Category Archives: Ramble

A Whiff of Distraction


You probably already know that the sense of smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. You catch a whiff of something that smells like it might have been the perfume your grandmother used to not so much dab as douse herself in, and all of a sudden you’re five years old again, playing trains in the basement while she watches The Price is Right upstairs.

But did you know why?

It turns out that as the human brain evolved (and yes, I know, the “human” brain wasn’t a human brain until we were humans and categorizing evolutionary changes can be arbitrary, just roll with me), more and more layers were added on to the pre-existing brain tissue. In other words, as we grew “smarter,” we had to keep growing more and more brain to support it. This makes sense. But as we grew bigger brains, the sensory inputs grew with them. Each sense developed its own area of the brain, and like a sulky teenager moving into the basement room, claimed that space as its own.

But not the sense of smell. Your sense of smell stayed put right where it was, in the primordial lizard brain that handles things like breathing and balance and whether to run from that weird sound in the bushes or attack it with an axe. This has kept the sense of smell in relatively close contact with other brain functions — especially base functions — which is, incidentally, why we still use smelling salts, of all things, to rouse an unconscious person: the sense of smell continues to function even while you’re asleep. (This is also why your significant other can sometimes wake you up in the middle of the night with their, uh, emissions. Not that I would know anything about that.)

I know all this courtesy of an article I read (or rather, that I am in the process of reading) on Wait But Why, which is my latest internet diversionary tactic. Tim Urban, the proprietor, does these deep dives (and I mean, drilling through the bottom of the Marianas Trench) on all kinds of topics, from science to futurism to philosophy, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Which is a great way to keep yourself away from a project that’s giving you the screaming willies — just pretend that, you know, everything is probably fine in that particular Scrivener file; certainly the problems in the draft aren’t compounding and spiraling out of control, or coalescing into an insuperable plot monster while you’re keeping your head down and trying to finish out the school year, probably I’m not losing all the momentum I spent the year spinning up, almost definitely my neglected characters aren’t concocting my comeuppance. Nope. Definitely none of those things are happening.

Of course, the problem with spending time on a site like Wait But Why is that it fills your head with all kinds of crazy ideas for other stories you’d like to write, which is also great for your current project, and not distracting from it in any way. You’re trying to puzzle through your current set of #writerproblems and you keep thinking about that awesome idea about two police officers sharing a brain, or a terrorist group weaponizing mosquitoes with Crispr technology,  or or or…

You know, because you don’t already have two first drafts in desperate need of editing right now.

*looks around*

*tries not to think about the current edit*

*sets the computer on fire*

Two more days of school, y’all.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


The Fermi Paradox and Why You Should Talk to Your Kids


Are you listening to This American Life? If you aren’t, you should. Every week, they take a topic, and bring you stories about and around that topic. It’s marvelously produced, always interesting and sometimes touching; and, not for nothing, it’s the predecessor of some other smash-hit podcasts like Serial and S-Town. (Serial’s first-season was off-the-chain good, but its follow-up was less so. S-Town apparently had quite the following but left me more than a little frustrated in the end — too many bait-and-switches as it pretended to be about one thing when it was really about another thing, oh wait, no, it’s really about this thing over here. But I digress.)

This week’s episode is Fermi’s Paradox, which is a topic that — well. To say it fascinates me is undercutting things a bit, sort of like saying cats are fascinated by laser pointers. For the uninitiated, the Fermi Paradox is essentially this: If the universe is so mind-bogglingly vast, and the chances for alien life therefore so (theoretically) inevitable, then why have we yet to see any signs of any aliens? Or, put even more simply: we shouldn’t be alone, yet we seem to be all alone.

Personally, I fall squarely on the side that believes there must be life elsewhere in the universe, and (less obligatorily) that it is exceedingly likely that some of it should be intelligent. It’s the height of hubris, in my view, to think that we’re it. “Where, then, are the aliens,” you ask? Well, I take the view that Neil deGrasse Tyson takes (if I’m religious at all — and I’m not — then it’s about real, and really intelligent people like NDT), which is something along the lines of:

Given what we know about space, to say that ‘there are no aliens’ is like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean, seeing there are no whales in it, and concluding that whales do not exist.

Anyway.

This American Life is taking on the Fermi Paradox this week, but in typical This American Life fashion, it’s not just the story itself, but stories thematically linked to that story. In orbit, if you will, around the theme. And while I enjoyed the straightforward take on the Fermi Paradox (wherein the — reporter? storyteller? guy with the recorder? — speaks with a dean of physics and a head of SETI), what really got me was the last segment. Which had nothing to do with aliens; it was about loneliness.

