Saturday, April 30, 2011

This Puts Me in the Mood For Something,

I'm just not sure that something is Doritos.

'What the Hell Is This, part 2: Odd Japanese Dorito Packaging', via .The Elegant Ape.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Let My Love Open the Door

This is the best version of this song that I've seen:

My family and I watched 'Dan In Real Life' when it came out (a sweet movie), and the version that Steve Carrell and Dane Cook sang together got stuck in our head. Not being big Pete Townsend fans, we didn't know whose song it was, but we started singing it--we're a very dorky family--when we would go hiking together.

So I looked it up. It's Pete Townsend. It's a great song. I found out that it's popular among christians too; a christian band covered it as if it was God speaking to humanity rather than Pete Townsend talking to a girl. There was a time when that would've been my preferred interpretation.

For whatever reason, it's become my go-to anthem when I am feeling peaceful and good, and all that stuff.

Here's my favorite cover of the song:

I'll be listening to this version quite a bit today.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reading the Bible Like A Photo Album

I love door to door missionaries. I can't deny that part of my love for them is that I like the conflict, but I also love to talk religion, and those folks are literally asking for it.

A recent evangelist told me that I needed to read the bible with an open-heart. 'I have.' I said. 'I've read it twice'.

That's true. I've read the bible twice. Once when I was seventeen--it took a year--and once in my early twenties, when I took a series of bible classes at the University of Cincinnati that covered the bible from beginning to end, in a more academic spirit. Both times I was a Christian. Both times I was reading to learn more about my faith. Open heart.

But then, is that possible? I mean, the christian bible has saturated the culture that I live in, and has saturated the culture of many folks. Is there another work of literature that more people have spent their entire lives gaining a 'deeper' understanding of? Don Quixote? Hamlet? The Tale of Genji? Beowulf? Hardly. There are people who commit themselves to those books, but not like they do the bible. And not as many.

I know it's possible to argue that we can't come to any work of literature objectively, because we always carry our own expectations and experiences with us; as Montaigne puts it, 'there's no escaping our perception; we can walk only on our own two legs, and sit on our own bum'.

But at least these biases are our own; unless we spent our entire life living with wolves in the woods before we first picked up a bible, we've got all kinds of thoughts about what it is and what kind of information is in it. While humanists like myself may want to say that our country was founded on secular principles--and while that may be true--we do not live in a secular country. We live in an aggressively christian country, and our history and culture is aggressively christian. We grew up--most of us--in families that had some loose kind of belief in god at least, and even if we grew up in secular households, we grew up in neighborhoods full of believers. It has affected all of our art and literature. By the time we casually flip through it the first time around, or really get down and dirty to read the thing with a serious mind, we already know what to expect. We have either been programmed, or have programmed ourselves to seek out the fulfillment of our own expectations in it.

While it is beyond argument that the bible is a book written by men (sans divine inspiration), it is still a magical thing, at least metaphorically. I read it the first time while other boys my age were taking road trips with Jack Kerouac and discovering the great morality of Kurt Vonnegut, and I forced meaning from the thing. I squeezed the psalms for everything they were worth, and went to C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton to find out interpretations I had missed. The result of my biblical juicing--in retrospect--tasted a lot like me. It's possible to glean objective details from the bible, but the way we feel about it at any time in our life, in a way, is predestined from birth. Just like us Americans may never fully appreciate the full humanity of someone like George Washington, so too are those of us who live in christian districts bound to forever be evaluating (and sometimes re-evaluating) our relationship with the book, rather than evaluating the book itself.

The missionary at the door asked me to read the bible again. I told him honestly that I didn't have the time or interest to invest in it.

If I could revise my answer, I would say this instead: "I read it every day before I met you, and I will be reading it every day after you step off my porch, until I die".

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Where Are the Angry Liberals?

Slate asks, "If the Ryan Budget is so unpopular, where are the angry liberals?"

If you're expecting today's american liberal to shout down speakers in townhall meetings and flood into the streets demanding evidence of Paul Ryan's citizenship, you're going to be disappointed.

