Canyon Hike with New Friends

Nature + intelligent people + good conversation = a great time.

One of the reasons I’ve been so unhappy living in Wickenburg over the past few years is the lack of friends my own age who have similar interests.

As the years went by and Wickenburg shifted from being a ranching/tourist town to being a retirement community, all of our young friends moved away. There was Barb and Barry, who moved to New Mexico. Then Janet and Steve, who moved to Colorado. Then Lance and Keri, who moved to (of all places) Michigan. Some of our young, seasonal friends — John and Lorna come to mind — prefer hanging out with the old folks at the retirement community where they park their RV for half the year, opting for an ice cream social over a Jeep ride in the desert or a coffee gathering over a hike up Vulture Peak.

Because the town doesn’t offer enough employment opportunities for young people, it’s population continues to age, with more older folks coming here to retire, at least seasonally. I — or we, I guess I could still say — have quite a few friends old enough to be my parents. Sadly, most of these folks are not nearly as active as we are. And every year, when I return from my annual migration to Washington for work, I discover that one or more of them has died: Pete, Bill, Danny — rest in peace.

It’s depressing for someone like me who wants to remain active. While it was tolerable while I still had a husband at home — at least we could do things together on weekends — with him gone, the situation is bad. I decided to get proactive to find some friends.

I turned to Meetup.


Meetup is a social networking service that makes it easy to find and meet up with — in person — people with similar interests for all kinds of activities. I’ve been a member for years and, in the past, have used it to hook up with a photography group based in the Phoenix area and a social group in the Wenatchee area. Last week, I worked it hard, looking for Meetup groups that might do activities near where I live. I didn’t expect to find any in Wickenburg — indeed, there are no Meetup groups within 25 miles of Wickenburg — but I found quite a few in the Phoenix area that do activities all over the state.

Last week, after hitting the Arrowhead Mall for a makeup consultation, I joined the 39 and Holding Club‘s “Hump Day” dinner, which was being held at Chili’s in Surprise, AZ. Although it was more than 30 miles from my Wickenburg home, it was still on the way home from the mall. It was a nice evening out with pleasant people. I met an interesting woman — I’ll call her “M” — who is also going through an ugly divorce that has been going on for two years now. (I sure hope mine doesn’t take that long.) M is the one who told me about Couch Surfing, which I linked to in one of my “Interesting Link” posts. So not only did I get to spend a nice evening out with new people, but I learned about some services I might want to take advantage of in the future.

I signed up with a bunch of groups for a bunch of activities ranging from wine tasting/pairing to hiking to archery lessons. My calendar is now quite full. And with new activities listed all the time, I don’t think I’ll have much trouble at all finding something interesting to do with others.

The Phoenix Atheists

I don’t usually blog about my religious non-beliefs because it results in a firestorm of comments by religious fundamentalists damning me to hell or worse. Of course, this means nothing to me because I don’t believe in hell. If you feel your anger rising now, take your blood pressure pills and move along. Comments blasting me (or others) for religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) won’t appear on this blog, so don’t waste your time posting them.

Yes, I’m an atheist. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly for a while and have somehow missed that point, shame on you. It’s not as if I hide it. If this is news to you and it upsets you, I’m sorry. I’d like to assure you that I have very strong moral convictions that don’t require an all-mighty being to supervise. I’m not a militant atheist — one who’s blasting believers all the time — I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person. If you want to believe in god, fine. Just don’t expect me to do it just because you and others do.

That said, I believe that atheists or “freethinkers” or “secular humanists” or “skeptics” — some of the names we apply to ourselves — are generally better educated, more intelligent, and better able to reason things out than the average person. I’m not saying all atheists are smarter than everyone else. I’m just saying that as a group, they tend, on average, to be brighter than the general population, better able to think before speaking, and better able to express their thoughts without offending others.

I’m not a dummy and I like talking to smart people. I like talking to people who are as smart as or smarter than me. People who can challenge me to think in a conversation. People who are able to discuss things deeper than what they saw on television last night, what’s in the news, or what they got in the latest Obama-bashing (or Romney-bashing) email in their in box. People who make me think about things that are interesting or important. People who can help me get a new angle on things, to possibly see things in a new way and build my own new conclusions. I like talking to people who can challenge me to think and to discuss things as an equal.

atheists.jpgI figured that a group of atheists should fit the bill. So when I found out that The Phoenix Atheists Meetup Group was going for a hike at Grapevine Canyon in Mayer, AZ, I decided to join them.

