Day 215: Welcome a new life.

I’ve linked to the Census Bureau’s population clock before: you have to reload the page to get new numbers, but this one updates as you watch, which is cool, but also a bit disturbing.

If I wanted to go into it, this would be the time to discuss the unsustainability of our current population growth curve, and the ever-increasing likelihood of some sort of catastrophic collapse in which most of the population dies, and what this has to do with late-20th and early-21st century apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions … I don’t really want to, though, because it’s depressing to think about. Also it’s late, and I’ve had a few bourbons, and I have to get up early and dig post-holes and put posts in them and put concrete around the posts in the morning.


I’m going to take the easy way out, and offer someone else’s advice: “wear sunscreen,” &c.

I’ll make a few additions, also borrowed, but from other sources:

Life is hard, and then you die. It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms. Death and destruction. Smoke if you’ve got ’em. Alcohol doesn’t make life worth living, but it helps sometimes. All you need is love. Shit flows downhill, and payday’s on Friday. The Dude abides.

When the zombies happen, stay the fuck out of the cities.

Rock over London; rock on, Chicago.


Day 164: Share someone’s pain.

I’m not sure there are four more insulting words in English than “I feel your pain” — because, in almost every case, they’re absolute bullshit.

Plenty of things people say are bullshit; the bullshit is not the problem, exactly: the problem is that, in this case, the bullshitter completely trivializes the pain felt by the … uh, the one feeling the pain. The bullshittee?

“I feel your pain” seems to get used in two types of situations. It is, on one hand, part of a ritual of kvetching: it’s insincere and bullshitty, sure, but the kvetching is equally insincere — or, if not exactly insincere, still passionless and unconvincing. I find this usage of “I feel your pain” insulting only because of the context, because I hate listening to people complain.

The other type of situation in which the phrase gets used — or, more probably, some variation of the phrase that contains the sentiment in different words, because I think the only people who use the exact phrase are assholes, in the technical sense of the word —— where was I? Oh, right: the other situations in which this sentiment is expressed are those in which actual pain — usually emotional pain — is being felt, and in such situations the bullshitter has no idea what the bullshittee is going through.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that my wife keels over and dies tomorrow (I love you, dear): I think it’s safe to say that other people whose spouses have died are absolutely not going to be the ones to say “I feel your pain” — because they, having experienced a similar pain, understand how intensely personal and unshareable that sort of pain is.

I’m not saying that sympathy and empathy are bad things, or that we ought to ignore people’s grief, or people who are grieving — I mean, I don’t ever feel sympathy for anyone, but that’s because I don’t have feelings at all — but there’s a difference between genuine sympathy and bullshit sympathy. Genuine sympathy doesn’t express itself in trite phrases.

All of this is why I interpreted today’s task much more literally, and smashed my thumb with a hammer. Somebody, somewhere, I’m sure, also smashed his or her thumb with a hammer, at about the same time, and I like to think that it hurt less, because I’d done the same thing, but on purpose.

That’s how it works, right?

Day 143: Distribute these friendship coupons.

…for things like “one hug” and “honest advice” and “one round of drinks,” which turns into “one drinking binge,” to be followed with “one embarrassing secret” – although you’d have to give all the coupons to one friend in order to get that progression to work. That’s not a problem for me, because I don’t have any friends.

Seriously, though, I don’t like these things. They work for children, and what I mean is that they work for children of a certain age to give to parents, or caretakers, or whoever (whomever? —whatever), usually at the prompting of a different parent or caretaker or &c. I can remember making them as a youngish child, and Elanor is about the right age for such things (she has, in fact, given her mother a coupon good for a ‘tea party’, which is sweet, except that she made it with the expectation that Lorna would make the tea and cucumber sandwiches).

Coupons like this can be useful tools: they can teach children that familial relationships and friendships work because people who care about each other do things for each other – because love is expressed in sacrificial action, and the most meaningful sacrificial actions are those that seem most mundane: emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, folding the laundry, scrubbing the toilets, mucking out the pig-pen. At some point, though, they become bad things, because they encourage people to think about relationships as transactional.

If I buy a friend a drink, I’m not doing it because I gave that friend a silly piece of paper at some point when I felt guilty or otherwise obligated, and that friend then ‘cashed in’ the silly piece of paper. No, I buy friends drinks – rarely, but it happens – because that’s the kind of small sacrifice friendships are built on. More than that: the buying of a drink, or the receiving of a drink, is a symbolic, ritual action – it’s the outward sign of the communion that happens in the conversation and time shared over those exchanged drinks. It doesn’t matter if nothing ‘important’ gets discussed, which is usually the case when guys talk over drinks – although after a certain number, shit can get real – because the sacrifice, though a small one, hallows the entire experience.

Nobody gets hugs, though. Nobody.

Day 93: Humility day.

This is, really, an impossible post.

If I had been humble today – and that’s not a negligible if – I would completely negate that humility by writing about it here. An act done humbly has, as a necessary component, the element of not-drawing-attention-to-the-fact-that-you’re-doing-it. Can’t have trumpeters walk in front of you to draw attention to your humility, or something like that.