The modern American liberal--like the current American President--isn't the leftist streetfighter the modern American conservative paints her to be. She is a much more moderate, maintenance-minded citizen who pays her taxes, works her job, expects competence from her public officials, and exudes competence in her daily life. She expects other citizens to have the same opportunities she does, and abhors discrimination. She understands that the human services need to be funded even during tough economic times, and understands that America is not inherently righteous, but is capable of setting an exemplary model for other nations by ensuring that it acts in good faith towards its citizens and global neighbors.

The modern American liberal would probably have voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and maybe Teddy Roosevelt. The modern American liberal is..well, much more moderate. So if Slate is looking for a reactionary bunch of ideologues willing to burn it all to the ground if they don't get their way, they're going to have be content with the tea party.

The modern American liberal is too busy working to take time off to throw a conniption fit in the street, and is not under the illusion that she is being led by some divine being to restore America to its 'former glory'. She realizes that this idea is a dangerous, growth-stunting fiction, and that America's best days are ahead of us, if we're willing to roll up our sleeves.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dad, Can't I Have Just a Sandwich?

Allow me to commiserate with my 9 year old son for a minute:

In my experience so far, the second worst people in the world are tweens. The worst people in the world are grown-ups who never abandoned their tween-vices, and only allowed them to harden as they got older.

Tweens are by and large herd creatures; they are cultural puritans, and--like most puritans--they are profoundly ignorant. Woe to the different and unusual. Woe to the self-possessed. And woe (woe!) to the weird kid who is a little too clever for even most adults.

My 9 year old, Spencer the third, is different and unusual, self-possessed, and is too clever; not too clever for his own good, but definitely clever enough to make many sheep of all ages at least slightly uncomfortable.

Why is he these things? My wife and I have to take a lot of credit; genetic makeup and environment and whatnot. We are oddballs, and we revel in our oddballery. Our oddballness. Our oddballocity.

We were aware when we began telling our kids that they weren’t born in sin, that they should think for themselves, that they should be okay with who they are (whatever that turns out to be), that they should always experiment and push boundaries (even with us), that they may have a hard time getting along with the sheep. We live in Cincinnati, which is a fairly conservative place. It’s the kind of place where, oh--I don’t know-- Someone like Jean Schmidt will keep getting re-elected, and will enjoy a grimace-inducing high popularity with the voting public.

We've let Spencer grow his hair long. We've supported his interest in nerd-culture (Star Craft, Star Wars, Dr. Who, Comic books, etc.). We send him to Camp Quest for summer camp--a wonderful oasis for children who are allowed to think for themselves, and are allowed to be themselves--and he is happy. He revels in himself, and it makes us happy to see.

But the tweens are coming.

As wonderful as individualism is, we are social animals, and we're never more aware of this than when we are tweens. It's when we start to realize that we don't just get defined by what we are, but also by what we are not. Spencer's starting to notice this, and I'm sympathetic to him. We usually pack him interesting things in his lunch; not to be show-offy, but because we like interesting things in our lunch too. We pack sushi, lunch burritos, veggies with veggie dip, interesting salads, falafel, hummus and pita chips, etc.

and some kids have made fun of him for it. There have been cool kids who like interesting things who have supported him, but, he's gotten his share of funny faces.

The other morning as I was standing at the cabinets brainstorming a lunch for Spence, he came up behind me and said, 'Dad, can't I have just a sandwich today?' and he proceeded to explain the situation to me.

While part of me wanted to make a stirring inspirational speech, the other part automatically reached for the peanut butter and jelly and white bread, and took an apple and a juice pack out of the fridge. 'No problem', I said.

I gave him a hug and walked him to the bus stop.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: You've Got To Tolerate All Those People That You Hate

"We honor our characters as if they were distinctive to ourselves, whether we have worthy characters snd are admired by men or not. Therefore, We must esteem the characters of our neighbors, if they are friendly to us."-Epicurus, 7th Vatican Saying.

I love Epicurus's qualifiers: "If they are friendly to us".

Loving your enemies can be tiresome. You don't have to hate them, mind you (that can be even more exhausting), but loving them requires a huge investment that doesn't promise any returns; and besides, how many of us who attempt to 'love' our enemies really act as if we love them? How often is the love we feel for those who hate us really either just a self-aggrandizing veneer, or a sharp tool we use to beat ourselves down with when we realize that we are incapable of wishing well those who wish us ill? Why not just be honest about it?

