Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chasing the Sun

There used to be a huge mound of topsoil in the pasture next to my house. When the road was being cleared and built, they saved all the dirt and pushed it to the side to keep until it was needed elsewhere. The pile was at least 15 feet tall at its highest point, with a vertical drop on one side, a graded climb to the top on the other, and an area at the peak that was leveled from the tires of the trucks that dropped the dirt. All in all, it was quite the eyesore; a blight on the landscape of which I had a perfect view from my bedroom window.

During this past summer I was in a sort of limbo. I had graduated high school, but that chapter of my life was not quite closed. It was difficult for me to accept that those seven years at Central were finally over—I would likely never again see many of the people I had considered my closest friends. Even as I realized the pettiness of the high school dramarama in which I had been immersed, I still missed the fun things we used to do. I missed the students, the teachers, and even some of the better classes. A sort of nostalgia gripped me. At the same time, I was anxious and excited to begin anew at Drury. I had no idea what the experience would be like, but I appreciated the opportunity to start over with a blank slate.

I lived mostly in isolation those three months. My friends, for the most part, had gone. There was nothing to do in this tiny town, and having just moved in, I knew no one. My life was luxurious and lethargic. I went to bed incredibly late, sometimes staying up well past three in the morning. I often wasn’t fully dressed and ready to leave the house until two or three the following day. I slept, ate, read, played on the computer, and more than anything else, rode horses.

I spent many hours a day in and around the barn doing chores, mucking stalls, fixing tack, and grooming the horses. Then I’d saddle up and ride, sometimes as many as four times a day. When it was hot and miserable (as it frequently was), I saved much of my day’s allotment of riding for late evening. Each night I’d see the sun set slowly over the woods to the west.

These sunsets fascinated me. The giant yellow orb would slowly sink to the horizon line, whereupon it would suddenly burst into flames of gold and orange, shooting rays of brilliant color off in every direction. Everything would be briefly turned a remarkably bright pink, then the sun would turn hot red, fatten, and disappear completely. I would watch this last-minute display of color intently, stamping my retinas with the outlines of the images, burning them into my eyes until all I could see were dots of red across my field of vision. I figured out that if I climbed the mound of soil, I could hold the dying embers of the sun in my sights for just a brief moment longer. This became my nightly routine. I would set out across the neighbors’ pastures or down the road, but when the sun became to fall in the sky, I would hasten back to the road by my house and ride my horse up the easy slope of the dirt mountain. From this higher vantage point I would point due west and observe the spectacular display of power and beauty, watching from between the pricked ears of my caballo.

I called this activity “chasing the sun” and thought myself quite clever for string these words together just so. It had a certain ring to it, I thought, and so I took it up as my catchphrase for the summer. It became my slogan of sorts. I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. My life at the time was one big transitional period of uncertainty. I was following a dream, or something like that. I was chasing the sun.

[“Chasing the Sun” was going to be the title for this blog, until I Googled it and realized that I wasn’t as original or clever as I had thought. Chasing the Sun is the name of an aviation documentary, a photography studio, a racehorse farm, an audio company, and a book about novels, among many, many other things. Damn.]

Now the dirt mound is gone—sold ton by ton to people in need of topsoil—but still, whenever I can, I’ll try to face the west whenever I see the sun setting. It’s a curious compulsion. There’s something magical about the sun setting, though, something I can’t describe, some sort of spiritual-religious experience….

Driving my car on the highway the other day, I noticed the sun dropping lower in the sky to my right. It was over rolling Ozarkian hills bristling with bare winter trees. The optical illusion was such that, had I not known better, I would have sworn that the sun was quite near. It looked as though it were simply settling down for nest for the night on the far side of the hills, perhaps in some quiet, peaceful valley just out of reach. I wanted to stop and stare and breathe and reach for it, but I drove on and it disappeared around a curve in the road.

Wow—that was melodramatic, wasn’t it?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Disproving Science and Losing Religion

1 Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?

or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

2 Canst thou put an hook into his nose?

or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

3 Will he make many supplications unto thee?

will he speak soft words unto thee?

4 Will he make a covenant with thee?

wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

5 Wilt thou play with him as with a bird?

or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

6 Shall the companions make a banquet of him?

shall they part him among the merchants?

7 Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons?

or his head with fish spears?

8 Lay thine hand upon him,

remember the battle, do no more.

9 Behold, the hope of him is in vain:

shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?

10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up:

who then is able to stand before me?

11 Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him?

whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.

12 I will not conceal his parts,

nor his power, nor his comely proportion.

13 Who can discover the face of his garment?

or who can come to him with his double bridle?

14 Who can open the doors of his face?

his teeth are terrible round about.

15 His scales are his pride,

shut up together as with a close seal.

16 One is so near to another,

that no air can come between them.

17 They are joined one to another,

they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.

18 By his neesings a light doth shine,

and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.

19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps,

and sparks of fire leap out.

20 Out of his nostrils goeth smoke,

as out of a seething pot or caldron.

21 His breath kindleth coals,

and a flame goeth out of his mouth.

22 In his neck remaineth strength,

and sorrow is turned into joy before him.

23 The flakes of his flesh are joined together:

they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.

24 His heart is as firm as a stone;

yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.

25 When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid:

by reason of breakings they purify themselves.

26 The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold:

the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.

27 He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.

28 The arrow cannot make him flee:

slingstones are turned with him into stubble.

29 Darts are counted as stubble:

he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.

30 Sharp stones are under him:

he spreadeth sharp pointed things upon the mire.

31 He maketh the deep to boil like a pot:

he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.

32 He maketh a path to shine after him;

one would think the deep to be hoary.

33 Upon earth there is not his like,

who is made without fear.

34 He beholdeth all high things:

he is a king over all the children of pride.

I must have been about 15 years old the day I was presented with this text. It was during lunch at school: I was returning from dumping the contents of my tray, and as I weaved my way through the crowded cafeteria back to my seat, I passed a table of casual friends and stopped to say hello. They were huddled intently over a book and talking excitedly amongst themselves. As I approached, they greeted me and, continuing with their conversation, asked if I wanted to see proof that dinosaurs and humans coexisted.

I was game, so they handed me the Bible that had been so happily reading and flipped it open to chapter 41 of the Book of Job. “See!” they said. “Right here! Read it!” So I did, and when I was finished, they impatiently asked me if I did not think that the passage was referring to a dinosaur.

“No,” I replied. “I think it’s about a dragon. It talks about breathing fire and such.”

They shared a secret smile with each other, and their leader, with a resigned and patronizing air, said to me, “Well, you can’t take the Bible literally.”

I laughed the rest of the day.

[Here’s a nice little discussion of how the Bible “proves” that dinosaurs and man coexisted. I particularly like their cited references. It’s a very scientific and amusing article.]

I think it was a series of events and occurrences such as this one that slowly killed my faith in Christianity. I was in awe of people who could blatantly ignore what to me were obvious facts. Evolution versus creation? Please. Blind faith over careful reasoning, every time. I couldn’t understand it. If these ignorant, arrogant souls were the typical Christian, well, I had no use for the religion, thank you very much.

