Friday, July 23, 2010

I'm Not Expecting To Grow Flowers In The Desert...

I listened to this song on repeat on the way home from work last night. My speakers were turned up really high and my windows were down. I was singing along the best I could. It was a completely nourishing experience.

Big Country:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why I Support the Death Penalty

It has always annoyed me when people try to shut down a rational argument by claiming some kind of exempt status for themselves:

‘You support the war? Well, you must’ve never served.’

‘You’re pro-choice? You must not have kids.’

‘You’re a democrat? Wait until you get out of college and have to start paying taxes.’


Well, let me tell you something. Life has a way—at least in my case—of forcing me to voice formerly abhorred opinions from a point of…if not agreement, then at least personal understanding.

This has been both a frustration to me, and a point of personal pride. I am proud of my ability to consider new evidence and to change my opinion, but it is very difficult to beat someone to death with said opinion if it is subject to change.

That being the situation, I have changed a personal opinion.

I now support the death penalty…

For insects.

And if you disagree with me, then you must not be a home owner.

I used to be one of those guys who would find a spider in his home and gingerly scoop it into a napkin and take it outside. I still will do this if an unusual insect sneaks into my house (like a beetle or something like that), but I’m not sparing spiders anymore. Or ants. Or wasps. Or goddamned fruitflies.

When we moved into our house, I was still very careful not to kill bugs. Especially ants. I think ants are awesome. They’re very interesting insects. I’m still a little sad to crush one of their little bodies beneath my thumb, or a piece of paper, or whatever. But I do it now. Only when they come into my house.

It started with the fruit flies. We had a fruit fly infestation not long after we began living in our house. I only paused for a minute before approving and participating in the systematic destruction of all of those pernicious little assholes.

Then came the fleas. My dog brought them into the house. I was overjoyed to have them all killed. I danced naked across their tiny, bouncy carcasses.

And then it was ants. I’ve always liked ants. E.O. Wilson has written a lot of cool stuff about them. They’re fun to observe. There’s something noble about them. But they were forming a conga line on my kitchen wall, and we had to do them in.

And that’s it. To this date, I have overseen three mass genocides.

We try to make our house unattractive to insects by keeping it clean and spraying stuff around the base of the house every season, but every now and then they get in. I’m not rescuing spiders anymore either, I’ve noticed. I don’t feel terribly conflicted when I squish one up in the corner of my sons’ room. Maybe I’ve become too acclimated to being the top species.

But the fact of the matter is, we live at the expense of other creatures, and there are boundaries in nature. To not acknowledge that is silly. I have a strong survival instinct, and I have a strong instinct to protect my pack. Fruit Flies and fleas have strong survival instincts too, but they could make my family sick, so I kill them when they pass the boundaries of my territory. The ants were unsightly, and they crawled all over the place.

However civilized and progressive minded we may be, encoded deep inside of us is the law of the jungle. Our bottom line is still ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’. I am part of the dominant species, and I am willing to kill creatures that I don’t want on my property. I’m capable of rationalizing an argument as to why I’m exterminating whatever I’m exterminating, but honestly, all a rodent or insect has to be is aesthetically unpleasant for me in order to justify my killing it when it is on my property.

Because when all is said and done, we are all animals. That’s why we kill insects that pester and threaten us (and even just annoy us), and that’s why even libertarians need laws and government regulation to protect their interests.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Glad To Be Married

You know, when you've been married ten years like my wife and I, it's very easy to start taking things for granted. You can fall into a kind of automatic setting where you are two highly efficient, yet highly impersonal machines. Working towards the same goal, yes; Communicating the day's events, important meetings and appointments, deadlines for bills, information about how the kids are doing, Absolutely. But efficiency can be blinding, especially when the ride is going smoothly. People have a tendency to space out on long stretches of highway with few bumps and moderate traffic.

As is often the case, it took the tale of another person's marital dysfunction to really hammer home how...well...functional my relationship is. Abby and I don't agree on everything, and sometimes we annoy each other. We are very efficient,but in addition to this, we also take time to talk to each other about politics, religion, life, personal ambitions, fears, and hopes that we each have. We're silly with each other from time to time, and we still take the time to have a good argument every now and then (which is actually a healthy function of relationships). We have a few shared recreational interests too, and shared recreational interests are always good for bonding.

