Friday, January 30, 2009

Little things mean a lot

A lot of my ideas for things to write about come to me when I'm in the shower for some reason. Most of the time it's random, but occasionally, it actually has to do with the act of showering. There I was scrubbing away at my stomach and chest and thinking about something I read in an article somewhere about how essentially our bodies are a horrid mess of bacteria from our navel to our knees because that's where our intestines are, and they are the storehouse for some of the most powerful bacteria we have.

Actually, I think about this a lot, but suddenly I made a connection to another article I had read. You see, while it's true that there's a lot of bacteria in our intestines, we really have a lot of bacteria overall, and in fact I had read that scientists are now saying that the human body contains more bacteria cells than human cells. That's something to think about. Really, historically we've thought of bacteria as some sort of invader of the human body when in reality, we're living in a symbiotic relationship, for the most part.

And they are really a part of us. One researcher came to the conclusion that some people suffering from obesity are really having a hard time dealing with what are profoundly hungry bacteria that keep sending out hormonal messages to the brain, saying "FEED ME!" How else do you suppose our lives are affected by these microscopic life forms?

Then the thought took off, and I made the connection with another article I'd recently read, which is saying that biologists are starting to rethink the validity of Lamarckism. Lamarckism is the idea that things that an organism does in its lifetime has an effect on its offspring in a way that carries on through generations, sort of like a variety of fables about how a particular animal did some action, and that's why hippos have wrinkly skin, or rats have smooth tails. For some time, biologists had pooh-poohed the concept of Lamarckism, saying that it was our genes that define us. What if they're only "sort of" right?

Think of those hungry bacteria causing obesity. Maybe scientists are looking at the genes of obese people looking for a genetic marker for obesity, and they just can't find it...but it turns out they were looking in the wrong place? Perhaps it's not the genes of the humans that causes obesity, but the genes of the bacteria they carry.

If this were so, could there be more to it than that? No article this time (not that it matters, as I'm giving no references), but I have noticed, like several people, that married couples seem to sometimes look very much alike. As they grow together in marriage, sometimes they look more and more like each other over time. Could this be the result of bacteria affecting other physiological changes? When you sleep together in the same bed, when you're sharing bodily fluids, when you eat together, you're sharing your bacteria. Could that be molding us? Or on the other hand, when people talk about having "chemistry", could they sometimes mean that they sense that they have compatible bacteria?

This is all quite theoretical, of course, and I'm combining thoughts from a number of disciplines about which I only know the slightest surface ideas. Yet think of the implications if this is true, and it may very well be. In the debate between nature and nurture, between behavior patterns being learned and inborn, what if there is a sort of third option? I've said before that I don't believe that sexual orientation is in a person's genetic makeup, yet I wouldn't suggest that it is a chosen path, either. Could it be possible that sexual orientation is acquired as one acquires a cold? Certainly not so simply, and not something that I even think one would "cure" through antibiotics, as I do think it has been shown to have something to do with the structure of the brain, but it certainly the brain structures could be caused by physiological influences that we as yet know nothing about.

What makes us act and look the way we do? Our science fiction authors tell fantastical stories about people being controlled by alien beings, but what if we're already under the control of non-human life forms? If so, should we be creeped out by something that after all is completely natural?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This woman is my blogging hero

The Bloggess on going to an inauguration party:

It just occurred to me that this could be some sort of sting, like when they tell wanted felons that they won a boat and then when the felon goes to pick it up it’s all police dogs and mace. If I don’t update this post it’s probably because all of this is some sort of elaborate set-up. And then when the police arrest me John McCain jumps out and is all “Seriously? You thought the black guy won?!” That would totally suck.
Full post...

Now Serving #44

From Obama's inauguration speech:

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
Actually, oddly enough, Obama's father probably would have been served.

Many years ago, I read a fascinating article (I wish I could find it!) about a black civil-rights activist in the '60s who was refused service at a lunch counter. If I remember correctly, one day he tried coming to the same counter where he had been denied service many times, only that day, he dressed in traditional African clothing and faked an accent. He was served with no fuss.

