Tag Archives: life the universe and everything

Bend One Over For Me


My wife is a librarian.

She’s a lot smarter than I am, as I may have mentioned before. Which probably explains why she had a career, first in the news (where she wrote the words you’d see on your trusted news sites — and sometimes coming out of the anchors’ mouths), and second in the school system, facilitating students’ access to the carefully chosen words of thousands of authors and information sources.

She’s an expert, is what I’m trying to say, on the written word. And I’m, you know, working on that. Needless to say, our house is full (yeah, probably overly full) of books. We keep books everywhere: the bedside table, the downstairs library, the shelf in the living room, the cubby in the kitchen, our children’s bedrooms, our personal spaces at work, our bags going to and from work. I even keep books in my car, and I’ve been known to sneak a page in at that one reeeally long traffic light. We give books as gifts to each other and to others. We know books, we love books.

But one thing you’ll find in my books that you won’t find in hers? Dog-eared pages.

 

See, I used to re-read books that I enjoyed. I still do that occasionally, but I just don’t have the disposable time that I used to have. There are still, though, those passages in books of all stripes that just hit me — a nasty literary hook to the solar plexus, a wicked narrative cross to the temple — that I know I will want to experience again. I may not have time to go cover-to-cover again, but when I’m jonesing, I can pick up a tome I’ve traveled before and browse the greatest hits.

But how do I find them again?

I have to mark them.

I usually try to keep a pencil quick-to-hand, but especially at home, that isn’t always the case. When I’m neck-deep in a gripping read, the last thing I want to do is put the book down and cross the room. I’m not doing that. Plus, even if I do have a pencil handy, what are the odds I’m going to see my pencil mark as I flip through the pages? Not great. Sure, there are highlighters for such quandaries, but highlighting reminds me too much of school, and this is leisure, not work. So highlighting is out, for me. (Unless we’re talking e-books. Which we’re not. We have some standards around here. [Just kidding. E-books are great. I have lots of them. But you and I both know that there’s nothing like the real thing.])

No, if you really want to find that knockout passage again, you need to mark the whole page so that you can open right to it.

Again, there are methods for such things. Some people, I understand, like post-it notes or little scraps of paper. To that I say, who has the time? If I’m not going to interrupt my read to get a pencil, I’m darn sure not going to go downstairs to the office to get a post-it to stick between the pages. I’m not going to sit here and rip up a piece of paper to make a dozen tiny bookmarks. (Also, they fall out!) Nonsense.

No, what I’m going to do, when I find that lexical 10-point-dive, is I’m going to do what any lazy (read: normal) person would do. I’m going to read it, realize I’ve just had my world rocked, read it again, then reach up to the top of the page and bend that corner over. Bang. Done. I didn’t have to get up, I don’t have to fiddle with other implements, and I’ve created an effortless-to-find mark in the book that will last, at the very least, until I open the book again.

It probably goes without saying (though I am happy to say it anyway) that I have a chosen handful of books so dog-eared that the unbent pages are rarer than their bent brethren. My copy of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide comes to mind. As does my (and I shake my head a little at this) little pink-covered edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I may not have the time to read them again these days (for the fourth, or the fifth, or the forty-fifth time), but if I need a fix I can crack them open and browse through some of the passages that made me love them.

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Assuming I can find the passage I was looking for. Heck, I’ll find SOMETHING good on one of those pages.

If not for dog-ears, where would I be? Lost, that’s where.

Which, for my personal collection of Books That I Own, is fine.

But I’ve rediscovered the library, lately. And, oooooooooh, does my wife have a problem with me putting a dog-ear in a library book.

Because if books are sacred (and inasmuch as I hold that nothing is sacred, books may be the closest thing to it), then library books are doubly so. They belong not to one, but to all. They are a shared resource, a tool for the entire community. Bending the pages is damaging them, she says, as surely as is scribbling in the margins, bending the cover back, or dropping them in a puddle. I’m leaving the book in a less-than state for the next reader when I damage it.

And, as far as damage goes? Yes, I totally agree. Library books, by dint of their communal nature, are sacred and should be taken extra care with. (Don’t end a sentence with a preposition, they said. Avoid passive voice, they said. Rules are for breaking.)

But I hold that dog-earing, and even the occasional note in the margins (I wouldn’t write in the margins personally, but I don’t mind finding writing in the margins), is the antithesis of damage. It’s enrichment.