Because the trailhead required a 1-1/2 mile drive down a narrow, rough road, I took my Jeep and offered up rides to anyone who didn’t have a high-clearance vehicle. I got a call from another member — we’ll call him “D” — who was driving up from Yuma in his Toyota. We agreed to meet at the shopping area at I-17 and Carefree Highway, which was on my way north to Mayer. At 7:00 AM yesterday morning, I loaded up Penny, a fanny-pack full of frozen water bottles and snacks for both of us, my camera, and my monopod, and we headed out.

I got to the rendezvous point early. I topped off the Jeep’s gas tanks, then parked by McDonalds and started looking for others in the group. Another Jeep was supposed to meet there. What I discovered is that the McDonalds there is a popular meet up place for all kinds of groups of people. I’d stop at a small group and say, “Are you here for the hike?” (I didn’t want to mention atheists because some people get silly.) One of the people in the group would respond, “No, we’re going off-roading up by Crown King. You can come with us if you want.” Or, “No, we’re going scuba diving. Want to come with us?” Or, “No, we’re with the Miata Club.” (No invitation there.) I realized that even if I had nothing planned, I could go to the McDonalds, ask around, and go with the group that seemed to be doing the most fun thing. Whoa.

I finally found the other Jeep driver, “G,” and his companion. Then D. We chatted, loaded up, and headed north on I-17 to Mayer. I followed G’s Jeep.

I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with D during the 45-minute ride to Mayer. He’s a civil engineer who works with traffic control — light timing, traffic pattern design, etc. We talked about his work and mine and about each of our divorces. He was very supportive and offered some general advice from his own experiences. Although we didn’t talk much about that — I really didn’t want to — our chat helped clear my head and put me in a more positive mood for the hike ahead.

At the turnoff, there were more members of the group. I took on another passenger and followed a Toyota FJ Cruiser down a mildly rough road, with G’s Jeep taking up the rear. At the end of that little drive were more people and vehicles. I think our group wound up with a total of 14 hikers. A good sized group.

We parked and unloaded our gear. After a briefing from the group leader, we started off up the trail.

After driving down a rough forest road and parking, we did our hike in the area marked in red. We followed Grapevine Canyon most of the way.

We were on the eastern foothills to the Bradshaw Mountains. The Bradshaws aren’t very big — I think the tallest peaks might be around 6,000 feet — and the hills climbing up to them are mostly metamorphic rock and low bushes such as holly and manzanita. I kept Penny on her leash, mostly because there had been talk of mountain lions in the area and I didn’t want her wandering off. She walked with us like a little champ and only had to be lifted over one fallen log.

The trail started as a road, then narrowed to a wide trail. At a marked fork, we took the left fork, which was supposed to be level. It wasn’t. It climbed pretty steadily but not too steeply. Because we were hiking near a dry stream bed, there were some tall tress, including oaks and various pines. Scattered clouds and the trees helped keep the sun off us. Still, I’d dressed wrong in a pair of jeans instead of shorts. It wasn’t long before I was working up a good sweat.

Hand-carved Slingshot
We found this hand-carved slingshot hanging from the vertical poles of what may have been a hunting blind in a clearing along the trail. Magnificent workmanship! Of course, we left it where we found it; I hope other hikers do the same.

Members of the group split into smaller groups and chatted as they walked. Occasionally, the front groups would stop to let the stragglers catch up. It was very rewarding to me to be able to get into a conversation with any group I wound up walking beside. I was never excluded, other members seemed to go out of their way at times to engage me in conversation. It was exactly what I wanted from the experience: a good workout with good conversation.

Meanwhile, as the trail narrowed and climbed along the dry creek bed, it became tougher to follow. Soon, we were following cairns — piles of rock left to mark the trail. After a while, I was glad I’d worn long pants — others were getting their legs scratched walking through brush. Penny kept up very well, surprising me and others.

Eventually, we reached a dry waterfall with a seep-like spring. Thick green moss, which is rare in the desert, carpeted the rocks. Small flowers bloomed here and there. Butterflies flitted about. Facing an even narrower trail up the canyon, about half of us settled down to wait for the others to continue their explorations. Because various members had hand-held radios, we were able to keep in touch with all the groups. It wasn’t long before they’d had enough and began coming back.