Right? Because, where are the aliens –> are we alone in the universe –> loneliness is the worst.

So the last segment is about a father and his daughter, who at the time was nine, having this communication breakdown. He was a work-at-home type, and she was the precocious question-asking type (which is to say, perfectly normal), and she would always pester him with questions. Why this. Why that. How do birds fly? Why do we breathe? (I know this life. My son once asked me how we could put out the sun. I think XKCD addressed this once. [update — he did!]) And the father, like any exasperated father, got frustrated and tried to think of an easy way out.

“Look. Stop asking me these questions. If they really matter to you, write them down, and I’ll answer them then.” (Again, I know this life. Tell the kid to think about what they’re saying, and they’ll get distracted smashing some Lego constructions to bits and forget about it. This is how I solve most of my problems as a father. “Ask me again later” is the only way I survive most days.) He fully expected maybe a few questions and a drawing of a bunny. What he got, a few days later, was a fifty-question list, which he began to dutifully research and answer as best he could, citing sources like Kierkegaard for the philosophical ones and Einstein for the science. Laboring for months over his earnest responses to her earnest questions. Which he would then dutifully explain to her.

These answers, naturally, flew over her head for the most part. But that didn’t matter. The twist, of course, is that the daughter didn’t care about the answers to the questions; she just wanted her dad to talk to her.

Heartbreaking and adorable, and my two-paragraph summary doesn’t do any of it an inch of justice. I teared up in the car on the way to school. (But I didn’t cry. MEN DON’T CRY.)

And of course, it got me thinking about my own interactions with my own kids, and realizing that, you know, I should probably talk to them some more.

The segment in question starts around the 34-minute mark, but the whole episode is worth a listen.


Toddler Life, ch. 419 — Cite Your Source


“Dad, I’m drinking ink.”

It’s 6 AM, and when your five-year-old says he’s drinking ink at 6 AM, you forget for the moment about overactive imaginations and the fact that five-year-olds will say just about anything for the pure joy of trying it out. I whirl and look, and he’s grinning at me with a made-you-look smile, his tiny hands wrapped around his Pokemon tumbler and a smear of pink foam glazing his lip.

The sleepy haze recedes a bit. Of course he’s not drinking ink; he’s drinking my smoothie. But where’d he get that idea? Ink? It’s …

I haven’t said anything to him yet, and this kid requires a response to everything he says, no matter how off-handed or to-himself it seems to be, so he starts repeating himself.

“DAD. I’m drinking ink.”

“Ink?”

“Yeah. Pink ink.”

Pink ink. Pink ink? That sounds Seussian. More fog recedes. It is Seussian. He goes in cycles — about two weeks at a time, wherein he loves a certain book like air itself while totally forgetting whatever book he was over the moon about just a few days prior. Currently, the Book he Loves is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The nonsensical novelletta about a menagerie of monsters.

I hate this book.

I grow to hate all the books he loves; as an adult, you can only read the same series of simple sentences so many times before you begin to memorize it, and once you’re muttering the phrases to yourself as you walk the halls at your job, well, you start to suffer from social problems more than you already do.

This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say, what a lot of fish there are!

(And then the murders began.)

I hate this book more than most, though, because it’s not a narrative, not a story. Every page just presents a new, weird little critter, spurts off a few rhymes, and then sends you on your merry way to the next critter. No throughline, just “look at this weird little thing. Isn’t it weird? Hey, here’s another one!”

But at the same time, I hear a tiny voice from the depths of distant memory telling me that I once loved this book — our copy of it was quite well-worn — when I was my son’s age, for much the same reason as I hate it now. The sing-songy little rhymes. The cute little creatures. I dug it.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The morning haze recedes enough for me to realize — he’s quoting the book. Which is awesome. I mean, sure, thinking about the Yink kinda makes me want to put an elbow through a wall (really? It drinks pink ink, and that’s it? There’s nothing else worth mentioning about it? How about those bizarro weird tufts of fur all up its neck? Can you explain for me the evolutionary processes that spawned those, perhaps? WHO CARES WHAT IT EATS?). But the kid is quoting literature. Identifying with a character from a book. I approve of this development in general, if not in the particulars of the moment.

But I’m a dad. And the dad circuits are waking up. I can’t just say, “oh, that’s nice.” I have to tease. I have to troll.

