Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

This morning, on my commute into work, I arrived at the EL (ie, SEPTA Market-Frankford Line) station at Girard as a train was pulling onto the tracks above me. Given SEPTA's incompetence in keeping a basic train schedule, I raced up the stairs just in time to watch the doors close in front of me by a nanosecond. So I did what any regular Philadelphian would do; I did one of those quick half-turn spinny things in disgust, while grumbling something to myself. In mid-spin, I heard "Hey man..." and saw that a guy had pulled the door open for me at the last aforementioned nanosecond. I hopped on the train and thanked the guy for doing that. He was probably about my age, with a blue hooded sweatshirt and a Domino's Pizza hat, and was holding a cup of coffee. He gave me a friendly nod in response.

Before another second had passed, I heard "Come here!" and turned to see a police officer taking the guy who'd just held the door for me off the train. Caught in a mental rock in a hard place, I too jumped off the train just before the doors closed for good. The cop began chewing him out. The guy in the Domino's hat calmly responded, "The man needed to get on the train." I interrupted and said "Hey, I wasn't trying to start any trouble." The cop looked at me and said "Why'd you get off? You could have kept going." I replied that I couldn't just take off while another person was getting in trouble for doing something nice for me. The cop looked at the Domino's hat guy once more and said "Don't do that!" As the cop was walking away, my new commuter friend called out to him, "I hope someone holds an elevator for you sometime." He said it in a very gentle, friendly voice, though I'm sure the sarcasm was not lost on the parting officer as he retreated back into his little office in hopes of finding more pointless activities with which to spend his time.

I shook the man's hand and thanked him again for trying to help me out. Within a minute, another train showed up; by far, a new SEPTA record! We got on the train together -- I made sure he got on first -- and told him to have a great day. I started to think about where he was headed. Perhaps he was just going to work. Perhaps he was on his way to court. Maybe he was going to visit his kid. Whatever the situation was, in a town with a very me-first mentality, he conducted himself in a very selfless manner. I thought about something my friend Joe once said to me: if everyone kept an eye on the needs of others instead of themselves, no one would be lacking. A few stops later, the guy turned to me, smiled, and jokingly said "Later man...don't interfere with commerce!" as he exited the train.

I never thought that missing a morning train would somehow become an insightful occurrence, but if I may be metaphorical for a moment, the world would be a much better place if more people would be willing to "pry open doors" for others, even if it costs them a few extra seconds of their precious time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Quirks: "Lepidopterophobia"

This blog entry marks the second in a new series called "Quirks." I've often thought about how I have some strange and unique personality traits that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to hide while growing up. Now that I'm older, I'm realizing my quirks are just part of what make me, me. And who knows?...maybe others can relate to some of these. So, rather than hiding my quirks, as I've done in the past, I figured I'd go the complete opposite route and just bring them to light.

Today's quirk: "Lepidopterophobia"

Ok, where do I begin with this one? Lepidopterophobia is a fear, disgust, and/or general dislike of butterflies and moths. The Latin word "Lepidoptera" literally means "scaly wing" and the species is comprised of various forms of large-winged insects. Lepidopterophobics, like me, are very uneasy around the presence and/or pictures of butterflies. For the most part, people develop phobias because of one or more previous experiences, so let's try to break down my situation a little bit.

I have disliked and been utterly grossed out by butterflies for most of my life. Let me be clear however: I have no fear of being hurt by them. I have never been attacked by them (I mean, what exactly does an attacking butterfly look like anyway?), nor have I had any kind of horrifying experiences associated with them (ie, watching someone get killed as a butterfly simultaneously flutters by). I can really only trace my negative butterfly experiences back to two separate events from my childhood; both of which seemed very normal and innocent at the time.

At the age of five, my kindergarten class was doing a butterfly project; one that most kindergarten classes probably do at some point. We had a big caterpiller in a tank full of sticks and leaves (as the late Mitch Hedberg would say, "to recreate what he's used to"). At the time, I felt that this caterpiller was pretty freaking ugly and I was quite happy when it finally disappeared into its chrysalis. I'm not sure how much time passed by -- to a five year old, a matter of weeks is an eternity -- as I waited and waited for the culmination of this promised butterfly to emerge from its pupal stage. I have to admit now, I was skeptical at the time that this little science project would actually come to fruition.

