Monday, March 30, 2009

A Wonderful Exchange

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Richard Dawkins interviewing George Coyne for The Genius of Charles Darwin. Enjoy:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Tree in My Front Yard

has flowers on it.

Autumn is by far my season of preference, but there's still something touching about Spring, even though it makes me sneeze.

I'm going to take some time off of my internet addiction and enjoy the season, before my allergies render me a virtual bubble boy. I've got a couple of yardwork projects planned, like fencing a small open patch in my yard, and fixing an old birdhouse. I'm planning a picnic my wife and kids too.

It's funny how the corporate mentality even leaks into my downtime thinking. This spring break is going to be a search for maximum relaxation results! Always looking at the bottom line. I need to work on that.

This has been one hell of a quarter. I'm looking forward to doing a little bit of non-productive reading. I'm reading The Graveyard Book to my kids, and am looking forward to finishing the Jerry Coyne
book I mentioned a few posts back. The soundtrack to my Spring break is probably going to be Bonnie Prince Billy's new cd Beware, which I expect to arrive in the mail any day now.

It'll be a good time. For our picnic, I'm thinking something simple: Go down to Sawyer Point, lay down a blanket, and bring a variety of cheeses, some grapes, a baguette, and some bottled water. Maybe after that we'll walk into the city and ride the giant mechanical penis, if it's still on display at the Contemporary Art Center.

See you in April!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Your Monthly Mix-tape

I'm thinking about making this a regular Medicine Cabinet Feature.

When I was a nerdy teenager (as opposed to a nerdy adult), I used to make ‘best of’ lists all the time. Best superheroes, best movies, best bands, best books, whatever; as I got older, this penchant for list making transformed into a thing for making mix-tapes and mix CDs, ala High Fidelity. There’s something wonderful about making someone a CD or cassette compilation that is either geared specifically towards them, or just a collection of good songs you thought they might like. Unfortunately, in the age of the MP3 player, there’s less of an excuse to engage in this kind of bonding activity.

I realize that there are tons of magazines that have ‘hot downloads’ lists, but I ask you to think of my track lists differently. These downloads aren’t ‘hot’. They’re just good songs, and reflective of how I’m feeling at the moment of their construction.

And, of course, I made this list just for you.

1.Evidence (LP Version)

2.Love, Love, Love

3.Country Cooking

4.The Devil In The Kitchen

5.Autumn's Here

6.Akua Ewie (LP Version)

7.Violence (2007 Digital Remaster)

8.I'll Be Glad

9.The Ghost of Henry Thomas Hunt


Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Pentagon Rethinking Old Doctrine On 2 Wars"

Is the title of a recent New York Time's piece. For some reason when I read this, I couldn't shake the memory of an interaction that I had with a young customer while I was working at a bookstore a couple of years back. I was behind the cash register, and this kid comes up to the counter with three or four dungeons and dragons books, each costing somewhere between 20 and 40 dollars. The kid was probably fifteen or so.

I rang up the books, gave him the total in the mid to high 100's, and he opens his wallet and pulls out a ten dollar bill. He seems uncomfortable for a moment, looking at me, and then down at his 10, and then back at me. He says, 'hang on'. He runs over to the comic book rack and comes running back with two Batman comics.

"I think I'll just get these." He says.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Evolution Is True

It's exam week, and I'm swamped. I don't have a typical end of the week post for you, but I can recommend a good book. For the past couple of days, I've been reading a book called Why Evolution Is True every night before I go to bed, and my dreams have been full of dinosaurs. In a good way.

Monday, March 9, 2009


We’ve all had the experience of buying a new car and then seeing exact copies of the thing all over the place. It’s part of who we are. We’re pattern seeking animals.

I think our pattern seeking behavior penetrates deeper than just looking for connections in the world around us. I think we also look for patterns within ourselves, and then look to our external environment to validate our suspicions. The religious person may say that God compelled them to do X by creating an environment where X was most likely to be done. Occam's Razor lets us know that God probably doesn’t tell us anything by creating patterns in our environment. The reality of what is occurring is that we—responding to some form of stimuli—are making decisions about our future or the situations we would like to be in, and then attributing the decision to go in that direction to God, or karma, or whatever. The person living around a steadily shrinking pond in the desert isn’t being compelled by God to leave the desert. He’s being compelled by the situation. Because uprooting yourself, or trying out a high-risk idea for your life can be scary, it’s pretty easy to imagine why someone would place some divine force behind their decision for the appearance of insurance.