My wife is my best friend. She is my comrade in arms. She is the only adult I know that I would trust with the keys to the nuclear detonator I keep in my basement.

I apologize if this post was too sappy for you; I just think that it's important to take a moment to appreciate how good you have it when you actually have it good. When we were born, the guaranteed experience of [even occasional] happiness was certainly not one of the things that was written into our contracts.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Alan Moore Thinks Superheroes Have Gone Stale

I think I agree.

From the Guardian piece:

"I've had some distancing thoughts about them recently. I've come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be – in their current incarnation, at least – is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority," Moore said. "I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth's lower gravity."

The graphic novelist said that, when he was a child, superheroes represented "a wellspring of the imagination". "Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about," Moore explained. "But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn't bully me if I could turn into the Hulk."

We live in a world that longs for saints and supermen. Forget the fact that all of the real good work gets done piecemeal fashion by people who go home tired and smelly after a long day at the office or the factory and still find time to help their kid with homework or play a board game. People want theater. We vote for stuff that tickles our lizard brain. George Bush was a terrible president, but he was also terribly exciting. Even though we elected a responsible and moderate (and thoughtful, and measured, and conscientious, and...etc.) president this time around, you can hear your neighbors getting restless. A person can't live on C-Span alone, you know. Every now and then you've got to treat yourself to some Dancing With The Stars!

I'm over superheroes too. When it comes to saints, I'm with Orwell: They should always be judged guilty until they're proved innocent. Give me a pencil pushing diplomat, a coffee soaked professor, a working person with creaky knees, or a baggy eyed doctor any day over The Incredible Hulk, Superman, or George W. Bush.

I guarantee you my team will get way more accomplished than yours, and with far fewer casualties.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Harvy Pekar has died.

Lately, my mantra has been that famous Esther Dyson quotation, 'Always make new mistakes'.

The quotation that appears at the bottom of all of my work emails is from Kurt Vonnegut: "Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." I take this quote as a warning to myself; It's so easy to daydream about a perfect system. Getting into the dirty stuff of implementation and the boring stuff of making sure all of the cogs are turning is something else entirely.

Harvey Pekar kept me reading comic books at a period in my life when I desperately wanted to outgrow them. 'American Splendor' was a beautiful thing. It wasn't about big, grand blueprints on how to make a better world, it was about maintenance. It was about trying to always make new mistakes, even though inevitably you know you're going to find yourself back in your old neighborhood.

Another one of my heroes has bit the dust. My heroes have never been the ubermensch. They've always been humanistic old saps who are a little soft in the middle, but not short on heart.

Harvey Pekar (as he presented himself in his comic strips) was that kind of guy. He was a raw nerve who experienced even the most banal life-stuff with great agony and ecstasy.

He was my favorite kind of hero.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Spencer!

Today is little Spencer's birthday party, tomorrow is his birthday. Little Spencer gives me hope for the future of humanity. Someday, his birthday will be a national holiday.

Spence & the Samurai at Pyramid Hill Park:

Spencer's birthday cake is Goon themed this year:

Happy Little Spencer Day everyone!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Can You Tear Down a Shed and Still Use It For Shelter?

Early one Sunday morning, about two weeks ago, my dad called me to ask if I would come over to my grandma’s house to help him, my uncle, and my cousin tear down my grandma's old shed. I was tired because I had stayed up late the night before, but agreed to show up.

It was hard and sweaty work. Apparently I was a bulldozer. The thanks I got for making short work of the floor boards and walls—I lifted them off their nails and snapped them in half with brute force--made me feel good in the kind of clean way that sticks with you.

I don’t know how to reconcile the idea that I belong to a family that I didn’t choose with…I’m not sure what; something restless inside of me. There’s a belief I have that I can only own things I make with my own two hands. Like that shed. I tore down that shed. That destruction is mine. The family I was born into? I suppose I have to own it, because of genes and different levels of involvement, but I’m highly skeptical of the kind of familial jingoism that goes without saying.

