samedi, octobre 31, 2009

Civilization is B___S____

"War is not the answer," said the bumper sticker. I nodded my head. A lovely sentiment. Then I had a little thought. The sticker had the guts to lay it on the line, I thought it might be an invitation to dialogue. I said, What if the question is: How do we stop Hitler from slaughtering Jews and taking over countries? In that case, I thought, war is the ONLY answer. I don't care if it's a cliche. And what if 13 colonies declare independence with an eye toward inventing freedom, and the oppressive tyranny of the motherland decides to kill them until they submit? Seems to me war is the answer again. Perhaps Mr. Bumper Sticker made a rash, preliminary statement? "Look, I'm stuck here. I can't change. I have to be the truth." I couldn't make sense of the logic. And before I could ask another question, the light changed and he drove away.

I couldn't have been happier to come upon the Jesus fish on the freeway, I'd been meaning to ask if he remembered when he was secretly drawn as two arcs in the sand by the feet of Christians scared of being killed for their beliefs. I thought it was a little degrading to see him so close to exhaust and roadkill. But he couldn't answer. He seemed to have something stuck in his craw. In fact, he was chewing on something. A little version of himself, but with feet. "I'm the Darwin fish!" screamed the poor little guy. "All I wanted to do was co-opt his symbolism and insult his religion! What's his problem?" His problem, I thought later, is that he should never, EVER have put you in his mouth. The only thing more petty and childish than the first cheap shot is throwing the second punch. (I guess turning the other cheek doesn't apply to bumper sticker melodrama.) At any rate, I couldn't think what his problem was at that moment. I was too curious. Who made the Jesus fish with the little feet and called it Darwin? I mean, I think it was certainly small minded, but it is a pretty clever pun. "Oh, no one came up with that idea! These feet just grew here by themselves."

Which reminded me of another conversation I had, with a bumper sticker that compared evolution to gravity with the intention of discounting the existence of a supreme being. This one I really wanted to address. His stereo was up really loud so I tried to come up with some kind of sign language that said: I believe in evolution! Absolutely I do. I congratulate you! But it is still officially called the Theory of Evolution, whereas Gravity has long since been elevated to the status of a LAW of nature. Like thermodynamics, entropy, etc. You are discounting your argument with what might be a simple oversight! Obviously, the effort was doomed. The sticker just gave me an enthusiastic "thumbs up." I shook my head no. It was not good. I sank into a quick, but nonetheless bleak depression, thinking about a great movie I had just watched on String Theory (The Elegant Universe, check it out) wherein scientists gamely admit to working their brains out and then simply forging forward (by faith, essentially) where their knowledge breaks down, accepting that true scientists can only believe the latest thing going, which is the next thing to be proven wrong. I wanted to try and shout above the noise, and ask if he was perhaps acquainted with the brilliant scientist who told me: Science will never prove nor disprove the existence of God. We will never see him in any telescope. We will never write an equation that dispells him. The question is outside the province (or "providence" if you are Justice Sonya) of the scientific process. Be wary of anyone who crosses the ideas of Science and God with the goal of disproving one or the other. By then I had to turn right, towards the supermarket. As I signaled the turn, I remember distinctly hearing the words of the song blaring from the vehicle in question: "I am ignorant! I accept conventional wisdom on blind faith! (La la la.) Which makes it religion or worse but don't tell me that! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)"

Well behaved women rarely make history. Or so the lavender bumper sticker seemed content to proclaim endlessly to anyone who dared to look upon her. I instantly agreed. But, as you have already deduced, I have a problem. Can't seem to simply agree with anyone. (If it makes you feel any better, it happens even when I agree with myself.) She was parked at the video store, so I knew I could have a real conversation with this one. I started small. What about Mother Theresa? She seemed pretty well behaved. She behaved herself right into the Nobel Prize. She said nothing. What about Emily Dickinson? She's the most amazing woman who ever lived. Sure, she boldly stopped going to her father's church, and then stopped going out into society at all, but, OK, maybe I see your point a little bit. Maybe you're one of those people who means "Political hay" when you say "History." In that case, wait a minute! Well behaved men have rarely made history either! Why not just say "People" for feminism's sake! In other words, what is your point exactly? Is your lovely font going to rectify some great wrong--inspire some young girl to stand up and tear down the sexist patriarchy that currently tells her to grow up and be whatever her brains and will can achieve? Who in legitimate American discourse is currently demanding that women "behave?" I waited some time for an answer. I thought the sticker was going to say "I'm left over from the late sixties. But believe me, there are people who still need to hear this." I'd have taken that. Instead, she sat there mute, her lavender turning an angry red.
[Editor's Postscript: There are millions of unsung PEOPLE in history, Ms. Bumpersticker, whom you might derisively lable as "well behaved," who poured their whole soul into being decent, hard working parents, who raised noble, hard working children, who helped others, baked great bread, kept clean homes, told delightfully bad puns, and basically made the world go around.)

