Archive for June 2009
If you prefer photos, you can see a nice sample, including my second lifetime tux wearing in the pictures displayed here.
I dropped off Pandora successfully at her temporary home with Emily’s cousins in Altadena. The meowing calmed to once a minute after about 45 minutes and then once every 3-5 minutes after about 90 minutes.
I met Russ’ new main squeeze, Cyn. I also met Octocat.
I went on a long hike with Jake, Fish, Gris, DK, Eliaii, and Jake’s college friend Vlad to serve as his “bachelor party”. Highlights included discussing how much time the human species has left on the planet and playing frisbee over a pond at the base of a waterfall near JPL.
I also threw a frisbee around in the Pacific Ocean.
I puttered around in a pool at the infamous AIG-junket resort – a pool where 40+ people were around the pool but only 3-5 were in it at any given time, only 1-2 of them strangers to me.
I saw Jake get married.
I had perhaps my best-ever visit to Disneyland, including my first trip to California Adventure and the corresponding Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which may be the best ride ever. We also had dinner in the Blue Bayou, the fabled restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
I visited the turtles in Santa Barbara. You’ll love Santa Barbara!
I drove home to start packing.
One week till departure. Half a year till 2010.
At least, I hope the cat won’t escape.
Pandora and I are heading to LA today. She’s going to her new two-month temporary home with Em’s cousins in Altadena, then I’m on to the BH to hang with Russ for a while before festivities officially begin for Jake’s wedding.
Given that Pandora has never once been in the car without meowing at least three times per minute with increasingly mournful cries, the next six hours are going to be an adventure.
Here’s the unsuspecting Pando, just moments ago:
Here’s what she’d look like if she knew what was coming:
(This photo is completely unaltered by any program – it’s just a result of the fun effects of flash photography in the dark on cat’s eyes.)
Finally, as a bonus animal pic, here’s a great one Emily snapped in the Academy of Sciences on Saturday:
Updates from the road possible; upon return definite.
As fun as the round I posted last week was about Peter Pan is as difficult as the round I post today was. Since we’re going backwards, this round was just before and earned us the right to participate in the fun one.
Debating lurid details of sexuality is never the easiest, but to have the most sexually explicit debate round of my life in front of my parents and Emily’s parents before Emily and I were even engaged was … challenging.
Now this round is for everyone’s public consumption so even more people can revel in Emily’s and my struggle to navigate these choppy waters. Good times.
Check it out:
Don’t worry, it’s still Sundown in America.
But my own filter for this reality will be dominated in the coming weeks by Emily’s and my upcoming cross-country odyssey. Hence the new accoutrements around here.
But it also seems like a good time to take stock of the past. So here is the collection of past headers on this page (admittedly without the complete color scheme and background images, where applicable). From the most recent to the most distant:
I guess this is my first header without a face.
In other news, it sort of surprises me that we’re only going through a third of the states in the union. I guess they’re all (save the destination) pretty big states.
Bonus points for those of you who read today’s title and said to themselves, quietly, “What? About five feet in front of our face?”
Emily and I spent the day at the newly rebuilt Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It purports to be the “greenest museum on Earth”. When we first walked in, we were propped in front of a green screen, the backdrop for a photo of our choice upon exit. This has become relatively standard procedure at museums and especially aquariums of late, so we thought little of it. Though I wondered why there was no image of a happy whale shark or cartoon character behind me – just all-green. Maybe this is the new “green” message – just an all-green background is all that counts anymore. No wonder we get along with Libya these days.
So, in we went. Predictably, I was immediately captivated by the fish and pretty much anything that swam, taking my time to marvel at the rays and small sharks and something that we thought was a skate but turned out to be a guitarfish of all things – they’re really cool if you want to check them out.
The penguin show was aimed at especially young ones, with an invitation to same to come up and read short passages about my favorite (sorry emus) flightless birds. There was no shortage of reference to March of the Penguins and Happy Feet and it occurred to me how steeped in the lore of global warming these films are; that penguins themselves have become sort of posterbirds for the growing apocalyptic fever gripping those not concerned with a religious apocalypse. It’s hard to keep up with your apocalypses these days. I might consider the fourth book I write, after the three upcoming in the next 12 months, to be “An Illustrated Guide to Recognizing Your Apocalypses”. And people think I’m depressed.