I own this writing. I do this daily, sometimes at afeverish pace early in the morning. I’m not writing for fame, I know that, although at one point I thought I was. I’m also not writing for money, because I don’t pursue payment in anything but the laziest way. I write out of compulsion. Now for instance, it’s 2:30 in the morning and here I am pecking away at the keyboard while my wife and kids—the family I consented to—is sleeping like a bunch of reasonable people should be. I own this writing. It’s part of who I am. But I do it compulsively. When it comes to writing, I’m a masturbating bear; I can’t stop. I get anxious if I don’t do it. I feel good and whole when I finish a piece; not like I’ve done something extraordinary that should be praised, but that I’ve done something that I should do. When I finish a piece of writing, my ledgers are balanced. I am blameless as a writer. I am saintly in purpose. Much like when I helped my grandmother tear down her shed.

Because of this feeling I have about writing—I am a writer—I know that I have to own my extended family. I didn’t buy into this contract, but I can’t own one genetic proclivity and not the other. The genes affect everyone in different ways. I have my family’s poor impulse control. I, like my parents, am a recluse. I distrust the main current of family connection. I would rather stay in my house and watch a movie, or read a book, or write something, or have sex with my wife, or play action figures with my kids than go to a cookout or a cocktail party with anyone. I am anxious and impatient. I bite my nails until they bleed sometime because there are only a few behaviors that I am completely suited for, and I can’t always engage in them. These are family traits. I have to take them.

I hate sayings like this, but ‘I come by them honestly’ is a good way to describe it. My immediate family is my wife and kids .They are members of the tribe that I am co-architect of. This tribe is a joy to claim. The other tribe is harder for me because I didn’t build it. It’s shadowy. It would’ve been much less pleasant for me to tear down a shed that I myself erected.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Know I'm Right

In the not too distant past, I was a pretty fervent evangelical Christian. Even though my knuckles have softened from not knocking on my neighbors’ doors to share the good news, in my heart, I’m still playing the same game.

That’s why I write these essays, I think. That’s why—in part—it amuses me so intensely when anonymous comment trolls accuse me of being ‘just as fundamentalist as a religious fundamentalist’. It amuses me because in a way they are right; but not for the reason they think they are.

The trolls are right because I am a constant advocate for my beliefs, and I do want to convert people over to my way of thinking. Scientific skepticism, secular humanism, civil libertarianism, Epicureanism, and traditional welfare state liberalism is the way to go. I believe this, and I think I’ve got pretty compelling reasons for doing so. These beliefs are not dogmas handed down to me from some unquestioned authority; they’re positions I’ve come to over time through rigorous consideration, and they’re subject to change. What do these trolls—ironically, they’re typically Christian fundamentalists and tea party republicans themselves—win by claiming that I myself am practicing the same kind of blind faith and ‘convert or kill’ ethos that they are? When they tell me that my worldview is ‘just another religion’ in the hopes of discrediting me, what are they saying about their own religion?

I realize that what they’re trying to do is to make every worldview relative in order to preserve their own. If no worldview is demonstrably better (or truer) than another, then whatever religion they’re secretly trying to protect has no challenger. If they can sidestep the ‘why’ questions, they can gleefully jump into their intentionally obfuscatory dust clouds, and get lost in the big bouncy fun tent of their preferred theology.

But that is where we diverge. My worldview is based on the why questions. I love to look for answers to the why questions. It's humbling to know that I'll never be able to answer all of those questions. It is also an inherent function of my worldview to change my mind when presented with better information. That's why I believe the worldview I am advocating is superior to its competition.

So, maybe I’m not knocking on front doors anymore, but I’m still bringing the good news. Have you seen my Jesus?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ayn Rand's Fountainhead Keeps Spewing

Oh, anxiety.

As a good American, I think I’m fairly adept at putting the misery of people who live in different zip codes out of my mind. When the Tsunami hit in Indonesia, When the levees broke, whenever California is on fire, when the earthquake tore Haiti apart; I was sad, I kept up with the news, I sent money, I talked about it with friends, family, and co-workers, but there was always a kind of philosophical distance between myself and the event. This is probably because I didn’t know anyone personally involved in these crises, and even though there have been human errors involved in recovering from each mess, on some level I expected that things would be sorted out. I didn’t need to stay glued to my television set or hear 24 hour coverage on the radio. The event was out of my mind for most of the day, except for the occasional update here and there.

Natural disasters happen. Human error happens. But throughout history we have typically figured out how to untie most knots of this nature.