Instead of choosing one or the other emotional extreme, Epicurus advocated that we tolerate the personality traits of those we encounter that do us no real harm, and as pertains to the other poles, I guess it's carte blanche. Destroy your enemies and love your friends to your heart's content. I endorse this position.

It may sound cold to advocate the destruction of your enemies, but sometimes it is necessary. And consider this: one of the best and most effective way of destroying your enemies is to turn them into friends. Discovering a mutual self-interest with an enemy can take you far away from a situation that would undoubtedly lead to much pain and suffering for both parties if it were allowed to escalate.

The genius and realism of Epicurus is notable in this Vatican saying: rather than calling us to strive for some kind of unrealistic ethereal ideal, he suggests that we understand our more carnal aspects. The poet Robert Bly has a lot to say about the way in which we unrealistically deal with our carnal aspects in his wonderful essay 'The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us':

"Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age."

he then adds what the consequences of all of this stuffing-into-the-bag is:

"We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed. Suppose the bag remains sealed-what happens then? A great nineteenth-century story has an idea about that. One night Robert Louis Stevenson woke up and told his wife a bit of a dream he’d just had. She urged him to write it down; he did, and it became “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The nice side of the personality becomes, in our idealistic culture, nicer and nicer. The Western man may be a liberal doctor, for example, always thinking about the good of others. Morally and ethically he is wonderful. But the substance in the bag takes on a personality of its own; it can’t be ignored. The story says that the substance locked in the bag appears one day somewhere else in the city. The substance in the bag feels angry, and when you see it it is shaped like an ape, and moves like an ape.

The story says then that when we put a part of ourselves in the bag it regresses. It de-evolves toward barbarism. Suppose a young man seals a bag at twenty and then waits fifteen or twenty years before he opens it again. What will he find? Sadly, the sexuality, the wildness, the impulsiveness, the anger, the freedom he put in have all regressed; they are not only primitive in mood, they are hostile to the person who opens the bag. The man who opens his bag at forty-five or the woman who opens her bag rightly feels fear. She glances up and sees the shadow of an ape passing along the alley wall; anyone seeing that would be frightened."

that essay can be found in a book by Bly called 'A Little Book on the Human Shadow', and I recommend it.

The message of Epicurus and Robert Bly is pretty clear here: Be honest about your shit, and deal with it honestly.

It's much less scary that way, and the results you get will be infinitely better.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Like Father, Like Son

My 9 year old son Eliot wanted to blog just like his old man.

Click here to visit it, and read his first post; it's a riveting science fiction story called 'The Never-Ending Space Journey'.

Make sure to leave him an encouraging comment. He's a really great, creative, interesting kid. When he makes it big in fifteen years or so, you'll be able to say you were with him from the beginning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Divorce

A person who I have come to see as a mentor has made the following statement a few times since I've known her, and it has always given me a little chill whenever she says it: "I'm good at divorce".

Of course, this isn't an exclusive reference to marriage. Experience and the basic need to survive has made her good at ending bad relationships of every kind. The reason this statement of fact chills me is that I've always been a 'go down with the ship' kind of guy when it comes to relationships.

In the past, this mentality has been part of the screwed up view of suffering that I picked up from Christianity. When I was a teenager, I would slice up my arms with razors in order to mortify my flesh for God. As I grew older, I stopped literally cutting myself, although I continued to nurture relationships with individuals that cut me in both big and small ways. This is one of the ways in which ditching religion has been a great boon to me, and to all of my relationships. There's no 'leaving it in god's hands' cop-out anymore: there's only us, the issues at hand, and the decisions we make about them. I couldn't have accepted the wisdom of cutting cancerous ties and mending threadbare ones if I hadn't first cut the most cancerous tie of all.

Working hard on relationships with people that are willing and interested in putting the same kind of work into the relationship, or putting hard emotional work into helping people you love through personal problems are worthwhile investments. Nurturing relationships with psychic vampires and green-eyed hamsters, however, are only ways to poke holes in your own ship, keep you unhealthy, and prevent you from investing yourself as fully as possible in all of your healthy relationships. You don't have to die on every battlefield. A battlefield shouldn't be the appropriate metaphor for most of your relationships.