My parents aren’t particularly religious, but we used to go to Church together. I attended Catholic school. I wanted to be a good little Christian girl. I was excited when I got my grownup Bible, and as I read it, I asked questions. “What’s a ‘prostitute’?” I asked my teacher. I received a cryptic, unsatisfactory answer. “What is ‘rape’?” I asked my parents. That got my grownup Bible taken away. But still, I was interested in the stories. “Did people really used to live to be 900 years old? If God killed everyone except Noah and his family, doesn’t that mean we’re all descended from Noah? Isn’t that incest?” It didn’t make sense, but I didn’t particularly care.

Even after leaving Catholic school and slowly drawing away from Church, I still clung to some sort of Christian principle. I had learned about world religions and had developed a healthy respect and admiration for them. But the more I learned, the more I realized that every religion claimed to be the One Truth. If you didn’t believe in the One Truth, you would go to hell, so choose wisely. This angered me, so like Marx I said to myself that “religion is the opiate of the masses” and turned my back on the whole stinkin’ thing.

This isn’t to say that I became an atheist. Far from it. To me, God and science were perfectly reconcilable, just not within the realms of traditional dogma. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the play Inherit the Wind, I had to appreciate its message. Why can’t we have it both ways? I just thought that the faithful were as brainwashed and uninventive as the scientist-bashing sect of the cafeteria, so I held myself separate and aloof.

Nowadays, I realize that idiots like my lunch table friends aren’t exactly the best examples of devout worshippers. There are educated, intelligent, rational people who still have strong faith—including some of my greatest role models—so I hope I can say that my war on religion has ended. It’s just the attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong and nothing you can possibly say will ever convince me otherwise” that really grates on my nerves. Why can’t the literalists and creationists keep an open mind and say, “Y’know, maybe this Darwin guy wasn’t the antichrist, and maybe all this high-tech hocus-pocus really does help us to learn about the natural world.” Why can’t hardcore scientists say, “Y’know, analytical techniques only go so far, and no matter what at some point we’ve got to make a leap of faith, so let’s not go bashing on religion.”

Why can’t we all just listen to each other and consider other people’s opinions? Must our pride and self-assurance (as well our absolute fear of being wrong) prevent us from doing so?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Starry Night

The night of Christmas Eve, I went to bed a little after midnight (so actually Christmas morning, I suppose, if you want to get technical), book in hand for a little light reading. I settled down all comfy and warm as could be and tried to enjoy the literature before me. I encountered a word with which I was unfamiliar (the breadth of my vocabulary is sadly lacking at times) and resolved to ignore it and forge ahead. Unfortunately for me, the author insisted on frequent repetition of said word, and in the end I realized that my options were to either give up on reading or to continue without a lick of understanding. Or, alternatively, look the word up.

Dammit. After a moment’s hesitation, I swore, extricated myself from the piles of blankets, and rolled out of bed. I shuffled down the hall and fumbled with the light switch (managing to turn on every bulb and fan but the one I wanted), and finally illuminated my path to the end table. I pulled out the dictionary and flipped through its pages, trying to recall the alphabet as I searched for the mysterious word. After staring stupidly at the page where the word ought to have been located for a good thirty seconds, it slowly dawned on me that this particular dictionary did not contain this particular word within its binding. Double dammit. At least I didn’t feel quite as bad about not knowing the word.

So I had to go upstairs and pull up dictionary.com. I was already awake and cold. No turning back now. I passed the dying fireplace and the snoring dog, rammed my knee into the coffee table, and somehow made it up the stairs without further catastrophe. As I muttered to myself and walked over to my laptop in the pitch black room, I happened to glance up at the skylight. And I was blown away.

I did not see a jolly old elf with eight tiny reindeer, unfortunately, but the night was clear and the stars shone brightly, contrasting splendidly with the dark sky. By chance I just so happened to be wearing my glasses, so the visual was remarkably focused. I stood up on my tiptoes and pressed my face against the slanted glass to get a better view. It was beautiful. When I craned my neck, I could just catch a glimpse of the neighbors’ roof and light post, bare trees illuminated dimly in its ugly amber glow. If I stepped back, however, all this vanished and it was just me and the night sky, stretching on infinitely above and beyond me but framed by this tiny window through which I peered. I couldn’t stop staring—eyes darting wildly about as I tried to pick out the few constellations I recognized; trying to separate stars and planets and airplanes (of which, oddly enough, there were none); trying to decide of that hazy area was in fact the Milky Way. I lay on my back and looked and looked and looked.

I was reminded of a William Blake quote. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite.” I think he may be right.

It’s not too often that I’m awed senseless like that. I think I might be making up for lost time. Growing up in the suburbs, I never really got the chance to see all of these natural wonders. The stars were hidden by the bright lights of the city. Suburbia doesn’t have a whole lot of interesting ecosystems, either. The “wildlife” consists of half-tame squirrels and a variety of dull-feathered birds. But out here in the country, everything is bigger and brighter and bolder. Just like a McDonald’s customer, I’m lovin’ it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Elvis is Alive!

A few months ago, it just so happened that I found myself watching an Elvis Presley movie with my mom. I don't recall the name of the movie, or even the premise of the plot, and as I missed both the beginning and the end, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. As I recall, the King was doing his best to win the heart of a red-headed beauty who was playing a pretty pathetic game of hard-to-get. Or something like that.

In the midst of these escapades (including a helicopter ride, a gambling-deal-gone-bad, and an Old West-style mock shootout), my mom turned to talk to me.

"He really wasn't bad-looking, was he?"

"Oh, I dunno. OK, I guess."

"Isn't it weird to think that he's dead now? And most of the other actors are either dead or really old now, too. Isn't that strange?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I mean, look at how young and successful and popular he was at that time. And there he is on that screen, preserved for all eternity, and we're watching this now and seeing how he was then, even though he's dead and gone. It's like he never got fat or lost himself to drugs or died at all."
"Mm-hmm. Yeah."

At the time, I was pretty unimpressed and not the least bit moved. But I've been thinking about it a little more lately, and it's starting to make more sense.

Even though Elvis Presley is dead and gone, he's still an incredibly significant cultural icon. His image is instantly recognizable. His movies still air on TV. His songs still play on the radio. Everyone knows his name. Graceland is still a tourist destination. In short, Elvis is still very relevant and very real.

Then what happens to us after we die? We've got a whole lotta options to choose from. Maybe we cease to exist, poof, we're gone. If we ever had something called a "soul" it's instantly extinguished, and that's the end. Or maybe we're reincarnated--that's an appealing concept, isn't it? To be reborn in another body? I think I'd rather like that. Or maybe we're sorted out good from evil, and the saints all go to heaven and frolic in the clouds, and the sinners all suffer the eternal fires of hell. Or maybe we unite with the infinity of the universe and acquire knowledge and wisdom of all things. Or maybe....

But really it doesn't matter, because regardless of which option we choose, our current earthly identity still vanishes in a puff of smoke. Once you're gone, you're gone--unless you believe in ghosts, I suppose. So what stays behind once we're dead? Earthly fame--is that what matters? Do we leave behind records and movies and Andy Warhol prints and "{Insert Name Here} Is Alive!" museums?

I'm reminded of a few lines from the Inferno. As Dante strolls about on his visit to the underworld, he meets a fellow named Ciacco, who begs him, "When thou art again in the sweet world, I pray thee to the mind of others bring me." That's what it all boils down to for the people in Dante's hell. They're already doomed to endless torment and excruciating agony--the only thing they have to hope for is earthly fame and remembrance. That is all they desire. Pathetic much?