He asked the waiter why the other black men were not being served, and an answer was given to him that indicated that apparently many Southerners were racist not against Africans, but African-Americans.

Racism is a strange thing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

From MLK to BHO

We've still got quite a ways to go. Pardon my pessimism, but it seems to me that there are a lot of people who are looking to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the realization in Dr. King's dream, and don't get me wrong, I think it shows we've made great strides, but we're not "there".

A lot of people are talking about the inauguration as though it's this moment in time that is an inflection point between the past and the future, but I don't think it's really so. I think the inauguration is symbolic of the transformation our country has undergone since the days of Dr. King, but it's not as though this day could have come unless we were ready for it, and our readiness as a nation is the real transformation, but it didn't happen suddenly one Tuesday in November, nor will it on a Tuesday in January. It happened slowly and steadily over the course of something like a century and a half.

Some people wonder why it's considered such a big deal, which has a couple of interesting facets to it. On the one hand, there's something almost heartening that a generation should come to pass where people don't see the inauguration of a President not of purely northern European ancestry as a big deal. It shows acceptance, and of a kind that indicates our minds have changed, and gone beyond mere acceptance. On the other hand, the pessimistic one, it may show a kind of ignorance of history. After all, if it's no big deal, why did it take over two hundred years to go from slavery to this? It may be great that we've come as far as we have as a nation, but at the same time, did it need to take so long?

Actually, I think it could have been a little bit sooner. There's a part of me that thinks the national attitude could have managed to elect an African-American President as early as the late '70s, if only there had been the right candidate. If true, this also has (at least) two facets. Maybe it's just easier for me to accept the idea since I was born in the early '70s, and therefore past the most intense turmoil of the civil rights movement, but I don't think the country has suddenly accepted black people; the seeds for the 2008 election results were beginning to sprout towards the end of the '60s. I think on the negative side, it shows some of the reason that mere acceptance is not quite enough for equality. A sufficiently qualified African-American could possibly have been elected in, say, 1980, but there was no such thing yet. Actually, some might argue (and many have) that Obama is not it either, having largely gotten elected on personality rather than an impressive record; after all, he hasn't been in politics very long. The thing is, since African-Americans were kept out of politics for so long, it's hard for them to have a viable candidate since we (rightly) expect our politicians to work their way up from the bottom. White and wealthy George W. Bush, in contrast, is a good example of someone who was never at the bottom. Not that it's his own fault, but there's a certain shame for our society that there really aren't any African-Americans of equivalent status to Bush.

It's unfortunate that we will always have to be performing a balancing act between remembering the tragedies of the past and working to put them behind us. It would be wrong to forget the injustice done--not just to African-Americans, but to various social groups in our history--and yet at the same time, one wonders if we are unable to put the past behind us, how can we let go of bitterness and move into the future? Think about how profound it can be: in some sense, the troubles in the Middle East are the result of a 3,000-year-old case of sibling rivalry. How long will we in America have to keep fighting the civil war? I suppose at least until we're truly the united states.

I sometimes wonder if we'll ever be "there". It seems sometimes like racism in particular, and prejudice in general are simply a part of human nature. Actually, it's pretty natural. When two people meet for the first time, the only thing they have to evaluate the other person is their physical appearance. We like to try to get a handle on other people, so until we get to know them better, most of what we know about them is what color and shape they are. In itself, that's not so bad, so long as we can eventually let go of our preconceived notions and see who we all are on the inside where it counts.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thank God for small favors

There is a family at my church who's been going through a crisis. I'll probably get the details wrong because I don't know them personally, and I've only heard the story second-hand, but it doesn't matter so much. See, this family has a child, a boy slightly younger than two years old, who right around Christmas time started acting rather strange. Kids that age don't tend to do much anyway, but all of a sudden, he seemed to be especially quiet and inactive, and after he'd been like that for some time, they decided to take him to the hospital, just to be on the safe side.