What options am I left with? I could attempt to be funny, and talk about all of the outlandishly humble things I did today – and in such a way as to make it obvious that I didn’t realize what an ass that made me. Something like this:

Yeah, I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning to make waffles and bacon and scrambled eggs and coffee, which I loaded up on my xtracycle and delivered to local homeless people – and I gave them massages while they ate, because I’m just such a nice guy. I painted an orphanage, repaired the playground equipment at a park in the poor part of town, and saved a few kittens on my way to volunteering at the food bank. I had to postpone visiting sick children in the hospital, because I hadn’t finished making the teddy bears I take them – I make them by hand, from sustainable, fair-trade, ethically-sourced materials – and I hadn’t gotten those done because I spent the early afternoon reading to the blind at the local library. Oh, and I built four houses for underprivileged families.

That’s not particularly funny, though, and it made me feel dirty to write it – and not in a good way, either.

Fortunately, the Book’s secondary instructions gave me a way out of this dilemma: I was directed to meditate on the enormous odds against the existence of human life in general, and my life in particular – sort of the secular version of “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” – a sentiment best expressed (as are so many things) by Bill Watterson:

This sort of cosmic humility is a slightly different animal than the humility-as-action-or-service model that I think is the more common understanding of the word, at least here in the West – and our unmeasurable smallness relative to the universe at large is a good thing to keep in mind, certainly. I’m not sure it’s much easier to write about, though. How would that go? “My life is an unimportant cosmic accident, nothing I do matters, might as well drink all the time and throw golf balls at little kids during recess and wander around the grocery store in my pajamas muttering curse words and bits of the periodic table.”

Maybe. That’s funnier than the smug asshole above, at least a little bit, and more fun to write. Not sure I could do a whole post without talking myself into it, though, and I’m not sure drunken harassment of elementary-school children is a wise career move.

Look. I did some stuff today that benefitted people who weren’t me, and I’ll do more stuff that benefits people who aren’t me tomorrow. Other people have done the same for me, and will continue to do so. That’s how life is supposed to work, right? We all depend on each other, and politeness – if nothing else – dictates that we don’t make a big deal out of the things we do to help others, because it ought not be a big deal; common decency ought to be unremarkable, because it ought to be common.

I really did build four houses today, though, which is pretty awesome, and you should all admire how humble and self-sacrificial I am – because, seriously, nobody’s more humble than I am.


Day 52: What is the meaning of life?

“Today solve that eternal problem by looking it up in the dictionary.”

Not just any dictionary will do, of course – there is only one dictionary that can be called “The Dictionary,” and that’s the OED. (Sorry, Dr. Johnson.)

The entry for “life” in the OED runs to five pages (with another three pages of compounds): big pages, with three columns and very small type. I’m not going to reproduce the entire entry, but here are some highlights:

I. The condition or attribute of living or being alive; animate existence. Opposed to death or inanimate existence.
1. a. The condition, quality, or fact of being a living person or animal; human or animal existence.
1. d. The condition that distinguishes animals, plants, and other organisms from inorganic or inanimate matter, characterized by continuous metabolic activity and the capacity for functions such as growth, development, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimulation; (also) the activities and phenomena by which this is manifested.

That’s quite helpful, I think. Life is being alive. Mystery solved. What’s next?

Of course, if it were that easy, a lot of folks would be out of a job: philosophers, religious teachers, novelists, poets, painters, gardeners, advertising executives, fashion designers, bartenders. If the meaning of life is just “continuous metabolic activity,” then one of the Big Questions is off the table for people whose “job” it is to “explore” or “manipulate” the “human condition.”

“What is the meaning of life?” is not a question that can be – or ought to be – answered. Or, at least, not answered in a “the meaning of life is X” sort of way. There are many answers, but they’re all partial, local, tentative, provisional. The value of the question is in the asking, in the searching and exploration and reflection that come before the answering. The answer itself is useful, I guess, but only as the starting place for more asking.

The body is alive because it exhibits “continuous metabolic activity” – the mind is alive because it never stops asking the big questions.

Every Little Bit Helps

I recently ran across an excellent article (thanks, Byron) on the NY Times’ website (which you should read). It asks why we should bother trying to live greener, especially in the face of rampant, wasteful consumption at home and abroad, all the while drawing stares and snickers from Hummer-driving suburbanites. After all, there are plenty of times when it has felt like the changes I’ve made – using cloth diapers, biking instead of driving, starting a compost heap – make my life harder without making a bit of difference. Sure, I rode my bike two miles to work today, but then I spent eight hours making overpriced designer coffees for soccer moms and tie-clad desk jockeys in SUVs and sports cars, and rednecks in giant diesel pickups.

But I digress. The reason we do it is, basically, because we don’t have a choice, and because change so radical has to happen at the level of the individual. He quotes Wendell Berry: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

So. I’m going to keep riding my bicycle, I’m going to get rid of my trash cans, and I’m going to plant a damn garden.