For a moment, I felt a little foolish for trying to engage in any way with something so futile as a permanent statement of philosophy or belief on the bumper of a car, with anything so infantile as a punch in an ideological fistfight that takes place in tiny letters just above the place where the carbon monoxide comes out as you drive by. I decided to live and let live. And to keep my eyes on the road.

Then Calvin drove by, peeing on everything. Then praying to things. Then peeing on everything again. I love Calvin and Hobbes very much. I consider it one of the greatest works of modern literature. I saw Watterson clamoring in his grave. I mourned for humanity. I gave up. I decided I would have my car fitted with a weapon that would fire a stupidity seeking missile at any one with Calvin peeing, (or anything dirty, like the one I saw that said "Save a mouse, eat a p*ss%.") I said: I will avenge you, poor, bastardized Calvin! I will bring destruction on these vile masses. I WILL EXTERMINATE ALL BRUTES!"

Then I realized where that came from.

Truly the Heart of Darkness is our own soul.

But I still blame the bumper stickers.


vendredi, octobre 23, 2009

Me No Understand

I don't know when I gave up being a know it all. It might be when I realized I didn't know it all. Since then, my motto has been: "the more you know, the more you know how much you don't know." Some Zen guy said it. It essentially means: "I know it all about not knowing it all." Which is one of the more beautifully ridiculous contradictions of eastern thought.

That said, many of Life's mysteries evade me to this day.

I don't understand why I'm the only one who thinks that early Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish are aural doppelgangers. Eddie and Hootie have identical vocal agendas. I tell people: Put them both on as background (admittedly the only condition under which I've ever actually heard either of them) and you'll see. When you're on your cell phone with traffic whizzing by you can't tell the difference.

I have no idea why writers and audiences continue to fall for the Time Travel Conundrum (read: COP OUT). Time travel as entertainment reached its apex with the first Back to the Future movie (the nadir being represented by nearly every effort since then.) Why do people keep going back to a well that is so dry? As a plot device, it cannot answer the questions it asks, and those questions end up a gigantic distraction. Even the writers of blessed LOST admitted that writing time travel into a script is a lot like dating a super hot girl. It starts of really slick and cool and makes you think you're really cooking. Then you realize the maintenance is greater, more complicated than you ever dreamed. Did any one NOT begin to lose interest at the increasingly convoluted machinations and implications of season 5? A good friend and admirably devoted husband, let's call him Jason Adair, recently teased around the idea of going back in time to experience relations with the younger, hotter version of his wife. On the glossy surface, the idea had a good deal of initial merit. A few moments of reflection saw him discarding the idea wholesale, and not because of its scientific impossibility.
Honestly, the last time I saw a compelling time travel piece was on Comedy Central. A comedic duo played the role of a scientist and the scientist's friend. It went something like this.

(Scientist is working on his time travel device. Friend enters and inexplicably drinks an entire bottle of gatorade while Scientist eats an entire twinkie. Then the conversation begins.)
F: How's the time travel experiment going?
S: Great. I can now go back in time 30 seconds.
F: Let's try it!
(Scientist pushes a button and lights flash. They rewind to the beginning of the scene. Friend enters and drinks ANOTHER bottle of gatorade. Scientist eats another twinkie)
F: How's the time travel experiment going?
S: Great. I can now go back in time 30 seconds.
F: Let's try it!

You can guess what happened next. At the third iteration, their ability to consume the gatorade and twinkie were significantly impaired. Pink liquid ran down his shirt and all over the stage. I was sure the scientist was about to puke up the twinkies. Still they forged ahead, as everyone watching marveled, and reveled in their genius. How better to encapsulate the rash inanity of slipping even a little time travel into your plot? They went as far as they could without dying, and at some point during their trip backward, the classic Star Trek fight music came on and they engaged in a hilarious slow motion melee. I was breathless. And I hoped that they had ended time travel in entertainment for awhile. At least until a messenger from the future arrives and tells us the idea must be compelling again, lest some future event be prevented from occurring due to a missed event in the past, or our present, which would not have occurred without the messenger from the future travelling back from a time when the event which never occurred was in danger of not happening, or the one that did occur was in danger of un-happening.