So I say, “oh, that’s right. You’re drinking ink like the Gox.”

He laughs at me. “No, dad. The Gox doesn’t drink pink ink. That’s not the one.”

I nod and smile. “That’s right. I remember. It’s not the Gox. It’s the Zeds. They drink pink ink with one hair upon their heads.”

His smile disappears, replaced with a scowl. “Dad, no. You’re not getting it right. It’s not the Zeds.”

I smack my forehead. “I forgot. It’s the wump. That one –”

“Dad! Stop! You’re not paying attention.” He’s mad now. He hops down from the bench and goes running upstairs, only to reappear a moment later with the book clutched in his tiny paws. He plops it on the table, starts flipping pages, finds what he’s after. Turns to me, with every ounce of I-told-you-so that a five-year-old can muster dripping from his voice.

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“See, dad? It’s the Yink.”

And I pause. Blink. Things start to rattle around in my brain. This little midget just cited his source on me.

As a teacher who has been trying for seven years to convince students of the importance of doing exactly this thing — to point to your source material and use it to prove the point you’re making, so you’re not just pissing opinions into the wind — I’m gobsmacked. My five-year-old just did this thing automatically, for a thing that had literally zero stakes.

He can craft an argument. Make a literary allusion. Cite his source.

If he could just write his own name, he’d be ready to graduate high school.


Who Ever Wanted More Deadlines?


Nothing motivates like a deadline. You put the thing off, put the thing off, park it in the backyard, let it grow a few weeds. A family of squirrels takes up residence. Winter comes, the squirrels leave. Then the deadline looms and, hey, holy crap, it’s time to clean that thing up. Pull the weeds out. Excise the dead squirrels. Somehow this work gets managed in the relative blink of an eye, not because you want it to be done, but because it has to get done.

Or else, what? Or else, there are consequences.

Getting the house ready to sell was a perfect example of this. We had a leaky toilet. A dripping faucet. Tons of little dings in the drywall. Junk in the garage. Sagging gutters. All of these, things which I wanted to get done someday, but which I was not interested in actually doing. For years. Then, we have to get the house ready to sell, and I manage to do them all in about a week.

I was motivated from without by a deadline of sorts: you can’t sell the house until you fix the broken things.

This is the problem with my writing, of late: I’m a hobbyist at this point, and as a hobbyist, there are no deadlines. If I finish a thing? Great; I get my dopamine hit, but that’s about it. If I don’t finish a thing? I haven’t lost anything besides my time. I may feel bad about myself, but there are no tangible, concrete consequences.

Which is why it feels like my projects are stretching out and piling up like rusted-out cars in the backyard. Like a house full of honey-do’s.

Of course, I do have deadlines in my actual job, so it’s easier and easier to let those narrative toilets keep leaking. With writing, it’s all-or-nothing — I’m either thinking about it all the time, consumed with it virtually every waking minute, or I can’t keep my mind on it at all. With the deadlines flying around like a swarm of angry bees, it’s more of a nothing writing phase.

What I need, then, is obvious: I need some good, external, consequence-riddled deadlines for my projects.

I hear there are apps and services that will provide this motivation for you. Like, if you haven’t done what you said you’d do — lose fifteen pounds by the summer, finish that first draft — they donate to a political cause you hate with money you staked on yourself back when you were full of piss and vinegar about doing the thing in the first place. But that feels gimmicky and cheeky and disingenuous. I need the carrot, man. I need the stick.

Actually, what I need is to be finished with this school year — the transition has wreaked havoc on my writing habit — and get on with getting moved into the new house. (Upshot: we have accepted an offer on our current house, so we can start looking for a new place in earnest, now.) Maybe when I can silence those deadlines, I can start imposing some weird and crazy deadlines on myself.

Like, I dunno. If I don’t finish the first edit by x date, I’ll have to eat a live spider, or something.

Oh god.

I’d better get to work.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Hoop-Snakes and Hand Grenades (I lied, there are no hand grenades, it’s just a post about Trump)


As the noose seems to be tightening around Trump’s neck, consider:

Trump rode his mastery of media to celebrity status to improve his brand. He was a master at giving people what they wanted on TV (namely, controversy and unpredictability), and he parlayed that into gold-star status for himself, notwithstanding what his actual bank assets may or may not have been (because he still hasn’t — and likely never will — release his tax returns, whee!).

Donald Trump used the media to become a household name.