I’m experiencing a moment like this currently. Lately it seems that everywhere I go, in everything I read, and in every conversation I have, there is an underlying theme of resetting. Wiping the slate clean, and starting from scratch. A church I was invited to recently asked me to reset my notions of who I thought Jesus was. Hillary Clinton is traveling the globe talking about ‘resetting’ relationships with various countries. A key plot point in the movie Watchmen* is about resetting mankind. Conservatives are saying we should let the market reset by allowing floundering businesses to fail, and so on. There are more, but you get the point.

Now, I could attribute this to God (especially since he factors into one of the key examples above), but I won’t. What I am seeing, hearing, and feeling in my internal and external environment are projected cues. They are themes that could’ve probably been found at any point in my life, but are noticed now because they resonate, and validate my inclination with an appearance of uniformity. It’s like these instances knit together to form a safety net below me as I contemplate a jump from a very high surface. These things (that aren’t really coincidences) are reassuring.

This spring, I’ll be getting my bachelor’s degree, and applying for graduate school. I’ll be looking for a high paying job that will justify my pursuit of higher education these last six years. I’m spending more structured time with my kids, and I’ve recently changed a few personal habits that will hopefully make me a healthier, more energetic person. I’m working harder in school than I ever have, and am re-evaluating the usefulness of some of my attitudes. I even bought a new laptop, and didn’t bother to transfer all of my older writings onto it in the name of starting anew. A reset is coming in my life, and I am turning the world around me into a giant affirmation of positive change. We look for meaning because life seems easier when all of the puzzle pieces lock together. It is easier to suppress thoughts when we have an overarching and unified meta-view of things.Sure, our cognitive short cuts and tendencies towards myth-making and generalizing can often cause us problems, but they’ve also been an evolutionary boon. The man who sits under a tree all day pondering the true definition of beauty is probably less able to evade predators than the simple-thinking alpha male whose sole concern is getting more food and reproducing.

Of course, we’re further along now than we were in those loin-clothed glory days. But some of those primitive functions have evolved along with us, and can still be quite useful. I’m going to heed the cues I’ve hidden in my environment, and take solace in their reassurance. I’m ready to reset.

Now, where’s that button…

*Here’s a controversial statement: I actually thought the movie was better than the book. However good it was, Moore’s comic contained some fluff, and a few unnecessary plot points, aka, the giant space squid. Snyder’s squid replacement was much more practical, and (in my opinion) tightened the story line up. Other than those minor tweaks, the movie was the single most faithful movie adaptation of a book I have ever seen.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Omelet Eludes Me

I’m a good cook, but the omelet eludes me. It’s not the ingredients. I use all kinds of cheeses, beans, onions, oils, vegetables, celeries, fishes, spices, salsas, mushrooms, and tomatoes. I put my eggs into a big bowl and whip them with a fork, and then gently pour them onto the warming oil in my pan; which is wide enough, with edges low enough to allow easy access to my spatula, but high enough to keep the oil from dripping over the side. I am patient with my omelets. I am thoughtful about their intentions.

All of that goes fine, according to plan. It’s when I go to close up the omelet that the anxiety comes: This has all happened before. As I move to seal up this morning’s omelet (shredded cheddar, fresh pico de gallo, and chopped steak mushrooms), Epictetus is standing by elbow. “The omelet is beyond your control Spencer. If it tears when you fold it, it tears when you fold it. Turn it into scrambled eggs."

I see Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up and down the mountainside for all of eternity. There I am, at the foot of the mountain, cooking omelets for him, for a breakfast that he will never come to. The oil pops on my arms, and the mutilated omelets pile up behind me. A mountain of omelets. Maybe someday we will roll a giant kidney bean up and down it’s surface. Maybe someone will plant a plastic fork at it’s peak.

Ray Bradbury’s famous advice comes to mind. “Jump off the cliff and build your omelet on the way down.”

I think of the French count trying to blend in with the rabble during the years of upheaval. When asked by an innkeeper how many eggs he wanted in his omelet, his privileged mind—not used to thinking about such things--came up with the answer Douze. Except in this scenario, it’s not the Count that is guillotined, it’s me: The cook’s assistant. I had been turning omelets into scrambled eggs all day long, and here comes the rabble (the Count among them) with pitchforks and torches.

I believe I am a good cook, but the omelet eludes me.

I also believe in the strenuous life. Even if the promise of heaven is uncertain, make your hands useful. Find something to believe in, and pursue it with vigor. I believe in the omelet, Epictetus. I don’t want to make scrambled eggs anymore.