Well, it turned out that there indeed was something wrong. A scan was taken and indicated that he was bleeding into his brain. Surgery was performed, and it was revealed that the boy had a large tumor which was removed. At the time I am writing this, the boy seems to have recovered; he's back home again and acting normally. He's going to undergo a series of chemotherapy treatments in the coming months, which of course won't be fun, but at least his prospects are good, and his life was saved.

People have sick children all the time. People get cancer. People get treatment. And people recover. Why bring up the story? Because of miracles, and how we perceive them.

Once again, I'm only hearing this story second-hand, but the mother is apparently brimming over with joy and thanksgiving that her son is going to be alright. Through an extensive prayer network, people all over the world have been praying for this boy, and have sent the mother e-mails expressing their thankfulness to God that the boy has recovered. Her response to this crisis is to declare that her son's diagnosis, treatment and recovery are a miracle of God.

Now, I know I wrote about this topic before, but it deserves a brief mention again, that sometimes I suspect the purpose of suffering and misfortune is to turn us to God. If our lives were smooth sailing, we probably would never look to a higher power. This mother was a Christian before all of this transpired, but something about what happened has caused a deepening of her faith. It may very well be that the boy, upon hearing this story when he is old enough to understand it, will also gain great faith from it. From a theistic perspective, suffering can serve a higher purpose (if indeed faith is important).

But I had a little epiphany when I heard the story, and it wasn't the one above, although it comes from the same source. I've spent a lot of time discussing religion, faith and theology with skeptics, and inside my head there's a little voice of a skeptic that goes with me into every conversation. That little voice, speaking out for the skeptics not physically present in the room as the story was told, said, "A kid has a brain tumor, and we're all thanking God for it, simply because he got over it? How stupid is that? If God was really looking out for the kid, wouldn't he have not had a tumor at all?"

I've heard this argument before in one form or another of course, and there does seem to be some logic to it. Wouldn't it be better to not suffer at all? You'd think so, but it's this very argument that tends to lead me to the thoughts I shared above and previously. Suffering leads to introspection, leading some theists to greater faith, some atheists to further skepticism, and various people of both persuasions to reevaluate what they believe. Yet there is another implication.

If indeed to not have a brain tumor is better than having one, what does that imply about those of us who don't have brain tumors? If recovery from a brain tumor can be considered a miracle, then doesn't that imply that not having one in the first place is better than a miracle?

I've heard it said in a sermon or two (paraphrased), "Instead of asking why some kid had a brain tumor, ask why you don't!" Suffering is a fact of life, and whether you are a theist who believes it to be the result of Original Sin or an atheist who sees it as a matter of "nature's red in tooth and claw", or whatever your belief persuasion may be, consider that any moment without suffering may be the biggest miracle of all!

Think of the implications. A couple who suffers from infertility managing to finally have a baby is not nearly as impressive of a miracle as a couple who has no trouble procreating in the first place. A man who survives a nasty automobile accident should, in some sense, not be nearly so thankful as an everyday commuter who manages to spend over an hour each day at speeds up to seventy miles per hour without her car ever coming into contact with an immobile object beyond the road passing beneath her wheels. Every plane that doesn't crash, every surgery that a patient lives through, every bank that doesn't go under when the stock market drops, every job you manage to keep, every walk through your house in the dark without a stubbed toe, and every day you wake up in the morning to find you're still drawing breath into your lungs: those are all profound miracles that we are blind to because we pass through them like a fish through water.

And then there's this: Can an atheist really say that it's better not to have a tumor in the first place? If suffering shows us the "truth" that there is no God, then wouldn't it be better for the boy to not only have a tumor, but to die? Shouldn't we all be wiped out by a plague, or even better, have a huge meteor ram into the earth and destroy all life?

It used to be that theodicies were about theists finding ways to reconcile suffering with the accepted concept of a good and loving God. In the modern age, discussions of the problem of suffering have often been the result of atheists arguing that there is no reconciliation of these concepts. But it seems there is an inherent flaw. If suffering turns us away from God, and it's true that there is no God, and truth is good, then suffering is good. But there can't possibly be enough suffering, because there is a lot of the world that is full of these little miracles.