But I think it's a noteworthy (if obvious) point: Once we're gone, all that remains is what we leave behind. So why not make the things we leave behind worthwhile? Leave the world better than we found it. Make a positive contribution. Do good (the thing that I decided a while back would be my personal Meaning of Life, if I could only live up to its expectations).

It's not about how people remember you, or how famous you are. It's about doing the right thing and living well. And, heck, a few hit singles, cheesy movies, and risqué hip-shaking wouldn't hurt, I guess.

But maybe the conspiracy theorists were right after all. Elvis lives!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And so this is Christmas....

So this is Xmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Xmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so happy Xmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Xmas
And what have we done
Another year over
A new one just begun
And so happy Xmas
We hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very Merry Xmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
War is over, if you want it
War is over now

--John Lennon

Very true, Mr. Lennon, very true indeed. But unfortunately, as you say, "the world is so wrong," and that's not the way it works. How unfair. How tragic. How predictable.

And so this is Christmas, surprisingly enough. It sure doesn't feel like it. And to be frank, the holiday has very little meaning for me. It has become, as everyone knows and everyone laments, an incredibly commercialized and secularized occasion. Editorials blast the War on Christmas, and advertisements urge us all to remember the Reason for the Season.

Whatever. It's all lost on me.

I mean, do we (or, perhaps, should we) honestly need a special day to remind us to spend time with our loved ones? Do we need another excuse to shop 'til we drop? Should true Christians really require reminders about the real meaning of Jesus' birthday ("It's about God, not gifts, y'all!")?

[As a side note, I'm sick of the political correctness. Heck, I don't exactly categorize myself as a Christian, but I won't be the least bit offended if you wish me a Merry Christmas, or for that matter, a Happy Hanukkah, or a Joyous (insert any other of a myriad of religious holidays). Get over it, people. I don't care what your beliefs are--it's the thought that counts. Stop looking for reasons to get pissed off and scream "discrimination!"]

There's no real point to be made in this post. Just musings. And genuine and heartfelt well-wishes to everyone this year--regardless of your religious or political affiliation, or your nationality, or sexual orientation, or whatever other factors we use to neatly categorize people and slap labels on 'em--Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

To quote Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Winter!

Yesterday was the first official day of winter (hard to believe, since it’s been so gosh-durn cold this past month), and to celebrate the occasion, Mother Nature hit us with exceptionally miserable weather. During the warmest part of the day, the temperature was in the low teens, and that dropped down in the single digits and below as soon as the sun set. Then, of course, came the awful wind, which blew up underneath the horses’ turnout blankets and left the poor animals shivering like mad. I stepped outside to take pictures and feed them some warm mash as an early holiday treat, and I quite literally felt as though all of my extremities were about to freeze, crack, and break off. My face and ears in particular were in excruciating pain. Whimper.

Of course, when it’s that cold, I don’t ride. It’s hard on the horse and hard on me. Both of our lungs freeze. The ground is frozen into lumpy, jagged bits and the footing is dangerous. But when it’s only slightly warmer or even just a touch less windy, I’ve got to saddle up and head out, like it or not. The horses need exercise and training, and, well, that’s my responsibility.

I rode Bones the other day, when, once again, it was miserably cold. That mare tends to pull and brace against me. She wants to run—she was born, bred, and trained to run. She doesn’t much appreciate my efforts to hold her in a rapid, Calorie-burning longtrot. She’ll get to where she’ll stick her head out and pull on me, and I’ll pull right back, and we settle into a comfortable game of pressure-and-release as we make our way around the pasture. But the continued tension is torture my hands. First I’ll feel the cold seep into my thick leather gloves (“Warm to 30 below!” the advertisement boasted). Then my hands will start to go numb. I’ll lose feeling, and my hands will start to slip on the reins. The horse will pull on me, and I find myself unable to gather up the slack. My hands won’t obey. The horse picks up speed. I can’t stop her, so in a desperate effort to gain back control, I wrap the reins around my arms. This is incredibly dangerous, because I lose all finesse and control. I can no longer respond to subtleties or even predict my horse’s movements. Were she to spook and jump aside, I’d be certain to take an unscheduled dismount, and then I’d find myself forcibly dragged by the arms unless I managed to free myself. Not a good scenario, by any means. By this point, my hands have passed the dead-and-lifeless stage. Now they’re burning. The pain is intense—the only thing I can think about. I end up ripping off my gloves and sticking my filthy fingers into my mouth, blowing on them and chewing them until I can open and close my fist at will again. Then it’s back in the gloves to lather, rinse, repeat.

But this is the life I have chosen for myself and committed myself to, and although I frequently whine and complain, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Driving home today, I looked out across the neighbor’s pasture and saw a funny lump in one of his trees. I stopped my car and got out to get a better look. Two birds—hawks? No, too dark, too big. Where were their heads? Maybe vultures? No….the first one spread its massive wings and took flight. It came nearer me, then the wind blew it back and it headed off across the pasture. The second, after a short while, followed suit. Bald eagles. Only the second time I’ve ever seen one, unless you count the crippled, broken-winged specimens at the local zoo. Fantastic. Majestic. I waved my arms in the air and jumped up and down on the frozen weeds and shivered.

Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain….!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmetic

I went online earlier this evening to check and see whether or not final grades had been posted. They had, and, naturally, I received all A's.

Can you practically hear the smugness in my voice as I type this? The arrogance? The self-assurance? The sense of entitlement?

Sigh....I don't know why it is that I am so academically driven. I certainly didn't intend to be that way--things just sort of happened. Years of "gifted" education (I still hate that word), followed by what I proudly (and only arguably accurately) described as "the best high school education available in the country" helped to craft my overinflated ego. I was valedictorian (one of 10 in a very competitive class), editor-in-chief of the yearbook, drum major of the marching band, Bright Flight and National Merit scholar....but I don't know what I was trying to prove with all of these awards and such. It's not that I was competing against my peers, exactly (I'm only a moderately competitive person, and I don't mind being beat by those who are genuinely better than me), and I wasn't really competing against myself, either. I wasn't doing it for my parents, as they really didn't push me, and I wasn't doing it so I could get into an Ivy League college, either. I think, more than anything, I just felt like that since I could do it, I ought to. What excellent reasoning!

And now that it's all over, I can't say that it's really done anything for me. It hasn't changed who I am, really, except that I threw away several years of my life that I could have spent socializing and having more fun. Well, school is cheap, so I guess that's nice, but other than that, I'm really just embarrassed that I worked so hard for something that now seems to trivial. When I started college, I told myself that I wouldn't get in this rut again--that I would keep up at least the minimum GPA to ensure the continuation of my scholarships, but that I wouldn't be the same freak-out overachiever/brown-nosing teacher's pet I had been in high school.

That didn't last too long.

I hid my progress report when it came back with "113% - A new record!" scribbled in the margins. I turned red with shame when a professor stood in front of the class and remarked that "The highest score on the test belonged to the only freshman. That's right! A freshman is beating the rest of you guys!" When my name was called first when exams were handed back, I pretended that they weren't organized by score from highest to lowest. I was taken aback when, at midterm, I received emails congratulating me on my grades. Were they really that extraordinary?

