All that Glitters

It’s modern-day alchemy. Maybe you’ve heard this.

It turns out that everybody’s intrinsic value has increased by about $13 a year, thanks to the trace amounts of precious metals in their poop. That’s right, there are studies (imagine doing those studies) that show that over a 1-year period, the “waste” collected from 1 million Americans is worth $13 million. Which is great, if you happen to be the owner of a waste processing plant when they figure out how to harvest this “gold”. For the average person, it’s just more money going down the toilet, pun absolutely intended.

And while this is fascinating, if perhaps not in the “dinner conversation” kind of fascinating, the bigger (and more troubling) issue that it raises is: where is this stuff coming from? Is big agro putting vanadium in our corn? Are the pasteurizing plants doping milk with platinum? Did everybody in the country suddenly succumb to somnambulant pica? Now we’re all chowing down on nuts and bolts in our sleep?

No, I’m not here to toss out conspiracy theories. The fact is, everything is a part of everything. The crude matter that composes our bodies is, at the fundamental level, the same matter that spawned in the maw of the Big Bang. We are made of the ashes of stars, so it’s no great shock that we’ve got little bits and pieces of decomposed universes sloshing around in our systems. And to be honest, it’s no great shock that scientists are studying poop. Given overpopulation and the sustainability issues plaguing us, we have to find as many ways as possible to stretch out resources and cut down on waste. Refining poop is a win-win, if you can pinch it off. Plus, make no mistake, they’ll find a way to make money off of it. Process enough poop, and you can turn your refining plant into a literal goldmine. Actually, this reminds me of this little treat from a few months back, in which Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates drink water created from a processing plant that is self-sustaining and actually creates electricity … FROM POOP.

Fact is, this makes for a great story. And who knows, in ten years, you might just work at a processing plant, refining feces for precious metals.

There are jokes to be made here, but I’m a little myopic today. Look, diapers are a big part of my life right now, and when the only tool at your disposal is a diaper and a bag of wipes, everything looks like a pile of poop, right? All I can think about upon hearing this story are the untold riches slipping through my fingers every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call my accountant to move all my money into poop futures.


I finally joined twitter.

That’s a lie. I joined twitter some many months ago, explicitly for a flash-fiction challenge. One that I quite enjoyed, actually, and even toyed around with extending around the time I finished the first draft of the Project. It crashed and burned, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, twitter.

On its surface, I can’t stand twitter. As an English teacher, I laugh to scorn at it. How can you possibly express a complex thought in only 140 characters? In so many cases, it shouldn’t even be attempted. I can sneeze 140 characters. Hell, I can fire off 140 characters winding up for the sneeze.

But then you consider the fact that twitter has been almost singularly responsible for the deposement of governments, and the FOMO starts to set in. For better or worse, the world is on twitter, banging out 140 characters at a time in a maelstrom of tidbits, snatched fortune-cookies of thought and expression, billowing away on the digital breeze like a blizzard of daffodil petals. And apparently, it’s good for networking. And keeping up with news. And then there’s @pentametron, which scours twitter and smashes together inadvertent iambic pentameter tweets to create abstractly delightful Shakespearean couplets.

So I have it now, and I’m resolved to use it, at least a little bit, as I go forward with this whole “writing” thing. But only insofar as it serves that purpose. Social media in and of itself feels like fluff and nonsense to me. This blarg is no exception, with the exception that I’m convinced that I’m using it as a whetstone for my narrative blades. But that begs the question: what the hell do I post there?

I’m a rambler and an overthinker. If I feel strongly enough about an issue, I’m going to strip it down to its component parts like an old motorcycle in the garage, and I’m going to beat those parts to death examining them from every angle I can think of. I can’t do that with 140 characters. Besides, I have the blarg for that. So what’s left? Post about what I had for breakfast, or the random epiphanies that strike while I’m walking the halls at school or running in the wee hours?

I dunno.

I feel that any endeavor on twitter lacks depth just as a by-product of the form, and I’m leery of things that waste my already too thinly-stretched time. But I’m going to give it a spin just the same. Just to say I tried dipping my toe into the 21st century, if nothing else. So here goes.

Seriously. Other budding authors, how do you use twitter? Is it a waste of time? I am making this all up as I go.

Not for Naught

This has all been said before.