I don't know that any of this makes any sense. Then again, is there any sense in the suffering of a little boy with a brain tumor? Yet it happens. When we try to make sense of the world, are we losing sight of the bigger picture? Are atheists' preconceived notions blocking their understanding of something profound? Are mine? Probably both.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Facing the truth

I suppose I ought to file a followup report, so to speak. I decided to break down and finally join Facebook.

I gotta say, it's been fun. I just signed up less than two days ago, and I already have 51 "friends". Now, none of these people are strangers, but admittedly a few of them are people that I probably wouldn't have shed a tear over not getting to contact again someday. (I won't mention who, just in case someone comes to read this and gets their feelings hurt; not that I think it's likely many of them care so much either.)

It's been eventful, too, not just "friendful" if I may coin the term. I recontacted an old friend I haven't seen in nearly 20 years who just happened to join the day before I did. I found out another old friend just got engaged. I had another friend about whom I was thinking "I wonder if this person is still friends with so-and-so," to immediately find that "so-and-so" had just sent me a friend request. And the cherry on top was probably connecting to an old friend whose immediate action upon "friending" me was to post an 18-year-old picture of me with a condom on my head.

Actually, there were certain things that are interesting in a more cerebral way. One friend pointed me to a tool that would map how my "friends" were "friends" of each other, revealing that although everyone seemed to be immediately connected, in fact I seemed to have two or three "clusters" of friends: people from my the town where I grew up, and people from a place where I used to work and my church. It was interesting to think about how looking at specifically the "friends" that I have, those clusters seemed to form, and I suspect that many other people would also find their "friends" forming into the same sort of clusters, and yet while clustering is no doubt common, if one were to look at the whole community of Facebook in a relational diagram, the fact that everyone belongs to various peoples' clusters in different ways implies that the overall effect would be more difficult to show in a diagram than the structure of this massive run-on sentence you're reading.

Of course, such thought, along with others made me think about the whole "six degrees of separation" concept (One of Will Smith's early movies, and very good!) and how Facebook plays into that. There was actually a "six degrees of separation" group that one could join, the purpose of which was to see if everyone in Facebook was connected in such a manner. I actually don't doubt it after the small taste I had, or at least that something like, say, 98% of Facebook members with at least two friends are part of the same interconnected mass of digital humanity. Really, there's something interesting about the way it works as an experiment in social dynamics.

As well as everyone being there, it seemed as well like every thing was there. The six degrees group was just one of thousands. I thought I'd join a group of fans of the show "House, M.D." and found myself wondering which one of the dozens there were to join. Any television show, any movie, any book, any celebrity or other pop culture phenomenon in the world probably has a fan club on Facebook. (Yes, they have a fan club for gay penguins, I checked.)

Now, do I feel more connected? Yeah, a little. I'd still rather spend time with my wife and kids, though.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Warning: Mature Content

I remember a time many years back, I think it was before I was a Christian (seems likely, I don't remember many of the details except the dialogue), when I was with a group of guys who were talking about sex. In particular, the topic under discussion was the morality and legality of sex with an underage partner. "Who would be stupid enough to have sex with a fifteen-year-old?" somebody asked. I quickly piped up, "I had sex with a fifteen-year-old." Every eye turned to me, wide and shocked. I smiled. "I was sixteen at the time."

Okay, confession time over. Yeah, I did some things in my teen years that I look back on as being very foolish, but that's not the point. Whether sexual or not, we all do foolish stuff when we're teenagers. It seems to be a time in life when we start to think we're as smart as adults, but few of us really are. Results may vary.

Now if you happen to be a teenager who's famous, your foolish mistakes will likely be broadcast on national television. In 2008, there were two famous teens who made what were considered to be foolish mistakes that to my mind, while foolish, say more about us as a culture than about those specific teenagers.

