lady after the arrest, but I hope it finally led her on the path to recovery.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Making Friends in Exotic Places

Last fall, we made a sort-of-last-minute trip to Athens, Greece to take care of an eye condition for my younger son, Tian Tian. When you think of medical tourism, Athens isn’t the first place that comes to mind. In fact, people there often raised their eyebrows and said, “We usually go to your country for that.” But for our son’s condition—keratoconus—one of the best corneal surgeons in the world happens to work in Athens. I’m glad he works there and not, say, Syria.
Our neighbors in Athens

We found an apartment through Airbnb and chose to live like regular Athenians, or rather Athenians that couldn’t speak Greek. It was fun living in a normal neighborhood, shopping at the supermarkets and bakeries, and acting like we’d lived there our whole lives—except we got lost a few times. Plus, it was a lot cheaper than a hotel. During our ten days there, nearby shop owners and residents started to recognize us and wave at us like old friends. It’s the kind of place I could definitely live long term, though the air quality was a little iffy.

After Tian Tian’s eye procedure, the doctor wanted to see him every day, which meant we couldn’t take any trips to the beach or the countryside. But we had a little free time, and Tian Tian recuperated quickly, so we decided to visit the local sites—you can’t go all the way to Greece and not do at least a little sightseeing. One afternoon, we went to the big Acropolis Museum, the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, the Roman Agora, and other ancient and very Greece-ey places.

It seems you can’t take more than a few steps in Athens without tripping over something ancient. One restroom had a ruin right in the middle of the floor—they just built a glass ramp over it so you could bask in the glory of Ancient Greek culture while taking care of other business.

After spending the afternoon visiting lots of old stuff, we decided to head back to our little apartment and cook dinner like normal, non-tourist folks do, so as to not strain Tian Tian too much. Before heading to the bus stop, we found ourselves in Monastiraki Square as the sun set and the full moon rose, surrounded by tourists, locals, and the sounds and scents of Greek culture and food. It was tough to leave such an exotic and beautiful scene, so we bought chicken gyros, barbecued corns-on-the-cob, and drinks, then sat down on the steps to enjoy the atmosphere.

A very talented young man started a live concert, playing about a dozen different types of flutes. The ethereal sounds of his music floated through the crowds and echoed off the buildings. The full moon brightly lit the busy square. The Parthenon glowed on its perch above us, overlooking the city like a friendly sentinel. And the gyros and corn tasted great.

Tian Tian's New Best Friend from Somalia
As we sat there listening to the music, a small crowd of African immigrants slowly gathered on the stairs around us, also enjoying the concert and drinking a lot of beer. One man in his thirties started a conversation with Tian Tian and the two became instant friends—our son seems to have that affect on people. We couldn’t understand all of his English, but he told how he was orphaned in Somalia when younger, and later came to Greece looking for work. (He picked a rather inopportune time, given Greece’s economic issues.) He had a brother with a disability similar to Tian Tian’s, who has Down Syndrome. I don’t know how much of his story was true, or how much of it was the beer talking, but he was a very friendly guy and helped Tian Tian forget the problems with his eyes and how tired his legs were.

Given that we were in a foreign country, surrounded by immigrants of another culture and language, and it was well after dark, I think some people might have been nervous in a situation like that. Well, maybe I’m just naïve and like to see the good in people, but I felt very safe and comfortable there. In fact, if Tian Tian wasn’t so tired, I would have wanted to stay there all evening, listening to the flutes and talking with our new friends.

We eventually took a very harrowing taxi ride back to our apartment and retired for the night. But I’ll always remember the evening our family of three from America joined a small crowd of Somalis in downtown Athens listening to flute music under the full moon.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Urban Jungle Assault

Did you know the Tropic of Cancer runs through the country of Taiwan? That simple fact placed the sun at it’s northern-most latitude—directly above Taiwan—right when we decided to visit our extended family there last June. In fact, I think the sun followed us around whenever we stepped outside.

Taiwan is an island nation which by definition means “surrounded by lots of water.” And that water comes up from the south as part of the warm Kuroshio Current. We definitely noticed the sun and humidity. Near-100-degree (37c) temperatures and near-100-percent humidity make for a climate very different from the high deserts and alpine mountains in northern Utah. But despite coasts that are, obviously, at sea level, the central mountains rise up nearly as high as those in Utah—13,000 feet (4,000m). So imagine going from sea level up to 13,000 feet and back down in the space of 90 miles (145km). That would be a tough bicycle ride.

All of this makes for interesting geography and climate, which in turn make it an interesting place for outdoor activities. The humid heat drenched us as soon as we stepped out the door, but the low elevation in the cities and coasts made it hard to get much of a cardio workout.

Despite all that, my daughter Roro and I attempted to stay in shape through a regimen of urban jungle running. Our first daytime assault left us dripping wet before we even crossed the street, so we later decided to escape the daylight sauna and run after sunset.
On the stairs overlooking the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial grounds
The sprawling Chiang Kai Shek memorial park 中正紀念堂 is a couple blocks from my mother-in-law’s house. There we found a crowd of other runners circumnavigating the grounds each night. The outer sidewalk provided an easier run, but a guerilla strike through the tropical trees and koi ponds of the park’s interior proved much more interesting. A few times we forced a full frontal attack on the long stairs leading up to the memorial—Roro did much better at that than I.

On a short trip down the west coast, we tried another inner-city blitz in the morning rush hour streets of Hsin Chu 新竹. We ended up dodging a minefield of smog-choked traffic. That proved entertaining and we moved a lot faster than the cars did, but I think the damage to our lungs outweighed the benefits.

The thick foliage around Mingchih
Our best offensive occurred in the mountains near a small resort area called Ming Chih 明池. The elevation there was low by Rocky Mountain standards, around 4,000 feet (1,200m), but the lack of vehicles and soup-bowl humidity of the cities made it much more comfortable. We started just after sunset and weaved along a narrow road surrounded by foliage so thick you could never get through it without a chainsaw. Or napalm. The cicadas hummed their noisy songs in a deafening symphonic rhythm. Bats darted through the skies above us. Few scenes could be more peaceful and relaxing—until we startled a sleeping dog that howled and made us slam into each other.

All of this was an attempt to maintain some level of fitness so we could run the Spartan Beast a few days after we returned home. Going from three-and-a-half weeks living at sea level to running a 12-mile (19km) obstacle race at 5,500 feet (1,700m) ended up being a bad decision—the Spartan was very grueling!
Mist-filled mountains around Mingchih