Next up was an apocalyptic line for the rain forest exhibit, clearly the feature entertainment of the day’s program. Housed in a clear sphere, the forest promised to simulate conditions of actual rain forests, minus the need to wade through piranhas. After a half hour of snaking around the dome in anticipation – wherein Emily and I were confronted by people in line whose motivation for being at a museum of any kind we could not, for the life of us, figure out – we were brought into the closed space between the outside world and the rain forest. Having been to butterfly gardens before, I was prepared for the brief pause between doorways. I was not wholly prepared for what followed.
A man, just barely of age and bearing a strong resemblance to Russell of the recent hit film Up, intoned to us: “Welcome, folks, to the rain forest. Now I’m sure you’ve heard all the rules out there before you can enter the forest, but we have just one more thing to go over. Since we have live butterflies flying around inside, you will be sprayed just a couple seconds with a protective spray. It’s not FDA approved just yet, but it will be and it’s to protect the butterflies and it’ll just take a couple seconds.”
The air died in the room.
He was joking, of course, and cracked a quick smile and let us in directly as most of us were scanning the ceiling for shower jets. Even the lugnuts of flesh who we’d trailed in line – beefy, disinterested couples dredged in from suburbia – seemed disconcerted and one of them muttered “I was gonna say – wait a minute” as we were ushered by Russell’s older brother, probably wondering why his joke wasn’t funny. What we were all wondering, even the suburban chaff, was what we would have done had he not been joking. What could we have done?
Homeland Security has made co-conspirators of us all.
Anyway, the rain forest was gorgeous and just starting to grow – an ominous foretelling of a time when exhibits like these might be the only living examples of their ilk. At each level, from ground floor to understory to canopy on up, we were introduced to the diverse rain forest species of a different world region, brought to an understanding that the Amazon and Madagascar and Borneo might as well be three entirely different ecosystems, though they are all varieties of rain forest. While looking past the fallen butterflies and wondering what their expected lifespan was (it always seems a pressing question in butterfly gardens – how does parading hundreds of humans with attention spans shorter than insects’ through their habitat impact their lifespan?), the exhibit was most impressive. I kept looking down to the fish while most looked up to the birds and I even managed to peel some layers, promising Emily that I would wear shorts all the time if we lived in that dome. That’s some climate change I could go for.
But as we headed for the fish – riding an elevator that can only be taken down – I was still thinking about one of my favorite evolutionary theories. There’s a huge blue whale skeleton hanging outside the dome, perhaps only slightly less daunting than the full blue whale replica that so daunted my entrance to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium 23 years ago. And it reveals my favorite fact about marine mammals – that they have fingers. Now why would an animal that lives only underwater and only has flippers develop fingers? Penguins certainly don’t have fingers hiding within their flippers. Nor do sharks within their fins. So what gives?
And then there are these tiny underdeveloped two little bones hanging toward the back of the enormous spine, dangling just below. What are those about, evolutioneers?
Well I’ll tell you – they’re feet. Because marine mammals – or at least cetaceans (lest you think I’m including otters and seals) – came from the land. They used to walk around up here. And dollars to donuts, anything that figured out how to enter the sea and use sonar to communicate was sentient a long time before that. And I don’t mean Ben Brandzel’s weird use of the word that anything seeking to survive is sentient – I mean Sentient. Like we think of ourselves.
Last time they faced an apocalypse, they figured out the only place to go was going to be underwater. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from those guys. I mean, I’m not going to say they built the Pyramids, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out either. It makes a lot more sense than aliens.
And you thought all those beachings were confusion. Not some sort of protest or suicide because conditions in the ocean had gotten so unlivable. Wait till the blues start beaching.
Anyway, these thoughts were rattling the back of my mind, somehow throwing humanity’s own position into some kind of stark relief. The fascinating fish, the familiar collection, the reef – almost identical to Georgia’s – and the frequently proffered seafood guides, advising which kinds of fish the flesh-hungry audience were permitted to eat and still get to count themselves as “green”.
Which just got me going all over again. I mean, when is a global warming advocate or an animal curator just going to come out and say that the visitors have a moral obligation to become vegetarian or they might as well not show up? I know, I know – it’s offputting, it’s bad press, it’s not what the visitors want with their bread and circus. Any five-year-old sitting in the audience can make the connection between the fluffy penguins in the exhibit and the chicken fingers in the cafeteria; between the beautiful fish in front of them and the dead fish on the plate. So why can’t the twenty-five-year-olds, much less the fifty-five-year-olds? At what point does habit transcend thought? Ten? Eighteen? Twenty-one?