Miley Cyrus, sometimes known as the Disney star "Hannah Montana", was in the news this last year for posing for nude photographs. I don't really know how old she is, although I am aware she's under 18. Posing for nude photographs while under age 18 is considered a serious thing by our government, generally. I don't know how many people know this story, but back in the early days of Playboy, they had a centerfold that was 16 years old. Now, of course the idea behind limiting such ventures to those of legal age is to avoid exploitation of children, and as the story goes, this young woman came to the offices of the magazine escorted by her mother. Hugh Hefner no doubt figured that if he had parental permission, everything was fine. The feds said no, and there were consequences. Really, that made sense. If you make the assumption that anything goes so long as a minor's parents allow it, then one flings the door wide open to all sorts of exploitation. Think about it: do you think it would be alright for a child to become a prostitute just because her parents were her pimps? I hope your answer is "No!" As it happened, Cyrus' dad Billy Ray was not only present for much of the photo shoot, but was even in some of the pictures (not the nude one). Rather than making people think that made it okay, as far as I can tell, it made people rather angry at Mr. Cyrus for consenting to what they considered unconscionable.

How unconscionable was it, though? I saw the picture, and it made me think (not in a sexual manner, I didn't find the photo at all titillating). This is the thing: I think around the same time this picture was in the news, the movie Iron Man was released in the theaters. In that movie, the leading lady (Gwyneth Paltrow? I'm having a hard time with names this morning.) has a scene in which she shows off more skin than Miley; she was wearing an evening gown. Iron Man wasn't rated G, but I feel pretty confident that the rating had nothing to do with Paltrow's exposed back. In Cyrus' "nude" picture, it was only her back that was visible as well, but for her, it was scandalous.

Why is it that an adult (or even a child, actually) can appear in a movie or television program dressed in, let's say, a skimpy bikini, and it's alright, pieces of art such as Venus de Milo or Michelangelo's David can show pretty much complete nudity, but a teenage girl can't pose draped in a sheet? Note that I'm not saying I completely disagree with the critics on this matter, I only question it as a philosophical matter: what is considered by society to be unacceptable sexuality is vague at best.

Think about it: I'm pretty sure I have nude photos of my own daughters, but we're talking about photos of them under age two. I assume that nobody but the vilest of perverts would find them sexually enticing. The movie The Cider House Rules has a momentary shot of the female lead completely nude, but from the back, allowing what I thought was a movie of very mature content to garner a PG-13. I'm sure there are quite a few people who found that scene very sexually enticing--yet socially acceptable. There is a vague gray area somewhere between the ages of two and eighteen where the thought of sexuality is considered dangerous.

I find something about it ironically amusing. The other teenager who made the news last year was Jamie Lynn Spears. You probably heard about it, but she got pregnant. People were shocked, and I don't understand why. Back in the early days of her career, her older sister Britney had publicly stated that she was a virgin, and planned to remain so for some time. While of course there were those who admired this personal conviction, (however well it may have turned out for her) I seem to recall numerous people in the media who ridiculed the idea. Whether personally addressing Britney's choice in particular, or talking about issues of teen sexuality and scoffing the idea of any teenager being able to be abstinent, the idea seemed to many to be a joke. To many people, it's simply a given that teenagers have sex. News flash: the media may not be aware of it, but teen sex is the leading cause of teen pregnancy.

Our modern society expects teens to be sexually mature and active, and yet at the same time, keep any outward sign of it to themselves. Dress slutty, but don't take your clothes completely off; have sex, but make sure you somehow magically suffer no long-term effects; talk to anyone in the world about your sexuality except for your parents because--despite the fact they had you, and therefore must have had sex at least once--they're surely the least likely people in the world to have anything useful to say about the subject. I wonder what sorts of discussions Miley Cyrus has had with her dad about sex. It seemed like the buzz I picked up is that either he was irresponsible for passively allowing it to happen, or that he was immoral for actively encouraging it. Isn't it possible that they had an intelligent discussion about what's acceptable and what's not? If Miley Cyrus is old enough to have a career, one might think she's old enough to make her own decisions, and not be judged for it. Maybe, I don't know; this is a complicated issue.

I think what most people tend to worry about is the fact that we have a strong tendency to look to celebrities as some sort of role models. Average people like famous people, for some reason it's human nature. My own daughters will tell you if you ask them that they are big fans of "Hannah Montana", although to be honest, I don't think they know who she is; they certainly have never seen an episode of the Disney TV show. Do I want them emulating this behavior? No, but then again, I also recognize the validity and value of artistic expression. One of my daughters wants to be an artist, and if she pursues that interest, no doubt she'll end up doing nude figure drawing, simply because it's an integral part of an art education. She may even pose for other artists, and if she's being smart about it, then good for her I say, and age doesn't really matter.

The truth is, if we're worried about the effect that celebrities have on our children, then maybe something is wrong. Wrong with us. I don't know firsthand, but I get the impression that Cyrus is considered to be a very talented young lady, and that's something to be admired. At the same time, I would urge my own children not to set up any other person, famous or not, to be a role model for their lives carte blanche, but rather to make decisions for themselves as to what's moral behavior, and emulate their own consciences instead. Whatever Cyrus' intentions were in doing the things she did, she's not going to be a perfect model of moral uprightness. Nobody can be guaranteed to be that. I know I'm not.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Song shuffle meme

Ah, I said I wasn't going to do it, sice my mp3 player is mostly Beatles stuff, but I ended up getting a surprising amount of Sting, and all from one album. I don't have an iPod, I have a Samsung Juke, and unlike apparently a lot of others who've done this meme, I've not given it a name. I also don't believe I am forced to interpret these responses, so I simply present them without much comment. Many of these songs do have lyrics that express a different sentiment than their titles, however.

1. What do you think of me, iTunes Juke?

I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Cyring by Sting

Seven weeks have passed now since she left me
She shows her face to ask me how I am
She says the kids are fine and that they miss me
Maybe I could come and baby-sit sometime
She says, "Are you O.K.? I was worried about you
Can you forgive me? I hope that you'll be happy."
I'm so happy that I can't stop crying
I'm so happy I'm laughing through my tears

2. Will I have a happy life?

Tomorrow We'll See by Sting

Don't judge me
You could be me in another life
In another set of circumstances
Don't judge me
One more night I'll just have to take my chances
And no it's just not in my plan
For someone to care who I am

3. What do my friends really think of me?

Helter Skelter by The Beatles

Do you, don't you want me to love you.
I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you.
Tell me tell me tell me come on tell me the answer.
You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer.

4. Do people secretly lust after me?

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

I bet there's rich folks eatin',
In a fancy dining car,
They're probably drinkin' coffee,
And smokin' big cigars,
But I know I had it comin',
I know I can't be free,
But those people keep a-movin',
And that's what tortures me.

5. How can I make myself happy?

Tonight by TV on the Radio

Don't keep it silent and tortured
Or shove it unto the floorboards
Your busted heart will be fine
In its tell tale time
So give it up tonight

6. What should I do with my life?

Wait by Sarah McLachlan

Pressed up against the glass
I found myself wanting sympathy
But to be consumed again
Oh I know would be the death of me
And there is a love thats inherently given
A kind of blindness offered to appease
And in that light of forbidden joy
Oh I know I wont receive it

When all we wanted was the dream
To have and to hold that precious little thing
Like every generation yields
The newborn hope unjaded by their years

7. Why must life be so full of pain?

Soldier Jane by Beck

Stars they strike the darkness from a room
Knives they take the poison from the wound
Cars they drive us down into the ruins
Sweep away our cares away with dirty brooms

Soldier jane
Don't be afraid
Take your heart out of the shell
Take your heart out of the shell
Don't be afraid

8. How can I maximize my pleasure during sex?

Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart by Johnny Cash

In the garbage disposal of you dreams I've been ground up dear
On the river of your plans I'm up the creek
Up the elevator of your future I've been shafted
On the calendar of your events I'm last week

I've been washed down the sink of your conscience
In the theater of your love I lost my part
And now you say you've got me out of your conscience
I've been flushed from the bathroom of your heart

9. Will I have (more) children?

Fill Her Up by Sting

You gotta fill her up with spirit!
You've gotta fill her up with faith
You gotta fill her up with heaven!
You've got the rest of life to face
You've gotta fill her up right away
You've gotta fill her up with faith
You've gotta fill her up with babies
You've gotta fill her up with this way
You're gonna love that girl forever
Your gonna fill her up for life
You're gonna be her loving husband
She gonna be your loving wife
You've gotta fill her up with gladness.
You gotta fill her up with joy!
You gotta fill her up with love,
You gotta fill her up with love,
You gotta fill her up with love!

