Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dinotopia, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It is human nature to look for patterns and to assign them meaning when we find them. . . . 

Researchers concluded that "people have a very poor conception of randomness; they do not recognize it when they see it and they cannot produce it when they try," and what's worse, we routinely misjudge the role of chance in our lives and make decisions that are demonstrably misaligned with our own best interests. 

So explains Leonard Mlodinow in the chapter titled "Illusions of Patterns and Patterns of Illusion," in his book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (p. 174).

While I'm sure that's true, it is also true that my summer has been all about dinosaurs.  Truly.  I mean, there is no way the proliferation of dinosaurs is just completely random or the result of pattern seeking on my part so that I might concoct a semi-coherent blog post across several different topics.  There is just too much dino going on to chalk it up to chance or manipulation.  Here, let me show you what I'm talking about:

1.  Minne, the Lake Monster

According to Google Maps, I live just 3.7 miles from downtown Minneapolis.  If you had a jet pack on your back and were able to blast yourself straight up into the sky directly above my house -- well, first off I would think you were pretty cool if you could actually do that, but then, assuming that you safely returned to the ground without incinerating my house down to the studs in a conflagration caused by the searing contrail of your afterburners, I would inquire as to where you got the aforesaid jet pack and what on earth possessed you to try it out directly above my house -- you would see Target Field and the Walker Art Center backed by the Minneapolis skyline all just on the other side of a small forest, right down the road from my house.  While such proximity to an urban core might conjure images of  skyscrapers and neon signs, blaring horns and pavement, it does not ordinarily evoke images such as these:

And yet, every morning on my way to work, and every evening on my way home from work, I drive by Minne, the lake monster.  Minne is an initiative of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and this year she is hangin' in the lake that sits between my house and the metropolis next door.  Having initially gasped and squealed with delight upon spying Minne for the first time in early June, my love of her has not faded.  I have not tired of her daily and steadfast presence.  To the contrary, we've got a sort of telepathic fist bump thing going every time I pass by.  True, this may exist only in my mind, but Minne knows I'm down with her.  She sees my subtle, up-tilted chin salutes and I see her wink at me when no one is looking.  Sometimes, absorbed in thought about what the work day holds in store or what it has already dished out, I'll glimpse a strange silhouette in my peripheral vision and turn in anxious surprise, only to find that cheeky little dinosaur sneaking up on me.  She never fails to summon a smile.

It's all still fresh and new and rosy with Minne and me even late into August.  I wish she would stay in my little neighborhood lake forever.  But such is not our fate.  She's bound to roam and circulate amongst the citizenry within the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and perform her dino duties.  In a month or so, she'll be gone.  Back to the road life and peripatetic existence of a public works dinosaur.  On to other people and other neighborhoods.  Other lakes.  Sure, I can follow her on Facebook ("Lake Creature") or on Twitter (@lakecreature), but it won't ever be quite the same.  Perhaps, if I stay put long enough, Minne will  rotate back around again to Wirth Lake, but who knows when that will be and whether we'll survive the long-distance challenges to our relationship. The end of summer always breaks my heart  just a little, but this year, well, it feels like my heart might just go extinct at the end of September. 

2.  Ty Ragnarsaurus Rex

Perhaps you are heartless and unmoved by daily dino love.  Driving past the same beguiling dinosaur to and from work all summer doesn't impress you.  "Show me the dinosaurs," you say.  "One little lake creature does not a summer of extinct reptiles make."  Fine.  That's not all the dino I have.  