‘You can’t control the omelet.’ Epictetus says. I nod in understanding, but still (with fear and trembling), I descend my spatula into the bubbling oil.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Life Is Long If You Give It Away"

Great song, great performance. David Byrne always keeps things fresh:

Monday, March 2, 2009

An Excerpt From My Interview With God

Since today is my birthday, God decided to sit down with me for a little interview, you know, to clear up any confusion I may have.

Yes Larry King, that's right. I landed God first.

I should probably also tell you that out of all the famous people I've interviewed, God was by far the coolest. He was relaxed, he joked around with my assistant and I, and you could tell his assistant was very well taken care of; The relationship was almost familial, but totally professional.

And he also brought me this birthday cake (which he baked himself, and was quite good):

The Interview:

Me: God, thanks for sitting down with me. This really is a pleasant surprise.

GOD: No problem Spencer. I loved your book.

Me: Oh, wow. Thanks. Too bad we couldn't get you to do a blurb. (God & I exchange friendly laughter)

GOD: And happy birthday, too. It's pretty awesome that your birthday is on the same day as Dr. Seuss's, don't you think?

Me: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, it's really cool to share a birthday with Dr. Seuss. I love him. I read his books to my kids all the time. 'Oh, The Places You'll Go' was one of the most formative books in my life.

GOD: Green Eggs and Ham is also very important...So, I'm here to answer a question for you. That's your birthday present (that, and the cake). One question answered by God. This is a rare and important opportunity for you, and it's not an opportunity I often offer. So...what'll it be?

Me: Oh, wow. I don't know. I mean, you don't actually expect this day to you have any suggestions?

GOD: Well, the 'why' questions are always popular. 'Why am I here?', 'Why is there suffering?', 'Why don't you reveal yourself to mankind?', you know, questions like that.

Me: (I furrow my brow in thought) Well, probably not. No, I don't think I'll ask those questions.

GOD: Why not?

Me: I don't see what good it would do. Not much cash value to having the answer to that.

GOD: William James and Epictetus. An interesting cocktail. So what can I do for you Spencer?

Me: Well, how about some advice? Maybe something like a reader's digest version of some good things to avoid, and some good things to get involved with. Like a list of some kind. a handful of, oh, I don't know...

GOD: Commandments?

Me: Exactly...oh. Ha ha. Yes, a handful of commandments or suggestions or something that are more personally tailored to me.

GOD: Okay, that's a good one. Let's see. Well, let's start with the proactive stuff, because I'm more of a 'yes we can' kind of God than people often give me credit for being. Here we go:

1. Be skeptical, not cynical. There's a difference, and it's big.
2. Don't marry yourself to your worldview.
3. Try your hardest at everything you do.
4. Be good to others, and be good to yourself.

And for the 'thou shalt not's', I'll say, stay away from drugs, religion, and credit cards, and you'll be in a good place.

Me: Those things all sound easy enough to do.

GOD: Maybe harder than you think.

Me: Stay away from drugs, religion, and credit cards? Isn't that a little extreme?

GOD: Well Spencer, you wanted them personalized. Sure, it's possible for a person to engage in any of those activities responsibly, but it's also necessary to 'know thyself'. And I know you. You have poor impulse control. It would make things alot easier for you to just steer clear.

Me: Okay. I can see that.

GOD: And don't forget the proactive stuff either. People are always worrying about the things I tell them not to do, and not thinking enough about the things I tell them they should do. It's relatively easy to not do things, and it's even easier to tell other people not to do things. Doing things, now, that takes something else.

Me: It's surprising that you told me to stay away from religion.

GOD: (sighs in a way that is both frustrated and loving) Well, you shouldn't be surprised, because I'm not really God. I'm just a vehicle you created to validate your own worldview and philosophy. People have been using me for that purpose since the beginning of time.

Me: Right. Well God, thanks for answering my question.

GOD: Happy birthday Spencer. I'll tell Dr. Seuss you said 'hello'.

God exits in a whirlwind. Our assistants exchange phone numbers. I think they're going to get together sometime to play racquetball.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

They Will Scream When They See What We Have Done

by me. I'm really fond of this poem. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

And please be sure to read everything else over at Sir!. The art for this issue is beautiful, and the content is solid. I'm extremely sympathetic to the aesthetic that (I think) Brian Foley is going for. Here's to issues 3,4,5...etc.

If you enoy the art for this issue as much as I do, go check out E.B. Goodale's website. Many lovely things to be seen.

This is the song that plays every time I walk into a room: