Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

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Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

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This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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The Trooth Fairy


I’m a bad parent, I realize, as I slow-pedal up to the front of the house. It’s 5:30 AM, I’m just getting back from my run, and I can see through the blinds on my son’s window that he’s awake and bouncing around in his bed. (Literally. He’s six. Settle down.)

My first thought is, “why is he up so early?” Which, as soon as it’s asked, is answered by the second thought: “because he’s checking for his tooth fairy money.” Which I forgot to place under his pillow last night.

Because I’m a bad parent.

I don’t have a great excuse, and I’m no fan of excuses anyway. It just wasn’t a priority. So somewhere between Masterchef (which I watch too much and hate every minute of) and a couple dozen pre-sleep pages of How I Killed Pluto (and Why It Had It Coming), it slipped through the cracks in the ol’ memory box. Which is kind of terrible, because this tooth has been falling out for about two weeks. First, it was just loose. Then it was really loose. And for the past week or so, it’s literally been hanging on by a thread. (I know, it makes me queasy just to think about it, much less to write about.) Seriously, it could spin in its socket like a stripped-out screw in drywall. (My further apologies.) Its loss is an event, awaited with the same kind of impatience that accompanies the weeks leading up to college football starting up.

Yesterday, it finally fell out.

Sprout tried to pull a fast one on my wife and I.  He told me, when he got home, that he “lost it”, and when I asked him what that meant, he said it was either on the road somewhere (my first clue — he’s such a little sack of nerves that he won’t go anywhere near the road out of somebody’s supervision) or that he swallowed it. My wife gave me her unimpressed face and said, “oh, you mean it’s not in the bag your teacher told me about?” And then he went running to his room to get it.

He had come straight in the door and put his newly unmoored tooth directly under his pillow.

I remember reading a story recently about somebody whose kid ran a science experiment on this whole “tooth fairy” business. Said kid lost a tooth — one of the back ones, one that’s not readily within notice (whereas my poor kid basically has a bay window in the front of his mouth now thanks to losing both of his front-top chompers). Said kid suspected that the tooth fairy had something to do with her parents, so without telling her parents, she hid the tooth under her pillow.

Three mornings later, short of cash and still in possession of a dried-out tooth, she presented her findings to her parents, I imagine buttoning her Ted Talk with a petulant “this is all bullshit, isn’t it?”

So, I thought of that, and my heart leapt for a second. Maybe my son was trying to test the existence of the tooth fairy. Maybe he’s a secret scientific genius. Maybe this is the beginning of his skeptical awakening.

But no, I’ve watched enough TV to know better. Follow the money. He was trying to get paid, preferably as soon as possible so that he could get some dollar-store candy, thank you very much.

But, as I said — here I am the next morning, and I’ve forgotten.

And he’s already up. And the only reason he’d be up early on a school day is because he’s excited about something, and that something is the fat stack of cash he’s anticipating for his missing tooth. So he’s seen that his tooth is still there, still in its wrinkled plastic baggy, dried blood flaking of the craggy underside. His little heart will be broken. A little bit of magic will have gone out of the world.

And because I’m an evergreen Scrooge, my heart brightens a little bit at that thought. Well, this is as good an opportunity as any to tell him the whole thing is a sham, the miser in my head says. He was gonna learn sooner or later, so why not now? First, kick this tooth fairy business out the front door — with great prejudice, I might add. Next on the hit list: Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s gonna be a good year.

These thoughts I share with my wife as I’m climbing into the shower. “Might as well tell him,” I say. “We already blew it, so we ought to just send the hard lesson now.” She gives me the unimpressed look, so I stop telling her the things I’m thinking out loud and resolve to have The Talk with my kid once I’m clean.

But I won’t get the chance, as you might have guessed when she was giving me the unimpressed look. Sure enough, I’m mid towel-off when my son bursts in the door with a fistful of dollars. (That’s the funny thing about having young kids. They don’t care about bathroom doors. They’ll come right in. And then stare at you. Nothing weird about that.)

Cue the following exchange:

Sprout: “DADDY LOOK.”

Me: “Oh, you got some money, huh?”

Sprout: “YEAH. I woke up and the tooth fairy forgot to pick up my tooth, but then I went to the bathroom and when I came back, SHE GOT IT.”

Me: “Oh, wow. That’s awesome, buddy.”

Sprout: “Yeah. And daddy, guess what?”

(I often wonder if he actually thinks my name is “daddy guess what”.)

Me: “What?”

Sprout: “She gave me EXTRA dollars this time. LOOK.”

Me: “Super cool.” I look past him to my wife, who leans on the door frame, giving me the unimpressed look again. “I guess she felt bad about not getting it on time, huh?”

Sprout: “Yeah, I guess so. Can I buy some CANDY PLEASE?”

So, as usual, my wife saves the day. Because the other thing I forgot while planning the shattering of my son’s illusions? He’s six, and he’s happy to believe just about anything when plied with toys and candy. The tooth fairy doesn’t fail to exist just because she didn’t show up at the appointed time. She was just running late this morning.

I guess I’ll have to break the tooth to him some other time.

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The truth, I mean.

(I’m so, so sorry.)


On the Rebound


I had this great metaphor going about the word “rebound”, in the vein of a golf ball rebounding around in a tile bathroom — unpredictably, chaotically, terrifyingly. Of course, that golf ball ultimately goes nowhere — at best it smashes some things up, causes a heck of a lot of havoc, maybe dings and dents if not outright destroys the floors and the walls. But it sure does make a lot of noise while it’s about it.

