Tag Archives: life the universe and everything

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.

 


Sidewalk (Lack of) Wisdom


I was out for a run yesterday when I did something I haven’t done in a long time.

I fell.

Not like a stumble where you catch yourself and you recover, a little embarrassed but otherwise unharmed,  or a slip on the ice that drops you to your backside, sore but at least safe in the knowledge that it could happen to anybody when it’s snowy and icy out and this is Atlanta, after all, who even knows how to deal with ice in the first place?

No, this was a full-on, sprawled on the ground, call-the-paramedics-because-that-old-guy-probably-busted-his-hip fall. A marionette with its strings cut. An AT-AT Walker foot-roped by plucky Hothian rebels.

Bad times. Seriously. Since you’ve been grown, when’s the last time you fell? Like really fell?

I’ve stumbled here and there on trail runs: a gnarled and angry tree root sticks up out of the trail like an angry old man’s cane and it snags your toe as you shuffle past. Luckily, on the trail, you’re either all alone for miles in every direction or accompanied by some like-minded lunatics who have taken their fair share of trail tumbles themselves, and who are therefore likely to be sympathetic if you go down.

And I’ve clipped my fair share of curbs on suburban jaunts, but somehow the physics of shorting a jump don’t seem to send you sprawling the way I went sprawling yesterday.

I was cruising down a very familiar route when I noticed a trio of benches in front of a restaurant I’ve run past close to a hundred times. “Huh,” I thought to myself in that weird self-reflective echoey whisper, “Have those benches always been there, or have I just never noticed them?” Next thing I know, my foot is arrested violently mid-stride and the concrete is rushing at me like that guy I owe money to for things we won’t be discussing here.

No escape. I’m going down. I try to tuck and roll, but the momentum is all wrong, and my toes feel like an elephant has stepped on them, so there’s no pushing off or changing direction. *Wham-scrape* goes the knee, *Bang-skid* goes the elbow, and I sort of weakly flop over onto my back.

Before I notice anything else, I notice the truck stopped at the traffic light not fifty feet away from me. I wonder if he saw me go down (virtually impossible that he wouldn’t), then ponder what would be worse: if he pulls over to offer me assistance, opens his window and laughs at me as he drives by, or simply drives off and leaves me wondering. Thankfully, he rolls off.

I lay there for a few minutes on my back, staring up at the really remarkably clear blue sky. Gorgeous day, actually. I curse at myself audibly, because fargo the delicate sensibilities of anybody who might be passing by. I mentally assess the damage. My left knee and toes hurt like the dickens, but I can move them, so that’s good. I feel like a right stupid idiot, but there’s no lasting damage in that. I sit up, dab at the blood pooling on my knee, prod at my toes. Hurt, but probably not broken. I rise and hobble to the bench — the one that distracted me just a moment ago, how convenient! — and sit there to ponder my life for a moment.

From here I can see clearly the tiny — and I do mean tiny — jag in the sidewalk. A tree overhangs the sidewalk, its roots scrambling out like the capillary roads in an atlas. The roots have obviously pushed the sidewalk up over time, about an inch and a half. My toes (and I was wearing my Vibrams at the time, which means for this particular purpose I might as well have been barefoot) smacked into that tiny outcropping, and that was that.

It occurs to me, too, while I’m sitting here, staring down the sidewalk like it stole my date for the prom, that this is something that should never have happened. I’ve run this route 50 or 60 times over the past few years — maybe closer to 100. Usually in the lazy half-light of sickly streetlights at 5 AM. What business do I have tripping on a plainly obvious imperfection in the sidewalk — one I regularly traverse without even thinking about it in the darkness — in the blazing light of day?

And there it is.

(Things always mean things, right?)

(Of course not, the universe is a whole sort of general mish-mash of unconnected events and meaningless coincidences. But it’s fun to pretend.)

(Where was I? Right. The blazing light of day.)

The lights were on.

I run this route about once per week, but always in the dark. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you run at night (or in the stupidly early morning), watching only the ground in front of my feet — there’s nothing else to see. But Sunday, the lights were on, and here I was able to notice all sorts of things I never give second thought to: look at the ivy spilling over that fence like a bunch of intestines from an open gut! Check out that crack that runs right down the center of the street, like a subterranean city is pushing up from underneath! Look at that bench over there, I bet I could jump over it in one go if I — SMACK.

There’s a moral here about sidewalks, and that moral is: never look around. Always keep your eyes straight in front of you and never deviate from the sidewalk.

No, wait, that’s not right.

Watch out for sidewalks. They are tricksy and not to be trusted.

Er, that’s not it either.

Don’t take sidewalks for granted. They mark a path that’s cleared and generally trustworthy, but that doesn’t mean you can turn your back on them.

Yeah, that’s better.

Except change “sidewalks” for “life” and I think we’re closing in on something useful that can be taken away from all this.

I took a sidewalk for granted, and ended up with a shredded leg and horrifically stubbed toe. And it’s making me wonder: what else am I taking for granted every day? What else is lurking there, just under my foot, waiting to put me on my ass if I lose focus for just a fraction of a second?