Finally the day arrived. I was across the room when I heard my classmates yelling excitedly around the tank. I looked over just in time to see this new winged creature emerge and flutter up to the top of the tank where it hung, suspended upside down. I remember thinking that if they opened the lid, that thing was going to get out and somehow the thought of that disturbed me.

At recess time, we all came outside to watch the great butterfly release. My teacher brought the butterfly outside in a tupperware food container, which for whatever reason, I found severely off-putting. When she opened the container, I had hoped to see it take off to the skies and out of sight, much like a bird, but it fluttered around unpredictably, which really freaked me out. Finally, it headed straight for the front door of the school. Maybe we had somehow domesticated the dumb bug. It came to a rest on the small set of steps that we had to climb to get back into the building, and well, it just planted itself there and wouldn't move. I kept looking at it, hoping it would just take off, but it laid there motionless. All throughout recess I was uneasy. I kept looking back at the steps and dreaded the call from my teacher that recess was over, for fear of having to step over the newly freed insect, lest it fly up at me in mid stride. Finally, right before we were summoned back inside, the butterfly took off. I recall feeling much relief after returning inside, yet somehow that previous feeling of uneasiness stuck with me.

Several months later, I was playing in my back yard, digging and doing whatever little boys do. I was grabbing sticks, rocks, and leaves when I came across a giant leaf in the middle of the yard that I thought would be perfect for whatever it was that I was building. As I came within an inch of picking up this giant leaf, I suddenly realized that it was not a leaf at all, but a gigantic dead butterfly. I jerked back in disgust and called out to my Dad, who came outside and exclaimed how beautiful it was. I did not share in his sentiment. He then moved it to the side of our back yard, where I slowly -- and somewhat morbidly -- watched it decompose day after day until it was simply no more. And at that point, my intense aversion to all things butterfly-related had officially set in.

Over the next few years, I came to a conscious realization that I really didn't like butterflies. Being in very close proximity to butterflies would -- and still does -- cause me to sweat, experience chills, and exhibit various other panic attack symptoms. So while I generally tried to avoid them, I would occasionally do the opposite and try to find ways to come face to face with my phobia for no particular reason. On various occasions, I would trap butterflies in nets and seal them off so that I could look at them up close and not have to worry about them touching me. One time I trapped a big monarch butterfly in a net, sealed it off, brought it into the house, looked at it for a while, and then forgot about it. My Mom found it dead in the net a couple days later and forbid me from doing that again. Another time, for a sixth grade art project, we were creating fake stained glass windows made from aluminum foil and colored plastic sheets. I did mine of two giant butterflies perched on a stick. When I was done, I got a lot of compliments on it, but I could barely look at it without feeling chills up my spine. Still at other times, I would collect small caterpillars -- for some reason, I didn't have any aversion to picking them up -- and put them in a plastic container to recreate the kindergarten butterfly project that had turned me off to those things in the first place. When the caterpillars would inevitably transform, I would get severely grossed out and pretty much toss the whole container outside. I did this a few times until I finally came to the realization that I was just being a glutton for torture.

As I reached my high school and college years, I realized that my phobia wasn't going away, so I just tried to ignore it. This worked out fine for the most part, but when you're outside with your friends and a butterfly grazes by your head and you involuntarily hit the deck as though it was a bullet, people have a tendency to notice. I would usually try to play it off as though I didn't realize it was just a butterfly, but that defense only worked the first time. So yeah, I got teased for it, which is always a great feeling during your most hormonally emo years.

I started dating my eventual wife Tara in the summer of 2004. One day, as we were taking a walk through a really nice public garden and trying to get to know each other better, I decided to let her in on my little phobia. As I recall, the sentence went something like this: "Tara, now that we're together, I figured I should tell you, I have this weird, irrational phobia of...." at that moment, I kid you not, a giant swallowtail butterfly made a b-line for my head. I swatted and flailed and when it didn't fly away, I bolted in the opposite direction. I ran about fifty feet and realized that it was still right behind me. So I cut and turned and bolted in the opposite direction, only to look back in horror and see it right behind me again. It's like the thing was attached to me by some invisible string. Three times I sprinted back and forth until, in exhaustion, I screamed "Why are you chasing me?!?!" At that point, it fluttered off and I looked at Tara, who was literally in stitches laughing on the ground. After a few minutes of catching my breath, I finished my sentence and let her know I have an irrational phobia of butterflies. The news was, of course, a complete surprise to her.

Well, why am I now able to come forward publically about this? How am I able to be vulnerable about this rather embarassing quirk of mine? It's quite simple really. I've come to understand that just about everyone has really weird quirks and insecurities that they're in fear of having discovered, and that some of these quirks are just as silly or even sillier than my Lepidopterophobia. And that if we're actually willing to talk about them, there's a lot of freedom in being willing to laugh at yourself a little bit and potentially even discover others who share in the same phobia. Believe it or not, while I've never met another person with a butterfly phobia, there is a website called I Hate Butterflies dedicated to individuals like me who share in the collective disgust toward all forms of Lepidopterans. Some individuals have shared on the website that they've reached the point where they can't even go outside for fear of seeing or encountering a butterfly. While I have personally never had any issues in simply going outside, I can certainly sympathize with what these individuals are feeling. The moral of the story when it comes to your own quirks: lighten up!

I still find it kind of odd that I kill centipedes and spiders in my home on a regular basis and don't really think much of it, but if a moth or butterfly of any kind gets in the house, it's my wife's duty. Overall, this phobia has little to no impact on my day to day life, so no one really has a clue unless I tell them. But if you invite me to join you at one of those hideous Butterfly Pavilions, I will most likely have a previous commitment that day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The End of the World As We Know It?

Yesterday, as most of the U.S. not living under a rock is probably aware, the House passed a major health care bill that will provide health insurance to about 95 percent of the country. For the first time in American history, we -- the wealthiest country in the world -- are pretty close to joining the rest of the world in providing universal health care to all of our legal citizens.

My immediate gut reaction?...It's about freaking time!!!

I must say, when I first heard about the passage of this bill, I actually felt impressed by a President of the United States for the first time in my nearly 30 years of life. Candidates eloquently talk an excellent game -- well at least most of them talk eloquently -- but if elected, they either deviate away from their campaign platform or ignore it altogether. So, while this new bill is barely in its infancy, I can honestly say, well done President Obama!

Of course, this landmark bill is not without its many detractors. Hey, it wouldn't be politics if Republicans and Democrats didn't hate everything the other side did. And no, I don't claim to know all the in's and out's of this new bill, so I'm sure there are some valid points against it. But what I'm hearing about most in opposition is a rise in taxes, higher costs for those who already have insurance, and more and more money-related hoopla.

While no one wants to spend more money, it seems to me like a small price to pay overall to ensure that the majority of this country's citizens get the coverage they so desparately need.

News flash: no matter what happens with taxes or premiums or whatever, nothing will change for those currently freaking out. People are still going to go see Avatar five times at $15 a ticket (because of course, you'd be dumb not to pay the extra $5 for the 3D experience); they are still going to buy their fancy cars and state-of-the-art electronic gadgets; they are still going to deck up their homes; they are still going to try to hoard every last penny they can; and most of all, they are still going to bitch incessantly about how little they have. In some way, shape, or form, I am certainly guilty of all these things. However, I am much less concerned about the cozy comfort of these people (myself included) than I am about the people I see hobbling around my surrounding neighborhood on one good leg because the other leg healed incorrectly after an injury that they couldn't afford to have treated; people whose teeth are falling out because they aren't able to simply get them cleaned; people who are dying from very treatable medical conditions because they have no insurance and cannot pay out of pocket for medication.

And some of us are complaining about having to fork over a few extra bucks? How the hell dare we?!

So is this the end of the world as we know it? It very well could be, but I can guarantee that it would have nothing to do with the passage of this new health care bill.