The literature is all about what incredibly damaging effects fishing has on the oceans, how catastrophic it has been. And unlike global warming, the apocalyptic predictions about this one have already come to pass. We’ll all be joint owners of the world’s largest swimming pool pretty soon – no need for chlorine and just dodge the trash and the occasional corpse. I wonder how the marine mammals are going to sort this one out, especially with sonar that the submarines destroyed.
But the aquarium was filled with signs about “if you love seafood…”, making the pitch that you can only continue to love seafood if the oceans survive. Nonsense. You can only have the oceans survive if everyone sacrifices their love of seafood. You’ll never catch anyone saying it, but I would bet a vast portion of the aquarium’s staff don’t eat fish. And probably not much other flesh either.
I wonder how many kids leave places like the Academy of Sciences pledging to become vegetarians. And how many of their families wear them down before the month is out.
But the show was cool, with the live diver taking questions from inside the coral reef tank that had a strange flavor of CNN interviews to them – I think it was more about how contrived CNN has gotten than any particular insincerity in the tank. After all, the Q&A was pretty clearly scripted right up till kids got to ask questions, and that’s probably about the speed CNN’s running on, minus the kids.
By the time we’d waded through all the fish, and up to spy on the albino alligator (crocodile?) resting on the rocks before an enthralled audience, we realized it was time to book it to the planetarium show, “Fragile Planet”. Having already gotten my blood up about the global warming stuff and the contradictions (Why isn’t vegetarianism the very first “action step” you can take to fend off global warming, anyway? Because that would make too much of a difference?), I was certainly leery of the show’s title. But I’m a sucker for a planetarium show, and this one was housed in the ominously opaque dome that served as counterpoint to the rain forest exhibit. Once again, we joined a circumnavigatory line, but this one was really moving. No need to joke about sprays, I guess.
We took our seats, noticed the pleasantly eerie ambiance of the blank dome-screen and the echoey music as everyone leaned back and Emily almost immediately started drifting off. (She didn’t fall asleep till the show actually began.) As we all were seated and the doors closed, one of the ushers began to explain what we were witnessing – the largest digital planetarium screen on the planet, with no giant star projecting unit in the center to obstruct views. Only the invisible digital display units on the rim of the dome, creating a wholly immersive experience. As my mind often wonders at such types of things (or maybe it was the spray joke again), I started to contemplate how much power one could wield with such a realistic and overwhelming display. By the time they were warning about motion sickness, I realized just how much one could terrify or thrill someone with something so captivating as a dome larger than the extent of one’s peripheral vision.
The show’s visual power lived up to my fantasizing – it was wholly overwhelming. Nothing scary about it (though for some reason I kept thinking they were going to plunge us from the Earth’s surface into the depths of an ocean, which would certainly have given me a start) as they whisked us from the interior of the very museum we were in, zooming out to the planetary level, observing the planet, and then out to the stars.
The film’s content was intriguing – it was a basic study of the components for life and what makes Earth so special. The discovery of water(-like-stuff) on Mars has done wonders for the scientific community having to backtrack from Earth being unique in the universe. Already this show was ready to say that not only could there be remnants of life under Mars’ surface, but also on a moon of Jupiter and another moon of Saturn. This despite Earth seeming to be at the ideal epicenter of the so-called “habitable zone”, neatly illustrated in green. Leaving this paradox unresolved is a big step forward from the days of science books declaring that Earth held the only life in the universe and that we were so desperately alone. I was truly heartened.
The problem was that the movie had a larger paradox to wrestle with – it wanted to both deeply explore the real possibilities (I’d call them realities) of life on other planets and simultaneously tow the party line about Earth being the only known locale of life and thus being so desperately important to preserve. I understand the need to beat the drum of global warming and desperation (though not actual desperation that would compel someone to stop eating meat or anything drastic to stave off apocalypse), but I still think you have a compelling message to Earthbound humans that their planet is important without making it the last hope of life in the universe. Is microbial life on Mars really solace to this species if it gets wiped out? I mean, it is to me, but I was never all that big on my species. I think the suburban lugnuts disagree.
Regardless of which, we started zooming beyond Saturn’s moons and into nearby solar systems, exploring a case study of another planet the size of Jupiter that seems to ellipse through an equally magical “habitable zone” around its sun. Exciting stuff, truly. The number of qualifiers and equivocation used seemed wholly unnecessary, but the message was still clear, if filtered: we ain’t alone, kids. Not that anyone brought up the sentience question, but … baby steps.