In fact, if I find that a book I’ve just checked out is dog-eared up already? Ooh boy, I know I’m in for a treat. A dog-ear in a book I haven’t read yet is a flashing neon sign, the finger of an unseen deity saying “the stuff you want in this book? It’s right here.” If it’s a nonfiction book, I’m opening right to that page. In fiction, I note that page the way you note the dessert table on your way into a buffet. Can’t wait to get THERE. (Seems like I’m having a food motif of late around here. Couldn’t possibly be the new diet.)

So, naturally, I feel that when I dog-ear the pages of an enjoyable book, I’m returning the favor. Paying it forward. Marking off the trail for the prospective readers yet to come. And if it does benefit the next reader, that’s awesome. But the truth is, I would do it anyway. Dog-earing a book is one of those rare acts which is both selfish and serves the community. I do it for myself, but it might benefit somebody else, too, and I think that’s awesome.

Heck, Kindle — or maybe it’s Google Books, or maybe both — will already identify for you the passages that other readers often highlight in the books you read. Isn’t this basically the same thing?

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The library-owned copy of “10% Happier” I’m currently working through. Sorry not sorry!

Still, my wife scowls at me when she catches me at it. “How can you do that to a library book?” she demands.

How can you not, I don’t dare say in return.

Except that, uh, the jig will be up when she reads this.

So … yeah.

Am I wrong for this? Or is this not a service we owe to one another?

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Metaphor Monday – The Creative Eclipse


As Neil de Grasse Tyson pointed out on twitter a few days ago, the hubbub over the eclipse is a bit overblown. Solar eclipses happen every two years or so; they’re just not common in your area thanks to orbital trigonometry or some such sciencey nonsense.

Still, it’s a hell of a thing. And but for the things we know about science, it could be thought to be a magical thing. Certainly for many it’s a spiritual thing: a reminder that we live in a world of wonders where the strange and unusual not only happens from time to time, but is actually guaranteed to happen. For those of us in the right place, at the right time, we get treated to a celestial light show that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime.

But it’s funny, isn’t it? All the attention we’re giving to the sun in the past couple of weeks and days, just because the math happens to line up for a tiny subset of the population of our pale blue dot. For the sun, after all, today is a day not a speck different from any other. And for 90% of the planet, today is a day not a speck different from any other.

When was the last time you even considered the sun? Aside, perhaps, from wishing it didn’t shine into your eyes at precisely that angle on your evening commute? When was the last time you thought about when it would be at such-and-such point in the sky, or where the moon was in relation to it, or how bright it might be, or how long you could look at it and with what protective eyewear?

You didn’t, that’s when. The sun went about its business, and you went about yours, and the only time you cared about it was when the sun wasn’t going about its business, which is to say, when it was blocked out and day became night and the lizardmen roamed the earth and every bird everywhere flew into the side of every house in hopes of escaping the impending apocalypse.

But the sun didn’t know, or care, that today was an eclipse. The sun shone down on our insignificance today like any other day, and it was only through the luck of our particular geolocation that we experienced anything unusual at all. We only noticed anything was unusual because our perception of the thing got interfered with.

In other words, the thing was working fine; we only noticed it because it seemed not to be.

Which is basically the perfect metaphor for the writer’s brain.

Your brain, your creative engine, the beating heart of your imagination — it’s a glowing orb of nuclear fusion burning brightly away between your earholes. It’s always there, always kicking ideas out, always doing what it does. (This, I’m pretty sure, is why I’m always having off-the-wall thoughts that I immediately dismiss, i.e.: what if the cars just started floating off the highway right now? What if we all suddenly forgot what words meant and we had to start over from scratch with current technology? What it there was a guy who could literally see time? (For some reason, my creative stream-of-consciousness sounds a lot like my stoned college buddies.)

All of which is fine and good for the writer working on projects and having all the time he (or she, obviously) could want to give vent to those ideas. Like the sun spraying out heat and light and radiation in all directions, the brain just goes on creating.

Until something gets in the way.

Like your job. Or your much-delayed move. Or a shattering sense of unworthiness and self-doubt. These things get in the way of the flow ideas, much like the moon moving across the path of the sun, and screw up the daylight. And then, all of a sudden, we’re like “why isn’t my brain working? Why can’t I get anything done?”

When of course your brain is working just like before; the radiation of ideas just isn’t penetrating the morass of goop gunking up the rest of your head.

And how do you de-gunk the goop?

