Risk, Probability, Mortality

There is a trope that we fall back on when we seek justification for choices that might otherwise be odd, or even dangerous. “You can get hit by bus crossing the street,” the cliche goes, implying that the thing that feels familiar, normal and safe won’t necessarily ensure your security more that the thing that’s unusual, abnormal and risky.

And so it is that my experiences on a recent day can be summed up in two pictures:

One photo shows a car that crashed into a coffee shop where I had been logging long hours studying. The next photo, taken two hours later, shows a skydiver falling toward farm fields.

Allow me to explain.

I got to the coffee shop on a Friday morning around 8 a.m., telling myself that on that day I needed to focus. The previous day, Thursday, began with intentions to study and read, taking only short breaks to stretch, eat and check the news. But like every American (it seems), my day was obliterated from the moment I checked in on the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. For the rest of the day — nine straight hours — I could not stop listening on the radio, watching on television, listening to a live stream on my phone, watching online. I moved through the day changing locations, occasionally multitasking; but the raw emotion of both his and her testimony was impossible to shut off, and the totally inadequate response of our paralyzed political processes stoked even more emotions. The day was exhausting; it sucked the air out of the room, and the time out of my schedule. I went to sleep thinking, fine. This horrible, historic day deserved the attention I gave it. But tomorrow— tomorrow I’ll get back to work.

And so on Friday morning I sat down at table near the big plate windows at Scout coffee shop and started to review my notes on a subject that’s vexed me: statistics and probability. It’s unlikely that I’ll need to answer a lot of questions on this topic, but the practice questions I had encountered were just beyond my basic knowledge. What are the chances of rolling a ‘three’ on a evenly weighted six-sided die? Easy. What is the mostly likely sum of two dice on any given roll? Slightly harder. (Seven, just FYI.) What are the chances that a car is about plow through the window into the spot where you are sitting?

Turns out, on that day, 100 percent.

So I was studying statistics. I was considering probability. And then I started taking a sample test, and it was not going well. I gave in easily to the light, seductive ‘ding’ of arriving text messages, and learned that my friend Jess is going skydiving that day at noon. She has thought about this years, planned to do it for sure THIS YEAR, and the drop zone in Vermont was staring down the final days of its season. That day was the day.

My thought pattern switched instantaneously from disciplined, stationary study-mode to HECK YES, LET’S GO SKYDIVING. Just the idea of it seemed to power wash the layers of ick from the day before, and the fog and slog of studying on the day after. The last year has clarified for me that I want one or both of two things: contact with foreign countries, and adventure. And sitting in a coffee shop in Vermont wasn’t hitting either mark. 

It would take an hour to drive to the grass air strip in the middle of farm fields where we would sky dive. I could commit to studying a bit longer, then swing home to change clothes, and hit the road. Just at 11 a.m., I packed up my books, scanned my empty table to make sure I was leaving nothing behind, and walked out to my car. I drove a short distance up North Avenue to the house where I’m staying, hugged my cat, changed my shoes, and drove back down North Ave to head out of town.

Jess is one of those ‘if you’re not early you’re late’ kind of people, and so I was a little worried when the traffic on North Ave was stopped. Two cars ahead of me, I could see people gathering on the sidewalk, and police organizing themselves. The driver behind me had a line of sight that I didn’t and I could see the look of shock on her face as she pointed to something I couldn’t see. I got out to ask a cop, should the traffic just turn around, or— ?

And then I saw it. The rear end of a sedan, the gashes across the short lawn between the street and the coffee shop, the smashed wall of windows, and the front end of the car sitting roughly where I had been sitting eight minutes earlier.

What is the probability of that?

This is an equation that requires calculating several independent events. What are the chances that a man driving down the street has a heart attack and crashes into a coffee shop? What are the chances that Jess decides to go skydiving that day? What are the chances that I abandon my plans and decide to go with her, at precisely the time when that car was nearing my location?

What are the chances of that?

Exactly a month ago, I was on a ship in the Arctic that ran aground. After we were rescued, a coworker I didn’t know well asked me, why had I wanted to work in the Arctic? “Adventure,” I told him. “Well, you got that,” he answered dryly. As I packed up my books from the table that day, I was thinking to myself, life is all about choices. Responsible choices, daring choices. That morning, I chose to set aside all the “I should” inertia and completely change the trajectory of the day. Why was I doing this? Adventure. And a chance to shake off - literally and figuratively - so many corrosive thoughts and emotions.

I’m aware that sky-diving seems like a risky or even dangerous idea to some; I didn’t feel that way when Jess suggested it. I had done it before, years ago, and loved it, and always wanted to go again. But I agree that when presented with the question, which activity is more likely to be dangerous: sitting in a coffee shop, or skydiving? that the most likely answer, the one with the highest probability, is obvious. But on this particular day, that answer would be incorrect. What are the chances that skydiving would be the least dangerous choice I would make that day?

It’s not entirely a stretch, in fact, to say that skydiving, or Jess’s suggestion of it, saved my life. At the least it saved me from being severely maimed.