My book, my blarg, my parenting foibles, my running follies… none of it is particularly unusual or original. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to attempt any of these things on their own or, even, in combination. So what the heck am I bothering to write about all of it for?

Originality is a big deal. Being “the first” to do a thing matters. First man on the moon. First woman to become a doctor. First guy to pedal backwards on a unicycle for five hundred yards while juggling machetes and whistling the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Originality equals notoriety. But ours is a big world, and let’s face it… you have to go pretty far down the list of possible things before you find one that hasn’t been done already. And documented. And repeated under scientific conditions. And then tweeted about.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows sums this concept up nicely with the word, “Vemodalen”.

There’s something in us that drives us to attempt things that stretch our limits, even though they have been done (and probably been done better) before. The futility of that knowledge is a futility that can seep into the bones, grind the hard oak of gumption into sawdust, and rot away the steel supports of sticktoitiveness like so much battery acid. What matter is my voice, or yours, or anybody’s, in a swelling sea of millions of voices? No, scratch that, an ever-blossoming infinitude of voices?

It’s all for naught.

Or, at least, it can seem that way. But I think, ultimately, it’s foolish to think in terms of the big picture in that way; the way of adding one more voice to the howling snarling mass of the internet. In the scope of human communication, human achievement, human history, even the gods and giants among men are grains of sand in a kiddie pail. So you have two million followers on twitter? In a few years, the next big thing will be here. So you sold two million dollars’ worth of books? In ten years, your book will be on the bargain rack, if people are still talking about it at all. So you ran ten marathons in a year? Well, so did that guy… and that girl… and this other guy, except he did it wearing a tuxedo.

If you set out to have a universal effect, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The universe — even the earth, or even your country, your city — is too big to be moved by the likes of one person’s achievement. Nothing I can ever hope to write or teach my kids or accomplish in any other area of my life will push the planet from its orbit.

What I can do, though, is enrich a few lives around me. Maybe I can teach the kid on my soccer team to keep his cool when the other guy is cheating and let his talent speak for itself. Maybe I can teach my kid that it’s wrong to throw cars at dogs, or to smear peanut butter on the curtains, or to take off his pants and dance in circles. Or maybe I could teach him that those things are okay if they make him feel good. Whatever. Maybe I can do the dishes without making my wife ask me to do it, and make her day a little brighter by removing a smidgen of darkness from it. Maybe I can pick myself up a little bit for going on a run, or maybe I can forgive myself for not squeezing in that run this morning. Maybe by writing about all of it I can clear my own head and hammer some understanding out of the soft metal, maybe by getting the minutiae of the day down in this blarg I can get some perspective, like climbing to the top of a mountain just to see what my backyard looks like from a mile up.

Who cares if my voice isn’t unique, or original, or if some days I don’t know what to write, or if I take a few weeks off from the project because I’m staggered? As long as I keep coming back to it, as long as I’m moving forward instead of stagnating, the journey has value. Even if it’s just for me.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

Min/Maxing my Footwear

If you’re a regular at this blarg, or if you know me, then you know that I’ve been struggling with foot pain in one form or another for… ehh… erg… about a year and a half.

It started when I tore up my foot on a nail in our back porch, continued when I recovered from that injury and promptly blew up my left heel with plantar fasciitis, and continues further still when about a year ago I did something (doctor never did tell me exactly what was going on) to irritate the heel and Achilles in my right foot. The other injuries have all healed, but I’m still battling my right heel. The pain ebbs and flows like the tides. I’ll have good weeks and bad weeks, solid months and shaky months. One day I can go run a brisk eight miles and feel no ill effects, another day I can shuffle through a low-intensity three miles and be hobbling for days afterward. It’s maddening and frustrating.

And of course, it plays havoc with my running. It’s impossible to set any long-term goals because I don’t know if I’m going to have to slow down on my training to accommodate my injury throwing a tantrum. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to fit in some speed workouts again, and it’s been going fine… until Monday, when I tweaked the heel again and spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday limping.

My wife — ever incisive and ready to call me out when I’m being dumb (thanks honey) — pointed out that I started having all these issues about the time I went bananas over minimal shoes and started trying to do a lot of my runs in my Vibram FiveFingers. Shoes that I love. I’ve written about them before. For good measure, she points me to stories of marathon runners, like, just off the top, this one from the NY times; marathon runners, plagued by injuries, who have tried this new shoe and had their chronic injuries vanish like students in the bathroom when the principal walks by.

