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I just stumbled on this article: Half Singapore children suffer from allergies: study. I had never heard about allergies before 1993, when I moved to the United States. The only ones I knew of were serious, and potentially fatal, like my mother being allergic to penicillin. Seasonal allergies or other common types seen today simply did not exist.

Call me a dirty Frenchman if you want, but the cause seems obvious to me: The modern obsession with cleanliness. Singapore doesn’t surprise me, because it is one of the cleanest cities in the world. Not that I have anything against that, I like cleanliness too. However, when the practice goes too far, it poses a threat to all of us. I think that our immune system, if not challenged once in a while, will not be able to defend us when we really need it. I am not asking you to go lick your toilet bowl or the next stray dog you see on the street! If I didn’t live in Florida, I probably would shower every other day. I don’t use hand sanitizers. I don’t mind getting dirty working outside, eat fruits and vegetables I just pulled from a tree or the ground.. We need to get exposed to germs, the benign ones anyway.

When I was a kid, I spent all day playing outside, getting scrapes on my knees, cutting myself, eating things that should have been cooked or cleaned, and coming back home covered with dirt. My parents didn’t seem to mind. It was just what children do. These days, a child won’t be admitted to school with the sniffles. Let them all catch that cold or chicken pox, and be done with it.

The media has us all in a panic about swine flu. Before, it was bird flu, and before that, Spanish flu.. What is it going to be next, fish flu? We get flu every year. Some people die from it, mostly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions; nothing new here. It’s just the flu. You don’t need to sanitize your hands twenty times a day or stay home because of it.

Allergy medicines are big business. Schering-Plough made billions with Claritin. Doctors will push allergy medicine as much as they can. Are the possible long term effects of those drugs better than the discomfort they treat? For some maybe, but overall, I doubt it.

If you want to stay in good health, have a good personal hygiene, but don’t be obsessive. Let go of the bleach a little, and don’t sterilize everything you eat or touch. If you get sick, well, you’re just exercising your immune system. If you have kids, protect and watch over them, but let them be kids and get dirty playing outside. You will make them stronger adults. Avoid loading yourself up with over-the-counter anti-allergy medicine. If you have a problem, see your doctor, but remember that he wants you to buy the stuff.. Eat healthy and exercise, that is probably the best way to a healthy body and mind.

Most people here in Florida know how to swim. Actually, these days, most people know how to swim, period. Our parents may have loved the water, or imagined us kids falling in a pool and drowning. So, we took swimming lessons, and for most of us, it was great fun. Aside from the undeniable fun factor, let’s look at safety.. You actually have to fall in a body of water to drown. Yet, the thought of drowning is unpleasant enough for people to learn how to swim and teach their kids. Never go near deep water and you’ll be fine. It might not be easy, but you can avoid the risk altogether. Individuals with aqua-phobia are extremely unlikely to ever drown. The same can not be said of violence. It can happen anywhere, at any time. You can die of a knife wound or kick to the head faster than having your lungs filled with water. Why is it then that almost nobody, and especially the most vulnerable people never train to handle violence? The idea is as unpleasant as drowning. We wear our seat-belts, avoid bad foods, take vitamins, exercise.. Why not train in martial arts? Why not teach children simple moves to get away from someone trying to grab them?

Swimming is a lot like martial arts. You do it mainly for fun, especially with your family and friends. Not only is it good exercise, but you gain a skill that can save your life. Just like martial arts, you can’t learn it from a book, videos, or listening to other people. That can help, but ultimately, you have to jump in and do it. The only thing you need to practice either is a somewhat healthy body and some water, though only for drinking in martial arts.

Unlike martial arts though, if you have a bad swimming teacher, you’ll know fairly soon.. Imagine a discipline called “traditional swimming” where you learn to swim on the ground, or laying on your stomach on a chair. Your teacher is a “master traditional swimmer.” He has never been in the water, but that doesn’t matter, right? After years of traditional swimming, you should be able to cross a good size river, if you were to fall in.. Unfortunately, a lot of martial arts schools are like traditional swimming schools.. Just keep that in mind. You can read a lot about that on nononsenseselfdefense.com.