Well, if I had that answer, I’d have a lot more work done on my current WIP than I do, and I wouldn’t have lost nearly the productivity I lost over the summer. Like the moon drifting through the path of the sun, I tend to think it’ll happen on its own. But also like the drifting moon, it seems to happen in its own time.

Which is a bummer, to be sure.

But — one last thread to connect this metaphor — even a sliver of the visible sun is enough to bring daylight to the world, and even a sliver of creative energy is enough to get you writing again.

In the meantime, get yourself some shades and enjoy the light show.

So, just wait. It’ll pass.

Eventually.

I think.

 


Metaphor Monday: The Ins and Outs of Beauty


Hey guys!

Seeing as posts around here and posting time for me have been in such shockingly short supply of late, I reached out to long-time friend of the blog and man-about-internets, Glenavailable, to fill in a Metaphor Monday post for me. Glen being the sporting sort, he promised me a piece in about three weeks’ time and delivered it the next day.

He’s a heck of a guy, and spends his time splattering words around over at his Scenic Writer’s Shack. Enjoy!

Wanna hear a confession?

When given the choice between inner beauty and mere surface beauty, on a great many occasions I’ve opted to wade, frolic and generally amuse myself in the decidedly shallow end of the pool.

It happened only yesterday.

Hungry, I made a selection from my kitchen-benchtop fruitbowl, heading straight for the banana direct from central casting whose high-beam yellow color coating was so gloriously perfect it seemed to come with its own ready-made promotional line – “People will stare: why not make it worth their while?”

Sitting right alongside nature’s gift to banana-hood, lay a black-sheep relative – another banana, far less endowed with the outer beauty gene and painted with a very different pallet – this one showcasing small-pox patterned black spots. I didn’t trouble ‘it’ for even a second look. I fully knew that beneath that blemished exterior, the quality and taste of the fruit would have in all likelihood been the equal of its more air-brushed companion. I even made the effort to remind myself it wasn’t the skin I’d be eating (unlike Kevin Spacey’s mental patient character in the 2001 movie K-PAX).

So what’s the takeaway? Probably something as intuitive as why settle for the singular experience of just inner beauty when you can have the synergistic one on the not overly common occasions when outer beauty gets thrown in as well.

To cite another example: a few days before the ‘fruitbowl decision’, I’d entered a bicycle shop with an eye to buying what these days goes by the name of a ‘road bike’. With a budget of just $500, the backward-baseball-cap–wearing shop guy presented me with just two entry-level options – The “Aquila” for $300 or for $150 more, the large, broad-winged and soaring sounding “Condor”.

To my unschooled, ‘babe in the woods’ eyes, the working parts on both machines were identical – same chains, same rims, same brake levers, same cranksets, same gear systems, same peddles with the strap-in racing holsters. Same… everything! The added expense of one bike over the other as far as I could reason was down to one thing – looks.
The Condor resembled a black-olive Ferrari – coated from head to toe in that non-reflective matt finish most commonly associated with Stealth Fighter Jets. The less expensive Aquila, by comparison, looked like… well, a speckled banana, splash-decorated by a herd of over-excited, under-coordinated pre-schoolers. So what did I end up riding out of the store on? My own little black Stealth Fighter Jet of course.

To visibly dilute the opening line of this thought-piece regarding a ‘confession’, I will say I am not ashamed to admit a liking for package deals that combine the charms of both inner and outer beauty. Like an alchemist’s dream, when both elements are brought together, an entity both exquisite and sublime is what can very often result; rare and true beauty as dazzling and affecting as fireworks, as comforting as a lullaby and as fulfilling as an eight course banquet.

Breathtaking when it happens.

Metaphor Monday is about pointing out how things are like other things and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things. Got an idea for next week’s post? Let me hear it in the comments.

 


It’s Us Versus Us


We live in a weird, weird world.

NASA is working on getting us to Mars, but most people can more readily tell you what’s going on in the Kim K. / Taylor Swift feud than what’s going on in space. We’re in the midst of the most insane presidential election — literally — but most people can’t even name their local representative in the state Senate — a person who has vastly more influence over your life than the president will.

We pay attention to the wrong things, and we do it in the most messed-up way.

The election is an obvious, easy-to-hand example. You’re either Pro-Trump or #NeverTrump. Either “I’m with her” or “Hillary for Prison.”