10. Will I die happy?

Come Together by The Beatles

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

He wear no shoeshine he got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger he shoot coca-cola
He say "I know you, you know me"
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together right now over me

11. Can you give me some advice?

She Came in Throught the Bathroom Window by The Beatles

She said she'd always been a dancer
She worked at fifteen clubs a day
And though she thought I knew the answer
Well I knew what I could not say.

And so I quit the police department
And got myself a steady job
And though she tried her best to help me
She could steal but she could not rob.

12. What do you think happiness is?

Mother Nature's Son by The Beatles

Born a poor young country boy -
Mother Nature's son.
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone.
Sit beside a mountain stream - see her waters rise.
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.
Find me in my field of grass -
Mother Nature's son.
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun.
Mother Nature's son.

13. What's my favourite fetish?

Get Rhythm by Johnny Cash

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
Get a rock 'n' roll feelin' in your bones
Put taps on your toes and get gone
Get rhythm when you get the blues

14. What is my significant other thinking at this very moment?

While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles

I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps.
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps.

I don't know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love,
I don't know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.

15. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

Girl by Beck

I saw her, yeah I saw her with her black tongue tied
Round the roses
Fist pounding on a vending machine
Toy diamond ring stuck on her finger
With a noose she can hang from the sun
And put it out with her cheap sunglasses
Walking crooked down the beach
She spits on the sand where their bones are bleaching
And I know I'm gonna steal her eye
She doesn't even know what's wrong
And I know I'm gonna make her die
Take her where her soul belongs
And I know I'm gonna steal her eye
Nothing that I wouldn't try

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy...

Strange how hard it's been to write lately. I don't know if it's that inner editor that always tells you that what you're writing isn't good enough or what, but something seems to have slowed me down.

I've made a few attempts, and some of them pretty good efforts. I had a column by Anna Quindlen making the standard comparison between same-sex marriage and miscegenation laws, which I went on at length about why I feel the comparison works in some ways, but not in most. (Actually, that was one of the times I had a real-life editor questioning the worth of the writing: a friend was looking over my shoulder as I wrote, commenting that if I published what I wrote, many would label me as both homophobic and racist, not that I worry too much about being controversial.) Unexplained blog meme.I had a blog meme that I wasn't tagged with, but considered running with it anyway just because it was interesting. I keep mulling over ideas for topics that I've hinted at writing about, but have been afraid of my inadequacy of treating properly. I wrote a half-hearted essay on why, despite the fact that I like Christmas, I have a strong dislike of Christmas carols. I was even attempting to put together a dissection of the comic book Watchmen before the movie comes out, and it was going pretty well, but I started to realize it was a bigger undertaking than I'd anticipated. I may still finish it, who knows?

I was going to finally put something together this week about how I felt vindicated once again due to the fact that I had come across another "professional" writer who was expressing sentiments that I had ranted on at length in the past. Sharon Begley writes (as published in this week's issue of Newsweek) that scientists don't like to change their minds, despite the fact that science is by its nature supposed to be ever-changing. Didn't I write that? Yeah, I did. I realized, though, that there's something ironic in writing such a piece. Not the first one, that was good; I mean writing a follow up piece in which I rehash old ideas and say, "See? I'm totally right!" The whole point (well, a major point) of the column is that people, even scientists, like to be right, and therefore will sometimes have a tendency to belabor old ideas, whether they have merit or not. What's the point in bragging about my own views and showing myself party to the same personality flaws as the scientists I'm criticising? Yes, I have those same flaws--it's human nature after all--but why not just admit it and move on, rather than indulge in non-self-aware irony?