And then, as though there were any question about the odds, we zoomed out of the Milky Way and started counting galaxies and the numbers started to swim and dance like Ben Bernanke conducting an auction. As though to leave behind any doubt whatsoever that the universe is positively teeming with life, life to fill a billion science fiction novels of all shapes and sizes.
Though there was the cautionary note about light-years and distance and how even the idea of traveling at lightspeed (fully accepted in the Ender’s books I’m reading right now, by the way) is still mega-theoretical and would still take pretty much forever. And then it was back to Earth and how we might (really?) be alone and so we’d best not destroy ourselves, The End.
As we rubbed our eyes and I woke Emily up and we stumbled out into the gallery filled with beautiful posters of these infinitely distant galaxies, it occurred to me (again again again) to wonder why no one stops to think whether light-year distances were put there as deliberate boundaries on travel. And then of course the recollection that the idea of purpose (beyond the evolutionary deity of SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS) is forbidden from scientific study. That presuming things are the way they are for a reason that isn’t chaotic, while implicitly assumed every day, can never go to a place where it is spoken or understood. Because that would bring God into science and then 1 would equal 2 and all hell would break loose. Or something.
Also, why can no one reconcile that evolution’s progeny worshipping only survival seems somehow at odds with an intelligent species hellbent on self-destruction? Doesn’t something have to give there?
But seriously, kids… there’s a reason everything is so flipping far away and it seems totally incomprehensible to travel there, no matter how cool science someday gets. Because we’re not supposed to go there! BUT (and this is big) we are supposed to know that it’s there. And be amazed by just how much life is out there.
And then (THEN!) we can think about what all that life would be doing, what it would mean, and why it would be very important that we don’t interact with it. And then we might be getting somewhere.
Out onto the roof, to contemplate the “living roof” – a rooftop garden concept run totally amok and made wild instead of edible. Emily informs me about all these sustainable things they’re doing with the roof and it hits me how quickly and overwhelmingly an idea can catch on if enough people think it’s important. This is somehow very reassuring, though I can’t help but be nagged by how few seem to be asking the right questions. But it’ll pass, it’ll pass.
Then down to the final unseen exhibit, the one I’ve been putting off, the Global Warming Propaganda Special. To my pleasant surprise, they do have an exhibit about food and your diet’s large impact on your carbon footprint, though the meat doesn’t seem to carry as high a penalty as it should and this seems like another tool of watering everyone down into thinking it’s all about trade-offs and as long as you recycle two out of three times, you’ll probably stave off TOTAL APOCALYPSE.
This is funny (to me, at least) because it’s totally how these things are marketed. I mean, I don’t believe in global warming (clearly), but if I did, I’d have enough sense to realize that me doing the green things or not (most of which, by the way, consist of buying some new consumer item to replace an old consumer item, which seems remarkably unsustainable in practice) would not make the difference on the unimaginable upward spike that the graph of carbon has allegedly taken. I mean, really. Do you know what’s really creating that, kids? It’s called Capitalism. You can chart the spread of the concept against the carbon graph and find a perfect fit. With the consumer reality and disposable culture have come an unending rise in demand. We demand stuff. We demand the ability to create trash. We demand an unending stream of stuff that we can have only to trash it.
And now, hurrah! Capitalism is available in almost every country in the world! No wonder all those countries are ripping down their rainforests to build stripmalls or materials for someone else’s stripmall. They have to be just like us (US!).
But does the Global Warming Propaganda Machine tell me that we need immediate eco-socialist revolution? Or just to do everything possible to make sure this recession becomes the depression that permanently defeats capitalism and everything that even rhymes with a “consumer”? No. It says to buy a tote bag.
Do you know how many tote bags we have? It’s getting to the point where there are almost as many tote bags as paper bags. Because we have a new marketable brand – green. And we just need to produce the everliving stuffing out of this new brand. When is someone going to realize that if you produce as many reusable items as one-use items, there’s no point? When is someone going to understand that being truly green means not buying anything ever again, especially anything new?