I do not dwell much on cosmic coincidences, nor I do believe everything happens for a reason, or that things are meant to be, or that someone is looking out for me. But I drove across the Vermont countryside knowing unmistakably that the impetuous, adventure-seeking choice I made that day saved me from the horrible consequences that would have come from continuing my mundane morning.

I drove to the skydiving drop zone full of adrenaline that morphed into affirmation as I took in the small airfield. Planes stay aloft in the sky. Parachutes open. Freefall is a controlled experiment in physics. All of this seemed incredibly obvious and safe and certain. As I signed away all my rights in a long legal contract, an experienced skydiver strolled through the office, his jumpsuit unzipped to the waist, revealing the back of his t-shirt:

“What could go wrong?” Indeed, what are the chances.

Vermont City Marathon, The Best Weekend of the Year

IMG_6715.JPG

Ah, marathon weekend. In the many years since I ran my first race at Vermont City Marathon, my feelings for this weekend have morphed and evolved but always remained strong. That first year was an egocentric maelstrom of doubt and triumph. The next year, a slow but joyful victory lap. In the years since, I’ve run on relay teams with friends through heat and near-disaster, and through incredible joy and celebration. Over time, my focus has shifted away from fixating on how I’ll perform in the race itself, to embracing the whole weekend as massive festival of all the things and people that I love best about Vermont. So when race weekend is already a bubble of unblemished happiness, how could it get better?

Enter Meb.

The Meb, THAT Meb. The one and only Mebrahtom Keflezighi.

He of the slight frame and swift feet. He of the storied comebacks from injury, winner of Boston, of New York City and of an Olympic medal. He who inspires fans and competitors alike to be better runners, to be better people.

At this year’s VCM, Meb was the star attraction, the race ambassador, the invited guest. And I was his star-eyed, gobsmacked chauffeur. It is a miracle I didn’t crash the car in the dopamine haze of being in his reflected glory all weekend.

IMG_6893.JPG


There is a risk when one allows oneself the vulnerability of idolizing a hero. No one is perfect, and too many who live in the spotlight disappoint us when their venality and true disposition seep through the cracks. And really, even the good guys don’t deserve the pressure of being perfect, of never putting a foot wrong. It’s unfair to ask and the resulting letdown is predictable.

And yet I emerged from three days with Meb with my idealism intact. His schedule at VCM was no joke: hours of public appearances, thousands of handshakes and high fives and crowds of people clamoring for his attention, for a few seconds to build into a lifelong memory of that time I met Meb -- remember?

I watched him captivate an auditorium full of people with his story of escaping Eritrea and becoming a professional runner; he transformed even the distracted little kids and too cool adults into slack-jawed fans. I watched runners who should have been resting their feet before a marathon wait an hour in line for his signature and a good luck hug. I watched runners cross the finish line wasted by their effort but who suddenly revived at the sight of Meb standing there congratulating them on the race. I watched the energy radiating from him as he gave focused attention to each person. Quick with a smile and joke, full of respect, gratitude and joy.

It wasn’t an act. He’s the real deal.

And as he readily points out, it’s not a one-man effort. Meb was accompanied by his manager John, and I was working with another ultra-awesome VCM volunteer, Chris. And all of this was held together by the unmatched talents of Jess Cover, marketing manager of RunVermont and my friend and running mentor. Marketers, especially those who work for non-profits, will tell you it’s easy to sell a product you believe in. Jess believes in the transformative power of running, and that is so deeply evident in how she communicates with runners and the community about all of RunVermont’s events - especially VCM. Watching the entire RunVermont team pull together this massive enterprise is an awesome sight to behold. Plus, they let me hang with Meb and called it “work.” It is sooo easy to love that team.

Race weekend is a time I always look forward to and it never disappoints, even when the miles are tough or weather is terrible. The friendships and community I’ve formed through running are a constant source of joy and encouragement. But this particular race weekend was even more memorable thanks to the special vantage point I was given.

[Vermont City Marathon: May 25-27, 2018]

 

One Day Without Plastic, An Experiment

 Darn you, delicious cold drinks! Plastic bag of ice, held closed with a plastic clip.

Darn you, delicious cold drinks! Plastic bag of ice, held closed with a plastic clip.

I have been traveling in countries where the problem of plastic waste is much more visible than it is in the U.S. Here, we put our throw-away plastic in recycling bins and walk away from it, literally and figuratively. But in many countries, the real impact of trash plastic is unavoidable: you see it everywhere. Plastic floats across open expanses of the Sahara desert outside Ourzazate; it chokes the culverts around Ho Chi Minh City; it sits in festering piles on the streets of Kathmandu. The water and soda bottles, the plastic packaging we take off of every product we buy -- it has a lifespan we can't imagine and it's all just piling up.

So when National Geographic launched its multi-year Planet or Plastic? project with its June issue, I was in. All in.

Yesterday, as I traveled around Vermont for an easy but busy day of reunions with friends, I tried to avoid single-use disposable plastic. There were some obvious things I knew to look out for (lids on take-away coffee cups, drinking straws) but I was curious what else I would encounter that I'm not usually aware of.