You may recall that last February I mentioned in this very blog space about how I wanted to run the Ragnar Great River Relay in August.  I was hoping that 11 people that I already knew would appear before me with two vans already procured and request -- nay, beg -- that I join their team and thereby render them complete.  When mid-June rolled around, however, and I found myself still sitting in a folding chair on the edge of the dance floor with the first notes of Stairway to Heaven signaling the end of the sock hop, I realized it was time to get my Sadie Hawkins on.  So, I created an account and profile on the Ragnar website and clicked the link labeled "Runner Looking for Team."  And then I spritzed on the charm.  I posted on the Facebook page and responded to teams looking to fill an empty or abandoned spot, only to find that I wasn't fast enough on the draw.  Or maybe my hair wasn't quite right.  It's hard to know.  But then, I got an inquiry, which produced an invitation and culminated in a spot on a team.  A real, live, honest to goodness Ragnar Relay team -- just one that happened to be composed entirely of people I had never met and knew nothing about.  No matter.  When you are looking to get out on the dance floor and kick up your heels, any partner will do.

So, I got my slot (runner #8) and conversed with our team captain by email.  But, as I knew would be the case, my faith in the Ragnar Nation was fully justified.  Because you can deduce two things, at least, from the existence and success of the Ragnar Relay series and its participants: (1) anyone who self selects to pay money for the privilege of foregoing sleep and running around through cornfields in the middle of the night while hopping in and out of a van full of stinky people is just a little bit off, but (2) they are off in the best, all-embracing, experience-loving, would-you-mind-passing-me-the-potato-chips-and-the-Advil kind of way.

And the team I hooked-up with? Team Ty Ragnarsaurus Rex.  That's right.  A bunch of dino-loving Ragnarians.

When I pulled-up in the van on the morning of day one, I got to meet five people I had never seen or spoken to before, but whose names I had seen on our team list --Adam, Pete, Christina, Jordan and Jason -- and then drive all of us two hours south to rural Wisconsin.  Apparently, even quirky Ragnarians need mother figures, and when you are (a) the person who rented the van, (b) the only parent in the group, and (c) the, ahem, senior member of the group (by a significant margin, I might add) you become the troop leader by default, order of the throne, and overwhelming force of nature.  So, the first few hours of my first Ragnar experience looked like this:

But then, after check-in, safety briefing, van embellishment and road trip bonding, it looked like this:

And so, van #2 (that's us with runners 7-12, while our comrade runners 1-6 occupied T-Rex van #1) was ready to hit the road.  My first leg began at Exchange 7, and was a hilly, five mile stint through the Wisconsin countryside.  Here I am still rested and sane and before any permanent damage had been done:

But of course, if you are Team Ty Ragnarsaurus Rex, there is a certain baseline expectation of dinosaur-ness which you are responsible to uphold.  Thankfully, my teammates had this covered:

But the best scenery of all was most often absent of dinosaur sightings altogether:

Of course, beautiful days and clean, well-organized vans have a way of slipping through your fingers while you're reaching for the communal tube of Ben Gay.  Before you realize it, you have nearly entombed yourselves in gear and assorted, running-related detritus and the wide open spaces present themselves as decidedly less wide open:

After enduring a sleepless night and knocking-out your second leg under the cover of darkness with a headlamp strapped around your increasingly foggy and fatigued noggin and a red blinky light clipped to your back so as not to become runner roadkill, you are rewarded with breathtaking early light and a Ragnar-style rest stop:

(Here I note that, though my teammates slept immediately and well during the 1 1/2 hours available for sleep from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m., as the designated alarm setter and texter with van #1, I did not, though it was lovely just to lie down and stretch out my increasingly dysfunctional legs in a place that was not the van.  And it did, too, get cold at night.  Shut up that it was August.)

So, then, it's on to the last set of legs in the relay, where van #2 brings it home and across the finish line, roughly 30 hours after van #1 started.  This is the point at which this whole endeavor reveals itself, rather startlingly, as actually a terrible idea gone very wrong.  The litany of ailments and complaints is long and justified.  You are tired, hungry, sore, stiff, smelly, cold, in need of coffee but afraid to drink it and, worst of all, your cell phone is dead and must wait in line with the other cell phones for charging time on the adapter plugged into the cigarette lighter in the dashboard.