But our exit brought the piece de la resistance, a moment so colossally insane as to undo much of the joy (yes, I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite some misgivings) of the visit to the Academy in the first place. Remember that photo taken so many hours before, upon our heady entrance to the greenest museum in the world? Well it was ready for us! I supplied my little card to the guy standing under three big digital screens advertising the photos and waited for our image to pop up on one of them. I could even see that there were different backgrounds being advertised and this was the clear reason for the green screen – choice! We could pick whatever our favorite part of the visit was and this would increase our likelihood of plunking down an insane amount of money for a picture we could have gotten a nice family to take of us on our own digital camera for free.
But the screen didn’t change. Where was the guy with our ticket? Oh, it couldn’t be! But it was… he was bringing us set of fully developed photos – glossy printing, glossy paper, all irreparably used – that had been waiting for us since we entered.
My mind boggled.
Every entrant, every ticket – thousands of people crossing through the doors every day, and every single one of them was having full-color digital glossy printouts of their photos being prepared for them in the hopes that they would buy it at the end.
It was more than I could bear. The guilt tugged on the heartstrings, my mind full of all the wasteful propaganda of my carbon footprint. And then a second welling of rage came up – this was deliberate. Insidious. They didn’t create the waste out of thoughtless irony, but out of a planned assault on the wallet. They were hitting people below the belt with a newly informed important decision – do you want to force us to create waste? As though the decision were somehow yours instead of the people who had already destroyed the paper and ink, below three perfectly good digital screens.
The $20 was laughable, but I think I would have refused to take the picture off their hands had it been flawless and available for 50 cents. I was so incensed. I burn thinking about it. Thinking about how many people they’ve coerced into buying an exorbitant picture they don’t want and can’t afford out of a new leaden guilt they carry about every scrap of paper they waste. And what blatant waste the Academy creates in a Machiavellian sacrifice for their bottom line.
Just thinking about it, hours later, makes me seethe. I can’t stand it. And I know, as I just articulated a few paragraphs ago, that each individual piece of paper is nothing in the scheme of it. But the whole philosophy of the propaganda is that every bit counts. And the reason it’s hard for me to get into it (even if I believed) is that I know how much institutional waste and greed and power dwarfs that of the individual. And here’s the institution, the very institution trying to make me a believer, demonstrating the very scale of waste that I couldn’t hope to compete with if I wanted to. In the name of green.
It’s green, all right. But not the green you may be thinking. There’s a war on, kids, and it’s not the one you think or the sides you believe you’re choosing. It’s between the greenback dollar and the real green left on the earth, that grows from the ground. When they say green, they mean the former, no matter what it sounds like. When there’s none of the former left, none of it at all, that’s the only true hope for the latter.
Sorting papers sure is fun… or something.
In reality, though, nestled amongst years of dust and old bills are little moments, small time machines that immediately take me back to a precise day years earlier when I saw a movie or received a gift or just wrote down a prescient thought at an important free moment.
Little brings me such joy as these pieces of paper. Which is probably why I’m spending all the time to make sure I keep the important ones – and why I saved so many unimportant ones in the first place, just to be sure. After all, someday either other people will be gone or I will and those pieces of paper will be the only strand left between us on this planet.
But in our digital age, we’re not just reliant on pieces of paper. Though I did watch part of the History Channel series on “Life After People”, which reminded me how profoundly vulnerable both our paper and digital materials are (though I guess plastic soda bottles are forever). Nonetheless, while people are still around, you can watch videos like this.
This one is the second in the series of regressing Stanford 2002 debates; this time Emily’s & my semifinal round. I think this is my mother’s all-time favorite debate round (though she was only able to attend a handful during my career), featuring a contentious clash over the fate of Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and the crocodile. It also gives you a rare opportunity to see me advocating things which I pretty much don’t agree with.
Garage sale was a big success, though we wound up exhausted and sunburned when it was all said and done. I’m now sitting on a stepladder at our computer, but getting rid of so much furniture was a huge relief going into an expensive shipping-based move.
Speaking of the move, though, we finally have a rough outline of the six-week trip across the country:
So we’ll be coming soon to a town near you!
Garage Sale. Saturday. I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills. A cracked-up compass and a pocket watch, some plastic daffodils, the cutlery and coffee cups I stole from all-night restaurants, a sense of wonder (only slightly used), a year of two to haunt you in the dark for a phone call from far away with a “Hi, how are you today”, and a sign: recovery comes to the broken ones. A wage-slave forty-hour work week (weighs a thousand kilograms, so bend you knees) — comes with a free fake smile for all your dumb demands, the cordless razor that my father bought when I turned 17, a puke-green sofa and the outline to a complicated dream of dignity, for a laugh (too loud and too long). Or a place where awkward belongs, and a sign: recovery comes to the broken ones. Or best offer.