Here's what I noticed:

6:30 a.m. Since I'm traveling, some of my toiletries are in a quart-size Ziploc bag. I've been using the same bag for weeks so it's not single-use, but still. I brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and think, "Not a great start, Daniels."

IMG_4802.jpg

8:05 a.m. Uncommon Grounds in Burlington, Vt. I presented my travel mug for coffee and got a bagel with cream cheese for here, thinking that I would also avoid paper waste. The toasted bagel was given to me on a ceramic plate, and the cream cheese was in a pre-packaged plastic cup. Didn't see that coming.

9:00 a.m. Took an Uber across town to pick up the car a friend is loaning me. He left the keys in a mailbox in a paper envelope. An entire hour without disposable plastic!

10:16 a.m. Grocery store, the worst. Nutrition-oriented people talk about the interior aisles of grocery stores being full of processed foods that they imagine as huge piles of sugar and salt, rather than 'food'. I am starting see the entire grocery store as a temporary warehouse for the plastic that will live forever in landfills. I wanted to buy flowers, lip balm and some kind of cleaning product to detail the interior of my friend's car.

  • I thought this particular store would have buckets of loose cut flowers in addition to the cellophane-wrapped bouquets, but no. I bought the plastic-shrouded flowers anyway because I wanted them as a thank you gift and didn't have time to make another stop. At the checkout, the cashier asked if I wanted a flower bag. A second plastic bag to hold the already plastic-covered flowers.
  • I examined the lip balm choices and debated this trade-off: all but one were in plastic tubes, but the one that was in a small metal tin was shrink-wrapped in plastic. I went for plastic tube of lip balm that was sold in a cardboard sleeve. (The two best choices were both twice as expensive as the worst choice: a plastic tube of Chapstick that was also encased in a plastic packaging.)
  • Next, the cleaning aisle. I took in the neat, endless rows of plastic-bottled cleaning solutions and abandoned that item on the list.
IMG_7063.JPG

12:18 p.m. Drove to Montpelier for lunch with friends, and this went well! We ate in a proper restaurant (JP Morgans), with food on ceramic plates and drinks in glasses. Kudos to the restaurant for not putting straws in the glasses, I didn't even have to ask!

1:30 p.m. Crashed a press conference at the Vermont Statehouse by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Phil Scott. No plastic was used in the reporting of a story on dairy farm aid.

2:10 p.m. Visited a friend for coffee at the National Life insurance headquarters. I brought my travel coffee mug with me, avoiding a carry-out cup with a plastic lid from the cafeteria. The security protocols required me to wear a name tag; at least the plastic card holder gets reused.

3:15 p.m. Met another friend for coffee. (My god, I drink I lot of coffee.) I ordered an iced coffee, requesting it in a glass with no straw. My friend immediately agreed, 'Good point - no straw for me either.' The guy put the coffee in front me accompanied by a plastic straw.

5:00 p.m. Drove back to the Burlington area and met a friend in Winooski for a beer. (Note to self: exactly how much of my daily caloric intake is in beverages?!) Then I ordered a craft ginger beer, because in Vermont people say precious phrases like 'craft ginger beer' without flinching, and requested no straw. "Oh, I saw you posted something about straws," my friend says. "I'm on a mission," I reply.

6:07 p.m. Another friend and I were hosting game night for an really fun mix of people who don't know each other. On my way to her house, she requests that I pick up name tags, ice and bug repellent. Ice and bug repellent left very few options in terms of plastic. I could have purchased the metal spray bottle of bug repellent but I wasn't sure if that container was an equal or worse waste problem to the plastic bottle.

For name tags, I stopped at Staples and was determined to avoid buying the plastic packages of name tags that I knew would be displayed. Instead, I opted for adhesive shipping labels sold in a cardstock paper envelope, nearly three times as expensive. Bonus, I noticed that Staples sells a cardboard package of cleaning wipes for car interiors, so resurrected my morning idea of cleaning my friend's car. (Bonus negated: the wipes are of course in a plastic pouch, and the cardboard packaging is doubly superfluous waste.) I also bought a pad of paper for score keeping, noticing only one option wasn't shrink-wrapped in plastic. I declined the plastic bag the cashier offered me, and while taking a picture of the three easy-to-carry-in-my-own-damn-hands purchases I explained, "I'm trying not to use plastic today."

I arrived at game night feeling a little defeated and annoyed that my one-day effort to avoid plastic was not a triumph. Most of the disposable plastic I used or purchased was optional, and I still opted in. And a few of my plastic-avoidance tactics were noticeably more expensive than cheap, disposable plastic. (THAT's the nub of the problem, right?)

Here are a few things I could have done differently:

  • Handed the cream cheese back to the barista and eaten a dry bagel
  • Called around to stores and farmstands until I found one that sold loose flowers
  • Cleaned my friend's car with a bucket of soapy water instead of specialized cleaning products

And, I could have refused to eat the food at game night. Nearly everything we had was prepared food, sold and served in disposable plastic containers.

I'll try again tomorrow.