And to be honest, I really wasn't trying all that hard. Sure, I studied some, but most of the time I could have spent studying I actually spent on Facebook or various horse-themed forums. These were mainly easy classes, most of them freshman-level. Perhaps I've built up a false sense of security. Inevitably, there will be a class that ends my perfect streak. Maybe it will be next semester, maybe it will be next year (I hear that Organic is a real bear), or, at the very least, grad school is bound to chew me up and spit me out unless I learn to seriously buckle down and actually study. I've got to get over this sense of entitlement; this attitude of "well, duh, of course I'm going to get an A"; this overall air of academic superiority.

Watching my peers and classmates struggle and complain and quite literally fail, I finally had to admit to myself that things really do come easier to me. I learn faster and retain better. I should neither be embarrassed nor proud of this "gift"--it's not my doing, after all--I should be damn grateful. So, I am. Let me be humble; let me be thankful; let me put it all to good use and benefit others instead of myself.

....but where to begin?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Loony Oboists and Hedge-Studded Turnpikes

At all events my own essays and dissertations about love
and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be
known and understood by all of you who read this and
talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends
or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject
of this essay. We will commence with a question:
does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably
hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is
a question: does an electron love a proton,
or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does
a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be
precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting
and critical response to this question is: no! He
is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony
and crazy about her. That is not the love of
steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and
neutron. This dissertation will show that the
love of a man and a woman is not the love of
steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me
and fascinating to you but it is painful to
Bill and Diane. That is love!


Racter, by the way, is a computer program. It composed the very first book ever written by a computer, titled The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed and published in 1984. This book consists of snippets of prose interspersed with poetry and a strange short story about a dysfunctional group of friends sitting down for a dinner of lamb chops. Altogether, it is a strange and fascinating work. The limericks are repetitive, nonsensical, and unimpressive, but some of the other passages border on something oddly elegant.

A hot and torrid bloom which
Fans wise flames and begs to be
Redeemed by forces black and strong
Will now oppose my naked will
And force me into regions of despair.

Some of Racter's revelations could be called profound....if only they had been written by a human being. For how can a machine, which is but the product of human genius and labor, compose a creative work? Who is the author of The Policeman's Beard: the computer, or the programmer? I was impressed with some of the language in the book--it gave me some real points to ponder. How could a "silicon and epoxy energy enlightened by line current," as Racter describes itself, compose something better than I could, when I am a living, breathing, thinking person? This thought is both humbling and somewhat threatening.

Artificial intelligence is a very interesting subject. Computers can converse in English as elaborately and perfectly as any native. If you've got a little time to kill, try out a conversation with A.L.I.C.E. the chatbot.

The complete text of Racter's book can be found here. I highly recommend reading it some boring afternoon. Pictured at the top of this post is a painting generated by another computer program, called AARON.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Aviary

I spent this morning studying for my final Chemistry exam and doing a few barn chores, which consisted of turning Shorty and Mack out of the pen, hanging their blankets up, emptying the waterers, mucking several of the stalls (frozen horse turds....lovely), and sweeping the aisle (one way to get warmed up in a hurry, let me tell you). In the midst of all this work, I heard a thump and looked up to see that a sparrow, frightened from its freeloading meal of grain by my presence, had flown into a window in its effort to escape. It was unharmed but panicky, and as I approached it beat its wings frantically against the glass as though its desperation would be enough to cause a gap to open. I felt sorry for the poor thing, and figured it would end up hurting itself in its vain attempts at flight, so without thinking I cupped my hand over it and picked it up. It struggled in my grasp, and before I could closely examine my catch it took off with a massive effort and sailed out the wide open door.

I never pay much attention to the birds that surround me, other than the occasional fond smile or furtive glance about when I hear a particularly exuberant song. Yet they're everywhere. As I took a wheelbarrow outside to dump its contents in the manure pile, there were several meadowlarks sitting on the frosted ground, eyeing me disinterestedly. Coming inside to eat breakfast, I noticed a handful of goldfinches fighting over the contents of the feeder. A nuthatch later joined them--an uncommon visitor. As I started down the drive on my way to school, the two redtailed hawks that frequent the pasture rose from their perch on the telephone pole and circled elaborately before re-alighting.

I took the long way to school to avoid the steep hills, and even then I traveled slowly down the winding country roads, fearing that there might be lingering ice. As I rounded a curve, I looked out over the Pomme de Terre river, curious as to how it would appear in this wintry weather. The edges of creek were iced over, while a gentle current ran easily down the middle. Directly in the center of this action, a grey heron strode through the water, slowly and confidently. I was impressed by this scene, and as there was no traffic and no real rush, I stopped my car to get a better look. The heron, annoyed, took flight and moved a hundred feet down the bank. His vacancy was soon filled by a pair of Mallards--a duck and a brilliant green-headed drake, who paddled happily against the current. Wild ducks always amuse me, because I rarely see them, and when I do, they are usually flying far overhead, wings beating in comical speed. The sight of this pair was a real treat.

Continuing on my drive, I passed an uncharacteristically large flock of finches, followed by a lone mockingbird. The mockingbirds are my favorite of all the avian residents out here. They are beautiful in their simplicity and elegant in their flight. Something about their fanning tail feathers and the broad white bars on their wings meets my aesthetic approval. I've only heard the mockingbird's song twice, and both times I have been compelled to stop everything else I was doing and just listen. The birds imitate everything they have heard, after adding their own spin on things. One of them perched atop a tree, cocky as could be, and repeated the borrowed songs of the cardinal, the meadowlark, the robin, and (much to my delight) the eerie screech of a hawk. I was disappointed when he finally flew away.

(I almost hit a mockingbird with my car once. The irony was not lost on me. Had I actually killed a mockingbird, I would have felt so terrible that I would have practically been compelled to wear it around my neck in shame, like an old sailor and his Albatross.)

It was a strange day for birds. Even after I finished my final, walking to my parking place I noticed a dead pigeon lying on its back. It was a large bird, and its wings were spread around it, skin decaying and the quill of the feathers exposed. Its head was twisted at an impossible angle and laying down on its fat breast, somehow completely bald, and with the eyes missing. Altogether, it was rather revolting, if a bit sad.

And even then it was not over. I met up with my parents and we drove to Pet Warehouse to pick up some presents for the bloodhound's first anniversary. While they shopped for treats and toys, I headed over to the birdcages. I'm always depressed by these poor animals crowded (or even worse, left in solitary) into small cages, their wings clipped but their nails allowed to grow far too long. I admired the sun conures ("We are on sale! Was $549, now $449!" the sign read), the parakeets, the lovebirds, the cockatiels, and the ever-nervous finches, then I moved on to the big parrots. I can hardly stand to think about these intelligent creatures, locked behind these infernal bars, blinded by the glaring fluorescent lights, constantly harassed by well-meaning folks such as myself who ask them over and over again if they are pretty birds and whether or not they want crackers. What an existence. I showed my keys to the African Grey, and he was most amused. A large orange bird was quite pleased when I accepted the offer of his claws, and he shook my hand repeatedly like a trained dog. The cockatoo wanted nothing more than to be petted (this sweet disposition seems to be a hallmark of the breed), and I rubbed her head, exposing the delicate peach underside of the feathers as her gray-blue eyes rolled back in satisfaction.

When I got home, I looked at my own two zebra finches, Sparra and Presto. They must be getting old by now, and I don't know what I'll do when one dies. They're social animals, and to keep one alone would be cruelty, but I don't want to bring in another young bird and commit myself to another eight years of care and continue the vicious cycle. The truth is I'm tired of them. They aren't even the least bit tame, and I've owned them for years. They're worthless as far as pets go--very stupid, and capable only of looking pretty and singing sweet songs. Oh well....