Then start down the list of issues. Gay marriage: Either you carry a bible in your front vest pocket and insist that homosexual unions will destroy the fabric of the country if not the world, or you literally vomit rainbows and gay pride all over all your social media. Gun control: You’re either Rambo, walking the streets with an arsenal enough for a small country strapped over each arm, crowing about the 2nd amendment when you stop to reload, or you’re a hippie living in a dream world, trying to take every gun away from every law-abiding person everywhere while you’re getting murdered by the host of murderers lining up outside your door. Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter.

Get away from the election, and things don’t change. Take any issue in our time. Abortion? You either care about all life and will fight against all sense and decency for every human cell that ever embedded in a uterus, or you’re a bloodthirsty baby-murderer just waiting to chop up some babies. GMOs? They’re either the way and the future and the necessary outgrowth of the world we live in, or they’re Frankenfoods engineered by Monsanto to control your mind and turn you into a gubmint drone. Pokemon Go? It’s either the literal best thing that has ever happened to you in your couch-hugging, socially introverted life, or it’s the bane of your existence and you hope it dies in a virtual electronic fire.

This is our world, now. It (and I’m not even 100% sure what “it” is — maybe the internet, maybe social media, maybe just media, maybe it’s actually the personified world we live in) seeks out the black and white like a vampire running from the sun, it eschews shades of grey the way I eschew Fifty Shades of Grey.

You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them. Republican/Democrat. Pro-gun/Anti-gun. Pro-life/pro-choice. Dog person/cat person. Waffles/pancakes. Go ahead, laugh. But you know you can think up some anti-waffle propaganda just off the top of your head. (Nothing but straight lines with those jerks, and they’re in bed with BIG IRON, right?)

We’re social critters. We long to belong. And while it’s nice to be able to bond over the things we love, it’s a lot easier to find commonality in the things we hate. In-group/out-group. Those people over there? They’re the enemy. They don’t think like you. They don’t believe like you. They don’t share your values. How can you let them have their way?

Think about it. Trump, possibly the most unfit candidate to grace politics since there was even a word for politics, might win, not because people love him, but because they hate Hillary. Clinton, one of the most hated and untrusted figures in recent memory, might win, not because people love her, but because they are terrified of Trump.

I know I post a lot about politics around here. Maybe (okay, probably) (okay, DEFINITELY) too much. But I’m writing about it because this stuff is weighing on my mind. I’m really scared of what’s going to happen in this country after this election, regardless of how it shakes out. Not in that aw, I’m moving to Canada if xxx wins way that everybody always talks about. But in that way where I actually dread turning on the television in the morning, or opening up a news website, because I know I’m only going to see some new horror visited upon this country by its own citizens. By people who are twisted up in knots by this us vs. them mentality that permeates every aspect of every issue.

I fear that we could see another presidential assassination. Regardless of who wins. People on both sides hate each candidate enough, and we get so riled up about it all. Certainly there are enough guns lying around. It’s not hard to imagine some nutjob going off the rails and killing either one of them. Hell, it’s not hard to imagine some guy down the street who you thought was normal doing it.

I hate to pick on the RNC, because I know the DNC is going to have its own idiocy going on as well, but, well, the RNC is going on right now. I look at the speeches and the people on the stage and it terrifies me. Otherwise ordinary people telling a room full of other otherwise ordinary people that some other otherwise ordinary people outside this room are lawless, lazy people that want to see the country burn. People with no more political sense than a goldfingered golf-course gopher insisting that they’re sure the acting president is working for the enemy. People holding mock trials for their political opponents and whipping the crowd into a tear-streaked, red-faced frenzy.

And I know the DNC is going to go the same way, just in the opposite direction.

What’s so easy to forget, here, is that those people? You know, the ones you don’t agree with? The ones whose viewpoints you can’t even fathom? The ones whose brains must not even be functioning properly, whose thinking is so backward it’d be better if they just died off and left the country to the rest of us, who are single-handedly flushing the country down the tubes?

Those people?

They are our neighbors. Our dentists, our doctors, our lawyers. They bag our groceries and change the oil in our cars and patrol our streets and teach our children and defend our country and and and…

They aren’t robots. They aren’t faceless soldiers in an enemy army. They didn’t get their viewpoints with the latest firmware update on their birthday. They thought about these issues. Weighed them. Cared a lot about them. Maybe not recently, but at some point, they engaged their brain and made the best decision they could based on the best information they had.

And maybe their information was bad, but that’s not their fault. And maybe a trusted source is giving them deliberately misleading information, but that’s not their fault either.