-Weakerthans, “Everything Must Go!” (complete song)
Yes, I’m up earlier than I’ve been in weeks to get ready for a block-yard-sale in Oakland. We’re piggybacking into the front yard of a coworker of Emily’s since our place hasn’t proven to be the most marketable locale (though I guess we could always get some interesting traffic off of University). Lots of furniture and some random extra items, plus the attitude that pretty much no offer is too low. This is all about not shipping things we can replace for less than the cost to ship. Or that we might not need to replace after all (see, e.g., two stereos from our respective college experiences).
I already sold my 1,000 kg forty-hour work week, but I can offer this memory of same that I ran across when sorting through papers earlier this week:
I wonder what foundational document of the next phase of my life I may be creating even now, to look back on with a quiet sigh of wondering how much predominantly futile effort was yet to be expended in whatever direction seemed to make the most sense at the time. Without these pieces of paper, these organizational memories to bring order to the chaotic-seeming decisions of our lives, we would be almost nothing but a binary code of inexplicable choices. It is the context that recalls the free will that gives these choices, however painful or complicated or ill-advised, meaning.
And not to say that I have a collection of regrets – three years at Glide taught me much. But so did more than a decade spread across thirteen schools… it doesn’t mean that any of this was the easiest, best, or most efficient way to learn these things. And if I want to learn anything, it’s probably how to make the choice of easier, better, or more efficient ways of learning or doing.
This is why I keep the paper. And sell the TV.
You want it?
My house is a mess. My life is kind of feeling like a mess too. So much stuff. What to keep, what to discard, what to try to sell in a climate where there are no buyers. Challenges all. Piggybacking off of my weekend post, I’m inclined to just cut everything down to what fits in a backpack. But then I think of all the books and the possibility of raising a child someday without their parents’ collection of books just seems cruel.
Is that a strange reason to keep 10-15 boxes of very heavy books?
In any event, something I’ve gotten together this week is the resurrection of old debate videos that I have had on VHS for time immemorial (that’s what seven years feels like, at any rate).
I’ll be offering up one of these a week, the first is posted here: on ParliDebate.com, which is developing quite a trove of past debate rounds.
The one/week thing not only makes the releases nice and dramatic, but it’s because Vimeo puts an upload limit on things. The one/week thing will also likely be interrupted when we go on our 2009 Sunset to Sunrise Summer Sojourn, which is currently slated to commence on 7 July 2009. A full schedule of said Sojourn should actually be out sometime this week too.
I really liked the part where I thought I’d have enough time during this month to work on a lot of new web projects and revamping. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’ve packed two-thirds of the house by Jake’s wedding.
Or maybe I’m just demoralized today because lifting objects puts me in a bad mood. Always.
If you don’t want to lift your mouse-clicking-finger to go over to ParliDebate.com, here are the Stanford 2002 Finals for your viewing pleasure:
There is a quiet communion about the world as it is meant to be. I write this while sitting in a pasture, llamas in the distance, gentle winds overwhelming the wheaty grasses of the Central Valley of California. Not connected to anything, even the Internet (I will upload this later), my back against a metal fence that is just the right balance of sturdy and sufficiently comfortable. There are bird sounds and trees reacting to winds, the sun bearing down under mixed clouds that threaten an eventual sullying of this dried landscape. Bugs hover and dive amongst the grasses, perhaps subtly aware that they have just a few hours until rains will temper fulfillment of their tasks.
Today, they tell us that the oceans are so full of garbage that there are spare airplane seats in the flight-paths of missing jets that are not from those jets. That it’s perfectly reasonable to expect all kinds of discarded material to show up in the sea, since we’ve been leaving it there as long as we can remember. Our species has so blatantly disregarded the gifts we have been given that we don’t consider them gifts anymore – the only gifts we can accept are those we give ourselves. We have lost a sense of perspective, of balance, of harmony. We don’t sit in pastures anymore, trying to describe what we’re missing. We think everything we’re missing is on the Internet.
And yes, I’m aware of how both (1) unoriginal my comments are and (2) how ironic it is that they are appearing on the Internet. The Internet offers us wonderful things as well, like the ability to connect with others from a field with just the minimum of time-delay.