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Never mind the farmer’s tan and ridiculous amounts of body hair. Focus on the coagulated gore.

Oh, and in case you were curious: I finished the run.


Why I Am an Atheist


I “came out” yesterday, but I didn’t tell the whole story.

I’m not here today to tell the whole story, either, but I do want to tell part of it.

I started this post once and then threw the whole thing out. I had hacked together a list of the big reasons why I believe what I believe and gave brief explanations and justifications. (Lack of evidence. Bible and other holy texts contradict themselves. Problem of evil. So forth.) But then I realized, there are other, better, cleverer sources out there for all the standard atheist talking points. Seriously, every atheist has a post like this. And not just because I didn’t want to overtly follow the crowd, but I realized that as much as all those well-stocked, off-the-shelf answers do apply to my beliefs, the big guns — the personal stuff — the story are maybe a little more interesting.

And I fancy myself a storyteller, after all. So.

I stopped going to church when I was a teenager, maybe partly because I started to catch the whiff of BS from the whole thing, but mostly because I was lazy and didn’t enjoy it. Thus was my belief put on an ice floe and set adrift to wither and die as I went off to college and began to really learn things about the world. Probably the near-daily occurrence of encountering a fire-and-brimstone street preacher pounding the bricks at the Tate Student Center at UGA fueled my growing doubts about the beneficent nature of religion in general; these guys (and they were always guys) would scream death and damnation on gay students, on sexually active students, on basically anybody who walked by. Not a good look for Christianity, even if, to be fair, those angry handful are a pitiful minority.

I guess that was when I became an agnostic; neither believing in nor disbelieving in god. Organized religion was right out, but inwardly I determined that maybe it was possible that a well-intentioned god had set the universe spinning and was unable to control it or interact with it much beyond that point, sort of like a kid who folds up a paper airplane and tosses it off the top floor of a skyscraper. I stayed there for a while, just sort of grinning and bearing the devout types while shaking my head and pitying the true atheists.

I think even then I felt it was better to believe in something than in nothing.

But then I had a kid. (To be fair, my wife had the kid … I mostly wandered around in the background and tried not to pass out.)

And our kid had a birth defect.

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My son, 1 day old.

He had gastroschisis, which in short, meant that his intestines spilled out of his abdomen in utero and had to be, for lack of a better term, stuffed back in after birth. To be fair, on a sliding scale of birth defects, to quote our specialist, “this is the birth defect you want.” In the vast majority of cases, children with gastroschisis make full recoveries.

And he’s lucky. We live in the 21st century, where medicine is in many cases indiscernible from magic, and our son is now perfectly healthy and will likely never suffer any ill effects from this condition. Had he been born even forty years ago, even surviving would have been a long shot.

His defect earned him a stay in the NICU for the first twenty-six days of his life. If I needed proof beyond doubt that there was no benevolent god looking out for us, I found it in the neonatal intensive care unit. Here were children — infants, no less — innocent of anything save being born, suffering from all manner of maladies. Some were “minor” like my son’s (though it’s hard to view having your intestines in a bag and being unable to eat except through a tube inserted in your skull as a minor thing). Others were far worse. Birth defects run the gamut from immediately, horrifically terminal to survivable with lifelong care or disability to, as in our son’s case, merely inconvenient. Some of the babies who shared air and nurses and doctors with my son would not survive even the twenty-six days my son was in residence.

And that’s nothing short of tragic.

(Let me sidebar to say that the staff we interacted with were phenomenal. Their jobs put them in the least desirable of situations daily — people are not by and large happy to be spending their days like ghosts hanging around the dim corners of the NICU — but they were soldiers, and they made soldiers out of us.)

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Somehow, in those early days, he learned to smile.

I didn’t think about it at the time; I was too focused on my wife’s and my grief and my son’s health during the whole affair. But looking back on it now, that time in the hospital was the nail in god’s coffin for me. I couldn’t — and still can’t — square the idea of a god who cares in any way about the humans he’s created after seeing all those infants fighting for life, breathing and eating through tubes, hooked up to machines — man-made machines, mind you — that gave them their only prayer at life, a prayer they would never have had if all were left in god’s hands.

Yeah, there’s the problem of natural disasters and evil and all of that, and I have trouble squaring those, too. But for me, the question of atheism is a lot more local. A lot more personal. A lot more visceral. And there’s maybe more to be said at another time. But the fact is, as many reasons as I have for what I believe, I only really need one reason.

If we had left my son’s life in god’s hands, my son would be dead.

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Now, though, he’s a pretty awesome big brother.

For all that, though, I don’t view the world in a cynical way. Far from it. The world is an incredible place. We are lucky to have even the blink of an eye in which to appreciate it. I am lucky that my son was born in a time when the advances of medical technology could give him a chance at life. And no, I don’t claim to know where we came from. And only a fool would claim to know where we are going.

But we are lucky, and the world is incredible, independent of any god.

As Douglas Adams put it:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?

 


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