Why that metaphor? Because that’s what my creativity feels like, of late. (I’ve taken to personifying it as this “other”, this entity that rides along with me; the proverbial angel/devil on my shoulder, whispering inspired idiocy in my ear.) I’m heavy on ideas but light on product. Writing a fair bit but with not much to show for it. Feeling a little, myself, like I’m bouncing off the walls, unable to really get anywhere.

Really got into it. Sat down to write, then rechecked — and the prompt wasn’t “-ound”, like I thought — for which I was pretty proud of the word “rebound”. No, the prompt was “round”.

So, yeah.

Guess that’s that.

Happy Saturday.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Thanks, Google


Did you know that Google now has a tasks window that opens right next to your gmail?

(You are using gmail, right? If not, fix that first.)

This is the doohickey that my productive life didn’t know it needed.

I have to keep Outlook open during the day for my work-related e-mail. And Outlook has reminders, which are all well and good — but tedious to set up. Gmail’s window (I think it may be its own separate app, too? Maybe? Haven’t investigated that far?), on the other hand, just sits there next to your inbox and allows you to jot things down as they come to you. Basically a scratchpad right there in the window.

And of course, I always have gmail open in addition to my work e-mail. Which I am always checking. And since I’m always checking my e-mail, by extension I’m also always checking my to-do list. And since it’s right there in the inbox, it doesn’t float to the bottom of a list of unclicked windows. It rises like Old Faithful to the top every time I sit down to work.

Which means it’s always there to be seen. I’m using it for my daily to-do list. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I tend to get a little scatterbrained when I’m doing lots of things at once (which, as a theatre teacher, is pretty much every minute I’m at work). So every day when I sit down to work, I start my list. Make copies. File paperwork. Enter grades from quiz. Meet with admins. And, because Google is the dark master of regulating our dopamine levels, every time I click a thing off my to-do list, I get a little spray of confetti and color, and then the task vanishes forever.

Delightful.

It’s a little thing, but holy cow, is it useful.

Thanks, Google!


Write Club


I was listening to an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, and it made me realize – I have no idea what kind of writer I am.

I know I’m some sort of writer. Here I am, after all. These words aren’t creating themselves. But I don’t really know how I’m doing it. Or rather, I don’t know if I’m doing it in the best way.

Best, of course, is relative, but it must be said – I’m constantly eaten up with doubt over whether I’m doing it right, where right means in a productive, creative, efficient manner. Whence springs the doubt? Well, to begin, I have no idea how I want to write. My head is full of these conflicting romantic notions about process and product. On the one hand, I revere the idea of going away in a dark corner (literally – one day I’ll photograph my writing corner) to let my fingers tap dance the story to life. On the other, I hold this fondness for the written word – a fondness which has filled up my home and work space with notebooks and pencils of all sorts, and whose marble-statue grip on my soul compels me, always, to wander down the office supply aisle are the Target or the Kroger, “just to see” if they have any neat writerly tools I might need to stock up on.

But, see, then I realize – when’s the last time I really wrote longhand? The answer, it turns out, is about three months ago. (this I know because opposite the page on which I’m now madly scribbling is the last journal entry I wrote, back when I was forcing myself to the habit even when my heart wasn’t in it. It was about Canada, on June 8. So much green.)

So I romanticize writing longhand, but (it’s impossible not to notice) I don’t actually do it. When I’m writing, almost all the time, it’s at the computer, sat behind the keys, a hammering monkey. In the interview, Palahniuk quotes Kerouac or somebody to say, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” There’s derision there, for sure. A hipsterish scoffing at a process which, at core, is just another way to do it. But Palahniuk prizes the written word in a sort of sacred way, and so, it turns out, do I.

After all, when I embarked on this adventure, I did it, not from behind a computer screen, but from the pages of a notebook basically identical to this one. And when I am struck by my best ideas – my sweet Jesus get that on the page before you forget it and, by its omission, make the universe a sadder place ideas – it’s basically never when I’m sat at the computer, typing. No, those ideas strike like lurking cobras, when I’m just on the precipice overlooking dreamland, when I’m caught at a stoplight, when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m out for a run, when I’m watching my kids bounce basketballs off each other’s heads.

And what do I do then?

I don’t dash to the computer, wait for it to boot up, open a word processor, open a blank file (or worse, navigate to an existing one). I don’t reach for my phone, swipe to an app, open it, create a note, title it and punch away with my thumbs. No! When the idea strikes, I’m reaching for pencil and paper, because there is nothing simpler, there’s nothing in the way of that.

And yeah. I’ll go hippie-dippie and affirm that there’s still something magical about the scratching of my papermate 0.7 on a sheet of clean, lined paper.

It doesn’t escape my notice that my tone, of late, is full of resolve and enthusiasm: things I want to try, things I want to do, ways I want to be better. Maybe it’s the hint of fall in the air in these recent mornings – it feels like we’re about to shrug off the heavy sweat-cloak of summer. Maybe it’s just the right stimulus striking at the right time, like lightning forking through the primordial ooze and spawning a brand new genesis.

Or maybe it’s just Chuck Palahniuk’s word-seeds falling on fertile soil between my ears.

Whatever it is, I’ll take it. And when it’s time to write in the days and weeks to come, I’ll be considering my notebooks first.

This post is part of stream of consciousness Saturday.


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