But the oil is still gushing out into the gulf at such an obscene pace. I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a story like this before. It started off as a little ping in my consciousness every time that pornographic footage of the rushing oil would pop onto a T.V. screen, and I won’t be surprised if it eventually manifests itself in a twitchy eye at some point.

Not to draw a false equivalency, but I typically am pretty easy on the executive branch during pop-up crises. I wasn’t mad at how long George W. Bush read ‘My Pet Goat’ after 9-11, or because he only flew over New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. I’m also not mad that President Obama didn’t have a press conference immediately after this latest BP sponsored disaster. These things are complicated things, and all of them highlighted a slew of other neglected issues that allowed things to go awry in the first place. I like what former President Clinton had to say about the whole oil spill business the other day:

All of the cartoonish sounding fixes that have been suggested thus far have rightfully received a raised eyebrow from places like the Daily Show and the Colbert report. On the blame issue, it’s clear that this isn’t a case of environmentalists pushing BP out to unmanageable depths, as so many conservative voices have claimed. This is an issue of an oil company deciding to do something just because it could, and, with the sense of entitlement and feelings of immortality of a Rand-spouting teenager who doesn't give a damn about the consequences of their actions, and is uninterested in thinking through contingency plans.

But, knowing that doesn’t plug the hole, and the ugly continues to vomit out.

cross posted at The Daily Kos.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Am Jack's Fatty Liver

About a year ago, I had a little bit of a heart scare. It turned out to be nothing, but I’m 29. I didn’t have any internal event like ‘heart problems’ even tentatively on my schedule until maybe my late forties. At that time I wouldn’t feel terrible about a little health blip popping up on the screen, scaring me into a life of wheat grass, flax seed, and light cardio. But I’m 29.

Now, a year after that event, I discover that I have fatty liver. Apparently it’s genetic. It came to my attention as a small, random pain in my chest, which turned out to be some minor fatty liver after professional investigation. Bullshit. My Doctor tells me not to worry, just to lose some weight and exercise more. I’m 29.

I think it must be hard to live the lower middle class family life in Ohio without dying of cancer or heart disease. Indeed, if you look at a sky-view picture of Ohio, it’s shaped like a heart. If you look at that same sky-view with the rivers represented, you can see all kinds of little cracks in it. That our license plates claim Ohio as ‘The Heart of It All!’ must be a very dark joke.

(It occurs to me just now that the title of this piece may be a double entendre. When I wrote it, I intended it as an offhand reference to ‘Fight Club’. But Jack is also the name of my five year old son, and a lot of these health issues I’m talking about are genetic…yikes.)

So, I guess I’ll try to straighten out. Since I quit following sand-crazy desert religions, I’ve felt a little less anxiety. I still prayed from time to time after breaking up with the invisible sky daddy, but now I think I’ve got that under wraps too. When I feel overwhelmed by the goodness in my life, I simply take a deep breath, and feel exhilarated; like I’m getting away with something.

It’s hard to stay away from the fast food restaurants; especially Taco Bell. I love their Chili Cheese Burritos, and it’s easy to justify eating them for lunch when they’re so cheap, and I’m usually too busy to pack something for myself. It’s also hard not to listen to talk radio, which I admit I get a cheap thrill from (probably the same kind of thrill people get from watching Jerry Springer), although no doubt it increases my stress levels.

My friend Brandon and I got together for lunch the other day to catch up. We talked about Patton Oswalt’s bit about people who voted for George W. Bush in 2004, which segued into a conversation about general health, both in a physical way and a more abstract way. Brandon and I—both family men now—have found our politics drifting steadily leftward over the past few years, simply because we are responsible members of society, and now—as family men—we are invested in its success like never before. We talked about how we want to teach our kids the importance of volunteering, of healthy skepticism, and of democracy & pluralism. We want them to be invested. We don’t want them to have to wrestle with silly religious myths, secular or otherwise (to be filed under ‘silly religious myths’: Any offshoot of one of the desert religions, communism, libertarianism, etc.). Life is complicated and often unsexy. A lot of life is about hard work, and a little bit of it is about luck.

I would count genetic predispositions towards fatty liver and heart conditions as bad luck. Since I’m passing that bit of bad luck on to the kids, I want to make sure that I model the right kind of stress management and other healthy behaviors in order to make sure they can compensate. I can’t give them good luck, but I can—hopefully—show them what hard work looks like.