Flower in the Sun
I captured this flower in a beam of bright sunlight.

The hike back was easier, probably because it was mostly downhill. Again, I found myself walking with different people along the way, talking about different things. It really helped keep my mind off my personal tragedy and the pain it was causing me. Being able to meet and talk to so many interesting people really pumped up my spirits.

Penny Resting on a Hike
We stopped for a long rest on the way back, mostly to gather the whole group together. I took this opportunity to give Penny some more water and let her rest.

Afterwards, we went to Leff-T’s Steakhouse in Dewey. The group insisted on us sitting on the outdoor patio so Penny could join us. I’m in the process of weaning myself off my diet — I’m very close to my final weight goal — so I ordered steak fajitas and ate about 1/3 of the portion, taking the rest home for the next two days. One of my companions kindly gave me a taste of his chicken fried steak — I love that stuff but will probably never be able to enjoy a full portion again. (Which really is a good thing, after all.)

We split up after that. D and I climbed back into the Jeep with Penny and headed back down toward Phoenix. Although it probably would have been closer for me to drive through Prescott, I admit that I looked forward to D’s company for part of the drive. We talked a lot more about what I was going through — he seemed genuinely interested and offered up all kinds of supportive words and advice. He also gave me some specifics about his post-divorce recovery process that I could apply to my own life and what I might face. It was extremely helpful to me.

After I dropped him off at McDonalds, Penny and I headed home. It was hot — seriously, I don’t understand how people could bear to live in Phoenix when the temperature is still hovering around 100°F on the first day of autumn. We made good time getting back and I was glad to pull the Jeep into the garage just as it was beginning to get dark outside. I gave Penny a much needed bath and took a hot shower to wash off the day’s sweat and dirt.

I was tired but I felt happy and hopeful for my future.

I’m really looking forward to my next outing with this group.

HappyThe hike leader, Al, posted a huge batch of photos that he shot before, during, and after the hike. Among them was this gem.

The ugly divorce I’m dealing with right now has been eating away at me day after day and night after night. But Al managed to capture the truth in this photo: my spirit is still alive and strong, I can still have fun, I can still be happy.

Thank you, Al. Seeing this photo really made my day.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses at My Doorstep

And the reason why I spent 30 minutes talking to them.

The other day, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses showed up on my doorstep. I knew they were Jehovah’s Witnesses when I caught sight of them on my driveway, walking up to the house. Two women, one older carrying a book and pamphlet, one much younger. Nicely dressed, looking very out of place.

Understand that I live at the end of a road — actually, beyond the end of a road. To get to my house, you need to drive at least a mile past where the pavement ends. The last stretch is a very steep — think 10% grade — and deeply rutted because one of my neighbors (and his family and friends) doesn’t know how to drive up a steep dirt road without spinning tires. One you get past that, you’re in a dry wash where there are three driveways, one of which is mine.

Because of this, we don’t get many strangers stopping by. The folks who do make the trek are either paid to do so — UPS, FedEx, USPS, repair guys, etc. — or very motivated.

Perhaps motivated by God.

I opened the door just as they rang the bell, prepared to tell them how not interested I was and send them politely on their way. Although a lot of people are very rude to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I don’t get rude unless they get stubborn. Although I’m an atheist, I respect people’s rights to believe whatever they want to believe — as long as they don’t use my tax dollars to spread their religious word. (And yes, I don’t think churches should get any kind of tax break; they should be operated like businesses and pay the taxes at the same rates that my businesses do. But that’s another topic for another blog post. Save your comments, folks.)

I got right to the point without even looking at them: “Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I don’t even think I gave them a chance to reply. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested at all. You’d be totally wasting your time with me.”

I really don’t remember what the older woman replied, because by that point, I’d gotten a good look at the younger woman. Woman is being generous. She was a girl, perhaps in her late teens. She had an interesting round face that reminded me of the actress that played Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family movies. She even had the long, straight brown hair, parted in the middle. (The IMDb tells me it’s Christina Ricci; if you follow the link, be sure to look at her Addams Family shots, too.) Of course, she didn’t have Wednesday Addams’ glum features. Instead, her face looked more non-committal.

And my heart was instantly filled with sadness.

Here’s my reason — which took quite a while for me to figure out afterwards: Here was a young girl, perhaps just getting started with her “mission” of spreading the word of God (or whatever they say their mission is). She’d be knocking on doors, likely facing rude, obnoxious people every day she hit the streets. People who would ignore her knock (if she was lucky) or people who would answer the door, curse her out, and then slam the door in her face. How often did Jehovah’s Witnesses actually score a “hit”? Get a door answered by someone who wanted to listen to their line? Judging by the people on Twitter who chided me about talking to them for 30 minutes, not very many.

I thought about these two women, going door to door in rural Arizona on whatever schedule they might need to keep. And I thought about all that time utterly wasted. Life is so short — why don’t people see that? — and it can be snatched away at any time. In fact, during our conversation, I suggested that they might better spend their time doing something more interesting together, like going shopping or learning to knit. My words were directed toward the girl, even though I said them to the woman. I was hoping to plant a seed.

And I guess that’s the reason I spoke to them for 30 minutes. I was trying hard to plant seeds in her young mind, hoping to give her real food for thought. Our conversation covered my beliefs — or lack thereof — and some of their standard line about prophecies. I was pleasantly surprised when I gently told them that I didn’t believe God existed and they didn’t get offended or angry.

We talked about the Bible and I told her what I think of it: It’s a collection of stories written by normal people who may have been inspired by faith. I did not believe it was the word of God — how could I if I didn’t believe there was a god? The older woman, who did most of the talking, tried to convince me that the Bible was more than I thought, using Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding Tyre as “evidence” (her word) for the Bible being God’s word.

I was not familiar with the prophecy, which surprised me. Despite being a non-believer, I’ve done a considerable amount of research into the bible — although, admittedly, mostly New Testament material. Because I looked at things with a skeptical eye, if this prophecy was such strong evidence in favor of the Bible, I thought I might have heard of it before. It puzzled me that I hadn’t.

They went on to tell me that the prophecy, which was given by God to Ezekiel, had come completely true — that the Island of Tyre had been destroyed and no longer existed. Not having any facts at hand, I was not willing to debate their claim, yet I told them that I still did not believe the bible was the word of God.

That’s when the young girl chimed in, asking if I believed then that it was just a coincidence that the prophecy had come true. I told her that if it had indeed come true, I did believe it was a coincidence since I did not believe in God. To their credit, they took that with ease. I suppose they must hear all kinds of things from the people they talk to.

The WatchtowerThe older woman tried to give me references to the Prophecy of Tyre, but I assured her that I didn’t need them and that I would Google it later on. She also tried to give me a copy of The Watchtower, which she had with her, but I wouldn’t take it.

We talked about what’s going down in the world — how everything seems to be “going to hell in a handbasket” — my phrase; not used in the conversation, but you get the idea. They apparently believe that it’s a sign of the end of days. I obviously don’t. I told them that most of the world’s problems are caused by greed and selfishness. We agreed that if people would consider the consequences of their actions as they affect other people before taking them, they might think twice about taking those actions. We talked about some local and national level examples — for example, the scraping clean of the desert to build huge housing subdivisions that, because of the housing bubble bursting were never built. The natural landscape destroyed because of greed, with no consideration for others. I told the girl that I felt bad for young people like her who were inheriting this mess.

Then we talked a little about the young birds accompanying their moms to bird feeders and letting their moms feed them seeds. The older woman was amazed that the fledgeling chicks were nearly as big as their moms but wouldn’t feed themselves.

They were nice people and I felt bad for them. When we said goodbye, I told them to have a good life. My words were addressed primarily to the young girl, who still had her whole life ahead of her.

When they left, I went back into my office and Googled the Tyre Prophecy. I found two kinds of articles. One kind were created by believers to support their claim that the prophecy had come true, thus proving that Ezekiel had basically written down what God told him. The other kind were created by skeptics, like me, which presented detailed analyses about the facts of the prophecy, actual history, and the current situation. I found this one by Dave Matson that takes the prophecy, point by point, and details how it differs from reality. It is supported by actual bible quotes and a multitude of documents that are all cross-referenced at the article’s end.

In short: Ezekiel’s prophecy did not come true. So, as “evidence,” this particular prophesy falls far short of what I need to be convinced.

Did I waste 30 minutes of my day? I don’t think so.