Enough musings for a while. It was just a nice experience for once to open my eyes and look around today.

(pictured: bluebirds that nested in one of our birdhouses this summer)

Monday, December 15, 2008


Tol"er*ance\, n. [L. tolerantia: cf. F. tol['e]rance.]
The power or capacity of enduring; the act of enduring; endurance.
Diogenes, one frosty morning, came into the market place, shaking, to show his tolerance. --Bacon.
2. The endurance of the presence or actions of objectionable persons, or of the expression of offensive opinions; toleration.
3. (Med.) The power possessed or acquired by some persons of bearing doses of medicine which in ordinary cases would prove injurious or fatal.

I’ve got a bit of a quibble with this word. To me, “tolerance” has a negative implication, as the above definition demonstrates. You can say, “I twisted my ankle halfway through the marathon, but I tolerated the pain and made it through, even though it hurt like a mofo.” Or, “There’s this really rude chick in my Chem class, and she’s always texting and talking and disrupting the instructor. I can’t believe the professor tolerates her garbage.” In both examples, the thing that is being tolerated is something distasteful, while you (the “tolerator”) do your best to ignore the unpleasantness and still achieve something productive.

Doesn’t this seem a little backwards? Isn’t language like this preemptively setting us up for failure, and automatically putting us on a pedestal over the people/culture/objects we are tolerant of?

Maybe it’s just semantics, and maybe I’m overcritical. Still, I can’t help but cringe when I hear people preaching tolerance, when I’d rather hear words like “equality” or “fellowship” or even “peace.”

Because that’s what I think it should be—a greater understanding of people with different viewpoints. Sometimes saying, “All right, let’s just agree to disagree.” Acknowledgment that maybe your way isn’t the only way, or even the right way. An attempt to live in harmony with your neighbors, without judging them for their beliefs.

Does that make sense? Am I overanalyzing things?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Friendship is a Funny Thing

I need people. That, oddly enough, is a shocking realization to me. I love people. I love getting to know someone. I love laughing and joking and having a good time. I love inside jokes. I love reminiscing about shared memories. I love growing and maturing and changing alongside someone whom I’ve known for a long time, and watching them do the same.

So why am I so isolated? I’m often far too quick to place blame on one factor or another. I can say, for example, that it’s other people’s fault for not appreciating me (which wouldn’t be particularly fair or accurate). Traditionally, I’ve blamed myself. My childhood was secluded. I had no siblings, and the few neighborhood kids proved poor playmates. Still, my parents took me to all sorts of fun activities and involved me in all sorts of extracurriculars. My mom spent all of her time with me, and I was never lonely. She was (and in many ways still is) my best friend and confidant.

I always said, though, that I lacked the proper socialization as a youngster. Like a puppy that is raised away from its own kind, I was unable to relate to my peers once I finally did meet them. Raised entirely by adults, I considered myself one of them. Catholic school was a nightmare. “Social outcast” might be too strong of a term to describe my condition, but not by much. I had different interests and different abilities than my classmates, and that made true friendship practically impossible. Then there was my stutter—something that made me extremely shy, and something that still affects me to this day, even though I have in many ways mastered it, and few acquaintances even know I have a speech impediment. It’s hard to be friendly when you can’t talk, and nowadays that simply translates to “it’s hard to be friendly.” And that’s not even mentioning how introverted I am.

These are poor excuses, though. I think it may have far more to do with my unrealistic expectations. I’m extremely picky about my friends. Not to say that I’m snobby or elitist (I like to think I’m anything but), by any means, but there are very few people whom I consider True Friends. I have lots of “friends” whom I like and care about and whose company I enjoy, but I wouldn’t miss most of these people if I never saw them again. A true friend, to me, is someone I can share anything with and not be embarrassed. Someone I can talk to and count on and confide in and trust unconditionally. Someone who shares my interests as much as I share theirs, and someone who is willing to put as much into the relationship as they take out. See what I mean about the unrealistic expectations? How many times does one find a kindred spirit like that? Once in a lifetime?

I’m not a partier; I’m not a drinker; I’m not a hooker. These things just don’t appeal to me. It’s just a difference of interest, I suppose, but if that is what is required to maintain a friendship with some people, well, count me out. I’ll just decline the invitation (perhaps multiple times), and I come across looking pretty antisocial. Perhaps that’s fair. Maybe I am a smidge on the antisocial side. But that’s not to say that I’m a fuddy-duddy, though—I like to have a good time. When I’m in a comfortable situation with people I like, I can be a lot of fun, or so I’ve been told. My idea of what friendship, however, is pretty much the antithesis of the sparkly gif at the top of this post, to try and put it in perspective.

I thought I had some really good friends in high school. I’d spent seven years with some of those people, and knew them extremely well. I thought we’d keep in touch. After graduation, however, we all drifted apart. I tried to organize a few social get-togethers over the summer, but people made excuses, and I gave up. I stopped talking to many of them. Strangely, some of the people whom I had only considered casual acquaintances started talking to me online, and new friendships (albeit long-distance ones) developed. It just goes to show you can never predict where life will take you.

I’m a little lonely, I’ll admit. I long for human interaction—a little selfishly, perhaps, but who doesn’t need people to pay attention to them every once in a while? I’m far from depressed or pitiable, though....I’d just like to be a bit more social. So what do I need to do now? I need to be a little more outgoing, I think. Maybe I need to lower my expectations a bit. I’m far from perfect, so I can’t expect perfection in other people. And if I expect people to be friends to me, well, I need to be a friend in return. It’s a give-and-take relationship, and I could stand to do a bit more giving.

I'd like to repeat, once again, that I don't need people feeling sorry for me. Reading back through this, it sounds ridiculously whiny. It probably is. I'm in a whiny mood. I guess I'm still struggling with the transition to college, and the fact that I'm with a whole new group of people now. I have made new friends in college, and I intend to continue doing so. It's just something that seems to come a little harder to me than most people, as I tend to overanalyze things and I'm not content with superficiality. Oh well.

End vent.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Young and Impressionable

Am I? Young and impressionable, that is.

I've noticed lately that I tend to agree with most of the things I hear or read. I don't mean in an "I'll smile and nod even though I think you're flat-out wrong because it's not worth contradicting you" way, but rather in honest agreement. A perplexing discovery, to be certain, and this realization made me wonder about my own opinions and my own "influentialibility."

I've got a few options to pick from to try to explain this.
  • I'm surrounded largely by peers. I also tend to gravitate towards people I have a lot in common with. It only follows that we would share many of the same beliefs.
  • For my age and experience level, I consider myself quite educated and well-read. I've been exposed to a lot of things, and I've formulated a worldview based on this background. This isn't to say that I'm "right," but maybe there is something to the "educated majority opinion."
  • The literature I read and the lectures I hear come from authors, professors, and role models I respect. Their viewpoints carry the weight of authority, so I am very inclined to consider them correct.
  • Other people are persuasive. They word things so well that I'm often convinced that they're right.
  • I'm foolish and fickle, and I'll obediently accept anything I'm told without even realizing I'm doing it.
More likely than not, it's a combination of all of these and other factors, besides. I certainly hope that the last option doesn't contribute too much. To give myself a little credit, though, I never blindly accept a fact or belief without first considering its implications and whether or not it is reasonable. I try to be quite discerning in what I believe, while at the same time keeping an open mind and always being willing to change my opinion if presented with sufficient evidence to the contrary.