I also might not be able to wrap my head around the modern immigrant. To be clear, I honestly consider everyone who wants to come here legally and make a go of it as my brother or sister in arms. My own mother emigrated from South Africa in the 70's, then proceeded to bring most of her family over. I get them. They left their homeland, for which they rightfully allow themselves to harbor a certain amount of fond reverence. But they recognize that they came here for a reason. Or several reasons. My mother is the most patriotic person I know. She raves about America far more often than born citizens. She knows it isn't perfect. She knows no country can be. But sings patriotic songs without even the tiniest hint of irony. She has read the constitution and considers her citizenship one of the greatest privileges of her life. In contrast, my relentlessly negative sister-in-law (let's call her Jorba Jorbensen) seems to have come here from beautiful foreign shores for one purpose: to complain. Americans are uncivilized. Americans are selfish. This country is ugly and the food is terrible. I've never heard a positive word. Her monumental contempt for our history and institutions is equalled only by her unthinkable ignorance of both, which is really odd coming from a person who is otherwise so fun, smart, and hardworking. Every conversation with her leaves one asking: Why are you even here? She's like a person who invited herself to dinner so she could complain about the food. If she represents the current batch of new arrivals, I don't understand them. And I can't comment further without sounding xenophobic.

Every once in a while I think I understand reality television. Then I'll catch a glimpse of a show that represents the ass end of it and realize it is WAY beyond my comprehension.

For the life of me I cannot understand why you are not watching Madmen.

For a second, I understood why Obama got the Nobel. It was for the courageous way that he continued Bush's "failed" policy in Iraq and got the media to keep quiet about it. Or maybe it was for the way he escalated the war in Afghanistan, finding new ways to mismanage a front that Bush had "ignored." Or maybe it was for the way his administration went to such great lengths to ignore the nuclear program in Iran until, apparently, we all have to panic about it. Was it, perhaps, for giving the Queen an i-pod? It all seemed to make sense until I realized the voting process was over just a few days after he took office. So I guess he got it for making speeches. Which I don't get. I mean, they were good, but . . .
Come to think of it, there's another thing I don't get. Just after the election, his supporters all put up these signs that said: "yes we did." Did what? I thought the point, the goal, was to improve America. How can you say you did that after ZERO days in office? I guess the point, the goal, was just to get in office. OK, now I get it, its like Bush's ridiculous "Mission Accomplished" speech. Damn these guys are alike!

But there are more important things I don't get. For instance. . .

Why, WHY are only women's pants allowed to be woven with that blessed stretchy material? It is magical. It is liberating. It is proof that men don't get it, whatever "it" is, and I can't figure out why we don't.

Dang. I didn't know how long a missive about the massive gulf of my incomprehension could be. If I stop here, it is for lack of time, not material.

Suffice it to say that, whatever the topic, my most likely response is a simple: I don't get it.

Which goes to show how enlightened I am.

vendredi, octobre 16, 2009

Go D.I.Y. Yourself.

Carl Sagan chilled my marrow when he observed that humanity is increasingly dependent on technology it doesn't understand. He didn't need to add that this is a "recipe for disaster." I felt that. He meant for Society at large. But that was because he didn't know me personally.

With apologies to Mr. Sagan, my friends and I cling somewhat desperately to a certain "Do It Yourself" ethic. To which end I own and maintain my own sewing machine, installed my own kitchen appliances (dishwasher, garbage disposal, sink and faucet, etc.). I purchased a kit (NOT the patented Phlobe!) and cut my own hair. I make every attempt to understand and maintain my own property and the technology thereupon. Sometimes with disastrous results.

Which brings us to my vehicles.
For years I have done what I can to maintain them myself. I could change/replace brake pads, air filters, batteries and oil--even plugs, ignition wires and distributor cap for a standard tune up. I know where to put the chemicals to charge the air conditioning. That said, (though the day I successfully replaced the electronic trunk release mechanism in the Jetta despite the pleading from the dealer to "bring it in" remains one of my proudest moments) it's all rather simplistic: If anything serious happens I run straight to the Last Honest Mechanic, a great man, and friend to our family, who knows darn well I have essentially no idea what I'm doing. [editor's note: my diesel Jetta from Volkswagen gets 50 miles per gallon on the highway, and is fueled with biodiesel. Take that, poseur environmentalists in your petroleum powered, acid battery packed hybrids!]

When the brakes wore out on the above-mentioned Jetta, I jacked it up, removed the back tires and, with the help of a D.I.Y. friend, got to work replacing the pads. I'll not bore the reader with the minutia, but suffice it to say that a special, $100 dollar tool is required to perform an important step in the process. A step that was formerly accomplished with a $5 C-clamp. We efforted with all due force, and ended by giving up the ship with bitterness and bile. Defeated, I ground metal on metal all the way to a nearby brake swindler, and, swallowing my pride, cursing the engineers who complicated the process, dispersed the commensurate compensation.