Nonetheless, I have to think that we lost our way, collectively, when science split from religion. Or vice versa. Surely there were crimes committed on both sides, as there always are in human disputes. Conflict is nothing if not mutually assured on my home planet. But when the scientists stopped being interested in God and the religious stopped being interested in solving mysteries, then surely something was irrevocably torn asunder. How anyone can accept the answers offered by one group in total ignorance of the other eludes me daily.
(As though to taunt me, a wireless network has just been found by this laptop. Or maybe a metaphor about ability to make connections from remoteness or the seeming lack of connection? You decide.)
In any event, we can all look to extreme examples and see the absurdity. Science reducing all human existence to a collapse of uncontrolled synapses, eliminating free will and indicating that all human existence and creation is a lie, while pleading endless randomness in the face of the most wondrously perfect system ever built or discovered. Religion claiming that God will decide all and answer all, that those who die are meant to, while those who are afflicted should not fight but simply resign themselves to a fate larger than themself. A similar abdication of free will, a similar destruction of meaning, a similar breakdown in the purpose that ought drive human existence, both on a macro scale and the individual level. How are these examples not sufficient to get everyone to attempt to strike a middle-ground? Even atheist scientist friends are uncomfortable with the elimination of free will altogether, and certainly don’t live their lives like they believe it’s true. Even religious zealots seem to assert themselves as though they have the ability to change something around them. So why all the trouble seeing across the divide?
Surely the closest society to holding these interests in balance was the first society to settle on my home continent. Or series of societies. There was wide-scale recognition of higher powers behind every aspect of the universe they saw, as well as interest in developing and advancing to higher levels of understanding of that universe. The respect that was afforded each of these concepts led to the development of a minimally invasive culture, with much time for contemplation and communion.
But it was not a culture designed to particularly assert control or dominion, and it is a telling lesson about my species that this is one of the few cultures upon which an all-but-complete genocide has been visited in recorded history. The very idea of trying to learn more from the land than one was taught was so reprehensible that its adherants were forced to either change or die.
My wife, Emily, is not particularly spiritual, not much of a believer. About half of our conflicts for the more recent half of our marriage so far have evolved from some sort of discussion about this topic. I struggle with reconciling my love of Emily and my respect for her intellect with the fact that she not only doesn’t overtly believe in God, but finds the question to not be fundamental to existence on the planet. It should be noted that most of my friends feel this way as well, and while this also concerns me, one’s identity is far more wrapped up in a spouse than a friend. It feels like more of a reflection of oneself when one’s own life partner rejects something so fundamental to one’s own perspective.
And yet, Emily says that she feels something whenever she is isolated out in nature. That connecting with animals, with the basic forces of the natural world (wind, water, flora), simply being “out there” is enough to get her thinking about the bigger picture and often feeling some conviction that there is something greater afoot. She often remarks, either in nature or when confronted by amazing constructions of human hand that she finds less impressive, that she has never seen something made by humanity that can measure up to the lowliest product of nature. While this sometimes surprises me, grandson of an engineer who learned about bridge-building and to differentiate styles of columns before most anything, I think she has a telling route map to those who are otherwise disinclined to believe. What makes us (collectively, as a species) think we’re so great? Why do we even bother scarring the Earth’s surface with our contributions when nearly everything impressive is already there?
It’s a competition, in part, or even an offering as an aprentice. That we have something to contribute which can hope to allude to the grandeur and beauty of what we already found when we first opened our eyes. Look ma, no nature. I did it all by myself. Like a crude reflection of the world around us for taping on the refrigerator with a quietly pitying love. And just as high-quality, just as worthwhile in the face of the real thing, as a four-year-old’s lazy finger-painting.
Which is not to say that there’s nothing worthwhile in the Pyramids, the Internet, language, or art. But compared to the systems and understanding implicit in your average field, your average patch of non-garbage-infested ocean, your average rainforest? I think the metaphor flies.
Part of what I’ve never understood about the pitched battle between science and religion is the respect that each have for order. Science even calls the discoveries it makes about the universe’s order of operations “laws”, the same word religion uses to indicate its principles and guidelines for living. Science interprets the world around it with a presumption towards order, towards compacting what it finds into a series of laws that are never abridged, or at least never contravened except where another identifiable law overrides. And indeed this bears out – we hardly see gravity working some of the time in Iowa and then failing to at random times. But somehow, science is disinterested in a source of all this order and law and perfectly behaved matter, insisting that all order came from one moment of complete chaos. This theory itself fails to stand up to science’s own presumptions and policies of rigorous study – were it about anything other than something in impenetrable pre-history, it would be rejected on face. But because there’s no other explanation available without resorting to the three-letter no-no, it is offered as fact. How can science not feel that every additional law that holds up, every extra consistency and element of order that is found, how are these not evidence for God?