I admit that I am fascinated by true believers — and these people — especially the older woman — definitely fell into that category. Why else would you go door-to-door relentlessly, getting the foul treatment handed out by people who simply don’t want to be bothered? These people have true faith — which is something most people claiming to be Christians don’t really have and something I definitely don’t have.

They didn’t convince me — although they did get me to do a bit of research and expand my knowledge of the Bible and religion. I didn’t convince them — although I demonstrated that a non-believer could be reasonable and share some of the same non-religious views. We had a nice discussion and perhaps — just perhaps — I planted a few seeds of reason in that girl’s head.

And, by the way, if you’re tempted to use the comments feature to blast me for my religious non-beliefs, don’t waste your time. After “The Bible in the Refrigerator” debacle, I no longer allow any personal attacks on anyone to appear on this blog. If you feel compelled to show your un-Christianity, show it elsewhere.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

Remarkable reading for the holidays!

The Atheist's Guide to ChristmasA month or more ago, someone on Twitter tweeted a link to the Kindle version of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas for just $1. Like a lot of people, I consider a buck “why not?” money for anything that interests me. I followed the link and downloaded the book. It sat on my iPad for a while, half forgotten.

Sometime later, while I was eating alone in a restaurant in Phoenix, I cracked the cover (so to speak) and began reading it. It wasn’t at all as I expected. It was so much better.

You see, I expected some sort of anti-religious rant against Christmas and everything concerned with it. Not sure why I expected this — perhaps it’s got something to do with the conservative media’s perceived “war against Christmas” that crops up every year here in the U.S. If you believe the conservatives on FoxNews, etc., anyone who is not Christian hates Christmas and wants to destroy it. Following that line of reason, the folks who should hate it most are atheists, since they don’t believe in any religious doctrines at all.

But that’s not what this book was all about.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a collection of 42 stories and essays from a variety of atheist scientists, comedians, philosophers, and writers. They include reminiscences (eg., Phil Plait’s “Starry, Starry Night”), celebration suggestions (eg., Josie Long’s “Things to Make and Do at Christmas”), scientific information (eg., Brian Cox’s The Large Hadron Collider: A scientific Creation Story”), historical information (eg., Claire Rayner’s “How to Have a Peaceful Pagan Christmas”), and tall tales (eg., Nick Doody’s “How to Understand Christmas: A Scientific Overview”).

Sure, there was the takeoff on Jeeves and Wooster by Richard Dawkins in which Woofter and Jarvis engage in a conversation about the existence of God, Jesus’s part in the Holy Trinity, and bible inconsistencies. But that was just one small chapter in a very large book. Most of the book is very positive and uplifting, encouraging non-believers to enjoy the Christmas season the way most believers do: with decorations, big meals, gift giving, and gatherings of friends and family members.

The book makes it clear that you don’t need to believe in God or religious doctrines to enjoy a holiday that just happens to coincide with the winter solstice. (Not exactly a coincidence, but try to explain that to a believer.) It also offers plenty of helpful tips and advice for getting along with believers during a holiday that may have some serious religious significance to them.

I’m about halfway through the book — although I do admit that I began reading by using the interactive table of contents to pick and choose among the essays I wanted to read first. While some chapters are better than others as far as their relevance to my personal thoughts about Christmas, I’m certain that any atheist would find something of value in its pages. Likewise, I don’t think any believers would be offended by its contents. As the book’s introduction states, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is an “atheist book it’s safe to leave around your granny.” Indeed, I’m certain that even believers would find a lot of content in this book to help make their Christmas celebrations more enjoyable — without threatening their beliefs.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was edited by Ariane Sherine and published by Friday Books. All book royalties are donated to charity — how’s that for the spirit of Christmas giving?

What’s More Important: Your Beliefs or Your Follower Count?

Should you really be worried about losing followers for voicing your opinion on blogs and social networks?

About two weeks ago, I linked to a story on titled “Redefining Empathy in Light of web’s Long Memory.” The basis of the story is the sad fact that people have been losing their jobs or having old personal information resurface publicly because of information posted on the Web. This information isn’t usually damaging when looked at objectively, but when taken out of context or examined through magnifying glasses wielded by small-minded people, they can be embarrassing — or in one instance covered in the story, ruin someone’s life.

I linked to the story on Twitter because a very close Twitter friend, who is new to social networking, had been making foolish comments on Twitter and Facebook — comments far more likely to get her in trouble than the examples in the story. But it was another Twitter friend who replied:

That article is a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online. I’ve had followers drop me for posting religious

The tweet was cut off by Twitter’s 140-character minimum, but you can end it with the word “views” or “articles” and you’ll get the gist of what he was saying.

Indeed, I know exactly what he means. Although he and I share general religious views — that is, we’re non-believers — he had a tendency to link to the more radically inspired content online, content that could be seen as seriously offensive by believers. (Hell, some of it even offended me to the point that I stopped following his links.) While it’s one thing to read and link to logic-based arguments against religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it’s quite another to read and link to “radical atheist” content. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe and here’s why;” it’s another to say “You’re a moron for believing.”

I did notice that he’d stopped tweeting so many of those links, but it wasn’t until his response above that I realized why.

And this got me thinking about something else: why we blog or participate in social networks.

Does Follower Count Matter?

Follower count is never something that concerned me — especially on Twitter. The vast majority of people on Twitter don’t actively participate. How can they when some of them are following hundreds or thousands of people? Twitter would become a full-time job if you actually read the tweets of more than 100-200 people.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’ve never followed more than 140 people at a time and am constantly dropping noisemakers in favor of thought-provokers. I actually read the tweets in my timeline. You can read more about my thoughts on the follower count game in “Twitter is NOT a Popularity Contest.”)

So if so few followers actually read and respond to what you say, the overall value of followers is diminished. You’re not networking when the communication is ignored. That leaves me to wonder why people should actually care about how many followers they have.

After all, it’s not the quantity of your followers, it’s the quality. I’d rather have just 10 followers who interact with me daily than 5,000 followers who seem to ignore everything I say. It’s the networking aspect of Twitter that attracts me.

Should Your Social Networking Activities be a Lie?

So that brings up the more serious ramifications of my Twitter friend’s tweet: changing what he tweets to preserve follower count. Even though he reads radical atheist content and obviously feels strongly about it — strong enough to share it, anyway — he stopped sharing it because he doesn’t want to lose followers.

“…a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online…” are his exact words. But I’ll argue this: if your political or religious views are important to you, why should you hide them? They are part of your personal makeup — they’re what make you who you are. To pretend that they’re not is akin to lying about who you are.

To omit them from your social networking activities will prevent you from finding other people who share the same views you have. And isn’t that why we participate in social networks? To meet and interact with people who share similar views?

The Special Case of Bloggers

Bloggers, of course, face this dilemma in a much more magnified way. Our blog posts aren’t limited to 140 characters a pop. We can go on and on about any topic we like, linking to content, quoting content, opining on the values of that content. We can make complex arguments for or against anything we like. Or we can simply share a link and let our readers do their own homework, forming their own opinions about a topic without help from us.

Either way, the blog post is out there and it stays out there. It’s not 140 characters that flit through the Twitter timelines of the people who follow us, disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. It’s out there, archived, accessible, searchable. There are comments associated with it, RSS feeds that direct to it, other blogs (and even feed-scraped sploggs) that link to it.

Should bloggers be concerned about sharing their opinions on controversial topics such as politics and religion?

It all depends on what they’re trying to achieve with their blogs. If their blogs exist to voice opinions on these topics, being shy would defeat their purpose. If their blogs exist as a personal journal of what’s going on in their lives and minds (like mine does for me), hiding their thoughts about these things — especially when these things are important to them — would be akin to putting up a false front to their readers — and betraying themselves. But if their blogs are intended to showcase a product or service or way of life, adding their opinions on non-related controversial topics is probably not a good idea.

The Importance of Being True to Yourself

And then there are people like me: people who have non-mainstream opinions but, because of their work, should probably present a mainstream face to the public. I’m sure there are a lot of us out there, but it was only recently that I found someone with a situation so similar to mine that I took great comfort in his blog’s existence. (I’m referring to Ted Landau‘s Slanted Viewpoint.)

While I don’t consider my opinions extreme, I know they’re not mainstream. They are shared by quite a few people, but usually not the outspoken ones you see on television. (It’s ironic to me that the “conservatives” are the loudest, most outspoken Americans; what’s that about?) Still, when I write a blog post voicing my opinions about something like religion or politics, I get a lot of nasty, hateful feedback from readers who seem to have gone out of their way to visit my blog and blast me. The most obvious example, which amazes me to this day, is the outrage of “Christians” over my post, “The Bible in the Refrigerator.” These people got so abusive in comments that I had to shut the comments down. (And don’t bother entering a comment about that post here; it won’t appear.)