But this is your Rocky moment.  This is where a shrewd teammate summons "Eye of the Tiger" and cranks the volume as you navigate your way through the now urban environment towards each successive leg.  For my part, I donned a dino hat (alas, there are no photos due to the aforementioned dead cell phone), ordered my legs to stand down from their mutiny and ran the most painful, unpleasant, non-scenic, frontage-road loaded three miles of my life -- only to hit the relay shoot for the slap-bracelet hand-off and discover that my team was not there.  In their groggy delirium, they had gotten confused as to which exchange I would end at and had mistakenly driven ahead to the next exchange.  The one I was not at.

'Team 246!  Team 246!!  246!!  2-4-6!!!" the race staffers and I called out in desperation, but to no avail.

Fifty minutes later, they retrieved me with abundant apologies.

But no worries.  I was done and I had done it.  I ran my legs and my legs ran me through 5.2 miles of country hills, then 9.4 miles of starry-nighted wonder from 1:20 to 2:41 a.m. and finally, 3.1 miles of complete crap.  17.7 miles in all and I wouldn't throw any of them back.

So, as each of us summoned our inner dinosaur and busted out our last legs, we inched closer and closer to the finish line at East River Flats, where our fans were waiting to greet us:

So thank you, Ragnar Nation, for your hospitality.  I will most definitely be back next year with as much dino as I can stuff into a minivan.

3.  A Terrible Lizard

Perhaps even two significant yet radically different dinosaur encounters are not enough to convince you that dinosaurs were all over my summer and, therefore, trying to tell me something.  O.k.  I see your skepticism and raise you Representative Todd Akin (R - MO).,126,2750,1749/Todd-Akin-Republican-candidate.jpg

Talk about a dinosaur.  This is no Minne or Ty Ragnarsaurus Rex, folks.  This one is the real deal.  Mr. Akin clearly crawled straight out of the primordial muck and sludge of the Jurassic era (skipping all of the glorious, intervening evolution during the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods) when he opined recently that in cases of "legitimate rape" women will not become pregnant because the "female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down."

Here, it seems appropriate to turn to the alternative, less utilized meaning of "dinotopia."  Rather than a magical, utopian world where dinosaurs and people coexist in Disney-esque harmony, the greek word dinotopia means "terrible place" or "land of suffering."  This is most certainly the place that Mr. Akin comes from and into which he would have all of us go if his worldview were to prevail.  Although it is easy to shriek and holler about "legitimate rape" and abortion and whether an elderly white man has uncovered previously unknown biological superpowers that repel only and especially rape sperm, that is all a sideshow.  No matter how you feel about rape and sexuality and abortion, you cannot get to the policy position that Mr. Akin has adopted -- that of claiming expertise on the subject of rape, pregnancy and abortion -- unless you believe that male judgment and experience is categorically superior to female judgment and experience and that women's bodies are not fully theirs to manage.  After all, Mr. Akin will never be subject to the risk of pregnancy by rape.  He is not advocating for his personal, biological interests. He's just offering us his wise and informed expertise in these matters, which should, of course, be adopted as national law and applied to those who are at risk of pregnancy by rape.

So let's compare our resumes, Mr. Akin's and mine, and see where all that expertise comes from:

Robin Preble

*Born female.
*Direct, managerial and supervisory experience with female anatomy, including menstruation, sexual activity and use of birth control.
* Successfully oversaw Pregnancy Project #1 (1999-2000) resulting in birth of a daughter after 21 hours of labor, followed by extended lactation, infant care and associated permanent and irrevocable remodeling of maternal body.
* Successfully oversaw Pregnancy Project #2 (2002-2003) resulting in birth of second daughter after 11 hours of labor, followed by extended lactation (including in a certain court house in Oakland, California and on the New Jersey turnpike), infant care, and further permanent and irrevocable remodeling of the maternal body.
* Regular procurement of annual gynecological exams including pap smears from accredited medical providers trained in obstetrics and gynecology who provide extensive information and guidance in the area of female health.
* Nearly 30 years experience managing fear of rape and executing rape avoidance measures.