Strangely, that experience was far from my mind when the engine of my little 6 cylinder Ford truck began misfiring. The last honest mechanic said it needed a "tune up." I responded by assuring him that I, having replaced plugs and wires and filters and fluid on several vehicles, possessed the requisite skillz. I purchased the parts on the way home, got out the tools upon arrival, and to work on what used to be routine maintenance. Turns out, no human hand and no Do-It-Yourselfer's tool can penetrate the compact, tightly engineered inner workings of the modern pick-up. Goading myself on with an inner scourge of bitter curses and desperate prayer, I was barely able to complete half the job. After admitting defeat, with fists (and various orifices) clenched, I sheepishly delivered the truck to the Last Honest Mechanic. He assured me he would finish the job, and offered to change the fuel filter, which is "damn difficult" even with the expensive, specialized tool.

As I waited for my wife to pick me up, I knew the real tool would soon be in the passenger seat of the Jetta whose brakes had been installed by a paid professional.

Even if you don't accept these experiences as emblematic of a larger picture and problem, you are bound to admit the chips are sacked against us. Technology is being taken out of the hands of the common people. We cannot be expected to keep up with it.


You can interpret that as you wish.

dimanche, octobre 04, 2009

Humiliations Galore

Humility is the first, and until accomplished, only goal of an enlightened mind. It must be achieved at any cost.

Here then is a brief (yet somehow exhaustive) list of the sundry circumstances and situations that have brought me to tears in the last month.

The Foundation for a Better Life. Whoever they are, they're out to get me. They are making these (honestly wonderful) feel good public service announcements that get played after hours--(i.e. the only time I watch TV--i.e. when I get paid to watch--i.e. whilst working the graveyard shift at the Children's Emergency Shelter.) Any one of them could be considered emblematic of all the others: some jerk knocks a nerd's books and papers down to the floor and a kind hearted jock sticks his neck out an helps the outcast; a pinata is burst and all the kids but one walk away with handfuls of candy whilst a single sensitive girl turns, notices the poor kid and independently decides to share her share; a rough hewn hockey player sings Itsy Bitsy Spider to his sweet little daughter. Just simple messages about sharing and kindness. And for whatever reason, every once in a while, I find my eyes going cloudy when I watch them. Am I soft brained or soft hearted? I don't care. And I don't care what secret right wing mega church is funding the "foundation." These commercials are top shelf. And they get you either way. Tears for the better world they fictionalize, or tears for the reminder that the world really is good, and full of nobly good people who help each other.

My Son broke up with his girlfriend! She is an honestly wonderful girl that any guy in the world would be lucky to be associated with in any way. We were in no way unhappy with his association with her. Even so, one day he broke up with her, and by way of explanation, he simply stated: "I see my friends with no girlfriends, and they are all good at various things, and have seriously developed talents. Then I look at my friends with serious girlfriends, and they are good at working at restaurants and crashing their cars." He understands that at some point, when it no longer constitutes an absolute waste of his time and resources, a girlfriend will be a rather worthwhile concern. For now, he is just going to "date a variety of girls and hang out and not deal with the stresses of being attached to one single person." Who wouldn't shed a little tear of joy at a young person displaying wisdom beyond his years? Maybe you have to be the parent of the young person in question. Or maybe at his age I was ridiculously consumed with the very concerns he is eschewing, and am overjoyed to see him being spared the misery that I went out and grabbed with both hands and stuck in my mouth.

Jeffry R. Holland. Suffice it to say he is an apostle. He spoke in a recent conference about a book I have loved for a long time. He spoke with a force of clarity and a dedication and a love that brought a tear to my eye.

My Friends. They all made plans to come up and help me finish painting my house. The plan fell through on both ends; so I was either inspired at the good intentions of wonderful people or miserable for the failure. Either way, thanks guys.

Movies. I don't know, you name it. Samwise carries Frodo on his back up the slopes of mount doom. Todd and Copper realize a fox and a hound cannot be friends. Wil Smith pursues Happyness. The Apple Dumpling Gang rides again. These days, I can't watch any representation of human kindness or achievement against difficult odds without having to blow my nose. I was even misty when the lifetime underachiever from Seattle became the King of Kong (which, if you haven't seen, you have no claim on humanity!)

Some might say that I am getting old. Or that the side effect of occasionally wearing pants ostensibly made for women, (other than the supreme hotness) is a certain softening of the sensitivities--which is not necessarily a good thing. Others might claim that my life of suffering and struggle and dying dreams has left me a little raw, that my heart is a fresh and open wound that essentially over reacts to the stimulus that normal humans can brush away like so much daily dust. Whatever the reason, I know for a fact that tears cleanse the windows to the soul, and leaves the view tinted with humility.

And I'm proud of that.