So what do I do? Betray myself by pretending not to be outraged by the stupidity and ignorance I see in today’s world — just to make the mainstream happy? Pretend that I’m not offended by having someone else’s religion thrust on me every day of my life? Pretend that I’m content with a political system rendered ineffective by partisanship bullshit?

Does the world really need yet another middle-of-the road blogger? I don’t think so.

But what’s more important is this: Do I pretend I’m someone I’m not just to maximize the appeal of my blog to readers? Do I sell myself out just to give all the “fans” of my books a warm and cuddly feeling about me?

The answer, of course, is no. Because just like Twitter follower count, the number of blog readers or subscribers is meaningless to me. What matters is the quality of the readers, not the quantity. I want my blog read by people who are smart, people who can think, people who can comment with their opinions — whether they agree or disagree — in a clear, unoffensive way that furthers the discussion and makes me — and other readers — think.

So I’ll put that question to everyone who participates in social networking: What’s more important, your beliefs or your follower count?

Highest Duty

A book review.

Highest DutyLast night, I stayed up late to finish reading Highest Duty by US Airways pilot Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger. Captain Sullenberger was the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed with no loss of life in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.

I’d been wanting to read the book for a while but I kept putting it off. I wanted it to be my first purchased ebook experience. I was supposed to get a Nook for Christmas, but the idiots at Barnes & Noble were completely clueless about customer service and timely order fulfillment, so I canceled the order. I wound up with an iPad in April. After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of ebook reader software — iBooks, Kindle Reader, and B&N Reader — I decided to go with the Kindle software and ordered the Kindle edition of the book from From what I hear from Twitter friends, the iPad makes a better “Kindle” than Amazon’s Kindle.

On Heroes

I’ve always been intrigued by Captain Sullenberger’s modesty and apparent reluctance to bask in the limelight of his extraordinary experience. People call him a hero but he [rightly] refuses that title. He quotes from a letter he received after his Hudson River landing: “I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice.”

I agree with this definition of a hero. Captain Sullenberger did what he had to do and was fortunate enough to have the knowledge, experience, demeanor, and team to carry it off successfully. His love and respect of life — including, of course, his own — is what motivated him to do everything he could to succeed.

In many ways, that’s better than being a hero. When a terrible situation was thrust upon him by circumstances he could not change, he rose to the occasion and emerged victorious, saving the lives of 105 people. Along the way, he gave the rest of us hope — after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in the midst of a serious economic recession, with wars going on in the Mideast — he showed us what people can accomplish when put to the test. He gave us the happy ending we all needed.

It Wasn’t a “Miracle”

Another thing that intrigued — and, I’ll admit, pleased — me about Captain Sullenberger was his failure to credit his success to the intervention of some supernatural being. I’m talking about God.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing famous athletes and celebrities and just plain people thank God for something good happening to them. Scored a record number of goals in a basketball game? Thank God! Won a Grammy? Praise Jesus! Tornado took out the house next to yours but left yours unscathed? God was watching out for you!

It makes me sick. People don’t want to give themselves credit where credit is due. They work hard, they train, they practice, but they give God credit for getting the ball through the hoop. They learn music, they practice singing, they get a great producer who helps package their material, but they give Jesus credit for winning that Grammy. They don’t want to admit that luck has a place in our lives — good luck preserves one house while bad luck takes the one next door away. What of the people who lost the basketball game or the Grammy or their home? Did God simply not like them as much? And what about when these winners get their own dose of bad luck — injury, illness, scandal, death? Did God change his mind about them?

Captain Sullenberger, however, did not thank God or any other supernatural being for the positive outcome of his Hudson landing. At least I didn’t hear him do so in any article, interview, or elsewhere. I wanted to read the book to be sure that he didn’t thank God within its pages. He didn’t.

And that just makes me respect him even more.

The Story

The book mingles autobiographical material with events from the day of the landing. The autobiographical material was presented in a roughly chronological order, but did bounce around a lot with side stories, including references to the Hudson landing. I’m not sure that was the best approach, but it did keep me reading.