Todd Akin

* Born male.
* Elected to Congress.
* Knows some women.
* Spoke to some doctors about rape.
* Goes to church.

Hmm.  I don't like to bash other people's credentials and training.  I mean, we're all students of life in one way or another, but, um, doesn't his resume seem a little thin to you?  Admittedly, he does have me on the male thing and the Congress thing and the going to church thing, but I guess I'm just not seeing the uterine management experience I was expecting or that I think the position of Uterus Tzar really requires.

In fact, now that I think about it, when I look around at who does have that experience and core competencies, well . . . if I were inclined to handpick a bunch of facts from which to deduce patterns and manifestations of divine intent as support for my fragile worldview, well, it kind of seems to me that if God had intended men to be in charge of a uterus, he would have given them one, right?  I mean, just looking at the plain fact that women have them and men don't, it seems pretty clear that God was sending a message here, you know, the way we know that God is against homosexuality because he created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.  So, it just seems to me that God has spoken here and given a uterus to, you know, the ones he can really trust with that level of responsibility.

But don't fret, Mr. Akin.  God never gives us more than we can handle, right?  So I'm sure if you pray a lot and be extra, extra good, God might let you have a uterus of your own when you get to heaven.  It's just your burden to bear while on earth that God didn't see fit to give you one.  I'm sure you'll find a way through your grief.

Then again,  I like to consider all sides of an issue, and I hear your concern about not wanting to take any chances.  I mean, God is great and all that, but to your point maybe he needs our help with uterine oversight and baby making.  Never mind about that thing with Mary where he seemed to have it down pretty good.  That was a long time ago and even divine hardware is bound to flag every now and then.  So, if we want to be extra cautious, then we should do as you advocate and plant a government flag in every uterus and declare them state property.  We could regulate them through a central agency, sort of like national parks or endangered wetlands.

But the more I think about it, I'm concerned that doesn't go far enough to really accomplish our objectives.  I mean, if we're protecting babies for God then we need to address both sides of the equation, so to speak.  We can't have every Tom, Dick and Harry putting their dicks in the hairy holy land, as it were.  No.  That won't do.  I'm thinking sex licensing and accreditation combined with a fair and balanced program of castration is what we need here.

Young men wouldn't just automatically get to drive their penises all around town and into the nation's sacred uteri.  That's just too risky and not the responsible way to manage our precious national resources.  No.  We would need to have every young man who reaches sexual maturity come to a government office to be fitted with an anti-sex belt with 4G wireless monitoring capability.  Think of it as the next generation of Lindsay Lohan's ankle bracelet.  Those who successfully complete the mandatory 10-year waiting period without incident would be allowed to select a wife and could look forward to the removal of the sex belt on their wedding night.

Of course violators would need to meet with severe punishment.  Wanton dispersal of sperm and breaking and entering into a uterus without state approval would be severely frowned upon.  It seems to me, the only way to be certain that we are safeguarding future generations appropriately is to require castration of any offenders.  I mean, we just can't be allowing those kinds of bad genes to keep circulating when we're acting as proxies for God.

But you know, now that I step back and think about all this, as admirable and pure and beyond challenge as this program would certainly be, it seems to me it would require a lot of complex process and administrative oversight, not to mention significant capital investment.  (Those 4G sex belts won't be cheap even if we do source them from China.)  And if there is one thing as sacred, if not more sacred, than the legal status of women, their uteri and any nub of cells that might exist therein, it's the American dollar and the need to ensure that we preserve as many of them as possible for shopping sprees at the mall.

So, Mr. Akin, I hate to do this to you, but I think I'm with the big guy on this one.  It's just simpler that way and pretty hard to ignore the fact that God already decided who should get a uterus.  So, I guess what it comes down to is this: this uterus is mine and you can't have it.  God said so.


So there you have it, my friend.  My summer of dinosaurs.  If that's not a pattern for you, I don't know what is.  As for what it means, I think that's pretty clear: the only place for dinosaurs in the modern world is for fun and games.  The real ones are properly left in the past.