Actually, the final paragraph of Begley's piece has a wonderful bit of irony. A psychologist whose pet theory was that people like to be able to change their minds ended up changing his mind about it! So he changed his mind and decided it was better to not change one's mind. Funny. And cute, as it turned out to lead him to propose to his girlfriend. He was happier making his relationship a more committed one. Maybe science can tell us something about abstract concepts like love after all?

But hey, I was talking about me, wasn't I? I think one of the hardest things for me as a writer is the idea that what I write might not be original. In college, in the middle of an otherwise very fun creative writing class, I wrote a story about a person writing a diary chronicling the collapse of his mental abilities. Upon sharing it with the class, my heart sunk when a classmate said, "This reminds me of Flowers for Algernon." I realized that I had essentially (without meaning to) written essentially a highly inferior version of that classic novel. I hate it when that happens, and unfortunately, it's not a particularly uncommon occurrence. Actually, there's an episode of South Park in which a running joke is that everything one particular character thinks to do is compared as, "Oh, yeah, that's just like that episode of The Simpsons!" The character gets annoyed, but at the end of the episode, somebody points out that after being around for nearly 20 years, doesn't it just make sense that The Simpsons have covered just about every conceivable topic?

The Bible says that "There is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl. 1:9) I think there's real truth to this. As I wrote before, I don't think the Internet is so much a new thing, but a different way of presenting much of the same old stuff the world has had since time out of mind. I have a strong desire to be original, yet I always suspect that I'm unable to write a single thing that has not been written about before. Many of the topics I cover (including this one) have probably been debated back and forth for centuries. How can a single individual manage to struggle to rise above thousands of years of written history and the competing voices of over six billion individuals?

It's funny, though, because when I put it that way, it sounds like a stronger bit of ambition than I in any way intend. I've never aspired to greatness; at least, not for fame and fortune, but only to be the best I can be personally. I don't want to be leader of the free world, but I do want to be an adequate leader of my family. I don't expect to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but I would like to someday write a book that people will find entertaining. I'm not a great philosopher, but I'd like the things that I write about to be thought-provoking. Are any of these things possible for me?

Can a paragraph end without a question? Maybe.

Still every bit of ambition can potentially be quite daunting. We never really live up to our harshest critics, whoever they may be; of course they often are ourselves. There is a certain sense in which it doesn't matter, both from a pessimistic side and an optimistic side. As a pessimist, I might say, well, I am just one of six billion people, and a lot of them probably have much more interesting things to say, if they wished to say it, and so many more of them are sufficiently like me that my personal experience has nothing to say to them that they don't already know in their own hearts and minds. On the optimistic side, I can realize that with my voice being lost in a sea of voices, failure to truly stand out will simply make me fade into the background, but any moment of excellence that happens to sneak into my writing by accident at least has a chance to be recognized, simply because it's out there. Who cares if my writing makes no difference? To paraphrase the punch line of a Dilbert strip I saw years ago, it's not like we have a limited supply of ones and zeroes.

I suppose what we do have is a limited supply of time, and potentially, I am wasting plenty of mine. How many hours of my life do you suppose I've poured into writing that nobody will ever read? If I'm going to invest that time, I need good reason to think it does have meaning on some level. I think it does.

We all have our personal opinions, and as was said, we like to think that we're right. Am I going to corner some stranger on the street and force-feed them my opinions on current affairs? No, but isn't there some part of human nature that wants to, in a sense, stand up in a public place and say, "Hey, these are my views, and they matter!"? Hopefully, we're also consumed with the desire to follow up with, "...and what do you think about that?" earnestly looking for an honest answer with an open mind. No, the Internet isn't entirely new, but it's a medium by which such interaction can take place in a much easier fashion than ever before. Self-expression? Interchange of ideas? Why should I shy away from such an opportunity? I need to write, and if you needed to read and made it this far, thanks for your indulgence.