Captain Sullenberger is clearly a true pilot. He entered aviation because of his love of flying. From his start as a teen, he took aviation seriously, learning what he could to be a better, safer pilot. He understands the importance of knowing an aircraft’s systems inside and out. He understands the value of studying past accidents to prevent future ones. He also understands that all the things that happen in our lives define who we are and how we will react in a given situation.

Flight 1549 from Wikipedia

This iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River by GregL originally uploaded to Flickr can be found on Wikipedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

A detailed discussion of the events of January 15, 2009 begin about 60% through the book. The story is riveting. He combines his narrative of what happened with references to his past that he believes influenced him to make certain decisions. For example, his knowledge of research into why military pilots sometimes ejected too late is part of why he decided not to worry about saving the airplane by attempting an airport landing and instead concentrate on saving the people by landing in the river. (There’s a lot more to his decision than that; this is just part of what went into it.)

Throughout this part of the book are bits and pieces of the cockpit transcript, recorded by microphones during the flight — the so-called “black box” data. Even though I knew how it would end — don’t we all? — I found the details fascinating. It was a great example of teamwork between Captain Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles. Later in the narrative, it was clear that the flight attendants were also part of the team, helping passengers off the plane in as orderly a manner as possible.

The aftermath of the experience also made interesting reading. Getting an inside look at the mail Captain Sullenberger received from people on the plane — as well as many people who had no direct connection to the flight or its passengers at all — revealed the psychology of people. I’m not the only one who appreciated the happy ending to that seemingly doomed flight.

The Soapbox

One of the complaints people have had about the book is the soapbox aspect. Captain Sullenberger believes that airline pilots are not treated as well as they should be by their employers considering the hours and responsibilities of their work. He believes that pay cuts and pension cuts are making it ever more difficult to attract and retain quality pilots who actually care about their work. He suggests that airline pilots are like bus drivers of the sky.

Although I don’t have intimate knowledge of the airline industry, as a professional pilot who has worked for a large tour operator, I know exactly what he means. Aviation employers don’t care how good a pilot is. As long as the pilot meets insurance requirements and can do the job, all that matters is how much that pilot costs. In my experience, many employers would rather hire a cheap, entry level pilot than a seasoned professional who costs more. They don’t see the benefit of the experience. They’re gambling, of course, on the equipment and circumstances of flight — when something goes wrong, will the entry level pilot have the experience and knowledge to bring the aircraft and passengers back safely?

In the airline industry, pilots are locked into their employers for seniority. If they leave one airline, they lose all seniority and start at the bottom at their new employer. This prevents experienced pilots from looking for better jobs. It stagnates the employee pool. And although Captain Sullenberger didn’t mention this, it prevents good ideas from one airline from migrating to another.

Captain Sullenberger does discuss how many airline employees have simply stopped caring about anything other than what’s in their job description. As budget cuts reduce non-essential staff, customer service suffers. Captain Sullenberger talks about his personal experiences going the “extra mile” to help passengers who can’t get the help they need from other airline employees. He talks about how most airline employees are simply tired of doing other people’s jobs. He doesn’t blame them — he hints that they’re underpaid for what they’re supposed to do — but he does decry the system that results in this poor attitude.

He also believes that budget cuts have the potential to reduce safety. A good example of this is the emergency procedures book that his first officer needed to consult on the loss of both engines. In the past, the book had numbered tabs that made it easier to find content. The airline, in a cost-cutting measure, had stopped including the tabs, making it necessary to thumb through the book and look at individual page headings to find content. In the slightly more than three minutes the cockpit crew had to land the plane without engines, every second was valuable. Yes, this flight had a happy ending — but could other flights be lost due to cost cutting measures like this? It certainly makes you wonder.

My feelings about Captain Sullenberger’s soapbox are mixed. I didn’t like reading his complaints, but, at the same time, I knew they were valid. And I know that his experience and the interviews, articles, and books that come from it are the perfect way to get the message out.

While Captain Sullenberger was careful not to criticize his airline, it’s clear that US Airways is just as bad as the others when it comes to matters of pilot compensation and cost-cutting. Perhaps his insight will help make the situation better?

Sadly, it probably won’t.

Thumbs Up

In all, I give the book two thumbs up. While it’s especially good reading for pilots and others interested in aviation, I also think it makes a good guide for young people who want to make something of their lives. And for the rest of the world, it’s a great look at one of the most amazing emergency landings we’ll likely ever see.