Not content with that, he launched a presidential bid, because if some black man can do it, well, surely the Donald can stamp his name on the history books in tacky gold lamé. And the media had a field day. Ridiculous! Scandalous! Look at this deluded orange guy, thinking he can swoop in wearing a funny red hat and take over our democracy! They gobbled it up — it was ratings gold, this unpredictable, trollish, angry man who would do anything, say anything, grab anybody by the whatever, and still garner support on the way. They ate it up because we ate it up.

The media used Donald Trump to bolster their ratings.

But they went a step too far, didn’t they? All that coverage was really publicity, because even bad publicity is good publicity, innit? When all that matters in our world of likes and follows and shares and retweets is your name in somebody else’s mouth, the man everybody’s talking about is king. And Trump was, for better or — no, scratch that, decidedly for worse — the name on everybody’s tongue. (BRB scrubbing my tongue.) Everybody was talking about him, and love him or hate him, at least he was different, and since everybody hates the current governmental situation — I mean, congress, amirite?? — a hot handful of Americans were willing to bet the house on “shake things up.”

And now, things are decidedly shook.

Donald Trump used the media to become president.

Then the media panicked. Holy hell, it actually happened. This is terrible for the country — but good for the media. Now, they could legitimately cover the orange one ’round the clock. The man who made his name on being unpredictable and shameless and greedy certainly wasn’t going to stop doing those things just because he became the most powerful man in the world. (Power corrupts, but what happens when you’re already corrupt and then come to power? We are slowly finding out.) The media, therefore, has an endless supply of Trump’s twitter-turds to feast upon, ill-tempered sackings to pore over, thinly-veiled (in wisps of just-visible steam) threats to pontificate upon.

And again, the media is using Trump to bolster its ratings.

Now, Trump loves attention — it’s attention that made him the man he is, for better or — nope, there I go again, it’s DEFINITELY for worse. But what he doesn’t love is attention on every sneaky little thing he does. Dealings between his campaign and Russia? Don’t want you peeking into that. Using his old tweets and campaign promises to shoot down his executive orders? No, thank you. So what does he do? He turns on the media. Tries to discredit them. Fake news, fake news, fake news. Believe me, not them. He’s trying to convince us that he is more trustworthy, more honest, more believable than the institutions that he abused to get where he is.

He bit the hand that fed him.

It was a vicious cycle. The media hated Trump, but it also loved him, because he helped them in his bizarre orange way. They created their nemesis.

But now, as it becomes increasingly apparent that we’ve literally handed the keys to the nation’s supply of fighter jets and nuclear weapons to a man who is, you know, orange, and about as even-tempered as my two-year-old, we seem closer than ever to actually righting this wrong (and by “we” I mean literally any Republican in Washington who might spontaneously grow a spine). Because the more Trump flails around — don’t look into that, won’t be making a statement there, by the way, this guy is fired, also that guy is fired, and if he talks he’ll be super-fired — the guiltier he looks. Nobody bothers thinking you’re hiding something until you act like you have something to hide, and nobody acts like he’s hiding something like Trump. (Again — tax returns. I’m still stuck on that, which would have been relevant WAY before all this Russia stuff.)

If the media is good at anything, it’s good at hounding an issue to death. The media, properly motivated, is an old, droopy-eared bloodhound with jaws like a gator — it won’t stop chasing you and when it gets its teeth into you, you’ll never get them out again.

Donald Trump pissed off the media, and created his nemesis.

The media created Donald Trump, the president we all love to hate. And Trump created the crusading media, which won’t rest until they drag him down from the office they put him in.

It’s a symbiotic relationship forged in hell’s depths. An ouroboros that devours its own tail to reconstruct itself.

I’m beginning to think it’s possible — maybe just possible, the flicker of a candle fighting to stay alight in the heart of a tornado — that he may get impeached even while Republicans still control the house and the Senate. If for no other reason than because he’s only one man, and even with his army of toadies around him, he won’t escape the bloodhound. The media has decided (rightly so) that he has to go, and if this Russia / Comey thing doesn’t bury him, well, they’ll find something else.

But when it’s all said and done, what happens to the media? Like a dog that’s finally caught the mailman, what will they do with their time, when that time comes? Is it a good thing that the media is powerful enough to set its sights on and (hopefully) bring down a president?

Seriously, it’s hard to remember what news was like before this whole Trump debacle. Can we get back to that?

Please?

*Scurries off to watch reruns of The Newsroom*


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