So, inspired by my mentor, I have begun the task of politely severing relationships with the handful of toxic personalities I have collected, and clearing up unsaid things with others. Having put some distance between myself and the weird sanctity of suffering I adhered to for so long, things look a lot clearer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Everybody Involved In This Story Sucks


Terry Jones is an idiotic coward with fascistic inclinations. Burning the Koran bespeaks a deep (rightful) insecurity in his own faith, a fearful and hateful attitude towards out-groups, and is an example of the worst kind of religious excess.

Lindsay Graham sucks for even suggesting that he will bring this issue up before congress. It's none of their business what private citizens burn. Hmm...

And finally, all of the idiots in Afghanistan who decided what some dumb idiot in Florida decided to throw on his grill was cause to riot, destroy property, and murder 20 people, suck the most; these guys prove that herding pigs isn't so hard after all.

Usually it's possible to see a glimmer of reason in the actions of most parties involved in a conflict. Not so with this reactionary bunch: everybody involved in this story clearly sucks.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Drinking the Mortal Brew: The Future Is No Place To Place Your Better Days

"We are born once and cannot be born twice, but we must be no more for all time. Not being master of tomorrow, you nonetheless delay your happiness. Life is consumed by procrastination, and each of us dies without providing leisure time for himself"-
Epicurus, 6th Vatican Saying

The good wisdom gets passed around. Somebody in every culture and time is virtually guaranteed to either borrow the good stuff from another culture, or discover it for themselves and find a unique way to phrase it.

As a frequenter of atheist blogs, books, and youtube debates, I've run into the following point several times (paraphrased): 'If there was a huge calamity and mankind had to start from scratch with zero knowledge and memory of the past, and zero relics, all of the scientific laws would be discovered again. Religions may (and probably would) arise, but they would be different'. I'm too lazy to look up who originally made this point, but whoever it was was generally right; because religion is made up, any religions created in this calamity scenario would be unique to the ones we have now (because religion is man-made). I don't think they are wholly right, because I think there are true observations made by many religions. 'The Golden Rule' thing comes to mind. Since the good parts of religion are the result of anthropological pop-psychology--and since pop-psychology is based on anecdotal observation--some of the truths discovered by the contributors to the world's religions are bound to be true, even if only by accident.

This one by Epicurus is one of those truisms about the good life discovered by observing the human animal that would be discovered again if today and tomorrow were divided by a road paved by Cormac McCarthy.

Rabelais was the first to say 'Do What Thou Wilt', while Jesus--in summary--told us to 'Do What Thou Ought'. Epicurus--ever the moderate--comes down in the middle with 'Thou Ought to Do Some Of Those Things That Thou Wilt'. Except of course, Epicurus wasn't much of a 'Thou Shalt' kind of guy.

This saying--along with the carpe diem sayings of Jesus and Rabelais--can be taken as irresponsible 'eat,drink, and be merry' stuff, but in actuality, the irresponsible 'eat, drink, and be merry' stuff isn't so irresponsible either. Anything can be used as license by the irresponsible. The whole thrust is that we would be happier if we allowed ourselves time to stop storing up treasures in heaven, or kudos with the boss, and fully inhabit and appreciate a world that we would care to. While it's inevitable that we all will need to spend some time doing things that we may not want to do (working out, going to work on the odd Saturday, visiting with our in-laws), maintenance is part of the good life too. It's important that we save and plan ahead. It's also important that we not feel like we need to 'steal' time for ourselves.

The time we have is ours. The time we use to pursue things that bring us pleasure--the ultimate good--is not stolen time. Rather than thinking of the time you spend reading a mystery novel, tossing a ball with your kid, or drinking a beer and talking with your friends as some kind of gift from the system, think of it time spent as it should be.

By all means, you can find meaning in your work too; I do. But as Dr. Seuss so perfectly puts it, 'Life is a great balancing act'.

Leisure time isn't frivolous. That's one of the great sins perpetrated on America by the Puritans. Leisure time is no more frivolous than sleep and exercise, and it's just as necessary.