A pond, swimming pool, the ocean can be very unforgiving of mistakes and lack of proper knowledge. Yet, they do not actively try to kill you. Some criminals are as cold as an Icelandic lake, and they will murder you without batting an eye. I don’t worry much about drowning or being murdered, mind you. I do however read the news. I could self-deceive myself until the cows came home, but there is no denying that there are people out there preying on others for a living, or wanting to satisfy some sadistic urge. You might say “I’ll just buy a gun,” or “I’ll just kick him in the balls.” That’s pure fantasy. For a gun or knife to be effective, it needs to be right there when you need it, and you must pull it out fast enough, and be efficient with it under stress, that means training. In many places, carrying a weapon is illegal. You need to turn yourself into one. I wish every time someone told me “I would just (insert kick-ass move here)…” I could have jumped them, taken them down and mimic crushing their head before their could move a finger. Then I would ask: “Why didn’t you just (insert kick-ass move here)?” Of course, that kind of argument, though efficient, is rather frowned upon.

If you already exercise, ask yourself, “What other benefits am I getting from this?” I mean, other than an improved health and looking better naked? If you swim, that’s easy, you can save yourself or someone else from drowning.. Otherwise, consider learning to defend yourself. You kill two birds with one stone, better health and acquiring a potentially life saving skill. Sure, you might get bruises and a few aches and pains. So what? If that bothers you, maybe knitting is more for you then, but watch for those needles, they can hurt..

I hear too many people telling me how they found this new philosophy or spirituality that surely will make them happy. Usually it’s fairly complicated, involves Eastern customs and an old man with a beard wearing a bed sheet. I’m not knocking Eastern Philosophy. It just seems to me that anyone who has some ability with words and fancies guru outfits will always find eager listeners. Being a coffee shop junkie, I hear it all. New-age mumbo-jumbo mixes with Buddhism and quotes from various self-help books. It’s like a soup for the soul in which you can’t recognize the original vegetables. Sometimes they even throw in Jesus, like adding brown beef chunks to the broth. Unlike real vegetable soup however, it certainly doesn’t make sense.

Trying to be happy is missing the point. Being happy is mostly a personal decision. Anyone who has a roof over their head, has enough food, lives in a relatively safe place and is not clinically depressed can make that choice.

It’s no wonder people are confused and stressed with the number of stimuli assaulting us every day. Take your garden variety supermarket; flashy colors everywhere, lights, music, promotions, coupons, aisles of products jumping at us from all sides. Television shows us fictitious lives of beautiful people with all their toys. The average shot length for movies in the U.S. (ASL) Went from around fifteen seconds in the fifties to 2.5 seconds in 2007. Society pressures us to adopt everyone else’s standards, to perform as well and look as good as the guy or woman next door. So many expectations breed depression.

The first thing to do in your life is simplify it. Don’t try to buy things because others do and you think it will make you look better. It’s not a competition. If you try to attain a social status you don’t have, it will stress you to no end and you’ll never be happy, even with a Lamborghini in your garage. Rich people commit suicide too, hum, I wonder why.. Stop watching the damn TV every day! You will find more interesting things to do, more on that later.. Simplify your finances, your work, anything you can find that doesn’t have to be as complicated as it is. You will be amazed at how many hours a week you can save, not to mention your stress level going way down.

The second one is to do things. I don’t mean sit on the couch and play video games. Build things for yourself, anything. I work on my laptop computer, programming. At the end of the day, when I close it, there is nothing for me to look at. The satisfaction from doing my work disappears at the same time my computer memory empties, when I pull the plug. We need to build things, and look at them. For your brain to be happy, it needs to move your body, that’s what it’s for! Otherwise, we might as well be a tree, no brains needed there.. Exercise to make your brain produce the chemicals it needs. You’ll lose weight and look better too, it’s a winner. Before television, many more people knew how to read and play music. There is no satisfaction be be gleaned from watching a screen hours on end.