They are just, to use a really tired cliche, like you and me.

We need to remember that.

Image of the Earth from Apollo 17

We need to remember that when our parents are telling us, beyond all belief, that they like Trump. We need to remember that when our co-workers tell us they don’t see what the big deal is with the whole Black Lives Matter thing. We need to remember that when our kids tell us that they’re gay or straight or trans or whatever.

They didn’t just make this stuff up. They’re not crazy just because they take the other side of the issue.

They are human.

It’s not us versus them.

It’s us versus us.

If we want to heal as a country, if we want to come through this thing (and again, I’m not even sure what I mean by “this thing” — the election? the decade? life, the universe, and everything?) in one piece, we’ve got to stop demonizing the “other” and start seeing each other as equals. We have to start trying to understand one another rather than just shouting about how right we are and how wrong they are.

That’s not a race thing, not a gender thing, not a religion thing.

It’s a human thing.

And we need to start acting like it.

I’m going off the political posts for a while, because I really just can’t. I can’t with the plagiarized speeches, with the shootings of and by police, with the protests, with the terrorist attacks. Lighter fare in the days to come, I promise. Probably gonna write about American Ninja Warrior or something ridiculous like that just to clear the pipes.

Photo: “The Blue Marble,” property of NASA.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: If-Then


What if life were like the movies? Or like books, or video games, or music?

What if life were like stories?

Let me back up. At one time in my life, I entertained the possibility of becoming a computer programmer. It made sense of a sort: I’m decent with computers, certainly I use computers a lot, and I’m kind of fascinated with what computers are able to do. I don’t, unfortunately, have the meticulous, detail-oriented mind that programming calls for. Still, I learned a few things about programming, one of which is the if-then parameter, which is the cornerstone of programming.

If this thing happens, then do this other thing. If this condition is met, proceed with the program.

It’s simple but critical. And it’s there in our stories, too. If you see a gun in the first act, then you expect to see that gun fired in the third act. If the main character starts off as kind of a jerk, then he will have some change of heart by the end. If this character is afraid of flying, then you can bet the farm he’ll have to get on a plane before the story runs its course.

But those are big if-thens. They are everywhere in stories. If the character has that extra drink, then you know he’s going to do something extra-stupid before the night is out. If she leaves a MacGuffin at home when she goes out, then that will be the very night she NEEDED the MacGuffin. If John McClane takes off his shoes, then the writers will be sure to make him tromp across broken glass.

You can predict what’s going to happen in stories, then, by paying attention to the little things characters do.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were the same way?

If I wear this tie, the boss will recognize that I’m going the extra mile and give me a promotion. If I put in this time at the gym, I’ll end up with the body I always dreamed of. If I have a good breakfast, the rest of the day will go great.

Life is never so convenient. We prepare, we plan, we make adjustments on the fly, and life still blindsides us. There are no guarantees, there are no simple straight lines from the actions we take to the consequences we make.

Which could be disheartening, really. I mean, right now, I’m living my life in the hopes that: If I sink in all this time working on my writing and my novels, then I’ll get published and make tons and tons of money. But that isn’t a guarantee. It might not even be likely. Likewise, If I’m diligent about exercising, then I’ll enjoy a long, healthy life. But nope, that’s not automatic either. My books might never be published. I might get smacked by a bus tomorrow, or contract some horrible long-debilitating cancer that cripples me.

Life, to summarize, is a crap shoot.

So why try, right?

If the if-thens you set out have no bearing on the world at all, then what’s the point of planning, of trying? Damn, that’s dark and reductionist. And too often, I think — especially in this country — we think too much in that rigid if-then way. If I do this thing, spend this money, invest this time, then I expect these results. And if I can’t be guaranteed, then I’m not doing it.

We need to adjust our if-thens.

If I sink in this time working on my writing and my novels, Then maybe I can learn something about myself, entertain myself, and maybe possibly entertain a few other people, too. If I focus on my health, then I can improve the quality of the time I have, I can get stronger physically and mentally, I can do things I might not otherwise have been able to do.

Sometimes I look at life as a long con, where you keep your eyes on the distant prize and keep working toward that. The spire in the distance, the North Star that keeps you oriented.

But I think just as important is keeping focused on the immediate, the things you can count on, the real-life stuff that life throws at your feet.

Life doesn’t care about our big plans. Life owes us nothing. Best we can do is make the best we can out of the things we spend our time on.

And make sure we’re focused on the right if-thens.

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.

 


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