The only explanation is that religion has mangled God into seeming arbitrary, somehow the opposite of order. Because in its rejection of scientific practice, many religions have tried to ascribe unending magic and mystery to the figure of God. Mysterious ways, inexplicable methods, something that cannot and should not be known. This idea is just as dangerous and worthless as atheism. Perhaps moreso, for it rends people’s conception of the most important aspect of the universe from the reality of that aspect, thus nullifying it for the interpreter far more thoroughly than mere denial would. This resorting to inexplicability is just as senseless as resorting to the Big Bang – for wont of explanations, those who expect themselves to seamlessly explain everything appeal to something wholly inconsistent with the rest of their theory. And then wave the crutch of paradox or the rest of their intellect about to try to fend off naysayers.
The truth, of course, is that science can prove God with all of its order, and thus God is knowable. God is not mysterious and inaccessible and hopelessly oblique – God is in the systems that work every day to maintain life in its countless manifestations. God is the laws and rules and policies and structures that keep it all just so in ways that humanity fails laughably to imitate. How is it that humans have never made a computer that can’t break down, and yet life on the planet persists from well before humanity to (likely) long after it?
But perhaps this would rend the people who pursue science and religion from what they’re really after – power. If they were not maintaining some sort of supremacy in their ability to properly interpret God or the laws of the universe (truly the same thing), what use would there be in the respect they are accorded in our hierarchies? And if they did not do battle, how could they build their power by tearing each other’s down, by fighting for followers, by bringing the urgency of a following and extreme loyalty out because of the urgency of a false conflict? You think nation-states are the only ones that can raise a false-flag to ask unthinkable sacrifices of their minions? No, only by mystifying and cloaking the fundamental and simple realities of their alleged domains can scienctists and religious leaders exert their authority over those they attempt to mislead.
Perhaps not always with such a nefarious intent, I’ll grant. But certainly with that level of nefarious effect.
So what is to be done? How do we get to a place where people recognize the order in the universe as the signifier of something greater than themselves rather than the converse? How do we make peace between scientist and religious leader before it is too late to fish the garbage from the ocean, or worse, before it is after anyone cares about such things? Like all of the important realizations, it cannot be forced or likely even persuaded. It must be found within each person, of their own volition.
In the meantime, I spend time in the pasture, contemplating a day I have long dubbed Mortality Day, a reflection of a larger scientific/religious order I find in the planet’s course of movement through the same space every 365 days. A day laden with symbols (6), the memory of an unbelievably significant mass-murder (D-Day), the steady approach of a day when the planet is held in balanced opposition to itself. It is vital to neither dwell in the anticipation of death nor to ignore its daily possibility, but for me, setting aside a holiday of sorts to recognize the mortality of myself and others, has worked well. Eighteen years to the day after the death of my mother’s father, I continue this personal tradition, sometimes to the fear of those around me. But fear not for me in the context of death, for I have conviction that it would be merely a step, and probably ultimately a relieving one. I have not felt less that way than now for some time (about the relief), and yet I still can recognize that no matter how much I personally desire to cling to this planet and help it out, there are wonders beyond my imagining ahead, other planets and other learning to be had.
And whenever this faith wavers in the slightest, as it sometimes trembles like the trees in the wind, bending with the difficulty of a given circumstance or a cold black fear, I come back out to nature. And the wind itself reassures me, reminds me of what I know even in the worst challenging moments. How can you look upon the world, upon an “ecosystem” or a “valley” (whichever you prefer to call the same thing) and not be awed by the presence of God? How can you understand the depths of human understanding and think this is all for the purpose of one isolated planet, 60 or 80 years only?
Go out into the fields. Walk. And then come tell me it’s all random, happened for no reason, that there’s no purpose to anything we do or try or contemplate. Tell me all these rules are either figments or coincidence. And tell me that, somehow, the pursuit of a means of exchange or sheer hubris is worth destroying it all.
A plane tears through the sky, close enough to hear but not to see. Through the clouds that are darkening the sky and escalating the threat of rain. Rain that will not be enough to wash it all away.