The third one is to go places. We need to see different things. No, not the mall! I mean landscapes. There has to be something green within driving distance of where you live, you know, trees, grass, that sort of things.. Not the local football field, real wilderness. I am thinking about buying a kayak to explore the West Coast of Florida. I used to fly around during flight training to log hours. A fellow student would come back from, let’s say West Palm Beach, telling us there was a good looking girl behind the front desk at the FBO, and five Cessnas would take-off from Sarasota in a hurry. It was great. It’s not that we were all so obsessed, but just going somewhere else was exiting and uplifting. Just walking sometimes does the trick. You can also end-up pretty far on a bicycle when you forget what time it is.

The fourth one is to see other people. We are gregarious creatures by nature. I often go to Sarasota News and Books to sit outside with a cup of tea and watch people passing by. Soon or later, someone I know comes along and we end-up a full table, in an animated discussion. Last time I did that, I found myself playing Boggle with a bunch of friends! I might appear distant to some, but I like people. Why would I go to coffee shops all the time when I could make tea, coffee and chocolates at home? It’s human nature. When I hear “I don’t like people,” I usually don’t believe it. Self deception, that’s what it is. Hermits are few and far between, I’ve never met a real one. the best part of this tendency is that you can do things and go places with other people!

I am no expert in psychology. I just know that I enjoy life, always have, always will. I don’t need spirituality, religion, gurus and whatnots. If you do and it works for you, that’s fine by me. I just wanted to say that life is incredible and beautiful, and just looking around us and remembering it it all it takes sometimes to bring forth a smile. If you are never happy, go see a doctor, seriously, they can help, to a point. In the end, it’s always up to you. Have a great day, I am!

Photographing a lightning storm is easier than it seems, assuming you have the right camera and a bit of luck and patience. The same technique applies to fireworks. People wonder how I took the photo below right when lightning struck. I’ll let you in on the secret…

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

I didn’t. No amount of expresso could make anyone that fast! The shot is actually of three different lightning events a few minutes apart.

First, you’ll need a camera that has what is called a pause ‘B’ or ‘T’ speed setting. Yes, that’s what those two you never used are for! Pause B keeps the shutter open as long as you keep the shutter button pressed. Pause T keeps the shutter open until you change the setting. So, pause T is better because you don’t need to keep pressing the button and risking moving the camera, which by the way must be on a tripod.

Choose a low sensitivity film, like 25 or 50 asa/iso. Your exposure will last a few minutes and you don’t want to over-expose the background or get thick lightning looking like a defective lightsaber.. Same goes for digital cameras. A fast setting or film will increase the grain, you’ll lose details.

You’ll have to play with the f stop. I like to start with 4 or 5.6. I tend to avoid lenses that can’t open to at least 2.8. No matter what your lens is, open to at least one stop over the minimum, two is better. Lenses usually do not perform at their best at the extreme of their aperture range.

Get a thick, black piece of fabric like felt to cover the lens. A plastic cap would work, but you risk moving the camera. Make sure no light will enter the lens when you hold it in front of it. Now you just have to wait for the perfect storm! And by the way, don’t expose yourself in an open field or too close to the storm, lightning is a dangerous subject. I took the photo out of an appartment balcony for protection.

Now you’re ready! Lightning all over, your camera is up, you’re standing there in your yellow raincoat holding an old fedora to cover your lens. Open the shutter. Remove the hat! Count seconds (I tap my foot for rhythm). Bam! You got one, cover the lens (keep the shutter open) stop counting. Bam! Shit, you missed that one. Wait a bit, uncover, count… Wham! Number two is in. Close the shutter. Note the exposure time and f stop for future reference. Do it all over again…

With a bit of practice, you will produce amazing photos. There are many other interesting things you can photograph at night with a long exposure, and that are no doubt less dangerous than a storm. Look at the photo below:

Marina Jack in Sarasota

Marina Jack in Sarasota

The exposure was 20 minutes! I was getting pretty bored, but the result was worth the wait. The light traces are of car headlights and taillights. You don’t see the cars because they were not long enough in front of the camera to imprint the film.

Have fun with this technique! I’d like to see pictures posted in the comments.. Questions are welcome. Merry Christmas everyone 🙂

Gil.