Another observation--I tend to subconsciously pick up on the language that people use around me, and start to mimic it and use it as my own. Of course, I think we all do this. It's probably the exact same phenomenon as picking up an accent when traveling in a foreign country. Humans, like parrots, are excellent imitators. It's kind of funny, really, particularly after I've read some Dickens or similar work with elevated diction. I'll get a few strange looks. Or when a friend catches me using a phrase they consider their own--sorry! It's really not intentional; consider it flattery.

I don't really have a point to this post--just some rambling and end-of-semester-stressed-about-finals introspection.

(cartoon only slightly related, but I enjoyed it immensely)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Expecting the Unexpected

I recently learned that two horses I used to know had died. Both were older animals well into their twenties. Trucker was a big Quarter Horse gelding and a retired showjumper. Sugar had once been a free-roaming, wild-born Mustang who proved her real worth as a safe kids’ horse. The two had spent their long lives serving their owners faithfully and were really quiet, gentle old souls. They didn’t pass away peacefully of old age, however—they died together in a freak accident, killed by the same bolt of lightning as they huddled side by side trying to escape the rain.

For some reason, this news really bothered me. Naturally, I have a soft spot for animals, particularly horses, and the knowledge that these two old “pals” of mine were gone was rather sad to hear. Then, too, were the circumstances of their death. They told me that the horses died instantly, but that is the sort of thing they always say to make you feel better. It’s quite possible that they suffered tremendously and lay out in the rain for hours, slowly succumbing to internal injury and shock. This also, however, is beside the point.

Really, what bothered me most was how absolutely unexpected it all was. There are lots of things that can kill a horse (these animals are notorious for finding absurd and creative ways of injuring themselves—whoever came up with the phrase “healthy as a horse” didn’t know what he was talking about). I always worry greatly during thunderstorms for this very reason. Still, you never expect tragedy to strike quite literally so close to home, and you never think that it’s something you won’t have any control over. Injuries can be treated. Sickness can be managed. At the very least, you get fair warning and time to say goodbye.

But that’s how things tend to happen—suddenly and without notice. No matter how well you plan out the future, the unexpected and unthinkable can and will happen. How you deal with that knowledge is your choice, however. You can throw your hands up in despair, curse your luck, become depressed and stop even trying to beat such seemingly insurmountable odds. Alternatively, you can find liberation in this realization. You can say, “Hey, even if things don’t always go my way, even if I know that everything could be turned upside-down tomorrow, even if I die on the way to school today—I can still say I tried my hardest, I did my best, and the things that brought me down were out of my control.” That’s the way I try to live my life. Personally, I think it’s a comforting thought.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


In the horse training world, we have a technique called "sacking out" or "flagging." Basically, it's a form of desensitizing. When a horse if first presented with an unfamiliar object--say, a plastic grocery bag--he's likely to react with fear. This is a typical response from a prey species. The unknown is always potentially dangerous, so he'll roll back his eyes, tense up, snort, and shy away from the frightening stimulus, preparing to bolt to save his life. The trainer must then convince him that he is in no danger and get him to accept the object. This is can be accomplished in two ways. A poor trainer will manhandle the horse into submission by pinning him down and forcing the object upon him until he gives up fighting--the proverbial "breaking of the spirit." A kinder, more understanding trainer will unhurriedly allow the animal sniff the object, and then, little by little, will introduce it in other ways. The horse's body will be rubbed gently with the offending bag, and this will gradually progress until he is quite comfortable with its presence, even allowing it to be placed on his head like a hat. Although the motives are different, in both cases the result is the same. The horse will no longer react negatively to the appearance of said object. He has become desensitized to it.

This technique, however, is not specific to equines. It works equally well on human beings, and I think we have, as a culture, become extremely desensitized to the world around us. Things that should frighten (or, more aptly, appall us) have ceased to affect us at all. We turn a blind eye to violence and suffering. Why is this?
We are surrounded by images of this unappealing nature. Violent video games and TV shows have become our favorite entertainment. The news media constantly bombards us with stories of war, rape, murder, famine, and disease. In school, we are taught all about the horrors of inhumanity (how many tragically depressing books about the Holocaust alone did you have to read in high school?). As a result, we start to turn a blind eye to these tales and images of brutality. We pay attention only to the most shocking of stories. We accept that suffering is a natural and unavoidable part of life, so we don't concern ourselves worrying about it. It's out of our control, so we might as well ignore it, right? As a whole, I think we have lost our compassion.

On the one hand, this mindset certainly makes life easier to live. If you're only concerned about yourself and your own needs, you can get by a lot more efficiently. Plus, imagine how depressing and hopeless life would be if you were constantly sympathizing with, worrying about, and crying over all the tragedies of the world. That sort of existence would be nearly impossible, at least for me.

On the other hand, this selfishness is unhealthy, both for us and for our fellow humans (and, by extension, all creatures). We need to feel a little more, I think. We need to sympathize with our neighbors' plight. Although it may not always be possible, we should try to reach out and lend a helping hand. Volunteer. Donate. Spread the word about injustice. If nothing else, provide a shoulder to cry on. We can't allow ourselves to block out the suffering in the world. We need to open our eyes, get our fingers out of our ears, and stop screaming, "La la la!" Complacency and apathy are terrible crimes.

Heck, I'm as guilty as anyone else in this department. But admitting you have a problem is the first step to finding a cure, right? So, now what?

Monday, December 8, 2008

On the Nature of Art

Pictured above is a urinal.

It is also my favorite work of art.

Perhaps a little bit of history is needed to understand why this is so. Marcel Duchamp was a very famous Modern artist; a celebrity of his time. He tore down the old and ushered in a new era of symbolic art and Dadaism. His work included such pieces as L.H.O.O.Q.—nothing more than a poster reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on and a caption that sounded like “she has heat in the ass” in French. His genius was admired far and wide, even if it wasn’t truly understood.

Duchamp realized how ludicrous his fame had become, and set out to prove that the nature of art had changed. No longer was it about verisimilitude, aesthetic appeal, or even social commentary. Instead, it had simply become a measure of the popularity of the artist (what Andy Warhol would call the fifteen minutes of fame).

To test his theory, Duchamp took the above porcelain, christened it “Fountain,” and signed the name R. Mutt with a bold flourish. He then tried to get it exhibited in a respected art show. People were outraged at the submission of such a monstrosity, and denied its access to the gallery. They did not recognize the name of this Mutt fellow, and therefore condemned his artwork as trash. Once Duchamp stepped forward and took credit for the piece, however, the whole scenario was written off as a good joke and Fountain was elevated to the level of a true masterpiece. Such is the irony of the avant-garde.

Art defines a society, and a society defines its art. It is inseparable from philosophy and social commentary. Take a look around—observe the things consider beautiful. How do you decorate your home? What does that say about your values, your beliefs, and your culture? This could be an interesting experiment….
....and I just realized I sound like a high school history teacher. I apologize for that. I tend to get a little over-excited on topics such as this.