And I’m conflicted. I’m wary of the magic bullet, and I don’t want to believe that simply buying “the right pair of shoes” is going to solve my problems. By the same token, I don’t want to believe that wearing “the wrong pair of shoes” is responsible for the issues I’m having.

And that doesn’t even touch my bias. I got into running when the minimalist trend was flying high. I read Born to Run and bought into the hype. The thinking was “less cushioning, more natural mechanics”, and boy oh boy does that keep in touch with my philosophy in general. Or at least the philosophy I try to believe in. Less stuff gumming up the works. More focus on what you control. Letting the body do what it’s meant to do without gadgets or ridiculous footwear getting in the way. All that hippy-dippy treehugging kind of stuff.

Maximalist shoes, from my vantage point, seem to go against everything that I thought was neat about minimalist shoes. Minimal shoes strip out the cushioning so that you feel more of the ground beneath your foot. Maximal shoes cram more and more cushioning in there to further insulate you and make every step feel the same. Minimal shoes allow for fuller range of motion so that the leg and foot can follow the circuit nature designed for them more closely. Maximal shoes cut out the motion of the ankle instead, keeping you “locked in” to a “better form”. (I’m air-quoting those because those are my unstudied perceptions. Make no mistake, I’m not an expert, and I’m not nearly impartial.)

Also, and this cannot be stated heartily enough, maximal shoes look RIDICULOUS. Honestly, they look like elevator sneakers. Just look.

The thought of even putting those on my feet makes me feel like I’m going to topple over like a tower of tinker toys. (We won’t say anything about the goofy toe-gloves I prefer.)

Still, the demon of doubt is in there now, clanging off the inside of my skull and raising all sorts of argument. Much though I love my minimal shoes, I really don’t want to accept that this pain in my foot might just be something I have to live with for the rest of my life.

I love my minimal shoes, and I loved the thought of unburdening myself from conventional shoes. For a while, it was great. I want to believe they could be great for me again, but the possibility that my minimal shoes have done this to me is getting hard to ignore. Could there be something to this maximal movement? It’s all anecdotal evidence at this point, but could it work for me?

I have to find a way to make running work for me again. When I run well, I write well… when my running suffers, so too does my writing. Could these land-whales be the way to get it back?

I have to think about this.

Stuff Worth Watching – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

I am a lover of language.

I adore aphorisms. I moon over malapropisms. I can’t get enough of witty wordplays. And then there are things that take it to the next level completely.

I wrote a few weeks back about how I dig on inventing words — I think all writers do, for that matter — but for me, it’s something I just noodle with, inventing a word to suit the moment. More often, I’ll simply invent a word to fit a dumb little alliterative pattern, or worse, bend and break a word to rhyme it. But the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is next level word genesis.

His postulate — that other languages have words for complicated concepts, while English lacks the words for similar artful expression — is one that I’ve bemoaned, but Koenig takes the matter straight to the mat. He not only invents words in an academic fashion (spinning together etymologies of Greek, German, Chinese and so on), he creates hauntingly beautiful videos to illustrate the concepts. Sounds a little bit hokey or pretentious, but his creations are elegant in their simplicity.

Take, for example, the cynical angst of Vemodalen: the frustration at the knowledge that everything you do, every creative endeavor you pursue, everything, in fact, that makes you unique, is as subtly differentiated and as lasting as a snowflake on the wind. Sure, no snowflake is exactly like another, but who gives a sharknado in a blizzard of billions?

Or, perhaps the quiet reverent awe of Socha is more your flavor; that realization that other people are not merely supporting roles in the great sprawling film of your life, but that they are the protagonists in their own stories, and you are just an extra at a coffee shop. The shift in perspective could dislocate your spine.

Maybe, rather, you’re a parent (like me) experiencing Yu yi on an almost daily basis: the desire to experience the world through new eyes again as only a newborn can, casting aside expectation and the monotony of the routine to be delighted by the delicate staccato of raindrops in a pond, or the graceful carving of the sky by birds’ wings. It’s a great sadness that we can never again know the world with the joy and wonder of a newborn, but we can live it vicariously through them.

At any rate, if you’re a wordnerd like me, you owe it to yourself to take a glance at the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. There’s not much else like it on the web, much though our Vemodalen might tell us otherwise.