You Can Call Me Al

A man walks down the street
He says, Why am I soft in the middle
Why am I soft in the middle
When the rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard

Bonedigger, bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away, my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly, Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
Ya know, I don't find this stuff amusing anymore

If you'll be my bodyguard, I can be your long-lost pal
I can call you Betty, and Betty,
When you call me, you can call me Al

(*piccolo solo*)

--Paul Simon

I grew up listening to that song. My mom had a few Paul Simon CD's, and she'd play them whenever she took me somewhere in the car. Then her tastes changed, and she got some new music, and I forgot the whole thing.

I didn't rediscover Paul until my freshman year of high school. It was my first year in marching band, and I was excited. We were playing a show called "The Sounds of Simon," a collection of old Simon & Garfunkel medleys. There was a piccolo solo in the one song, "You Can Call Me Al," and I wanted it something fierce, so I listened to my mom's old CD and practiced myself hoarse until I had those shrill notes sounding like perfection.

Picture a younger me, five feet of cocky freshman, standing at the head of the marching band formation during halftime at a football game. They didn't tell me until much later that I was the only one marking time while the rest of the band was at halt. "It was like you were dancing!" they said, with a laugh at my expense. Oh well. At the time, I thought I was pretty dang cool. A genuine Mozart, indeed.

Well, true to my obsessive nature, I just had to listen to the original versions of all of the other songs we were playing, just so I'd know I was doing it properly. I amassed a small collection of Paul Simon music, and suddenly realized that it was the soundtrack to my life. How about that? I couldn't get enough of it. I memorized the lyrics to dozens of the songs. I couldn't believe that I'd been missing out on words that powerful and true for so long.

My taste in music is rather odd. I don't spend a lot of time listening to it. I've got an iPod (or, rather, a Dell DJ), but half the time I can't even remember where I left it last. I don't have an iTunes subscription. When I'm driving, I tune into my XM radio [favorite stations: The Loft, The Coffee House (a recent discovery), and Cinemagic (currently off-air)]. I can listen to and enjoy practically anything, but I'm cheap and won't buy new music.

But Paul is different. He's a true poet. "The last great singer-songwriter!" I used to lament. I dare you to truly listen to his lyrics and melodies without thinking, "Wow, this is about me. If I was more talented and more clever, I could have written this." Or maybe it's just me. That's possible, too.

I could post a list of my favorite Rhymin' Simon lines, or links to the music videos of every song he ever wrote, but that would take up more room and more time than I have here. I can't pick a favorite to post, because there are just so many relevant ballads to choose from, and to truly appreciate Paul, you've got to have the whole spectrum.

But here's a little taste, anyway. The song that got me started. A little more humorous than it is profound, but enjoyable all the same: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOiVaE-pKqM

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Biology in Action

This morning it was cold. Not surprising, given that it's the second week of December in the midwest. Still, it wasn't quite as cold as it has been, so at 9:30 (practically the crack of dawn for a Sunday) I shuffled outside to catch a horse and go for a ride.

By the time I had Brandy completely groomed and saddle, she was shivering up a storm. That poor mare doesn't grow much of a winter coat, and it's bad enough that she even has to wear a turnout blanket if it's anywhere near freezing. I figured I'd warm both of us up with a brisk jog around the neighboring 40 acres, so off we trotted.

The sun came out, although the wind was still bitter. After we'd been moving for a while, I noticed a recent-looking four-wheeler path into the woods. Adventure beckoned, so I headed off down the trail. It wound between some wicked thorn bushes and treacherous limbs, and ended at a rocky, half-dry creekbed. The water that remained formed a pool about 10 feet long and four feet wide, surrounded by decaying leaves and handsome, broken, mossed-covered stones.

I was in an inquisitive mood, so I dismounted and carefully led my mare to the edge of the water. She balked a little, but I was able to make it close enough to peer into the water. It was beautiful. A thin layer of smooth ice coated the top of the pool, giving a clear view to the bottom, somewhere under a foot down from the surface. Several dozen small fish (presumably minnows), ranging in length from two to six inches, skirted nervously from one end of the enclosure to the other upon my arrival. I watched them for a while, in awe of their ability to survive despite what seemed to be pretty rough odds: the drying of the creek, the freezing of the water, an apparent lack of abundance of food. I recalled a lesson from Chemistry about the special properties of H2O molecules. Water is an amazing compound. No other liquid would freeze in such a manner, allowing the delicate ecosystem of the fish to flourish over the harsh winter months.

After a careful examination of the minnows in their habitat, I took stock of my surroundings. The rocks to my right were covered in fine, brilliant green moss. What a coincidence! I had spent yesterday evening obsessing over the structure and reproduction of just this very thing in preparation for Tuesday's Botany exam. I had to get a closer look. I knelt down, pleased to get the opportunity to put my knowledge to the test. There were the archegonial and antheridial heads, the sites of gamete formation! And there, oh joy of joys, were the young sporophytes, tiny heads perched upon elongated stalks, growing up like parasites from their mother-plants! I couldn't believe my luck at noticing these tiny structures. I ran my hands along them to feel their pleasant softness. To my surprise, a fine stream of smoke came drifting out following my touch. I was perplexed. Once again, I touched them, and once again, the smoke appeared. Then I realized what should have been obvious--this "smoke" was actually a cloud of microscopic spores being realized from between the peristomal teeth. This was biology in action; a literal breath of life. What an epiphany!

I sat there for a long while, until Brandy made it quite clear that she was fed up with my nonsense. After snuffling the ground for something green to eat, she finally settled for a dead stick, breaking it irreverently with her front teeth and crunching loudly and unhappily. I had to rescue her and pry it from her mouth lest she poke herself in the tongue or choke on a splinter. I remounted and started the ride back, a feeling of peace upon me.

It's times like these that reaffirm my choice of major. I may not always enjoy the frantic memorization, or the uninteresting facts, or the boring lab sessions, but in the end, it's all worth it. Life is fascinating, and biology is perfect. Could there be anything more beautiful?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"An Educated Man"

This is a bit of a continuation from the previous post.

As I said yesterday, that eighth grade Humanities course really set me on a quest for knowledge and wisdom. I wanted to learn, I wanted to understand, and most of all, I wanted to be edjimacated. In fact, that was our final exam: a response to the question, "What is an educated man?"

I don't recall exactly what I wrote, but I am sure it was something along these lines: An educated man will have a strong background in art and literature and culture. He will understand philosophical ideas and he will be able to contribute meaningfully to conversations. He will possess wisdom, not just basic facts of knowledge. Etc.

Well, this is all fine and dandy, and for a long time, this was the ideal I strove to emulate. I wanted to be an Educated Man (gender, of course, notwithstanding). I envied my teachers who seemed to know everything about everything. They were always bringing up references to works I had never heard of, and trying vainly to explain to us how John Donne's Meditations (whatever those were) had greatly influenced Paul Simon, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other songwriters, authors, and artists. I was jealous. I wanted to have knowledge on instant recall just like that. I wanted to be able to make instantaneous connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. I wanted to understand this overwhelming network of literary influence. I wanted to impress people with my knowledge.

Well, four-plus years of education down the road, and I can honestly say that I've come a long way toward meeting my goal. I can drop a quote from Bertrand Russell into a conversation without giving it a second thought, and I am disappointed when the confused recipient doesn't understand the reference. I can quote lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by memory. I can clearly and concisely expound upon the theory of The Mirror, the Lamp, and the Veil.

But these are facts. They don't get me anywhere. Even though I do have a satisfactory degree of understanding, well, it's not enough. I want more. I want to know everything. And that, of course, will never happen. I could, of course, compensate with some more name-and-quote-dropping:

"Well didst thou speak, Athena's wisest son! 'All that we know is, nothing can be known.'"--Lord Byron

But that, of course, is not my conclusion. I stole it. Anybody could rip that quote from a website without understanding where it came from or what it means. Parroting information only gets you so far.

So now, I think, I must revise my definition of The Educated Man, and therefore I must change a few goals in my life.

An Educated Man will not only know, but he will know both when it is and when it is not appropriate to share his knowledge. He will realize his own limitations, even though he constantly strives to improve himself. He will never be satisfied with what he knows, and he will never be content to rest on his laurels. He will always be willing to listen to the opinions of others, and he will never think that his own ideas are infallible. He must always be open to change. He must not think himself superior for all his knowledge, because he understands that wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing and do not have to go hand-in-hand. He will, throughout life, seek enlightenment, not because he believes he can truly achieve something so momentous, but because he understands that the real triumph is the journey itself.


I just sorted through the old box of nostalgia my mother keeps stashed in the attic, and unfortunately could not find the essay on The Educated Man. It must have been tossed out as a less-than-exemplary example of my schoolwork. I did, however, find another test from the same class and the same time period. One of the questions, and my response, follows.

7. You have just finished a college level course in Humanities. Knowing what you now know about history, theology, art, music, theatre, dance, philosophy, etc., please finish the following:

I used to think.....but now I think....

I used to think that philosophy was very dull and depressing. I never knew much about philosophy. Now I think that every one of us is a philosopher, whether we publish our beliefs or not. Philosophers fascinate me, and I like to learn about how philosophy changed throughout the years.

Hey, 14-year-old self--I concur!

(and artwork credit to Rembrandt)

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Day I Learned to Think

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

-- e e cummings

Wow. The first time I read that poem, I would have been in eighth grade, right around my 14th birthday. I was in Dr. T's Humanities class, and it was almost the end of the school year. We had already covered a broad sweep of all art, literature, and drama styles from pre-agricultural times to post-modernism. e e cummings was an exercise in literary analysis. We were enthralled. The poem sounded funky and cool, but it was completely absurd. No sense could be made of it whatsoever. What a strange and fun bit of nonsense.

"What is it about?" Dr. T asked us.

"Huh? This dude named anyone, and nobody loves him, and he dies. And he lives in a 'pretty how town,' whatever that is. The end."

"It's hard to understand, isn't it?"


"What if we change the language around a little bit, to make it less confusing and more familiar?"


So we substituted "Albert" for anyone, and "Bertha" for noone, because, as it turned out, both were individuals. We called the pretty how town "Springfield," and suddenly things started to make a bit of sense.

We broke the stanzas into bits and translated the language into the everyday vernacular. Nuances began to appear. It was amazing. A theme emerged. Our young minds were spinning with wonder.

It struck me all at once. A thunderclap to the head. Literature could mean something! There could be some significance beyond a storyline or simple plot, beyond a theme, beyond even a moral to the tale. It was no longer enough to decipher what a story or poem or play was "about"--there was so much more to it than that! Something from this strange little quatrain lacking capital letters could apply to my own life; could teach me about myself; could give me insight into the world; could show me how to live. What a revelation!

I made two decisions that day, although I'm not sure if I was conscious of them at the time.

First, I would try to be like anyone and noone. Isn't it so much better to sing your didn't and dance your did (in other words, rejoice in both your successes and your failures, so that you may learn from each and better experience the journey of life) than sow your isn't and reap the same? Wouldn't you rather dream your sleep than sleep your dream?

Second, I would pursue true understanding of art with a relentless passion. Scratching the surface was no longer enough. Aesthetic appeal and prettiness of rhyme were fine and dandy, but the true value of art lies deeper--in its interpretation, significance, and life message.

Of course, the cultivation of these skills is a life-long process. I'm still working on it. I'll still be working on it a long time from now, but I hope I never forget it. But I can truly say that the day I read this poem marked a turning point (one of many!) in not only my academic career, but my life in general.

So thank you, Dr. T, and thank you, e e cummings, and most of all, thank you, anyone.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Too Much Information in the Information Age?

The advent of the Internet has revolutionized the way people socialize. There's no doubt about it. There's something about hiding behind the anonymity of cyberspace that makes people exceptionally bold. Flame wars on web forums. Late-night chats with "friends" we hardly know. We can create new personas and represent ourselves in a totally different light. We can become whoever we want to become, and we can change as often and as radically as a chameleon. And often, we are lured into a sense of security and begin to reveal all of our deepest, darkest secrets.

A strange phenomenon, indeed. What is it about the Internet that makes us feel so safe? What are the implications of this sharing of personal information, thoughts, and feelings? Should we be so willing to spill our guts at the slightest prompting?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I think that they are very important, nonetheless. I'm no psychologist, so I can't even begin to formulate into words the ideas that are running through my head. It's puzzling.

Speaking solely from personal experience, I can definitely say that the World Wide Web has induced me to admit to things I never would have otherwise. I've gained some personal relationships that way--but online relationships are poor substitutes for face-to-face conversation, as I must constantly remind myself. And, sadly, when I finally meet the people I've been chatting so earnestly with, we both find ourselves incapable of carrying on with the same degree of meaningful conversation that we previously prided ourselves on. We sink back down to lowly gossip and comments about the weather.

But one can't continue philosophical debate forever. A worthwhile goal for an idealist, perhaps, but as important as philosophy is, there are other things in life that matter, too. Sometimes nothing is more satisfying that tipping back in a chair with a copy of People magazine. Is there anything wrong with that? If I was in one of my trancendentalist moods, I would condemn it as a waste of time; a decaying of the mind; the decline of culture. But really, as a form of entertainment or relaxation, is there really any harm in it? As long as one keeps it in perspective, a resounding "No."

Back to the main point, before I get any more sidetracked. Why do we feel the need to open up ourselves online, either to real-life friends or complete strangers? My conjecture--because we feel that somehow, we're lacking in our "real" relationships, and someone we must make up for that absence in our "pretend" lives. That's depressing, but does it make us pitiable? Once again, I'm not sure. A friend said to me recently, "I'm beginning to realize there's not much difference between something that is tragic and something that is life." An interesting quote, and another example of someone who is compelled to lay his thoughts bare during an IM session. Heck, isn't that exactly what this blog is, too? Private contemplations broadcasted to the world?

Maybe it's our age. Maybe it's the age, as in the current decade and current information technology and means of communication. Regardless, it's not healthy to wallow constantly in self-pity, and it's really not fulfilling to ponder the meaning of life at the expense of letting life pass you by. And maybe we need to learn to keep our traps shut (or our fingers still) instead of exposing all of our insecurities, lest we turn into a generation of emos who are incapable of entertaining happy thoughts and having good fun. We need to find a nice balance between the sacred and the secular, methinks. I think that will make life and communication a lot more enjoyable in the long-run.

After all, as much as I whine and complain about how unhappy I am, I'm really not unhappy at all. I'm damn lucky, in fact, something that I forget all too often. I live a good life; a blessed life, so it's time for me to suck it up and quit looking for sympathy that I neither want nor deserve. Cheers, and a toast to the beauty of life!